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An inspiring story of dedication, but badly needed better editing
on 6 June 2014
This is in many ways an exasperating book, which is a great pity, because the story it tells, of Sally Becker’s heroic work with refugees during the Bosnian War of 1992/5 and the Kosovo War in 1998/9 is such a remarkable one.
The situation in Bosnia at this time was complicated enough: Serbs, Croats and Muslims were all fighting each other, and a multitude of international organizations – charities and several United Nations agencies - were also involved. But there are additional confusions in her account of her experiences: she bombards the reader with place names without indicating where they are (there are many photographs, but no map of Bosnia); with initials such as ECMM or UNPROFOR without explaining what they stood for (UNPROFOR stands for United Nations Protection Force and Sally Becker is scathing about its unwillingness - not its inability - to do any protecting); and with more names of the many individuals whom she met or with whom she worked than I at least can remember. Her account is often very hard to follow. There are masses of details, but at the same time there is frequently an absence of details that I thought were really needed. The book badly needed a much tougher editor than it had. The three stars of this review reflect that, rather than the inspirational matter of the book.
For we can be no doubt about her incredible and unwearying determination, her well-nigh insane courage, her achievements and the frustrations and dangers she faced.
In Bosnia Sally operated from a base in Medjugorje in Croatian-controlled territory, where there was a refugee camp run by a charity whose Croat name means “sunflowers”. It lies 25 kms South-West of Mostar which was at that time a divided city: the Croats controlled the West, and some 55,000 people, mainly Muslims, were besieged in its eastern half.
A Catholic relief organization called The Medjugorje Appeal sent a lot of aid material and medical supplies, to be distributed in the area. Sally took some of the medical supplies to a Jewish organization and to a hospital in West Mostar. She seems to have been the only aid worker who had managed to secure a pass from Dr Ivan Bagaric, the Head of the Croatian Military Health Authority, which allowed her free access to West Mostar.
Although willing to help victims from all the ethnic groups, it so happened that most of her work involved the rescue of Muslims. It began with her smuggling a Muslim woman from West Mostar out of the country. She was then asked by a member of the United Nations Civil Police (UNCIPOL) to use her connections with Dr Bagaric to allow a three year old Muslim boy with a serious heart condition to cross the lines from East Mostar. To her amazement Dr Bagaric authorized here to evacuate not only this little boy, but all the sick and wounded children in East Mostar and their mothers. The Croats would arrange a brief cease-fire, allow UNPROFOR to convoy some aid trucks to enter East Mostar and allow her to take the children out in an ambulance. (I found the details of this account very unclear, and hope I have got them right.) She gives a horrific description of the wounded children in an East Mostar hospital. She doesn’t say how many children fitted into the ambulance with which she drove back to Medjugorje (where the press gave her the name of “the Angel of Mostar”). At any rate she needed to go back to bring out two more wounded children; again she got permission and a cease-fire was promised, though this time her ambulance was fired on on the way in; but she made it safely back with one child (the other had already died. Amazingly, the UN at first refused to allow the ambulance into their compound; they subsequently explained their behaviour by saying they had to be neutral and accused Sally of spying! This of course imperilled any future activities of hers. She went in a third time and endured several days of bombardment, at the end of which time she had to leave without any more children: bureaucracy from ALL sides had frustrated her.
She returned to England, now famous enough to start an organization called Operation Angel, to raise an immense amount of money, and to return to Bosnia with 56 ambulances and trucks, 270 volunteers and over £1 million worth of medical aid.
Again there were huge problems when they arrived in Croatia and Bosnia, especially with the UN which had become very hostile to Sally. The UN was no longer blocking rescue, but was now competing with her for getting the credit for rescue operations and blaming her for getting in the way. It briefed against her, and even some of the volunteers she had recruited turned against her. Sally did not improve matters by the way she reacted. Even so there were two rescue operations, the UN getting 98 children out, and Sally, in a private operation bringing out, after a lot of obstruction, 55 wounded children from Nova Bila, a place in the North of Bosnia where Croats were besieged by Muslims.
The Dayton Peace Accord in 1995 ended the fighting in Bosnia; and Sally promptly went to Chechnya to see whether she could help there. But when a new war broke out in Kosovo in 1998, Sally again raised funds for aid there and set out with a convoy of 30 vehicles to bring aid to Kosovo.
Later that year, in another operation, she brought aid for Kosovan refugees who had fled into Albania. She had been refused a visa to enter Kosovo again; so she crossed illegally, with a column of Kosovan soldiers based in Albania, with the intention of bringing out some refugees who were trapped in a forest near the border town of Junik which was likely to fall to a Serb offensive. Three Italian journalists tagged along with them. They led a group of children and their parents (she does not tell us how many) into the wooded mountains that made the border when they came under fire from the Serbs. Sally and one of the mothers with her two children surrendered and they were taken prisoner. The soldiers did not see the others in the group, who made it into Albania, from where the Italian journalists publicized her arrest. She was brutally interrogated, as the Serbs claimed she was a spy. Perhaps they believed her, and they soon knew that the world now knew the Angel of Mostar had been taken prisoner. She was sentenced to 30 days for having illegally crossed the border.
In prison she went on hunger strike as a protest against the continuing Serb attacks in Kosovo. After some days of this, she was pardoned by the President of Serbia and deported. She does not tell us how many days she had spent in the prison. But she was soon back, with yet another convoy to Albania to bring aid to Kosovan refugees there. This time she was injured when her vehicle was seized by Albanian bandits.
Later, in a town called Bajram Curri near the Kosovo border, she had gathered children who needed hospital treatment and had arranged for them to be flown out to hospitals in the UK and US; but again bureaucracy UN and Foreign Office bureaucracy thwarted her at the very last moment. That same night she was shot in the leg by a masked soldier who then disappeared. She refused to be flown to a Tirana hospital for treatment because she would not let the children behind, though after many days she had to return to England without them. There she managed to permission for one little girl to come for treatment in the UK “on condition that she came alone”. So she flew back once more to bring the little girl out.
The book ends with an epilogue recounting what has happened since to many of the children she brought out and to some of the people with whom she worked.