Bosnia & WTF I Was Doing There

Was asked elsewhere to illuminate a story about dropping my Browning in a restaurant in Banja Luka. In case anyone's vaguely interested here's some context about what I was doing there. I went after being made redundant from the City & wanting something vaguely interesting & lucrative to do. If it's judged too bring I'll cease & desist:

As anyone who has had the pleasure of attending the RTMC Chilwell will know, the mobilisation course involves admin. Lots of admin. And no shortage of queues. As I sat in the one of the latter I had time to muse on why I was here. An old Army adage states, “never volunteer for anything” and to this I would add “especially the morning after a good night in the mess”. It was such an evening and such a rash action that led me to be selected as Adjutant of a large military facility “somewhere in the Balkans”. The alternate title for the post was “Camp Staff Officer” but I have tried to suppress this after too many references to Captain Darling, “by the left, quick mince” and joining the elite pink berets.

The joining instructions (received a week before arrival at RTMC) included a comforting video where the Secretary of State for defence thanked me personally for volunteering (must be a busy chap, making all these films for each of the intrepid TA members who decide to go abroad. Thanks, Geoff) and a handy four-week fitness training guide. Realising that doing the latter would be the equivalent of squeezing a quart into a half-pint pot I decided to concentrate instead on the pint pots in the vain hope that Guinness really is good for you. Other useful information included the fact that RTMC is there to help and is not a pass/fail course. Phew.

One of the first activities after the circuit of handing in passports, medical cards, birth certificates, P60’s and enough other documentation to persuade even a German immigration officer we were who we were was a brief from the OC Mobilisation wing. Naturally enough it was here that we discovered that the video lied like a cheap NAAFI watch: the course is pass/fail ! Visions of pleasant evenings in the mess and having a crack at the ITD’s went out of the window to be replaced by an image of boot-camp hell and testing, just the thing to give a fit of the vapours to the delicately nurtured Royal Signals (V) officer. This impression was reinforced by the issue of colour-coded badges which were to be worn at all times (“even in the shower ?” quoth one wit from a Northern Signal Regiment) to give the real “I am not a free man, I am a number “ feeling. After this came an introduction to the gym (and the shortest but widest club-swinger I have ever seen). It was explained that the previous course had complained that there was not enough PT during mobilisation and thus a session had been scheduled daily. Thanks to Lt J**** F****** RSIGNALS (V) and the other members of Mob XX/XX for that one.

At some ungodly hour of the following morning the course was mustered for yet more admin. A combination of rusty drill and civilian dress meant that the Brigade of Guards (and indeed the Brownies) would not have been impressed by our bearing, but we had another two weeks to emerge from the sausage machine indistinguishable from Regular Troops. I had the pleasure of medical and dental examinations first. Hey presto: a full bodily MoT test showed that I was not lacking any major limbs, had teeth that were mainly my own (one veteran offered to drop his in and collect them later) and while not necessarily a fine body of a man, would do for the service of Her Majesty. On discovering that I had mislaid my vaccination records a strange glint came into the MO’s eye and a large queue of trainee RAMC soldiers was mustered outside bearing syringes. I was told repeatedly that I’d experience “just a small scratch” and what seemed like several hours later had been jabbed by a collection of instruments feeling like rusty knitting-needles. But a great relief: thanks to Her Majesty’s bounty I had at no cost to myself been vaccinated against a full alphabet of hepatitis, tetanus, various hues of fever, cholera, scurvy, polio, black death, typhoid and for all I know rabies, colic, distemper and the mange. With arms that had lost all sensation I was sent to the waiting room with a chit that stated no PT for 24 hours. This was good news until I read to the bottom of the page where an exemption was granted to allow us to take part in officially organised Physical Torture.

The next bit was, however, great. Kit issues. There was no “stores are for storing” attitude here and we had thrust upon us the largest collection of uniform and equipment that I have ever seen from an array of shelves that stretched to the horizon and beyond. What was even more unheard of was the provision of changing rooms to check if the kit actually fitted, rather than draping the form like a bell-tent or constricting like a sausage-skin. Trousers were not too tight around the armpits, shirt sleeves unlikely to trail in the soup. About the only thing not asked was whether sir dressed to the left or right and preferred an fancy lining. My attempts to obtain an infantry bergen were thwarted on the grounds of cap-badge (and indeed on officer who had obtained one on false pretences was forced to exchange his for the combat handbag when his dissembling was discovered). Staggering under a mound of kit, I went back to the mess to make a ‘phone call to see if Silverman’s would give me a good price for it.

As promised, PT came around the following day. Here we had a “gentle” introduction to the BPFA, which consisted of being put into uncomfortable press-up and sit-up positions and then made to do the exercises very slowly, holding at the point of maximum strain halfway through until muscle and sinew were as highly tensioned as piano wire. This was preceded by a warm-up where the PTI tired us out with his cheery cries of “twice round my beautiful body… GO !”. Limping like those on the retreat from Moscow we made our way to the first-aid lecture. This is not normally a period which I enjoy, but when conducted by our Paras instructor the section was on the edge of its seats. This was largely as the Colour-Sergeant had somewhat robust views on the BFAT booklet which cannot be reproduced in a family publication and also because he had been wounded in combat in the Falklands and had a plethora of X-Rays and photographs to prove it. The Colour-Sergeant in question must surely not be nicknamed “Lucky” as by a conservative estimate he had suffered in his career the following injuries: shot in upper arm, shrapnel in back, head and buttocks, dislocations of both collar bones, two broken legs, a compressed spine and many more which it would take too much space to mention.

Weapon training followed, with pistol lesson 1 for starters. Having discovered that one member of the class lacked the upper-body strength to cock the weapon (and that several should only be issued with water-pistols) progress was surprisingly fast and we certainly did not experience the problems of a recent course when a student took over a quarter of an hour to fill the 13 round magazine. The foreign weapons stand was enjoyed immensely by certain Rambo-types whose only regret was that no cameras were available to immortalise themselves brandishing Armalites, AK-74s etc. Finally at the end of the day those without glaring physical disability or obvious criminal records were accepted into service.
The remainder of the course continued in like manner with a whirl of early starts, lectures, attempts at drill and the other parts of the package necessary to turn us from soft civvies into hardened soldiers. I will only discuss some highlights (such as the substance abuse discussion where some soldiers showed a remarkable knowledge of the street names, effects and approximate trading values of assorted drugs). Indeed some felt that they were already well prepared and did not need to attend many lectures, but do a sort of pick ‘n’ mix course (you know who you are, Julian). Naturally mine awareness was a major subject and an excuse for the RE to show us their snuff videos (on seeing a picture of a severed foot a Sergeant-Major type voice from the back of the class was heard remarking “hop that man in, his boot is filthy”). A presentation on wills and insurance was given by a civilian who just by chance happened to be an insurance salesman and IFA (why not get an undertaker in for initial measuring up just in case…). The theatre orientation video diary should be suppressed at the highest levels as people might start asking questions about why we actually get a medal. And as for the CFT it may be better to draw a veil over this except to say that I’m sure that the regulations do not state that this should be done on one-in-one gradients going up. This is supposed to be RTMC, not selection. The range days were enjoyable, if very long (it seemed that the range was in John O’Groats, judging by the amount of travelling we did). Also on the ranges we had possibly the only palatable evening meal of the entire course, which as it was a range stew may give you an idea of the state of catering at Chilwell.
RTMC (and a weekend’s leave) over we were dispatched (this time to somewhere that seemed like Land’s End, judging by the amount of travelling we did) for OPTAG. After the smooth running and busy days of Chilwell (and marching everywhere, even the 50 yards from parade ground to lecture theatre), OPTAG came as a bit of a shock. To be fair to the team running this course we were an odd sized group, but never before on a military course have I spent so long sitting in the NAAFI having a char and a wad. A wit who had been through the process six months ago described OPTAG as a day and a half packed into three and he was right. However the training was good, especially the patrolling and rules of engagement elements. Of course mines awareness came up again with yet another snuff movie which will remain in the mind of any (male) soldier who has seen it for some time. Talk about the unkindest cut of all. Not to be outdone the Force Master Driver also had a similar presentation, and judging by this driving in the Balkans seems to be a combination of Mad Max and Death Race 2000.

