Starting over

Five others who have found a new beginning
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The Independent Culture
Mother courage Carol Grey (left, main picture), aged 51, was a housewife, living with her husband and seven children on the outskirts of Sheffield until the war in Bosnia. A committed Mormon, she now divides her time between home and organising aid convoys to Bosnia's mountainous frontline.

"Four years ago, like most people, I sat watching the nightmare unfolding in Bosnia on the telly. I remember seeing a close-up of an elegant lady who had lost her entire family, and the eyes of this woman - black, haunted, hopeless - just got to me.

I knew what it was like to stare into the abyss. When I was 29 years old and the mother of four daughters, I was diagnosed as having thyroid cancer and told I had weeks to live. I survived against the odds, and went on to have three more children, all sons, which for me was like a second coming. Now, helplessly watching the television every day and weeping, I felt a deep need to try to help these mothers.

But what could I do? I'd never gone anywhere without my husband. I had no university education, no knowledge of politics, no administrative abilities. My only work experience, before I was married, had been as a check-out girl at Marks & Spencer.

So it was a big decision for me when I decided to start an appeal. A local newspaper ran a story about it, and the next thing, the city of Sheffield seemed to explode with giving. A small team assembled around me, and we worked round the clock, bagging, sorting and labelling the goods. In five weeks, we'd packed 28 tons of aid, but just before our truck was due to leave, the charity that had agreed to take it over called to say they had run out of money. I heard of another convoy who were happy to let us join them - provided we supplied our own truck and driver.

I'd had no intention of going into a war zone and delivering the goods myself. I was extremely fearful and did an awful lot of soul-searching, but somehow I came to the conclusion that I had to finish what I had started. My husband was against the idea. But I talked him round, and in the end my 18-year-old daughter, Samantha, came along to look after her mum and we started what was to be the greatest journey of my life.

When we finally reached the Croatia-Bosnia border, the leader of the convoy asked for volunteers willing to take their trucks into a crisis area. My daughter and I looked at each other and shot up our hands. Out of 400 people manning the 110 trucks, very few raised their hands: only later did I realise how naive we'd been.

We drove under black-out, through minefields, and over pontoon bridges made of logs lashed to floating oil drums. I had to direct the truck inch by inch over narrow, slippery, swaying bridges with only the light of the moon to guide me. At one point, we came under sniper fire and a vehicle at the head of the convoy had its windows blown out. It was the most harrowing day of my life, but we just kept on going.

Nothing, though, prepared me for what I saw on the other side. I remember listening to the screams of a boy who had stood on a mine and was having his leg amputated and thinking: next time, bring more medical supplies. I couldn't not return.

Since then, I've organised 21 convoys, taken pounds 4 million-worth of goods, and helped to rebuild homes, dig up mines and plant vegetables, all on a shoestring budget of less than pounds 20,000 a year. I've lived in their burnt- out homes, and many of those people are now my friends.

If life tending to seven children was chaotic, now it's pandemonium. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed and wish I could return to the life I had. But there's no going back. It's like innocence lost.

I've learned to be tough, to hold my own with the border guards who stick guns in my face and attempt to confiscate our goods to sell them on the black market. But, mostly, I've realised that, if I have any talent at all, it's as a mother. I find it easy to put my arms around people and let them know I love them." David Cohen