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Driving Down Sniper Alley... Sarajevo May 1993

Updated: Feb 23

May 1993, Sarajevo, War Diary

We, an Israeli TV crew working for the American television network NBC News, boarded a UN four-engine turboprop cargo plane, heading to Sarajevo the besieged city. We had our passports stamped by the “MAYBE AIRLINES” flight coordinator at the UN Desk before taking off from Croatia’s Split Airport.The flight time between the two cities is only about forty minutes. Like a domestic flight back home from Tel Aviv to Eilat. However, the last ten minutes of the journey when the plane descended towards Sarajevo's runway, were the most perilous. The city lay spread out like the palm of your hand, surrounded by Serbian artillery and snipers stationed on the hills above the airport.

The question that lingered on the plane was whether we would make it safely or not.

And the only answer was – maybe. Well, they don't call it Maybe Airlines for nothing...

In the pages that follow, I aim to share my experiences during this period, recounting the challenges, dangers, and glimpses of humanity I witnessed in a city under siege, where fear, courage, and resilience intertwined. These events shaped my perspective on the horrors of war and the strength of the human spirit.

Join me on this journey back to the besieged Sarajevo of 1993, where every moment was a testament to the fragility and strength of life in the face of conflict of life in the face of conflict.

Sarajevo, the capital of the Bosnia-Herzegovina region. Sarajevo is sometimes called the “Jerusalem of Europe” or “Jerusalem of the Balkans”. It was, until late in the 20th century, the only major European city to have a mosque, Catholic church, Orthodox church and synagogue within the same neighborhood.

Sarajevo was traditionally regarded as the immediate catalyst for the First World War in 1914. In April 1992, it became another symbol: one of the tragic wars that erupted when Yugoslavia broke apart in 1991 and nationalism and ethnic hatred pointed its guns to this city.

For more than three and a half years, Sarajevo was under siege. The Bosnia Serb army, with its Yugoslav heavy artillery, surrounded the Bosnian capital. Civilians became open targets for the snipers.

When the siege ended in February 1996, more than 11,000 Sarajevans had been killed. Thousands more had been wounded and displaced. Sarajevo, like Bosnia and Herzegovina, became more divided along ethnic lines.

As the leased Hercules French military transport aircraft started its decent into Sarajevo, we were instructed by the commanding office on board to wear the helmets and protective vests we carry. I lowered my head and hugged my Bellingham backpack, closed my eyes and hoped for the best.

Of course the landing was smooth. The Frenchman was a skilled pilot and well acquainted with the field here. He taxied shortly on the runway and stoped behind a protected wall, hidden as far as possible from the snipers' eyes and guns on the hills opposite the airfield.

The flight crew urged us to deplane the C-130 quickly so as not to delay the plane for an unnecessary moment on the runway to avoid any possible sniper fire. We're in a hurry to get down the metal stairs that opened out of the Cargo belly and the only thought that went through my mind at that moment was ‘where was the flight attendant I was expecting to meet by the stairs giving us the the “thank you for flying with us "MAYBE AIRLINES"’

Danny, the local Bosnian fixer who has been working with NBC since the siege began in April a year earlier, met us outside the airport control and whisked us driving an Audi A6 car with steel plates attached to its doors making it a bullet-proof car, into town.

Danny the interpreter, driver, the executioner, a real wheeler dealer in a good sense. Danny was certainly our oxygen pipe here in the besieged city.

Danny, driving fast on the exposed road on the way to the Holiday-Inn Sarajevo, located on Sniper Alley; the nickname of that road; the access road to the city center.

Sniper Alley was without a doubt one of the most dangerous streets in the world during these years.

Here, at this point, Danny slows down the armored vehicle for sixty seconds to point out to us the corner on the right. Here, David Kaplan, a New York city TV producer just like me, only on our rival network, ABC News, was shot and killed by sniper fire one Friday at noon just a few months earlier.

When Kaplan was shot and killed on the spot by a Serbian sniper he was on his way from the airport into the city. I was in Zagreb at the time, another city but the same war; same shit different city, just 300 kilometers north of Sarajevo.

The 1:00pm newscast of the Israeli Radio broke with the news of a Television News producer who was shot and killed by a sniper in Yugoslavia. Naomi my wife, who was busy with Friday housework while entertaining our two little girls, at home in Herzliya, did not hear the news but a friend who worked for another foreign news agency and saw the details hurried to call and tell her that I was fine. I was was in Zagreb at that time, covering the Croatian -Serbian part of this civil war. Kaplan was killed in Sarajevo…

A sigh of relief, at least temporarily, was heard in Herzliya.