Training done it was time for embarkation leave. What will the future have in store ? Will I miss the plane ? Did I put the right stuff in my MFO box (and will it ever arrive ?) Only my next despatch may tell.
Jesus, ten years ago:

After a weekend’s leave (happily enough the Queen’s Jubilee Weekend) the fateful day of embarkation arrived. Against all military logic I was allowed to report direct to Brize Norton (45 minutes from home) rather than going to Nottingham (over 2 hours away) and getting a coach to Brize (3 hours back). A worrying note came when the sunshine coach from the North was an hour late: your correspondent had nightmares of being at the wrong airport, or worse a day late.

For those unacquainted with Brize, the “Rough Guide” to RAF establishments comments along these lines: “You will arrive at the comfortable departure lounge, where you will be able to buy a wide range of Pot Noodles and drinks from vending machines, but not get any change to operate said machines. Just when you have given up seeing a human being again an RAF Movements Corporal will stick his head around a door and ask, ‘alright, mate’.” The guide goes on to state: “You will be accommodated at the Gateway House, a motel-style transit hotel. Lavishly equipped with echoing corridors and extra hard-banging doors, your night will be enlivened by parties of servicemen taking full advantage of partaking in end of leave celebrations until the early hours, and those telephoning their loved ones outside your room until 3am”. On food the guide is no less complementary: “A wide range of airline meals, lovingly kept under heat lamps until dry and elegantly presented on sectioned, floppy plastic trays is available until 10pm, again offered without any apparent intervention from the human hand. Bring sandwiches”. In all seriousness the bar does a good range of beer and of course whiskey (the latter unavailable in theatre) and breakfast was an excellent fry-up.
Thence to departures ! Here one has the chance to wait in an orderly, military manner until Movements are good and ready to put you on the aircraft. Do not despair: at least two ashtrays are provided for you outside and the news stand stocks the largest selection of Gentleman’s special interest photographic monthlies outside Soho. The vending machines are now available and sell two different shades of ditch water, which on closer examination appear to be tea and coffee. An interesting point to note is passengers with their regulation carry-on baggage which seems to be made of depleted uranium, judging by the veins standing like whipcords from their foreheads. Only the British serviceman seems to be able to pack this quantity of kit into a daysack !

The flight was uneventful beyond a touch of turbulence over the Alps (which was bad enough to make an Aeromedic sit down and start fingering her rosary) and a meal which seemed to have been collected from the Gateway cookhouse the previous evening. At least we flew by charter which meant that a wide range of gifts, perfume etc was available, although to the chagrin of those on board no alcoholic beverages. I managed to get a window seat, but because of thick cloud it was difficult to see much in flight, although the Alps did show well, still with some snow on the higher slopes.

After two and a bit hours (and finally having got comfortable) we were told to put seats in the upright position and strap in as we were descending. First impressions of the country from aloft were that the scenery seemed similar to home, but just slightly different. I pinned down some of these variations: they mainly related to the colours of buildings (lots of red tiles) and crops. The scale of things was also different: the local river was just that little bit wider and meandered much more, while blocks of woodland were larger. The landscape also gave the impression of being quite empty, with settlements small and scattered and roads almost devoid of traffic. Banja Luka airport is almost certainly not a contender for the international air transport hub for the Balkans: the single strip has very high-tech unloading facilities consisting of burly local men lovingly throwing baggage onto the back of a 4 tonner. Pack your Waterford crystal decanters in hand luggage. Air traffic consisted of our 757 and a rather battered pair of Cessnas. We did not get into the terminal to discover whether the facilities were a luxurious as Brize, which is just as well as the chalk of personnel rotating back to the world were taunting us no end. The drive to the Metal Factory (punctuated by cries of “are we nearly there yet”) showed a different side of the country after the bucolic scenes witnessed from the air: yes, Balkans driving is every bit as bad as you have heard and yes, the locals seem to be training for fly-tipping and littering as an Olympic event. The first town we passed through, Laktasi, appeared very pleasant, lined with comfortable looking bars although as I was later to find out while walking out is now allowed we are only allowed to use places which have been vetted. Whether the criteria for declaring a place safe are based on the Michelin star system or more military concerns has not yet been disclosed.

A large tangle of dannert wire and piles of sandbags covered in a cam net around what looked like an industrial estate which had just been conscripted suggested that we had arrived at our destination. The Banja Luka Metal Factory does exactly what it says on the tin: it’s a big old factory which used to do unspecified things to metal. We were ushered inside to join the biggest queue that I have seen since, oh, Chilwell. Fun for all could be had with the I-Spy book of soldiers: could the fellow with the floppy hair, tweed coat and moleskins be a returning HCR officer ? Does the plumage of belt covered in multi-tools signify a Royal Engineer ? Do the thick spectacles suggest a Royal Signals Technician ? And are the people looking around in a bemused fashion thinking something like “hey, I’m in a big old factory which used to do unspecified things to metal” new arrivals ? Luckily I was greeted by my predecessor Capt Duncan Sim RA, who steered me through the booking in procedure and avoided queues by simply doing the round robin in the wrong order and getting to each stand before everyone else (or after they had gone). This was to pay dividends as small gaggles of people thinking “yes, it is a big old factory which used to do unspecified things to metal” were to be seen wandering around with arrival proformas for several days, looking for such august people as the SO3 blankets to sign to say they were here. Weighed down by several hundredweight of SFOR ID cards, ration cards, forms for cashing cheques etc I began my tour of inspection.

I quickly found (in order of importance) the most crucial places to know: bar, bed, dining room, café and, oh yes, the office. The days passed in a whirl of introductions and instructions about how things were done. In addition to my (comprehensive) takeover file I now have a bound A4 book filled with advice. I’m not sure how many names have initially stuck, but I have the next six months to remember them before handing the post on. One big excitement is that for the first time in my working career I have my own office, complete with important adjutant-type things such as the Manual of Military Law, QR’s, big files and plenty of pinboards covered in rosters and orders. The immediate team consists of the most laid-back Colonel in NATO (British), a Dutch Major who is trying to break the record for the largest number of R&R periods in one tour, a French-Canadian RSM who uses expletives slightly more than most people use punctuation and myself. We are assisted by an RAF Sergeant Clerk and two locals (one of whom brings tea in large quantities, although I gather that she performs this service largely as it provides a chance to go for a crafty smoke).

A note on the infamous corrimecs: they are exactly as one might expect when sleeping in a shipping container. Most people have done some work to make them more homely so hanging baskets outside and TV, video and DVD inside seem to be the order of the day. Now all I need to do is await the arrival of my MFO box full of consumer durables and other home comforts. Judging by certain items of literature left behind my predecessor obtained most of his reading matter from the news stand at Brize !

Working hours are fairly civilised, starting at 8am and finishing at 6pm Monday to Friday and most of the day Saturday. Unfortunately for me as adjutant I also have to throw on uniform on Sundays to brief the orderly officer and do an ammo check. I hope I can delegate these tasks (or at least share them) soonest as they cause me to miss “the Archers” on BFBS. One bonus is that the Colonel likes to do most business over coffee so morning and afternoon informal O-Groups are held in ECHOS (a sort of Dutch cross between NAAFI and Toc-H). We are also allowed do PT during the day, so even I’ve been taking advantage of the rather good facilities here. Sundays are also good for a game of volleyball, but it’s going to be a while before we Brits beat the team of eight-foot Dutchmen from HQ MND (SW).

The next thrilling instalment will tell of how my predecessor left me to fly the desk solo and my adventure when I went over the wire. Until then I’m pondering how I’ll get any adjutant work done when I have to deal with about fifteen applications to hold a barbecue each day…
Thank you. This was in the blog section here some time ago, but that was removed. One more before bed, then:

Having got my feet firmly under the desk (and feeling relaxed enough that sometimes they are on top of the desk) it was time to explore the surrounding countryside. My excuse was the monthly G1 conference to be held at Mrkonjic Grad, a short trip down MSR Gull. On the agenda was the disposal of welfare funds, so armed with a request for ping-pong bats from the SQMS of MND (SW) I grabbed my crash-kit and hopped in my Landrover. A word on the crash-kits: these consist of sleeping bag, body armour, helmet, webbing, rations and other miscellaneous items to allow us to survive should a breakdown or accident happen. As can be imagined this lot is heavy, awkward shaped and does not seem to fit into a sensible sized bag. Accordingly any gathering of troops who have travelled to a meeting sees them staggering under Bergens of kit or hung about with items like a gypsy caravan.

