A war without mercy

Revelations: The time: March 1994 The place: Maglaj, Bosnia The man: Mike Curtis, soldier
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
When the SAS went to Bosnia, we had two objectives. The first was to map the frontlines between the ethnic factions: the Bosnian army, the Bosnian Serbs and the Bosnian Croats. They were spread out all over the place, and the UN peace-keepers had no idea where they all were.

The second objective was to get in to some of the enclaves, such as Maglaj, and report the truth, because there was a lot of disinformation going round about malnutrition, torture, starvation, atrocities.

The question was - how? Maglaj was a Muslim enclave in the north. The River Bosna runs north-south through Maglaj - that was a good plan, maybe go down that in a canoe, but the Serbs had mined that river. One interpreter had lost her husband that way - he tried swimming out and he'd been shot.

The other way was to drive in - but the road was mined and they'd blown the bridge. We were going to use infra-red headlights and night goggles - that was put on hold as well.

We were going to parachute in: that would have been the best plan but apparently that's against UN regulations.

So we decided to use a helicopter - bearing in mind the Serbs had surface to air missiles (SAMs) up there. It was a Sea King manned by Norwegian pilots, really brave lads. The first night the choppers got shot at really badly and had to turn back.

The second night they went in and the tail rotor was hit by a SAM - the boys debussed and the pilots turned round. But the Serbs thought the boys were Muslims and the Muslims thought they were Serbs, so everybody was shooting at them. They went into a hole in the ground, waiting all night, under intense fire. In the morning they surrendered to the Muslims and said they were from the UN.

What the lads found out was that people were very, very low on food but it wasn't malnutrition as the outside world had thought.

Within 24 hours we had another two guys walk in through the Croat lines without telling the Croats. My patrol was still hoping to drive in. A deal had gone on between the Serbs and Croats that is shrouded in mystery, but left the Croats holding a check-point on the road.

We told the Croats we had guys inside Maglaj and radioed ahead and told the guys to come and meet us. The Croats couldn't believe it, but the road was opened: a day later the UN was in there with food trucks.

But the Muslim fighters didn't want us. What we had done was to take away a lot of their glory, because they'd been defending the town. I can see their point of view looking back now. But they needed us there, to put up the communications systems that enabled the UN to air-drop food supplies.

The women and children were really chuffed, we were like pied pipers: when they'd see us going to the football pitch at night they'd know there was food coming. The fighters were all hanging round in groups and as we walked past they'd run out behind us and fire in the air. It was a bit unnerving.

You wouldn't actually hear the planes because they were flying at 14,500ft, to avoid the SAMs, but you would hear the parachutes deploying. They'd throw the stuff out the back over the football pitch and you'd hear the whip, crack and you knew the chute was opening. They'd drop huge pallets, the size of three pianos, filled with the basics. The townspeople were going out with candles in cut-away tin cans, because they didn't have torches, so the Serbs were actually shooting to the left of the lights - because most people are right-handed - and shooting women and children looking for food. Tragic.

The enclave had 40,000 people in it, a valley running north-south encircled by high ground, seven-eighths held by Serbs armed with mortars, heavy guns, basically shelling randomly. It was horrific. The Croats held one- eighth, and the enclave was about 3 or 4km wide at its widest part.

Everyone had little allotments, they'd scurry out, get what they could and come back in. One of our lads caught hepatitis from the water - they were getting it from hand-pumps, all brown. There was no running water at all, pretty horrific conditions to be living in. But the Muslims survived all that.

I find it incredible to think they spent years waiting, it took us so long to get down there and stop it. In the Gulf war we were there in a second - but I guess there's no oil in Bosnia.

And it was a funny time for me - I was going through a divorce and I'd been in the army for 17 years. The army was a wonderful life for me, but down in Bosnia - some of the atrocities I witnessed down there, I thought, let's call it a day. It was just so futile - we went into one village and there were corpses with no heads.

In other wars I've been in it was soldiers fighting soldiers; down there, it was women and children getting involved.

In Zavidovici, they'd got bombed by the same Serb guns firing on Maglaj, there was a woman killed collecting potatoes with her grandchildren, who were all cut to shreds. We got them to hospital but the grandmother died on the way. The physical scars on the children will heal, but the mental ones won't.

I had another four years to go for my pension, but there was a lot of sickening things down there, and I felt, enough's enough.

I started writing this book before the Gulf war. I had first heard of the SAS in the library in Ferndale, in the Rhondda Valley, where I grew up. Hopefully, some kid somewhere will pick this book up and get inspired, like I did

Interview by Emma Daly

`Close Quarter Battle' by Mike Curtis is published this month by Bantam Press at pounds 16.99.

Comments