Kaplan was the 25th journalist to be killed to that day during the war in the disintegrating Yugoslavia.

I admit to alertness, but no fear! The addictive adrenaline created in all those places we had been through those last four years was once again being driven by fear to seep into our thoughts, whilst driving the crazy, high-speed Sniper Avenue.

At the end of the wide boulevard you can already see the yellow building with the inscription "Holiday Inn Hotel" and next to it the chain's familiar logo, the orange and yellow flower. On the sign there’s an evidence of a shell hitting and biting the exposed concrete, leaving tooth marks all around. The condition of the windows is not good. There’s hardly a single complete glass, not even in the windows of the rooms.- stay away from windows!

Welcome to the Holiday Inn Sarajevo

We reconnect with Danny who was waiting for us in the lobby. Martin, the correspondent explained to him what we want to be able to do today as long as there was daylight outside so we can bring the material for this evening, New York’s time, in time for our New York office to edit the piece.

We drive fast through areas exposed to snipers on the hills east of the road. You can already see the big river out of the city, the Miljacka River. On the other side of the river are the same sights of destruction and desolation. Burnt vehicles are swept away by the slow current down the river.

Across the river, is the Great Synagogue of Sarajevo Jewish community, the Ashkenazi. The synagogue is closed. The Gabay, Mr. Conforti, who lives in the building offices, explains to us that he only opens the place to worshipers on Saturdays and holidays. It is too dangerous to come to the building every morning and in general, most of the Jews who remain in the besieged city are old and exhausted and have a hard time walking. There is a Star of David on the roof, an Israeli flag in the window, and remnants of a blue and white flag on a pole on the wall of the building.

Conforti tells us about the assistance he receives from Israel, and points to the transparent fiberglass panels that replaced the long-shattered glass. It protects us from gunfire, he explains. The Jewish JDC from the United States also sends aid, aid that the community shares with its Bosnian Muslim neighbors. Conforti knows that he must maintain good neighborly relations with the local Bosnians to help him and his small community in case of trouble, for the few who are still left in the city.

He tells us about people who went out to fetch water or bread, eggs or vegetables, and were shot in cold blood from a range of 200-300 meters by snipers, “Human hunters” he calls them. And the Serbs certainly justify the nickname.

Danny our Fixer urges us to finish and get back in the armored car. He already has a gut feeling that it’s time to leave, hurry and look for hiding.

Only then, as we speed along Sarajevo's main street towards the Holiday Inn, can we understand exactly what a ghost town is. Only here, on Sniper Alley, even the ghosts are afraid to turn around.

Danny explains that no one comes out of their door except when a ceasefire is declared. Then the streets are filled with women and men, young and old, and children. Everyone goes out to freshen up for a brief respite from the lashings and shelling. The lucky ones even manage to buy some of the essential ingredients in the market after standing in a long line which twists like a human snake.

Just then, in an act of the devil, the Serbs surrounding the city are firing. Only one or two shells, but always aimed at the center of the queues for water or bread to cause as many casualties as possible.

Near a line (like the one I photographed) during a ceasefire declared for several hours the previous weekend, two shells landed, three children were killed on the spot by shrapnel, and two adults, possibly a mother and father, arrived at the hospital without a pulse after losing too much blood.

Back to The Holiday-Inn. It is relatively early in the evening, and we enter the dining room for our first dinner there. The hotel, which was once one of the city's most luxurious, has hosted senior members of the Olympic Committee and athletes who took part in the city's Winter Olympics in the winter of 1984.

Of this glorious past, only the cutlery remains on the table. Heavy silver cutlery, with the Olympic symbol embossed on every spoon, fork, and knife. The five rings symbolize everything that has not existed here in Sarajevo since the beginning of the war.

The city has been dark at night for over a year now and on the large windows of the dining room & at the entrance are heavy curtains stopping the yellow light from shining through. Sandbags line the outside walls.

Also joining the table is David, the video editor, who arrived from London a week before us. David was with us in the studios in Herzliya during the 1991 Gulf War. We laughed when, at every Scud Missiles attack - alarm sound, he was the only one who hurried to fasten his protective suit, gloves and AGB mask and made sure he was protected when we were together in Mogadishu. A year later David died of liver failure complications.

The conversation at the table is free of tension or apprehension; a conversation that does not even hint at the danger outside, beyond the wall of sandbags.