The Landrover was a very modern civilian model, so the risk of a numb posterior known by all who have travelled in the military version was somewhat reduced and creature comforts like a radio and a ventilation system slightly more sophisticated than the familiar hole in the dashboard were provided. A further culture-shock came with being armed. It seemed more than a little odd to draw pistol and ammunition when not on a range, let alone strapping same on, going to a couple of meetings and then on a drive in the country. MSR Gull is a spectacular route which follows the course of the river Vrbas (the meandering one in the first episode). South of Banja Luka the landscape is more mountainous than that seen from the flight in. The road clings to the side of sheer cliffs covered in trees, occasionally cutting into the rock through overhangs. The scene is similar to a fjord or the Oker valley in Southern Germany. Below the river has large patches of white water but in the main the colour of deep cloudy emeralds. Whether this is because of the reflection of the trees, some kind of mineral content or pollution it is hard to tell ! Certainly the plastic bags trapped in the branches of the trees from the flood season bear testimony to the locals’ attitude to waste disposal.

This idyll was spoilt about five minutes drive from Mrkonjic Grad. We had been warned at OPTAG about Balkan driving, and the roadside memorials to the dead from car accidents are more frequent than signs for farm shops and secluded pubs back home (far more: on one stretch we passed a stone every 100 yards). My driver had commented on how little traffic we had seen and the reason became evident when we arrived at the rear of what was to become the biggest traffic jam I have seen since last on the M25. Going forward to investigate I discovered a collision between a car and a van which had taken place as a result of overtaking on a blind bend. The occupants of the car had been thrown through the windscreen (no seatbelts are worn here) and the whole scene was a mess. This was my first experience of this kind of thing and while training prepares one for it, it still had a considerable impact. Perhaps most poignant in the aftermath was the pair of shoes worn by one of the injured cast aside in a mess of blood, broken glass and tangled metal. We discovered at the following morning’s O Gp that both casualties (one pregnant) had died in hospital.

Finally with the help of a translator who enabled me to communicate with the police with a little more than “dobar dan”, “pivo” and hand gestures we were able to clear the road and continue to our destination. During all the delay the locals had still pressed on by when they could, skirting round the crash site on a narrow strip of grass between the wreckage and a sheer drop into a ravine. Unsurprisingly bearing in mind the delays caused by the accident the conference had been cancelled but I was entertained to lunch by the Welsh Guards. In true Household Division style they had set up a splendid mess (in a shed in the cookhouse hanger), bedecked with the Colours and mess silver. Note to anyone coming out here: if sent to the Metal Factory you definitely will not complain about conditions after seeing the Bus Depot at Mrkonjic Grad. Perhaps it was the gloomy weather or the flat feeling after the accident but I was more than keen to get back to the luxury of Banja Luka.

For a change we took Route Smudge back over the hills. In a matter of minutes once we got above 1000m a thick fog closed in and visibility was reduced to mere yards. When we could see again the landscape was flat pasture land spread with wild flowers, intermittent tethered cows and loose horses, one of which attempted to kick the Landrover over. We received a similar welcome in a village where we were pursued by a pack of dogs. Luckily we didn’t run one over: I wouldn’t have liked to explain to an upcountry Serb bristling with AK-47s that Fidovitch would no longer be chasing sticks (or stick-grenades). Luckily passing by the VRS (Republika Srpska Army) barracks we didn’t draw much attention as I’m not sure how long I would have been able to hold them off with my trusty Browning 9mm and 10 rounds.
Finally my predecessor got on the Happy Bus to make his escape back to the world with a big smile on his face and a bigger cigar in his pocket. I stretched out in the office with a proprietorial smile on my face and reflected that the mad tyrant of XX Squadron was now flying the desk solo. I mean this job can’t be too difficult or stressful ! Wrong. Only a matter of hours after waving my handkerchief at the disappearing Bus I was closing up the office when a figure slipped in and informed me that he was the QMSI of the random Compulsory Drug Testing team, an organisation which had only come to (quite literally) take the piss out of us a couple of months before and were not expected again until Roulement 17 happened later in the year. The hour being 7pm this was not the best time to catch anyone in the various Squadron and Company offices to get nominal rolls, or for us to put into action “Op PEE INTO BOTTLES”, the contingency plan for a CDT visit. Thankfully the RAO had returned from leave and the estimable Sgt Wheatley RAF was still in the office so we cracked on getting everything set up. Where one is supposed to find twelve portaloos at 7pm in the Balkans to be in place by 8am the following day I am not certain but the ever resourceful RQMS(A) sorted this problem. Slowly but surely the nominal rolls of each organisation flowed in and Sgt Wheatley and I began to arrange who would do the peeing and who the watching of the peeing. For some strange reason the number of people who appeared to be on camp and the number offered up for testing seemed very different and thus new arrivals were told, “Welcome to Bosnia, now pee in this bottle (or spend all day watching others doing same)”. The preparations finally finished at midnight.

In the end the test went well. This had been a “trickle” test day (highly appropriate as many were dehydrated from the heat). We also wondered how the Welsh Guards could not supply any assistants for the day bearing in mind that what seemed to be an entire Queen’s Birthday Parade of them was hanging around ECHOS drinking coffee for a sizeable part of the day. Best of all was the Dutch soldier who asked what the Brits were doing lining up with bottles, frantically necking water. On being told she remarked “Drugs test, Ja ? I bet we Dutch would get 100%”. Finally the QMSI took his assistants and a slightly whiffy briefcase away with him and left me with a letter thanking me for our help and hoping that the test had not disrupted operational routine too much. I mean what do you think: making virtually every man-jack of about fifteen different organisations queue up for four hours clutching little jars. Don’t they know there’s a war on !

Finally on the following evening I was able to sit down with a beer and meet some more of the denizens of the Factory. One who deserves mention at this moment is the Theatre Vet. A major problem out here is feral animals, and unfortunately something other than provoking heart-warming stories in the Soldier magazine and the tabloid press about troops adopting the beasts has to be done. My predecessor had warned me that the Vet took great pleasure in doing so (one of his letters to the Vet which was not actually sent referred to sorting the problem by “slotting or drowning” the creatures) and that she would lean from the side door of the helicopter between Kosovo and Bosnia laying waste to the local fauna. Naturally I could not resist dubbing poor Mary “the Bosnia Kitten Murderer” and doing my finest Melchett impersonations. The ribbing by the assembled company got to such a stage that on a trip out with the Colonel, Mary was constantly asked (when passing the tethered cows as seen above) if she wished to borrow the driver’s M-16 to keep her hand in on her day off. Unsurprisingly Mary flew to Pristina to escape the jibes a few days later (and contrary to popular belief was not seen in the door gunner’s seat of the chopper with an M-60 crying “get some, get some”). We hope to see her back soon, even if the cats don’t.

In the next chapter I will address some further questions such as why can’t all CFT’s be as civilised as the Sunday jaunt, do the locals think we’re mad for watching people marching up and down playing brass instruments in 38° heat and why was the Colonel’s office packed with female soldiers in tight T-Shirts ?
More ramblings. I want to keep this in order so the really specific BLMF stuff will follow:

An oft quoted fact is that the helicopter pad at Bessbrook in Ulster was for a time the busiest airport in the world. However in the blue corner now stands a new contender for the crown: the Banja Luka Metal Factory. The Factory has two pads controlled by an august body named Springfield Ops. How the heli-tasking centre got this name is lost in the mists of time, but rest assured that a suitable number of pictures of the Simpsons adorn the walls of the corrimecs. Pulling out my spotters’ guide I reckon that we have been host to Lynx, Gazelle, Chinook, Griffon, Puma, Blackhawk and the little ones with the sensor pods on top which no one knows the name of. On some days the scene is like something out of the ‘Nam, and this time I don’t mean Birmingnam.

