BOSNIA REMEMBERED: A SOLDIER'S STORY
It was the 28th of December, 1995, when I deployed with my unit, C Troop 3rd Squadron of the 4th U.S. Cavalry. We were soldiers of the 3rd Infantry Division and were attached to the 1st Armored Division as part of the Implementation force or IFOR. Our mission was to implement the Dayton Peace Accord and bring peace to war-torn Bosnia.
I remember saying goodbye to my wife and children the night before. Tears were shed, tears of uncertainty, frustration and the terrible thought of being away from my family for up to one year. As I recall when my good friend and I were driving away, honking our horn and waving to our families -- we cried again. These were manly tears, no talking. Nothing to talk about. Both of us knowing the uncertainty that lay ahead.
The train departed in the morning, more tears were shed, families said goodbye and newborn babies were kissed. We knew that when we returned the babies would be walking.
The train ride was swift and before we knew it, we had arrived at the Sava river bridge built across the swollen river by our engineers. The contrast of the two sides was severe. One side, Croatia, was virtually untouched by war. The other side, Bosnia, was completely destroyed. I remember seeing the first signs of war. A car, bullet-riddled and lying on its side, a factory roof flapping in the winter breeze. A small dirty child, no coat, plastic shoes with no socks, sorting through the trash hoping to find a discarded food packet that a soldier might have discarded from his MRE. [Meals Ready to Eat: soldiers' rations kept in a plastic bag.] Battle damage was everywhere as we road-marched to our destination, Tuzla West Airfield. Our lives were forever changed on that march. Children ran through the snow with no shoes or jackets just for a chance to wave and see the Americans. You could hear them cry out "EEFOR" and they waved frantically. There was a shadow of hope that shone through those dirty faces.
We arrived at Tuzla West and two days later we moved to another destination, the small town of Kalisija. Kalisija is a Muslim town 20 kilometers east of Tuzla and virtually the front line of the Muslim/ Serbian defense. The town was completely destroyed. We took shelter from the cold in an abandoned ice cream factory. It was cold but it was dry. Our troop took 2 days to make this place our home. Floors were swept, holes were patched in the ceiling and walls. Windows were replaced with plastic wrap, then we settled down for our time in Bosnia.
During these first days, the leadership went on a recon, conducted by the Swedish Battalion that we were to relieve. [Recon: reconnoiter; to investigate the area.] Mines were everywhere. The first mines that I saw were anti-personnel mines strung like christmas ornaments in the bushes along the road. I remember thinking "this was it" as the tracks of our tank brushed up along side the bushes. We crossed the only intact bridge in our sector and the Swedes made sure to point out that it was wired and primed for detonation. We passed over the bridge and entered no-man's land. This was once the proud city of Memici, a small prospering resort town, now just bombed out, burned up rubble.
There was a school located in the middle of the town, destroyed and lifeless, no-one had attended class here in a long time. I remember looking at the playground and seeing a basketball court and noticed trees, growing up in the cracks in the asphalt. Trees so big the branches intertwined the hoop on the backboard. No one lived in here, it lay abandoned, destroyed, totally defeated and I thought about how much we Americans take for granted and how grateful we should be.
We continued along our route and went to another town. This place was different. It was located on the side of a hill and served no tactical purpose at all. It was small and destroyed, just like the others -- but not by shelling and bombs. The enemy had pulled over every house, building by building with large cables. As we sat on in the middle of the town -- on our track vehicles, too paranoid to get on the ground because of land mines -- I spotted certain signs of life. A tricycle, rusted and lying on its side, a shoe from a small girl and a doll, soiled, stained and partially buried in the snow. I imagined the little girl, playing with the doll, riding the tricycle. What was her future? Was she still alive? Could she return to this village to play once again? Somber faces were everywhere. You could also see another look: one of determination from the other soldiers; understanding what our purpose was and why we were here. We all knew that it was up to us to stop this needless suffering.
The Swedes showed us a lot that day. They made us realize that this was not a wasted deployment. This was a chance for us to bring peace, peace for the children, a chance to make a difference. We relieved the Swedes a few days later, separated the warring factions without incident and set up a checkpoint in the town of Memici. The first night was cold, lonely and silent. I thought to myself how strange it was to be sitting in the middle of a town and nothing but utter silence permeated the air. The only noise was the crackling of our fire barrel as we huddled around it and tried to stay warm. No dogs barked, no lights from the houses, no children's prayers or kisses from parents before they went to bed. Only darkness and desolation.