The menu offers meat or chicken with two sides. One of them is potatoes. Someone asks if we have no pangs of conscience to eat considering the Bosnians have such little food. We're laughing and I'm quoting a UN International Food Fund report that a serving of meat per person is 60 grams.

Someone is shooting with a small video camera. We drink beer and local wine and smoke cigarettes. There's “home-made” Mom's apple compote and Balkan roasted black coffee. We sit and chat, reminiscing about other places from previous wars.

Our bunch of journalists is something between a bunch of wandering circus artists and a group of mercenaries of the Seventh Kingdom. A group that refuses to grow up, travels the world from war to war and is drawn to danger. We down a glass of Slivowitz, Balkan plum brandy, 35% alcohol, with one last cigarette and go to bed.

The light in the room does not turn on of course and there is also no shutter to close. Awakening is with first light anyway because the days are short, and the tasks are multiple. And in general, who wants to be alone in a room on a high floor without windows and without shutters. The room has a telephone connected to the reception, a fire extinguisher, a table and two chairs.

It is a dark moonlit night outside, with no people on the street. I dare not stand by the window, but it is cool looking from the side. An ambulance passes quickly at the intersection closest to the hotel, its headlights are painted blue like the ones we used in the 1956 Sinai campaign when Israel was under attack from Egypt. I am reminded of my childhood experiences in my first war in Tel Aviv, with my grandparents, near the defensive wall in the stairwell of a house on Ahad Ha'am Street. GA inspectors walked down the street and shouted at a tenant on the first floor above the electrician's shop, when they turned on the light.

An echo of a single shot rolls from the mountains, followed by another echo and another. Someone who has not fallen asleep is probably trying his rifle. The bed is as big as a five-star hotel offers its guests. I lie on my back; the moonlight comes in and illuminates the floor of the room. In the room next door, someone flushes the toilet.

On my little radio I try to hear the latest BBC newscast in English and fail. A local radio station broadcasts ethnic music, reminiscent of our Mediterranean music, Greek or Turkish. Balkan. On another station a man and a woman in an unidentified language converse calmly. I flip over on my stomach and try to fall asleep hugging the pillow.

We could not get four adjoining rooms. Dubi was the only one on my floor. Yossi was upstairs, I think in a room not far from Martin. We arranged that in case there was an alarm during the night so the four of us would meet down in the lobby, near the stairs to the basement of the building.

I hear footsteps in the hallway. The room door is locked. The footsteps move away down the hall. Someone fires a bundle of automatic weapons that resonates in the distance. It's just the echo that rolls in and enters through the torn opening in the window into the room. Even after midnight, the moon had not yet been extinguished.

The first night was short. I did not fall asleep until after midnight. Background noises, moonlight entering the room, occasionally the echo of a single shot, followed by a burst of shots and again a rolling echo of an automatic weapon. The voices of war and alongside them other voices, voices of another world, from a nearby room - optimistic people indulging in a short hour of communion. All of these kept me from sleeping.

I remember trying to count sheep ... finally with the transistor earphone in my ear with Balkan music in the background, I fell asleep.

At first light, I woke up.

A luxury king-size bed with no electricity, no windows, no curtains, and a view from the broken window of the Ministry of the Interior building, one of the tallest buildings in the city center whose upper floors were directly hit by Serbian artillery and caught fire. Sooty walls.

Good morning, Sarajevo.

I took advantage of the fact that there was another half hour until breakfast and went to take a shower. Hot water is for the weak ... no fuel no heating. A quick shower, as well as shaving water, is a valuable commodity in the besieged city.

I pack in my rucksack the notebooks, stationery, camera and of course the transistor, headset I brought, as well as a helmet and socket. When the elevators are not working, you must think carefully before going down five floors on foot so as not to forget anything in the room ...

I'm the first of the bunch at our table. There is hot coffee in a large silver jug. The table is set as if taken from a set of an English film. A large round table, a tablecloth and white cloth napkins next to each chair, porcelain plates that also have on their edges an Olympic symbol; a symbol reminiscent of the Winter Olympics hosted here just nine years ago that symbolizes work ethic, victory, faith, and a sporting spirit - everything that cannot be found here in the city today,

There is a strong smell of the crust of boiled milk, for those who like this. I ask for, if possible, Balkan coffee. I am careful not to ask for Turkish or Greek, at least not until I understand what the locals' attitude is to each of these is.