We have three breeds of aviator out here: Fleet Air Arm, various kinds of Americans and those who work in the Ops Room and never go anywhere near aircraft. Needless to say the latter two types wear Flight Suits (of course nicknamed Grow Bags) at all times, and it is rumoured that they have special lightweight ones to use as pyjamas. Indeed the US Warrant Officer pilots seem to hate being parted from any of their kit and accordingly pile into dinner prepared for the defence of the Alamo, hung about with AR-15s, pistols, ammunition and for all I know concealed Bowie knives. One dressed in this fashion was also ejected from the soldiers’ bar for breaching the regulations surrounding alcohol and weapons, but I gather he had received prompt courteous service and discount prices until that point. Colt Product ? That’ll do nicely, sir ! However a certain level of style is maintained from those knights of the sky thundering in their airborne steeds: one American took his Kiwi Air Force girlfriend to Italy for a surprise weekend. By Blackhawk. Beat that the pongoes ! Mind you we do wish the choppers would stop hovering over the mess garden: the downdraft has blown over and broken about half a dozen of the big umbrellas we get free from the local brewery with a certain number of cases bought and it’ll take at least a week’s consumption by OC Signals Troop to replace them. The scene was like the black-and-white part of the “Wizard of Oz”. In the immortal works of Capt E Blackadder, “I don’t care how many times they go ‘up-tiddly-up’, they’re still gits”.

Actually I quite like pilots at the moment. A highlight of recent weeks was the visit of the Duke of Westminster performing what I am told was his farewell World tour 2002 as TA Brigadier. Naturally the task of organising the entertainments offered by BLSS fell to your correspondent, and so a walkabout of the Factory affording the Brigadier the chance to meet lots of TA soldiers at work and have a chat seemed to do the trick. A slight fast ball was that a second block of hours had to be arranged for the following day and I was short of ideas. Then a flash of inspiration struck: as a Yeomanry Officer, surely the Brigadier would like to meet our chums at the Household Cavalry. A cunning plan was struck to go to Prnjavor where a troop or two was hanging out, have a cup of tea and then go on patrol. This was dependent on getting a flight, which by much pleading and naked bribery I finally managed to do on the morning of the proposed trip. Naturally as a reward for my labours I nominated myself to go along too, which was the ideal time to arrange for a series of happy snaps to be taken. Our transport was a Canadian Griffon (a sort of upgraded Huey) and I unashamedly rubbernecked out of the door taking pictures all the while serenaded by the sound of French Canadian air traffic control over the headsets. For those that have never heard this accent it sounds like an American speaking French, and makes the Reverend Ian Paisley sound melodious and ideal to read bedtime stories to the nippers. A good time was had by all even if the Brigadier and his aides teased me relentlessly about my smart new combat vest and weapon and declared that if there’s anything worse than a Scaleyback, it’s a warry Scaleyback (and to boot that no self-respecting Yeomanry Officer would be seen is such apparel).

Other highlights of Brigadier Gerald’s visit were the tremendous chest-poking he received from an aggrieved reservist (even the Brigadier, who genuinely enjoys chatting with soldiers began to look weary as the man in question began to repeat himself for the Nth time) and my desperate struggle to prevent a Sergeant from touching the august visitor for a loan of a couple of Euros. We ended the day with a dinner, again organised by me, the preparation for which also caused some humour. I was charged with making a guest list and table plan, and of course managed to offend all the (TA) family by who was and wasn’t asked. First up was the Master Chef, who brought to my attention a Staff Sergeant who had 30 years TA service and who really needed to be there (especially if I wanted to dine on anything better than bread and water for the rest of my tour). I was then visited by a female Sergeant who wanted to know if TA Female Senior Ranks were to be represented, how the selection criteria for TA Female Senior Ranks had been established and why, if it was the case, had no TA Female Senior Ranks been invited. Realising that my interrogator was very likely indeed to be TA Female Senior Ranks I placed her on the list too. I swear blind that the Duke’s favourite old retainer and Troop Corporal for 50 years man and boy and who had served his father and father before unto generations as well as doing a lot for charity, curing the sick and returning sight to the blind would be the next to come through the door wringing his beret in his hands and asking what he had done to stop him being invited. Luckily he was on R&R, although would have been very useful had loaves, fishes and wine run short. I also had lots of fun detailing the Junior Captain to be the Brigadier’s wine orderly and enjoyed watching him scampering around replenishing his glass (and racing to the bar to replenish the bottles). As I mentioned this heat can bring out a terrible thirst in a man.

Also that evening was a party to celebrate the forthcoming Canada Day. The format for these parties is remarkably similar: book a bar, band and chef, have the relevant nation in for a barbecue and then throw open the doors to all for a beer and a dance after the food’s been eaten. I was a little offended by the posters for a recent Netherlands Contingent bash, the poster for which advertised “Dutch only. No Foreigners except by invitation”. The offence was mainly taken as I didn’t get an invitation but also because this is a British run camp so who are the bloody foreigners anyway ! I also objected slightly to a St Jean-Baptiste event on the basis that this is to do with Quebecois separatism, and that they wanted to light a dirty great bonfire in the middle of the VIP HLS. As I mentioned earlier a request to do something like this comes across my desk what seems like several times a day and the catering staff are so overstretched that they can only cope with two events an evening. This has led to alternative nights like Mondays becoming party nights. Tough life when the Colonel and Adjutant get a courtesy invitation to most events, but I’m getting sick of chicken drumsticks and potato salad. I also won’t be surprised if we get a request to celebrate something like the Premier Chief of Tuvalu’s official birthday, as any excuse seems to be the order of the day. Canada day was a bit different as they had flown in lobsters so large that I speculate that they were not caught in pots but torpedoed by depleted uranium harpoons.

More observations about road conditions. Traffic comes in three types, all with their own peculiarities (but all with no regard for safety, which is understandable bearing in mind that to get a driving licence valid only in the Former Yugoslavia there is no actual test). First is the more rural type which can also be seen in downtown Banja Luka which typically consists of a flat-bed trailer pulled by the type of tractor generally only seen in the pages of 1950s Ladybird books, or for the less flash Serb playboy about town a pair of horses. On the trailer can be anything: family members, piles of boxes or as seen one day a pair of trussed up pigs, squealing their discontent like “It Girls” ejected from the Met Bar. By far the most common, however, is the moving haystack. Once the beehive-shaped ricks mentioned earlier have been completed for some reason it appears necessary to move them about the place. Bear in mind that the stacks are pretty huge and the trailers pretty small and you can conjure up the image of what looks like a barely mobile pile of dry grass chugging it’s way through the suburbs of town. At least the one I saw the other day had a small red handkerchief tied to the back as a safety measure, but I think the driver of this haystack was probably President of the Banja Luka branch of the Republika Srpska Institute of Advanced Motorists.

The next kind of transport is exactly what might be expected in a former communist nation which has experienced a civil war: fume-belching rather retro-looking buses and trucks and the kind of old jalopy that only the more impoverished British young Officer drives back home or in Germany. Finally come the very expensive European models driven by local “businessmen”. For those who can’t afford to buy direct from Germany with the “entirely legitimate earnings” from their “businesses” another option exists: simply go into Western Europe and hire a car, then drive home and keep it. A new marketing ploy for BMW in Bosnia could be “Built by Craftsmen in Munich, stolen by Albanians in Berlin”.

Servicing all this is the local economy. The only obvious trade here (apart from bootleg CD stalls that spring up practically over night next to SFOR locations) is that of car washes, petrol stations and melon vendors. Presumably once the melon harvest is over the third pillar collapses and Bosnia i Herzegovina enters a balance of payments deficit, but at least the citizenry can take pride in their well-cleaned cars which are full of petrol and pumping out the latest tunes.
OK, a bit more. It goes a bit serious for a couple of episodes:

Tim Judah, in his book “The Serbs”, describes the occasion when around the Orthodox Easter 1995 the motorway across Croatia, closed because of the war, reopened for a short time. Families divided by the conflict met up in the rest areas and petrol stations for reunions which were understandably emotional events. A man quoted by Judah said, “It does not need to rain here, the soil is already soaked with tears”. After the weather we’ve been having that would have been an awful lot of crying, but I suppose that then it was Easter and the ground hadn’t yet baked so hard. Judah goes on to describe how great hopes were stoked up for peace once the people met again and the will to fight removed, but then quotes the American ambassador to Croatia who opined that the event was more akin to the Great War Christmas truces between German and British troops when they played football before returning to the trenches to continue slaughtering each other (understandable: there were after all some dodgy offside decisions). In fact within days a “blood feud” erupted, culminating in random shootings and the Croatian Army’s Operation Blitz, which recaptured the area in question from the Serbs.

