UN troops battle behind language barriers: Robert Fisk in Sarajevo finds brave men in blue helmets are being hindered in their duties because they speak in different tongues

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE GIFT of tongues; that is what we lacked on the road to Dobrinja. Sergeant Olivier Delmer of the French army and Corporal Alexander Folo of the Ukrainian army were both professional soldiers. But they could not talk to each other. 'Yes' and 'no', in English, were about the only words they had in common.

So when Cpl Folo, nodding vigourously, agreed to lead the French across the Sarajevo front lines, Sgt Delmer knew - or thought he knew - what his role would be. As the shells fell around the United Nations headquarters in Sarajevo, it was understood that he would drive behind Cpl Folo's Russian-built armoured personnel carrier through the shell-stricken suburb of Dobrinja, cut across the international airport runway, traverse two Serbian front lines and arrive at the Croat-held Bosnian village of Kiseljak to collect a Unicef delegation - without getting killed on the way.

The renewed fighting around the Sarajevo suburb of Stup had closed the UN's usual route to the Serbian front line at Ilidja. Sgt Delmer had not travelled the road through Dobrinja but Cpl Folo knew how to get there. That was why the French were going to follow the Ukrainians. To the crack of small arms fire - for Serbs and Bosnians are fighting at close quarters in the block of apartments next to the UN headquarters - we drove cheerfully out of the compound towards Vojvode Putnika and the notorious 'sniper's alley', a desolate boulevard inhabited by abandoned tramcars and unspoken fears. The Ukrainians sped along at 30mph. The French followed 20 feet behind.

No one who has placed his life in the hands of good-humoured soldiers should appear churlish once the danger is over. In a narrative which is to contain elements of farce as well as frustration, it is necessary to express admiration for Sgt Delmer and Cpl Folo - and gratitude to their respective commanding officers, who allowed a not uncritical correspondent to share their little convoy. Sgt Delmer was a crew-cut 28-year-old from Paris, Cpl Folo a former Soviet soldier from Kiev with bright blue eyes. Good guys. We shared their danger. They shared our cigarettes.

Through the light armour of Sgt Delmer's Panhard, we could just hear the crash of Serbian shells as Cpl Folo led us south into Dobrinja, the shattered Sarajevo housing estate opposite the Serbian lines outside the airport. Adnan Abdul Rezak, the UN's Palestinian-born civil affairs adviser, bounced along inside the vehicle, a fixed, unhappy smile on his face. The two French conscripts peered uneasily through their armoured hatches. Then we stopped. 'We get an escort of Bosnian police here,' Sgt Delmer announced. But we did not.

A Bosnian militiaman with passable French knocked politely at the reinforced window opposite Sgt Delmer's head. 'Monsieur,' he said gently. 'Nobody told us you were coming . . . We cannot lead you to the front line without permission.' Sgt Delmer thought he had permission - or at least, he thought the Ukrainians had permission.

The Ukrainians spoke no English or French and the two Slavic languages of Ukrainian and Serbo-Croat were not close enough to enable the Bosnians and Ukrainians to discuss the road to the front line. Artillery fire crashed and thumped around the housing estate. Snipers' bullets thwacked past the houses. 'If we take a tank round, we're fucked,' one of the conscripts muttered in French.

The two conscripts rammed ammunition clips into their automatic rifles. Sgt Delmer's radio crackled. UN operations had spoken to the Bosnian authorities. We could drive through Dobrinja to the lines near the airport. A blue-and-white 'Milicja' car materialised and the two armoured vehicles chased after it through narrow laneways fringed with orchards and wooden fences. Then the car disappeared.

The Ukrainians reversed. So did Sgt Delmer. The Ukrainians took a right turn. Sgt Delmer followed. 'I don't think the Ukrainians know what we're trying to do,' the second conscript said dismally. The shellfire could now clearly be heard through our armour. Sgt Delmer radioed UN operations. 'I can see the airport perimeter wire and a gate.' Ops replied: 'That's it, go through the gate.' Sgt Delmer paused. 'I can't,' he said. 'It's locked.'

A UN officer in the airport terminal radioed to Sgt Delmer that he should lead the Ukrainians along the perimeter of the airport. Sgt Delmer signalled to the Ukrainians to follow him. Then he stopped again. Across the road we could see a cluster of familiar, ominous, plate-sized objects. Sgt Delmer turned to look at us with cold eyes. 'Minefield,' he said.

Back we drove down the hot, crackling laneways, back through the Dobrinja estate, back down sniper's alley, our shirts dribbling sweat. Sgt Delmer spoke over the radio then swung on to the old airport road - the boulevard the UN had abandoned because of the Stup fighting.

Shell-holes, mangled buses and trucks, piles of used ammunition cases littered the airport road but the Ukrainians and French drove round them at speed. Then we stopped. 'Serbs,' Mr Rezak said quietly.' Someone shouted at Sgt Delmer. 'Open the doors,' he ordered, and the two French crewmen pushed open the rear hatch. A massive, bearded gunman stood outside, eyeing us suspiciously.

'Passports,' he hissed. We showed our UN press cards. The French soldiers sat motionless and the gunman slapped the back of his hand against the chest of the soldier on the right of the door. He could see the French tricolour flash on the conscript's sleeve, his uniform, his UN beret, his French service rifle. 'Passport,' he said with a roar. The Frenchman showed his identification papers. 'From where?' the gunman demanded, pointing at the un-European features of the civil affairs adviser. 'New Jersey,' he replied. 'You been there?' The bearded man glowered at him then slowly closed the door.

Ten miles through country roads, past red-roofed farm houses and haystacks, we turned into a car park at Kiseljak to await the Unicef delegation behind the Bosnian-Croatian lines. Sgt Delmer and Cpl Folo climbed from their vehicles and smiled at each other in a kind of blind sympathy.

Then both French and Ukrainian crews put their arms around each other's shoulders for a group photograph. It was moving in a weird, eloquent way. Here were members of an international army, operating in great danger but unable to talk to each other, good men with much in common except for the one element so essential in combat: communication. Someone should tell the UN about their problems.

(Photograph omitted)

Comments