The checkpoint became a gathering point for people. A chance for them to watch with curious fascination as our progress continued. We set up tents and made our home at this abandoned intersection. We called our home ironically "Checkpoint Charlie." Gradually refugees were returning. Taking a look at what was left of their homes for the first time in four years. They never stayed long at first, always leaving in the evening and always carrying something they had found in the rubble that was once their homes. Maybe a small memory or something useful. Sometimes a small picture, a rusted saw, a small soup pot or an intact china plate. First only the men came. Meager possessions piled high on small cars or horse drawn carts, an occasional tractor. They came back and started the slow and painful process of rebuilding their dreams.
The checkpoint became a place for people to meet. A sort of safe haven in the midst, people came from both sides. Grandparents came to see their grandchildren for the first time. Wives came to be reunited with their husbands. All were separated because one was Serbian and one was Muslim. Some days we would have close to one hundred such reunions, other days only a few, but they came. They came because of a small lonely checkpoint, located in the middle of the Zone Of Separation that provided peace and safety because of a small platoon of American soldiers.
One day we had a Serbian police officer give us a small note and asked if we could forward it to Tuzla. We did, and a few days later he was reunited with his family for the first time in four years. People came and once again saw family and friends. During the war they fired at each other. After the war they hugged. We saw a lot more tears on that checkpoint. Tears of happiness when reunited with loved ones. Tears of grief when they heard someone they love
d had died in the war. Tears of pain upon returning to their destroyed homes. IFOR brought these people together once again, if only for a brief moment, to share memories and hope for a brighter future.
As spring came, the people of Memici came back to stay. One such person was a woman, she came alone. We asked her where her family was and she replied, " They were all killed during the war." She had lost her husband, one son and two daughters. We watched this woman struggle with rebuilding her home. She had nothing but the clothes on her back. We asked her what she needed and she replied, " All I need is a cow and some chickens. " We thought how funny that was that her house had been destroyed during the war and all she wanted was a cow and some chickens. She said, " A cow gives milk and a chicken lays eggs, I can sell this to fix my house." A week later she received a cow and two chickens. We had nothing else to spend our money on anyway.
We provided newspapers and pamphlets to the locals. Memici was rebuilding and families were returning. Land mines were everywhere and very abundant. One of our jobs was to help inform the locals of the mine danger and mark them whenever found. Some were marked, most weren't. Every day we would hear them exploding. Injuries occurred and lives were lost but the people continued to come back to their homes and rebuild. One day we had a little boy come to our checkpoint and get our attention. He motioned for us to come with him. We followed the little boy to his house and he pointed out a land mine that was buried in his yard. We asked him how he had known to come to us for help and he stated that he had read about it in a coloring book that we had given him. The coloring book had a dot to dot puzzle of a land mine and said not to touch the mines but report it to any IFOR soldier. We found seven mines in his yard, one that was exposed and six buried in a circle around it. That child is probably alive today only because of a friendly gesture of a coloring book and a small pack of crayons.
Today, the town of Memici is thriving They have rebuilt their homes for the most part. The school is once again open and the children are playing. Someday soon they hope to be able to play soccer on the school field, after the mines have been cleared. People still come to the checkpoint. Sometimes just to look. Sometimes just to offer a word of thanks; to give an occasional hug or kiss to the lonely soldier who helped them rebuild their dreams. That lonely soldier who wants to go home but realizes he is here for a purpose. If that purpose is only to see smiles and laughter. Maybe hear and occasional nighttime prayer or the chance to see a little girl, clutching a worn doll and riding a small rusty tricycle.
Robert E. Anderson
Robert Anderson is a Staff Sergeant in the U.S. Army. He has served in the Army for 12 years and is a veteran of Desert Storm. He spent 11 months in Bosnia, 5 of which were at Checkpoint Charlie. He is currently stationed in Fort Lewis Washington. Robert has a wife, Alexandra and two children , Sean (6) and Carrie (8).
Photo Credits: 1) Robert Anderson in front of a tank, by SSG Simpson. 2) Rock, the dog who became their mascot, by Andy. 3) Robert Anderson talking to townspeople about land mines, through barbed wire, by Andy.