It was through roughly this area that I was to travel next on a trip to Zagreb for a meeting. For a change the weather was blazing as normally when I have been on the road for business it has lashed down with rain, reducing ‘photo and sightseeing opportunities. Typically on this day I had forgotten my camera and the views were, for large portions of the trip, fairly banal. We drove out of camp and were soon on our way towards the border. Passing through Laktasi I remarked again on its welcoming aspect and was told how much of this is because the town is the birthplace of a leading Serb politician, who naturally has the influence to ensure that the place gets a regular lick of paint. The other villages we passed through were more ramshackle: part of this is because local fiscal laws state that no tax is payable on houses until they are finished. This has led to a classic ruse whereby nobody completes building work, so properties are left with walls unrendered and perhaps a few windows unglazed. Most alarmingly balconies as high as the third storey have no balustrades, so I hope the risk of falling to a nasty death is outweighed by the tax savings. Industrial property is built level-by-level as cash allows and thus the assorted petrol stations and car washes under construction have concrete reinforcing bars protruding from the top like shoots reaching for the sun. The overall effect is of a nation as a building site. Some of the towns could charitably be described as one-horse (except that the horse was shot or stolen during the war), and the road while fairly solid was dusty and lined with the inevitable melon sellers. The only obvious crop is sweetcorn, but that is never on sale. Presumably it is such a staple part of the local diet that there is never a surplus for the stalls (or like the mysterious haystacks it is purely grown to be picked up and moved somewhere else). Across the plains the Simici Ridge loomed in the distance and it was easy to see how the views from there encompassed such a huge amount of land. Finally we reached the border and crossed quickly into Croatia by the simple expedient of queue jumping and waving our SFOR ID cards out of the window.

My introduction to Croatia was therefore the village of Novi Varos. Here there was evidence of the war, rather than just the systematic destruction of selected buildings as seen in Bosnia. Every house bore even more bullet holes than my first aid instructor at Chilwell but had not been patched up as well where any repair work had been attempted at all. I’ve always thought that FIBUA villages look a lot like a sterile kind of European town (perhaps because FIBUA villages are built using a European style of architecture from the days when we trained to repel the red menace: discuss). However after training for urban operations we always tidy up the villages and blanks don’t make holes in walls like in real life. When conflicts in my lifetime have always been events that have happened far away (like the Falklands), somewhere empty (the Gulf) or been relatively low-intensity or part of life (Northern Ireland) it is slightly creepy to see its full-blown aftermath in an environment almost like home. Here homes which have not been reoccupied (as, frequently, the former inhabitants are too scared to return but no one else is allowed to move in) the surrounding gardens become overgrown and bushes spring up in the shells of the buildings. What would the neighbours say ? These plots are some of the most dangerous for unexploded ordnance, which is why they become overgrown: no one dares go in.

After this, however, a far more prosperous nation in far better repair than the embattled border strip or dusty, melon-stall ridden Bosnia rolls out alongside the unpotholed road. Much of the repair work has been done thanks to large sums of money from Germany as can be seen from the extremely orderly tollbooth on the extremely orderly autobahn. A word of advice for travellers in Croatia: German is the most useful language to speak if you don’t know any Serbo-Croat. They’re grateful for all the cash and less likely to slash the tyres of your Landrover or assault you with iron bars, two incidents which have occurred lately to British SFOR personnel in Croatia, if they think you are a bounteous German. I had been recommended to go into the old part of Zagreb, wrap myself round a cold bottle of Tomislav and admire the local fauna and its lack of foundation garments, but unfortunately this trip was for business not pleasure and I was only to see the airport. There were some compensations in the shape of the scorchingly attractive Croatia Airlines flight attendants, but my visit was all too short and we had to get on the road home again. An amusing sight on the way back was the flock of storks that live next to the road. In one place a pair had built a nest on top of an old pillar, a little reminiscent of a similar nest on the sole standing column of the Temple of Diana at Ephesus in Turkey. The storks have long, thin, pale legs which are strangely familiar to anyone who has seen the legs of some members of the Netherlands Contingent who have just received permission to wear their combat shorts. When this uniform is worn by the more shapely Dutch soldier strapped about with pistol in holster the effect conjures up Lara Croft but unfortunately this sight is fairly rare and the most commonly displayed skin tone is at present (to quote Billy Connolly) “a sortie blue”.

For a bit of contrast I spent a free afternoon with a colleague who knows parts of the hidden Bosnia and has the all important Force Exemption Card to allow him to visit it. Our first port of call was the Partizan memorial on a hill overlooking Banja Luka. From a distance this stands out like a shining ziggurat of polished marble which reflects the sun while up close the truth of Communist-era architecture is revealed. The monument, which shows socialist realist inspired reliefs of heroic partisans doing rather unpleasant things to coal-scuttle helmeted German troops and a huge male nude on the front waving a banner, is constructed of panels of what appears to be greying glass fibre, many of which are loose. The effect is completed by water staining and graffiti which continues up as high as a spray-can can be held before petering out. Around the site is a picnic area which is a popular family destination. Here a row of metal signs have obviously been used for target practice, with the first in the row perforated heavily and those getting progressively further away from the firing point progressively less so as the smaller calibre ammunition eventually expended its momentum. The grouping achieved by this fire is less than impressive, as might be expected after the firers had consumed all the beer which was in the bottles that now lie broken and ankle-deep around the monument. This celebratory fire is a part of life which is declining in the country, but one local explained recently that a volley of three shots is still customary on the birth of a son. It is possible to climb up on the monument for spectacular views of the forested hills in one direction and the city in the other. Of particular interest was the chimney of the Nectar Brewery. This produces a local brew (known as HEKWAP after the appearance of its name in Cyrillic) which costs less in the mess than mineral water or Coke yet has wildly dissimilar intoxicating qualities. The trick is to drink the stuff before it warms up and you can actually taste it.

From here we went into the real backcountry, where it is quite possible that the inhabitants are unaware that Tito is dead. We were greeted largely by warm smiles in tiny villages miles up tracks which even our four wheel drive had difficulty negotiating. On a hill we discovered a crashed fighter jet of a type which saw action in the Korean War with the Americans and which had been stripped for anything remotely useful. The neat churches were surrounded with crosses draped in clothes belonging to the deceased, in a tradition which is so old our local clerk back in the office thought it had all but died out. Here again the sheer ruthlessness and efficiency of the ethnic cleansing was brought home with a solid blow. There is a village tucked far down a valley that had been attacked by armoured vehicles which rolled down its only street opening up with all they had. As the vehicles ran out of ammunition the further they moved the houses showed less and less damage until the last which showed only a few desultory shell-holes. In some towns protection could be gained by painting symbols of allegiance on the walls. Here no one could or tried to claim this salvation. It is in villages like these that today the children still hide when they see even SFOR soldiers: they won’t trust anyone in uniform and with weapons. The Colonel, while doing rebuilding projects on a previous tour, eventually got people to come out of their houses by decorating his Landrover with brightly coloured balloons and then waiting.

