Bosnia close-up and personal

An American election supervisor learns some complicated lessons -- and ends up being evacuated -- during a week with Bosnian Serbs

Published October 7, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

indicted war criminal Radovan Karadzic was my neighbor for a week. That is, until I was unofficially evacuated from the Pale region by NATO peacekeeping forces.

I got the crazy idea of heading to a war-torn country after seeing a slide show put on by a fellow Peace Corps volunteer. She had helped with the Bosnian presidential elections last year and raved about her experience. I was hooked and called the State Department -- and this August, almost a year after I'd applied, was accepted to assist with the September municipal elections.

Two weeks later I was on a charter flight with 200 other American supervisors, descending over Split, Croatia -- the most reliable airport in the region. The barren, rocky mountains below looked harsh and menacing -- a scenery that fit my mood. After 11 hours of reading about Bosnia's turbulent history, I didn't have a good feeling about the emerging peace process.

Upon landing, we were greeted by representatives of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the group responsible for implementing a fair election in Bosnia. OSCE had hired 2,400 international election supervisors to oversee the voting activities in 2,300-plus polling stations. The elections were being held to elect municipal councils for government at the local level. OSCE was processing supervisors as they landed, with no word of where we'd be placed in Bosnia.

With the luck of the draw, I was assigned Bus No. 2 along with 41 other supervisors. My bus was going to the Sokolac region of the Bosnian Serb Republic, an area directly east of Sarajevo. I rechecked my assignment. Yes, I was headed to the Serb Republic.

Bosnia is currently one state split into two entities: the Serb Republic and the Bosnian-Croat Federation. The Serb Republic encompasses the eastern and northern parts of Bosnia, regions that are now predominantly populated by Serbs. The rest of the country makes up the Federation, where the majority of Muslims and Croats now live. I knew that all of the parties involved in the war -- the Bosnian Croats, Muslims and Serbs -- had committed atrocities and that there were innocent victims on all sides. But most of the articles I'd read indicated that Serbian forces were responsible for the vast majority of war crimes and that they were attempting to create an ethnically "pure" state. Serbian political leader Karadzic had led these forces. Now, as an indicted war criminal charged with genocide, he was no longer allowed to hold a political seat. But he hadn't been arrested and, in effect, was still in power.

And here we were, a bus load of Americans headed toward Karadzic's stronghold Pale ("PAH-lay"), the de facto capital of the Serb Republic. This was a mere few weeks after NATO forces had helped support his prior puppet, Serb Republic President Biljana Plavsic, who had recently broken ranks with him. I couldn't imagine Sokolac Serbs rolling out the welcome mat.

As the countryside passed by, I pushed these concerns out of my mind and concentrated on being impartial. The rockier hills in the south gave way to rolling green mountains dotted with red-tile-roofed houses. Cows, sheep and horses grazed in fields, and laundry blew from lines strung in front yards. Bosnia was beautiful.

We soon started to pass villages ravaged by the war. Broken foundations of homes littered the hills, with roofs crashed in and windows bombed out. I thought this destruction -- like the majority documented by the U.S. media -- was the result of clashes between Bosnian Muslims and Serbs. But some of my fellow supervisors quickly corrected me: This area's ruination was due to fighting between Muslims and Croats.

Our bus continued to wind through Federation valleys headed toward the Serb Republic. Though we were traveling through a single country, it felt like we were visiting two -- or even three! -- in eight hours. When we stopped at a cafe in a Muslim area for a break, I said in the native language that I didn't speak Serbian, did they speak English? That was my first faux pas. I was in a Muslim town where they don't call the language "Serbian." Depending on the location of a rest stop, we would buy drinks with Bosnian dinar, Croatian kuna or eventually Serbian dinar. Cars on the road had Federation or Serb Republic license plates. Postal systems are separate. Even phone calls currently can't be made between the entities. Though the Inter-Entity Border Line (IEBL) isn't painted on the ground or blocked off by barricades, it is most definitely a border that is not crossed lightly.

Around 11 p.m. we finally pulled into a hotel parking lot in Jahorina, a ski area about six miles south of Pale. We stumbled into the lobby and were greeted by a band in the lounge next door belting out "Country Roads." A group of what I took to be young Serbians were dancing up a storm. I couldn't believe my eyes or ears. Then I asked one and found out they were Latvian and Lithuanian election supervisors who had arrived the previous day.