Dubby and Martin join me. A morning chat in the hotel dining room. A stranger will not understand this ... Our first night in a besieged city, and our first question is - did you also not have hot water in the room ...?!?

Hard-boiled eggs and salted cheese slices, fresh buns, strawberry jam. Eat as much as you can. Yossi is late, he must have already got an espresso and stepped out to smoke a morning cigarette in the fresh air near the protective wall at the back exit of the hotel.

Danny our fixer enters the dining room, keys in one hand and a box of red Marlboro in the other. He sits down at the table, lights a cigarette, exchanges a few words in the local language with the waiter who hurries back with a small, strong espresso. The ceasefire will take effect in three hours. Martin wants to film the stand-up for tonight's article next to one of the queues for water, fuel or food. Until then, we will go on a tour of the city.

The first point this morning will be the Children's Hospital.

Once again, the asphalt is being scorched on Sniper Alley in a particularly fast ride. We are crowded in the car with our vests on and the helmet is heavy, but I dare not remove it. Yossi sits in the front and takes pictures. Danny asks him to take down the camera. It's dangerous he explains, someone can be mistaken and think it's a rocket launcher and shoot at us ....

Martin is in the back - also with a camera, but a small camera. Martin photographs out of the car, Danny in the mirror. Danny tells about life in the city. Home Cinema, it will be fascinating to see it in thirty years. I thought then and did not know just how much.

At the local hospital sandbags protect the entrance. Three ambulances are parked next to the sign pointing to the emergency room. The hospital has no visitors. This hospital also has no patients. This is the children's hospital, children injured in the war. Thousands were injured, 1,300 killed during nearly four years of siege of the city.

Yasina accompanies us, a young, Bosnian doctor, who worked until the outbreak of the war in the capital Belgrade and returned to the city to serve in the only children's hospital here. She takes us up the stairs to the second floor, to the surgical ward. Large rooms, high ceilings. Yasina tells us, as we walk through the quiet empty corridors where only the echo of her shoes is heard, about the shortage of medicines, the shortage of dressing materials, and the situation in the more remote neighborhoods where the injured and sick cannot reach the hospital in the center. She tells us about the trauma of the children, about the post-traumatic stress disorder that awaits them when they grow up, if they survive their injuries. We enter one room that has empty cots in the far corner of the window. On the other side of the room - one bed, a two-year-old boy maybe two and a half years old. Amir, he's been here three months. Came in with a cleft lip. His mother brought him and left him at the mercy of the nurses. She had to return to the village outside the besieged city. She left three children alone, the eldest 11 years old. Her husband joined the forces defending the homeland, Yasina says. And now - Amir who recovered from the surgery wants to go home. Looking for Mom, but Mom is not here, so he stays in the hospital for now. Amir is silent and fixes his big eyes on the ceiling. Yasina says in a whisper, so the child will not hear, that if the family does not contact the hospital in the near future - little Amir will be transferred to the municipal orphanage.

To this day I see the boy, Amir, sitting huddled together, holding a rag doll that may be the only souvenir from home, a tinsmith, he had until three months ago. He is sitting in the corner of the small crib, a baby with a scar on his upper lip, a sign of a recent operation. Where is Amir today? Did his mother find him? Or maybe he even stayed and grew up in the orphanage? Thirty years ... his gaze, like the gaze of the children we left behind hungry and sick in the refugee camps in Somalia or those in northern Ethiopia. And the look of the girl who stood by the hotel one frozen Christmas morning in Timisoara, all scarred for life.

Even thirty years later the smells and the looks are etched in my memory, forever probably. The smell of the hospital is like the smell of boiled milk at breakfast, or the smell of black coffee with ginger at Muhammad's in Mogadishu in our villa. The smell of sewage flowing through the streets of Baidoa, or the sun burning everything alive in the port city of Assab, in southern Somalia, across from Hadhramaut, on the shores of the Red Sea.

Every such visit, in every similar journalist’s mission, carves another ring in the tree trunk of all of us engaged in the craft.

After two weeks in the besieged city, we are on our way to the airport. Danny drives the armored Audi, and we quickly speed along Sniper Alley one last time, the most dangerous street in the world in those days.

Just before we cross the last checkpoint at the airport entrance, Martin asks Danny when will you get out of here? And Danny, as always, with a half-smile which declares ‘I don’t really know, and says that he hopes to be on a plane with the family this coming July...

Whether Danny left Sarajevo in July 1993 with the family as he hoped or not - we will not know. I have never returned to Sniper Alley.


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