Despite the extremely hot day I felt chilled to the bone and was glad to return to the car and head back into town. We stopped outside a café for a drink and to watch the world go by. The centre of Banja Luka is very pretty with a truly Mediterranean feel: families were out for Sunday strolls and the bars were doing a roaring trade. This is known as “Morale Street” by those of SFOR who have visited it as it’s away from corrimecs and the factory and not everyone is in uniform. It felt almost normal, or as normal as life can be when having a Sunday coffee, working on the tan, in uniform and with a pistol on the belt. The best thing is that this attractive street distracts the mind from ruined villages, even if one can only speculate how many of the happy crowds enjoying a day out ignored or were even involved in what we had seen in the hills.
Still seem not to be boring people, so a little more:

A trip to Sarajevo had to come eventually and like buses two came all at once. The first was for a G1 conference similar to that due to have happened at Mrkonjic Grad and for this I enlisted a helicopter in order to avoid road carnage and delay. I was accompanied by C*** S****, the RAO, who as holder of the purse strings would be berated about the whereabouts of the welfare cheques which he swore blind had been sent out and had definitely not been “resting in his account”. Still, what can you expect from a man who was backtermed and Y-Listed so often at Sandhurst that he was the first Officer Cadet to win the Long Service and Good Conduct medal while going through the Factory. The flight was entertaining with the scenery as spectacular as expected and it was hard to look nonchalant and unexcited in front of the other passengers who seemed to be rather blase about the whole flying business as if it was a bit like taking the Underground to work. Mind you perhaps they would be excited by using the Tube, but somehow I doubt it. The conference passed without incident and we then indulged in some retail therapy in the various PXs where the SFOR badge can be found on every item that the heart desires and quite a few which it doesn’t. The services available are such that the photography shop develops pictures in thirty minutes and the Italian PX sells more varieties of pasta than I have seen outside, well, Italy; although the branch of Burger King has a Balkan approach to fast food and when we placed our order it seemed that the meal was prepared from scratch including peeling the potatoes for the chips. Rumours of a mooing and a shot from outside are overstated.

A short siesta later we went to sample the best of the bars and restaurants of Butmir Camp although as irony would have it we didn’t get any further than the Cafe Royale because Chris settled in to discuss paperclips and the intricacies of Pay 2000 with some AGC cronies. This is a pity as Butmir rivals some small towns for eating and drinking establishments. It is to those from outside like some sort of luxury Butlin’s, complete with helpful DPM Coats in the shape of the International Military Police. To add insult to injury to those from the outstations there is a very relaxed walking out policy in force (unarmed and in pairs) and those feeling ennui with the options on camp are allowed to visit the town whenever off duty and even have a quiet beer as long as they do not return obviously intoxicated. Indeed the American walking out policy seems to allow the wearing of civilian clothes judging by the plethora of plaid shorts, baseball caps, large cameras and larger voices witnessed in the city centre later (or there was a coach party in, but as the hairstyles ran more to crewcuts than blue rinses I suspect the tourists were US Forces). When set against HMP Banja Luka where going out requires at least a week’s notice for security clearance and deconfliction to ensure that no more than one group is visiting the five establishments in bounds, two armed escorts per eight on parole, a dry evening and funny looks from the locals at the foreigners in combat kit (and even funnier looks at the idiot R Signals (Yeomanry) Officer, who will remain anonymous, who managed to drop his pistol from his pocket onto the restaurant floor with a fearful clatter) this place really does show that Operations are hell. A sizeable part of the IMP contingent is made up of Irish MPs (by which I don’t mean moonlighting members of the Dail Eirenann). One Officer from Banja Luka, a Military Policemen himself and a staunch Northern Irish Protestant from Belfast, had come to Sarajevo for a meeting but could not find the camp and therefore followed the shuttle bus that runs to and from the City. The armed escort on the bus, one of these Irish MPs, noticed that it was being followed and stopped to investigate whom was doing the shadowing. Our Ulsterman expressed some disbelief and hilarity that he saw the day when he was stopped and questioned by a Republican: a bit of an inversion from his days working in the Province. Later that evening I was invited to share a drink with the Irishmen and to my delight one only seemed to wake up to shout “MORE DRINK” before draining his glass and returning to his reverie. Unfortunately his name was Christy, not Jack, and no nuns, girls, gobshites or curtains hove into view for comment.

My next trip came the following week when C**** and I were offered the chance to go on the Sarajevo battlefield tour. Thank God for his contacts in the AGC. Our travelling companions were the cream of Mrkonjic Grad, including local civilians, and apart from Chris and myself the party consisted of one male officer and five girls. After travelling down (again by the good agencies of the Fleet Air Arm who are making dark comments about issuing me air miles) we had lunch. The Food in Banja Luka is pretty good, but it’s a surprise that those living here are not all obese judging by the quality of this repast. With food to suit each nationality on camp (and believe me there’s a large variety of them: it’s like the United Nations. Doh ! It is the United Nations) the serving counters stretched about as far as the eye can see. The icing on the cake (and there were cakes) was the freezer full of ice-creams and lollipops. With raspberry flavoured goo round our mouths we boarded the coach for the School Trip. Sarajevo is uncannily reminiscent of a sort of Balkan Seoul, being built on a series of hills carrying roads high above the city. The roads pass through many tunnels (which were used as shelters during the siege) and afford a glorious view to the tourist, sniper or artillery observer.

If seeing the effects of the war on the countryside and small towns had been creepy, this city was the whole nine yards. A rude awakening occurred when we were delayed in a traffic jam and then had to make a detour to avoid a demining operation conducted by some serious looking Scandinavians with all manner of armoured bulldozers. The suburb of Dobrinja was my first view of the city from the ground. This was a predominantly Muslim area at the start of the siege and accordingly took a devil of a battering from mortars, shells and rockets. It Shows. The architecture is a bit like that of a Club Med or Spanish Costa that now has big chunks bitten out. Some blocks are part destroyed but have flats that are still inhabited and show a brave display of window boxes and patio furniture. In an example of nature making good, I saw house martins (or similar birds) flying in and out of the nests that they had built in the cracks and holes left by the bombardment. One flat had an ECHOS umbrella, but I suspect this had been “liberated” from the camp rather than signifying a branch opening up for the convenience of SFOR troops out and about. This part of town had one end of the Sarajevo tunnel, and we went to the other side of the airfield to visit the museum at what was once the end that led to safety. A small industry (not based around washing cars or selling petrol, CDs and melons) has sprung up here and we were shown around by the one of the family whose house had been used as cover for the entrance to the tunnel which, hand dug, had run 800m under the airfield to the city and allowed the transport in of food, munitions and personnel. In three months the tunnelers excavated 2,800 cubic metres of earth and shored up the tunnel with wood and metal and installed lighting and later a railway and fuel pipe. During the siege an average of 4,000 people a day transited the tunnel each carrying loads of around 50kg, a journey which was quite a strain as the average dimensions of the shaft were 1.5x1m and the passage could take two hours. The endeavours were necessary, however, as supplies ran so low that the citizens of Sarajevo had been reduced to eating soup made from grass, or for the really lucky ones vegetable peelings. The descriptions given were truly bloodcurdling and one should remember that the winning side writes history, although it should be questioned if anyone did win at all: in any case the victory was Pyrrhic. Because of the high water table the tunnel frequently flooded and with the kind of disdain for personal safety exhibited on the roads, citizens of Sarajevo still used it despite the heady mix of water and high voltage electricity cable, pausing only to light cigarettes next to the petrol line. Still, it had to be safer than above ground, if only just.

Next, after the obligatory happy snaps inside and outside the preserved section of tunnel we moved to the centre of the city. Our route in was the infamous Snipers’ Alley, which proved more to be Snipers’ Four Lane Inner Approach Road, but no less scary a place to have been shot at for being a wide thoroughfare. We passed the Rainbow Hotel, formerly an old peoples’ home, which had been shelled almost to bits and was now covered in rubbish and filth. It came as quite a shock to see that this derelict building has now become home to a population of Gypsies, people who seemed to have nothing but the (cracked) roof over their heads. Also visible from Snipers’ Alley are the Parliament building and Oslobodenje Newspaper tower, both heavily shelled and still not in use as they are so full of booby traps and unexploded ordnance as to be unsafe to enter. Where heavier ordnance had not done its damage, around the windows of most buildings is a rash of bullet holes from the battles between snipers. During our tour we also passed the “Romeo and Juliet” bridge where a Muslim-Serb couple were shot by a sniper and the bodies could not be retrieved for several days because of the battle (the lovers were later buried in the same grave), saw the cemetery which covers an entire hillside where bodies were eventually interred after being taken from their temporary graves in back gardens and parks which were the only safe resting places for the burial parties to do their work until the shelling stopped, and were unfortunately about five years late for the U2 gig at the stadium.

