UN troops spot their national differences: Julian Nundy in Sarajevo finds that the new world order has not succeeded in overcoming some ancient prejudices
Friday 22 January 1993
They semed to have a point, as a burly young man called Billy and his red-eyed chums from the Cheshires lurched about a few yards away while Pavel, Sasha and the two Sergeis remained fragilely upright. The slur, however, incurred the wrath of the French. A clear case of the pot calling the kettle black, blustered a French major (of Laotian origin) when he heard of the charge.
The scene was a Canadian party in the headquarters of the UN Protection Force (Unprofor) in Sarajevo in the city's PTT building, arguably one of the most sinister edifices in the world.
Commonly described as an aquarium or a submarine, the building houses UN officials and staff officers of the three-nation force operating in the Sarajevo sector with the hazardous mission of seeing that the humanitarian aid convoys get through. One side of it gives on to Sniper Alley, the perilous road between the airport and the city. Transport to and fro is by armoured personnel carrier (APC) only. Outdoor dress is formal, bulletproof vests and helmets, and there are no exceptions.
The windows are sandbagged so that daylight never penetrates. Life on the upper floors, therefore, is perceptibly little different from life in the two basements, which were once the underground car park. Now the garage billets soldiers and nurses and accommodates the main UN infirmary.
The general commanding the Sarajevo sector is Egyptian. The deputy commander is a French colonel. The chief of staff is a Ukrainian colonel. Each has a battalion of around 400 soldiers from his home country in the city.
Hundreds more soldiers pass through from bases elsewhere in the war zone. Others are in other parts of the UN effort such as the observer mission or run specific logistics. 'The Kiwi Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina' is written on the room of the Royal New Zealand Air Force.
For the officers of all nations there are sources of permanent bewilderment. One is the UN bureaucracy and operation of a mission where cost seems more important than results. Another is the behaviour of all the others in the building.
For the Ukrainians, there is only one other good lot - the Canadians. The British, they say, are too yobbish, have poor discipline and are clearly in decline. As for the French, they're stuck- up and difficult. 'Froggy is Froggy,' observed Sasha.
For almost everybody else, the source of the most amazement is the Ukrainians. For the French officers whose army fosters a casual officer-men relationship, the way the Ukrainian officers treat their men is the worst. 'They're just Soviets, they've kept that Soviet nomenklatura,' the Laotian- French major said. 'The officers live like kings and the soldiers are in terrible conditions.'
Last week, the Ukrainians celebrated six months in Sarajevo. Normally, they should have been replaced by fresh troops but, so the Ukrainians said, word had not come from Kiev. In the meantime, the officers draw a monthly salary of dollars 600 ( pounds 390) from the UN, a huge amount for Commonwealth of Independent States citizens.
Perhaps the most interesting fact about the Ukrainian battalion is how few of its members are Ukrainians. Of five officers at the party, three were Russians. Ukrainian soldiers talk Russian, not Ukrainian, at mealtimes. Based in Odessa, the officers said they had had a choice between unemployment or an oath of allegiance to the new Ukrainian republic at independence a year ago. 'I live in Odessa with my family. What was I to do?' said one Sergei.
The main talking point about the Ukrainians is that they are enthusiastic black marketeers. One of the best stories is of a Ukrainian dignitary being trapped inside a Ukrainian APC under fire after the vehicle ran out of petrol. The soldiers had sold the petrol. Last week, the Ukrainian army radioed headquarters for fuel when it was accompanying a food convoy in the countryside.
'I do not understand why the escort fell short of gasoline,' a French officer said. 'They asked the French battalion to send them gasoline and I refused.' A French major said Serbian militiamen searched a Ukrainian APC and 'found four or five kilos (11lb) of coffee, UN coffee'. For another French officer, a look at the Ukrainian army had made him question how far Cold War fears were justified. 'Soviet troops were not such a terrible threat,' he said. 'Now we see them working and we are not impressed.'
One of the Sergeis said he felt that the British officers did not enforce discipline properly. 'What are those boys doing here?' he asked, motioning at Billy. 'This is an officers' party.'
'It's true,' said the Laotian- French major, 'that our drinking habits are different. But the British army is a professional army and it is very professional. When I was in Berlin and the French had parties, the British would come and drink like crazy. Their coach- drivers didn't touch a drop, however, and when the order was given to go they would go. On duty, their behaviour is perfect.'
Among the guests last Saturday, as the Russian-Ukrainians were bad-mouthing the French, was Bernard Kouchner, the French Health and Humanitarian Affairs Minister. Mumbling about France's new anti-smoking law, Sasha said: 'Is that their Health Minister? I'm going to ask him for a light.' Mr Kouchner did not have one. The minister said he found Sasha 'un peu particulier'.
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