I was exhausted after more than 30 hours of continuous travel and was very pleased to see our rooms were Spartan but comfortable -- and that the bathroom sported a white porcelain toilet. I set my alarm for 8 a.m. -- no jet lag allowed on this trip!

The morning began with a slide of a mangled, bloody body with no arms or legs -- the introductory image in our first course, Mine Awareness Training. We handled defused anti-personnel and anti-tank mines to hammer in the two golden rules: If you didn't drop it, don't pick it up, and don't drive on anything but asphalt roads. This session was followed by an OSCE trainer who announced that many of us would be assigned to polling stations accessible only by dirt roads -- but that these were completely safe. The mine awareness trainers simply raised their eyebrows. The refrain of "Country Roads" drifted through my mind.

Over the next two days, I learned more about election procedures than I ever cared to know. Finally, on Wednesday, our group of 42 was split into three groups to cover the polling stations in the Sokolac region. One group was headed to the city of Sokolac, another to Serb Ilidza and the third to Pale. I was part of this third group, and by this time I was so ready to leave the isolation of the hotel that a trip to Pale sounded like a trip to Bali. Better yet, I'd found out that my polling station was in a nearby village accessible by a paved road. My assigned driver ushered me, my interpreter and another supervisor/interpreter pair into the Volkswagen Golf that OSCE had rented for the occasion. Then we took off down the hill to another hotel, but this time right outside of Pale.

Pale is a mountain hamlet that has become a city as a result of the post-war population explosion. The center of town is made up of a dozen streets, some lined with apartment buildings, others with stores. Surrounding this center are clusters of homes, again with red-tile roofs. Beyond these is Bosnia's signature countryside -- rolling green fields, grazing cows, multi-story, cream-colored farmhouses.

The general atmosphere in the town center was tense. U.N. jeeps and NATO-led Stabilization Force (SFOR) military vehicles regularly drove by. Locals averted their eyes when we walked through town, identified as election supervisors by our badges. Buildings were plastered with posters of Karadzic's face with "Leave Him Alone!" and "Don't Touch Him!" written in English at the bottom. A few Cyrillic campaign posters for the Serbian Democratic Party (known as SDS) featured his mug -- which, incredibly, ended up being the basis for our later evacuation. Election regulations forcefully stated that no indicted war criminal was to be associated with a political party, and though we were unaware of this at the time, SDS was clearly violating the rules.

In contrast to the cold shoulder I felt in the city center, our interpreters and drivers -- mostly Serbian refugees from Sarajevo -- were warm and friendly. They walked the streets with us, took us to the market and showed us the best restaurants and cafes. I couldn't help but wonder what the rest of Pale thought of us, but the Serbs working for OSCE never made me feel unwelcome.

The first few days in Pale were set aside for us to orient ourselves and meet our polling station committee. I spent many hours in the Cities Cafe, a two-story building with a front wall of glass windows looking out on the main town square. Over Turkish coffee, I learned that many of the current Pale residents are refugees from Sarajevo.

Sarajevo is a cosmopolitan city, with pedestrian streets, night life, tall buildings and historical monuments. It's a mere 11 miles from Pale, but is on the Federation side of the border. Though Sarajevo is now officially open to all Bosnians, most Serbs no longer feel safe or welcome. The vast majority left the city during the war because they feared for their safety. Now, those displaced to Pale feel like they're living in the countryside, a drastic change from the city life they were used to.

Most of the male Serbs I met had yet to return, fearing arrest or harassment, but some female Serbs I met had returned for day visits. On Jelena's first visit, she went to her former home in Sarajevo and discovered that another family now lives in her apartment. As she stared at the building, a woman stepped out, wearing one of Jelena's coats. Her family had had only 10 minutes to leave the apartment during the war, she told me, and the coat was one of many belongings left behind and now "owned" by a stranger.

Milena had also returned. Though she misses her former Muslim friends, she said, she has decided not to visit them. "I lived with Muslims. My friends were Muslims. But now ... my father was killed in the war. They killed him. My friend's father was killed in the war. We are sad, but we can no longer look each other in the eye." She turned to me with a fierce but sorrowful look. "It is crazy. Five years of war and now we're supposed to live together."

At times, even while experiencing the warmth and kindness of the Serbs, I felt conflicting emotions. These feelings were most evident during a conversation about the bombing of Sarajevo by Serb forces during the war. I was sitting among people I genuinely enjoyed -- then someone began to talk about the hill from which he and fellow soldiers had lobbed artillery shells onto the city. Clearly, he felt this destruction was justified, but other voices supported reintegration. "I don't want to live here any longer; our country is ruined," said one. "But I won't leave because we need people here who want to stop the fighting and rebuild a country that includes us all."