The old centre of town provided a change of scene from the scabrous, pockmarked, diseased grey concrete of the newer outskirts. Here disrepair was more attributable to age than warfare, although munition splinter holes can be seen about the place. It is here that the bridge over which Archduke Ferdinand was passing when Gavrilo Princip shot him can be seen, the assassin becoming a Serb national hero and triggering the First World War although Princip’s statue has been removed as have the brass footprints that marked the spot where he stood. It is also here that the Moorish-Byzantine inspired library stands, although this too fell victim to a bombardment that resulted in a fire and the destruction of the books inside. The library has been reconstructed and restocked by the Netherlands and the exterior is still a riot of arabesques and intricate stonework. Behind the library is the district of Bascarsija, a maze of winding alleys filled with craftsmen’s shops which sell exquisite jewellery for a fraction of the price to be fetched in Western Europe, exotic sweets and nuts and souvenirs hammered out from brass bullet and shell casings. Over the top of the roofs point the minarets of various mosques, and round corners can be found shady courtyards and fountains. We settled in a cafe to watch the world go by and keep an eye out for the fauna I didn’t get a chance to examine in Zagreb. As we moved back to the bus a storm started. Similes from war novels often liken the sound of the guns to that of thunder: here in Sarajevo it was all too easy to reverse that and imagine the thunder as the guns. Almost simultaneously the muezzins began the call to prayer from the minarets, and their eerie cry filled the streets.

Sarajevo was summed up for me in two ways: one that caused great sadness and one that inspired hope. The first was the UNIS towers. These are two skyscrapers that dominate the city and are nicknamed Momo and Uzeir after local comic characters. Before the war one tower housed Muslims, the other Serbs. During the siege the Serb Gunners shelled both as they were not sure which was occupied by which ethnic group. Appalling actions can take place between sides in civil wars, but here the hatred was such that the besiegers risked killing their own people with artillery to avoid allowing their enemies to escape. The second symbol is the “100 Roses of Sarajevo”. As a memorial to the dead of the siege 100 shell-holes were filled with red concrete by a group of the city’s artists, marking just some of the places where people were killed. The roses, as they have become known, look like a splash of maroon ink dropped on the light grey paper pavement. They are poignant as the concrete is now a little dusty and faded and only visitors really look for them or take much notice of them: the people of the city pass by quickly as they get on with their normal lives. Hope springs that this return to normal business is not just a facade, but a genuine new start.

Unfortunately I was on duty that evening and the following day so I waved C**** goodbye and left him to enjoy the bars and restaurants of Butmir Camp (and the company of five of the most attractive women in theatre as mentioned earlier). Chris tells me he was given some really evil looks by male soldiers for sitting surrounded by the girls (and having a grin on his face similar to the Colonel’s when briefing waitresses) and ended up being invited to a party with the Carabinieri until the early hours. I imagine the female presence had as much to do with the party invitation as C****’s good humour and company !
First class, this, imho. There's a book here if you could get off your arrse and write it. Lots of memories.
First class, this, imho. There's a book here if you could get off your arrse and write it. Lots of memories.

That's kind of you to say, others have. I just had a couple of concerns: that it was all a bit derivative & also that I write entirely for pleasure, not for any other benefit. If I get bored I can just stop...
This originally had a laboured title about being behind bars:

A previous edition of this review of life in the Mental Factory mentioned the endless supply of barbecues and other festivities that occur at the drop of a hat out here. Indeed such events are so frequent that it could be presumed that hat dropping is a sport as common to the soldiery as littering is to the locals and that berets lie as thick on the ground as autumn leaves. However on the rare occasion that the thirsty tippler faces an evening without outdoor entertainment he can take solace at least that from seven until half ten each evening an array of bars lie open for a quiet half (followed by a noisy half dozen). There are also welfare facilities, such as the excellent Brithouse, where all Commonwealth Forces on camp can go for a coffee, get internet access or read a (three day old) paper from home. The Lonely Planet guide to Balkans military establishments goes on to describe how we can also get books from the varied library (although a recent book bundle did consist of a copy for each Anglophone here of the same Danielle Steele romance), pretend to be in the cinema with the huge-screen film showings and borrow from a good range of games, videos and DVDs. It is noted that the videos etc on offer tend towards the most incredibly bloodthirsty, boasting such titles as Jean-Claude Van Damme in Deathmetalhammerslayerfistwarrior III in 3D, just the thing to soothe the fevered brow after a hard day’s peacekeeping. ECHOS has been covered before, and apart from acting as the unofficial BLSS conference room (and full-time office to certain members of the Dutch contingent) is an excellent place for a bite of supper when the offerings in the Mess begin to pall. Indeed since ECHOS got a licence to sell with wine with dinner it is becoming the place for leaving dos, dining and to be seen, a sort of military/religious Le Caprice or the Ivy. Tommy Tuckers, the EFI dry canteen, also has its followers but as the cuisine tends more towards the Spam, eggs, chips and Spam (or similar transport café fare) and the air holds the chip fat aroma that goes with it the more discerning clientele tend to drink their espressos (ECHOS doesn’t have a machine) on the decking outside. It is, however, the places of alcoholic refreshment that allow the dreadful pun in the title of this piece and therefore without further ado let us proceed to the Good Beer Guide to Banja Luka.

As is to be expected from a British-run camp (and to the perplexion of the Dutch, who rid themselves of such symbols of the forces of conservatism several years ago) the bars are set up along mess lines. The Officers’ Mess (despite the recent influx of Naval Officers we are resisting attempts for a restyling as Wardroom) is attached to the dining room and rejoices in the name “The Warehoa”. Whence this name came about is lost in the mists of time, but judging by the Kiwi on the sign this is a Maori name, rather than a case of bad spelling or being short of the letters U, S and E when making up the nameboard. Outside we have a garden with decking, a huge barbecue and a fire pit where the more incendiary minded Canadians cause massive conflagrations on a regular basis Indeed one was heard to say, “Lets burn something, dude, fire is better than TV”. We are also keeping a sound eye on the Scots amongst us as comments about building a Wicker Man are beginning to worry the less pagan Officers. The garden is tended by the poor Junior Captain who was pinged for the task shortly after arrival on the basis that his predecessor in G6 had done it and thus so should he. He is now to be seen frantically weeding, watering, mulching, planting and sowing at all hours and has spent a sizeable proportion of his salary on gardening books from the Internet. However as talking to plants is meant to make them grow we should have a jungle out there imminently, if we consider the Junior Captain's propensity to go on a bit.
Presiding over the bar are Dee (rumoured to have been Miss Yugoslavia 1979) and Tanya, two locals who have been in the position since the Factory was taken over and who know every trick in the book and a few that haven’t been written down. The only way to get them worried is to take the rise about the quantities of cheese and cake they liberate from the mess buffet, or to suggest that SFOR are to pull out imminently and that we won’t need barmaids any more. The clientele is mainly British (split between the HQ MND (SW) beautiful people, HQ BRITFOR cronies and the rest) although the Canadians make the occasional appearance to burn things and consume tremendous numbers of cold ones while the Dutch seem to hide out in Dutch places. When a party is arranged (and the rumour of cheap beer goes round) mess members come out of the woodwork and it’s standing room only, as happened at the recent IEBL. This was not a seminar on the Inter-Entity Boundary Line but a beer and blues festival rejoicing in the title the International Evening of Beer and Lager during which there was music, dancing and the consumption of beer from each nation providing a contingent on camp. Note to connoisseurs: Bulgarian lager needs to be drunk at a similarly low temperature to HEKWAP to be even slightly palatable.

