Crash course in how to make a sorry spectacle

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The Independent Online
"Where exactly did you crash the vehicle, Sir?"

"On Route Triangle, about seven clicks north of Redoubt."

In other words, at about the highest point on the 25-mile stretch of mountain road out of Bosnia, four miles north of the small Wild West-style log fort manned by the Royal Engineers and occasional visitors.

It wasn't quite one's worst nightmare, but close.

"I don't suppose you know a local recovery firm here in Tomislavgrad who might be able to bring the vehicle down here?"

"Oh, I think we can do better than that ..."

Captain Duncan Bedding of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers workshop, which maintains and repairs the vehicles of 21 Regiment, Royal Engineers, who maintain and repair the mountain road, took the details.

"We'll send out a recovery vehicle at about six.... It should be back here by nightfall. Why don't you go to the cookhouse and get yourself a cup of tea? You've had a shock".

As we strolled, we talked. Capt Bedding had been in Bosnia about seven weeks.

"It's busy," he said. "Very busy. And it's for real. You're lucky. Because it's Sunday, we have recovery vehicles around.''

The road - one of only two routes into and out of central Bosnia - had been vastly improved in the previous two years, but was still treacherous in snow or, as in this case, after torrential rain. The steep slopes on either side were littered with wrecked trucks and buses.

At about 3.30pm, everything was fine. The next minute, the car was wrapped round a tree and a giant spider had cast a web across the buckled windscreen. It would not move. Oh dear.

The rule here is never travel alone - even though it has been peaceful for the last 15 months since the Muslim-Croat ceasefire. My colleague in the car ahead, finding himself alone, returned to find the sorry spectacle.

The first stop was Redoubt, where two soldiers agreed to bring a Land Rover to pull the car out of the tree and get it off the road.

"You Okay? Do you need to see a medic?"

I promised I would see one later. The priority was to get the car somewhere safe before nightfall. By next morning the seemingly deserted forest would have spawned pillagers.

The car off the road, we headed for Tomislavgrad, the big British army base at the foot of the mountain road where bits of 24 Airmobile Brigade are to be based. Here, the Army has installed telephones, part of the Croatian network which take standard Croatian phonecards. Luckily, I had one. Here, at least, contact could be made with the car company and the newspaper.

The car hire firm said they would send a recovery vehicle from Split as far as Tomislavgrad, which lies in the Croat-populated territory of Herzegovina. The Army, meanwhile, would bring it down from the mountain.

The day had started well. The first of the British artillery to reinforce the garrison in central Bosnia had headed north up the road that morning, and we had met them on Makljen ridge, on the other side of the mountain crossing. A full company - 13 Warrior fighting vehicles - of the Devonshire and Dorset Regiment had been out picketing the route. The locals were not averse to misappropriating things painted white, and nobody wanted to lose six light guns, range: 11 miles. Other units had been straddling the route, too, possibly liaising with the local commanders.

At least, file the story, I thought. With the subsequent loss of the car, it could well be one of our most expensive ever.

Halfway through, the phonecard was finished, and the call broke off. There were no new cards on sale in the camp - the next delivery was on Tuesday.

"They're like gold dust," explained the sergeant major.

"Maybe someone's got a half- used one they'd sell you."

None of the military police sipping tea in the cookhouse had one.

"Try the bar", they said.

A young woman was playing pool.

"Have this one," she said. "I don't need it.''

"How much are they"

"I don't know. Just take it. You're not going to write rubbish about us, are you?"

I promised I would not. Another few minutes' dictation, and that mission, at least, was accomplished.

At about 8.30pm, as night was falling, the Reme recovery vehicle appeared, bearing the broken car. They transferred it to the truck that had come up from Split and would carry it and its bruised driver back home.

At the border, Croatian customs checked the documents of the damaged car. They laughed, knowingly, and waved us on.

At about midnight, I reached the comfort of the hotel in Split where I usually stayed. I explained the sad tale.

"But you are all right. That is all that matters. A car - it is just a car."

Everyone had been so kind. The car hire firm, the Croatian customs, the hotel and, above all, the Army. They gave their time off, their effort, their phonecards, all for nothing. And the first to the rescue would not even let my friend take their photograph. Shy people, these knights in white armour.