On Friday, we drove up through the mountains to the center of my assigned village, a one-room schoolhouse with a small store below. Two posters hung on the wall: a picture of a one-handed boy doing schoolwork, and another showing different types of mines -- in hopes that no other children would pick one up.

My chairperson Dragan introduced me to the four other polling station committee members, and we reviewed their roles. Slobodan was to stand at the door with a UV light checker. He would check voters' fingernails when they entered; if someone had already voted, the nail of the right forefinger would be purple, having been sprayed by a special chemical when they received their ballot. Petar sat at a table right inside the door. He would collect registration slips, check voters' IDs and have them sign the Final Voters Registrar. Farina was at the next table, ready to spray each voter's nail and hand them a ballot. Voters would then disappear behind a voting screen, check their desired party, fold the ballot and drop it in the ballot box. Radoslav would guard the box.

Voting ran from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., Saturday and Sunday. Our station had only about 300 registered voters, so our days were slow. We passed the time talking, waiting and drinking -- for me, excellent Turkish kavu with a bit of sugar already boiled in and rakija, homemade Serbian brandy, for the men and their friends who stopped by.

Voters slowly drifted in. Old women dressed in mourning black came in full skirts, cardigans and the ever present head scarf. One elderly man arrived in traditional dress: knickers, a wool vest, a high fur hat and medals pinned to his chest. A rush of five voters came on the 4-o'clock bus, with their skirts, heels and button-down shirts marking the end of their workday in town.

In between voters' arrivals, our conversation regularly returned to the Serbs' concern about the picture painted of them by the international press. They felt it was unfair and biased, and couldn't understand why they had been portrayed as monsters in a war filled with monstrosities committed by all involved. I had no answer.

Sunday evening, Dragan emptied the ballot box on the table in front of both SDS and Radical party observers. The Radical Party, another Serbian party, had surprised and impressed me with their organized campaigning in town and their strict observation of the voting. Dragan read out the party marked on each ballot, which Radoslav confirmed and Farina tallied. SDS and the Radicals were at times neck and neck, which clearly pleased some committee members and concerned others. The few votes for Muslim parties elicited gasps and titters. When the last ballot was read, SDS ended up taking a majority of the votes, but the Radical Party had held its own with a close second.

Clean-up turned into a party. Some committee members were grinning about SDS's victory, while others were smiling over the Radicals' good showing. And they all knew it was now time to get paid. I distributed the deutsche marks and shook each hand. One committee member instead grabbed my face and fervently kissed each cheek, saying, "Thank you. Thank you. I haven't been paid in months, and I just made almost a month's salary in two days." I'd paid the equivalent of $55.

On Monday evening, the day after the election, an OSCE official arrived at our hotel and told us that the Elections Appeals Subcommission had decided to disqualify the SDS party from the election results in Pale. This was due to those SDS campaign posters that had featured Karadzic's picture and to the fact that Karadzic clearly was maintaining a leadership role in the party, in direct violation of the election rules. The international community had convinced the subcommission to hold off on the announcement until OSCE could remove the international supervisors -- us! -- from the region, realizing the decision could spark renewed violence. Plans were underway to transport us back to Split. NATO SFOR forces were standing guard a block away, holding floor plans of the hotel in case of a crisis. We were told not to leave the hotel and not to tell any locals of the decision as it could compromise our security.

A bus arrived Tuesday afternoon, with supervisors from the rest of the Sokolac region already on board. Our interpreters and drivers still had no idea why we were leaving so quickly or why we had an escort of three SFOR vehicles -- with soldiers popping out the tops to man the machine guns.

In Split the next morning we learned that Robert Frowick, head of OSCE in Bosnia, had overturned the subcommission judge's ruling. He cited fear for the safety of the election observers in the area and concern for ruining the potential for major progress in the peace process from the elections. His decision most likely averted a major crisis, but at the high cost of making indirect concessions to an indicted war criminal.

Clearly, no issue in Bosnia is simple -- even friendship. I learned this firsthand, along with many other eye-opening lessons about the complexities of war and the subsequent difficulty of rebuilding lives. My new friend Ana summed it up best: "We must just simply hold on to the peace."

By Debbie DeVoe

Debbie DeVoe is a freelance writer who lives in San Francisco.

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