As is common in Regiments back home the Warrant Officers’ and Sergeants’ mess is luxurious to the point that the Officers’ mess looks by comparison like a pigsty. The outside has the obligatory decking and barbecue in the garden and a family of feral cats who are to the vet as Road Runner is to Wile E Coyote: she keeps trying to catch them and they keep escaping. We’ve suggested investing in an ACME ten-ton anvil rather than sacks and a bucket of water (oh, OK, the trap and syringe of Green Dream as the injection is known) but can’t find a NATO Stock Number for the above. Inside are dartboards, pool tables and the biggest TV screen seen outside a James Bond villain’s converted volcano, although I’ve not seen this working and cannot testify whether the RSM sits stroking an albino cat and watching satellites circuit the world. In any case the vet would be after the cat. When a dining out is held for a BLSS member who is going home we are invited inside the hallowed portals and since the arrival of the new Master Chef and his henchman have been treated to some very fine food. Until you’ve tried orange-flavoured spaghetti as part of a pudding you haven’t experienced nouvelle cuisine. Fortunately invitations to this mess are fairly rare as the bar bills can be high and one doesn’t want to be spoilt completely. Familiarity, after all, breeds contempt.
The place for most entertainment (and for visions of commissions flashing before the eyes as slightly inebriated female soldiers in little tops decide to have some sport with Young Officers) is the EFI Junior Ranks’ Club, aka the Foundry. Run by a Mafia of JNCOs, the Foundry is the social centre for all of the young soldiers less the teetotallers (so all the young soldiers, really). All sorts of entertainments are organised (I never thought that I’d come across a bar full of silent troops, all taking a game of bingo seriously, but that’s what a tour can do for you), but the most popular seem to be those involving music. On karaoke night music can be used in the loosest possible sense of the word in most cases, especially when the Royal Engineers are doing their thing and enthusiasm rather than skill is the name of the game, although some of the soldiers do have a fine pair of lungs on them.

More vigorous yet are the party nights, sometimes with a fancy dress theme (a recent toga night led to the disappearance of half the sheets on camp) and of all nights Tuesday is the rowdiest of all. This is because the Happy flight back to the UK departs on a Wednesday, so the evening is set for farewells, troops in from the outstations away from the chain of command (how wrong they are !) and the deployment of every able bodied RMP, war dog and Brit available to do duty in order to stop a Lord of the Flies situation breaking out. Part of the ritual on these nights is a raucous rendition of “I’m leaving on a jet ‘plane” and no one who has served here will ever listen to that song in quite the same way again after leaving theatre. Generally the air can be like an armed and inebriated school disco as the shortage of young ladies and the inability of young soldiers to dance at all after a heavy infusion of HEKWAP, Breezers and Smirnoff Ice means that girls dance with girls and boys with boys. There is the occasional couple, but they will not get a chance for cheek to cheek stuff once the pride of the Army hit the dancefloor with twelve hours to go before they get on the flight home and have disposed of their remaining Euros over the bar. Party pieces are also popular: a crowd of flushed female juniors singing “I will survive” is sure on any disco night, while the Engineers favourite, “Bob the Builder”, has to be seen to be believed when performed by a gang of hefty Sappers. Everybody loves “Oops upside your head” and will prove their devotion by sitting on the floor in half an inch of cigarette ends and spilt HEKWAP, Breezers and Smirnoff Ice to do the rowing dance.

Individual units also have their own bars, which are open for special occasions only (Premier Chief of Tuvalu’s official birthday, anyone ?). Of immediate note is the Royal Signals Troop bar, which rejoices in the name of “Jimmy Riddles” after the affectionate name for the Mercury that is the Corps’ emblem. One of the Signallers is an extremely talented artist and has created a full sized pub sign depicting Homer Simpson as the Mercury cap badge, holding aloft a can of Duff beer and with a rather profane motto that only Signallers know the meaning of. Outside is again a garden and the Signals Troop Commander has Ground-Force style plans for transforming his place into the Factory’s premier al fresco nite-spot. We also notice a lot of free umbrellas down here for some reason, some of which seem terribly familiar from the mess. Rivalling the Signals for the moment is “The Hydra”. To gain admission to this one has to be nice to several Royal Engineers, but this is more than worth it. Passing into what looks from outside like a couple of corrimecs and some urban camouflage material a sort of Xanadu unfolds before the traveller. The first room is oak panelled and contains table football, television, darts and easy chairs. The next is panelled in blonder wood and holds the bar. Thence outside to the by now bloody predictable decking, but what decking ! The seating area leading to the trellis has a handy retractable roof, and beyond this cross the bridge over the pond full of fish (taking care not to be splashed by the gently playing fountains or step on the huge live frog) to admire the collection of gnomes in the rockery, surrounded by the Japanese-inspired gravel garden. I was only saddened on a recent visit to see that a favourite gnome had fallen over in a storm and had been prescribed araldite and light duties. One can only speculate that the reason a roof is currently being constructed on HQ MND (SW) is that the Engineers had pinched the old one to build their splendid edifice.
If this is not enough to entertain the troops there are also the foreign contingent bars. The Dutch ones are very good and the only way round the “no foreigners” rule is to gain an invitation or to be a member of the Royal Signals: the latter makes the CISCOY (Dutch Signals) bar an open house. Inside both of these are decked out in so much red white and blue and pictures of monarchy that one feels at home until one sees that the monarchs are of the bicycling variety and there is a dirty great windmill in the corner. The rules of the bar are also good: along with standard strictures relating to not drinking too much and leaving quietly to let shift workers sleep is one stating that sunbathing should take place on the upper terrace only. One can even get decent Heineken. War is hell. There is also a Canada House but as this is being rebuilt at the moment (or so they tell us) I haven’t been invited down there yet. A peep through the window did show that the Orderly Officer’s recent report of a faulty popcorn machine was not a wind up on the Adjutant from the mother country. This bar was the bugbear of the previous CO and he was known to leave the mess after dark and hide in the shadows outside Canada House, collecting information for his dossier. There is also a suggestion to open up ANZAC house as the Southern Hemisphere contingent grows, but God alone knows what would go on in there and Poms would definitely not be safe. Just be sure to go to the correct dung heap when going to the dunny as one doesn’t want to be caught in the ladies’.

Therefore I hope he reader realises that not all is bad at HMP Banja Luka. While not in the same luxurious style as Sarajevo we do have somewhere to go, and have the satisfaction of knowing it is all self built. We might not want parole, but there is one gripe: at least in prison one is allowed visitors !
Brilliant read young man- although I was not there, the nature of my work at the time bonds and I recognise most of the types you've mentioned. I used to work outbound at many airports and together with my ex bootneck colleague we used to have a little snigger when one of our younger colleages pulled one of the lads for a fireside chat. It invariably got a " oh heck I pulled a squaddie". I can also remember doing mobile checks and finding some muscle bound young man with a 51 doc coming back from Paris. " Where have you been?" sullen silence-pull the bag down of the overhead rack and lo and behold one of the relevant passports not to mention the Pristina stamp. "Been away for a bit of Rand R have we?" response was usually "I on holiday visiting my Girlfreind." That was why we always found grubby cammo and boots in the bag.
I love the descriptions of the gardens.

There was a good one at ISAF HQ, with a pizza oven, flown in by the Italians and a lovely 12ft high windmill, provided by the Dutch contingent.

Over in Kosovo, at the French MNTF-N base in Novo Selo, they had a 30ft high Eiffel Tower. They'd decorated the officer's mess to look like PAris, complete with those fin-du-siecle street lights and the food was so good that a lot of KFOR senior ranks used to pop in by Blackhawk for lunch: "Apocalypse Lunch".


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I love the descriptions of the gardens.

There was a good one at ISAF HQ, with a pizza oven, flown in by the Italians and a lovely 12ft high windmill, provided by the Dutch contingent.

Over in Kosovo, at the French MNTF-N base in Novo Selo, they had a 30ft high Eiffel Tower. They'd decorated the officer's mess to look like PAris, complete with those fin-du-siecle street lights and the food was so good that a lot of KFOR senior ranks used to pop in by Blackhawk for lunch: "Apocalypse Lunch".

I think it's the combination of a benign environment, a large number of largely creative & pretty bright people, restrictions on being able to go out and a lot of free time. With Military Chefs supervising everything I also ate very well indeed.

Even so a trip to CAPAJEBO was always a highlight even if not getting off Butmir just to get at the scoff!
My own memories of SJJ are not quite as agreeable. I went out just after the siege was lifted, wandering up to the hills south of Grbavica, slaughtered on vodka and fell into a grave at a Muslim funeral on the way up to Bistrik.

The city, though is one of the finest in Europe.

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