(Top photo El-Mujihad Bosnian army brigade)
(A helicopter similar to the one used by Alan Todd at the beginning of the war)
When you think of foreign volunteers in the Bosnian war you're mind probably drifts to pictures of Mujaheddin with a death wish coming from the middle east and the the battlefields of Afghanistan. That's because of strong propaganda coming from Radovan Karadzic and his followers to justify their crimes. Absurd claims by Karadzic that Alija Izetbegovic (war time Bosnian President) wanted to resettle 4 million Mujaheddin in Bosnia during the war was completely absurd. Same with the claims that 100,000 Islamists came to Bosnia to fight for their Muslim brethren. The reality was quite different as the Bosnian government wanted none of these "volunteers" and repeated many times that there was no need for them and all they wanted was arms to defend themselves (there was an illegal arms embargo placed against Bosnia during the war). In reality in order to receive weapons from the Middle East (a must if they were to defend themselves) then they had to accept a few hundred maybe a thousand "humanitarian workers" who often ended up joining Mujihad units. They were unreliable, unstable and did more harm than good for the Bosnians generally.
There was another side to this foreign volunteers that haven't been properly explained or given their due in Bosnia. People like my friend Alan Todd and others who came to Bosnia looking for adventure, excitement, defending multiculturalism or some just looking for the opportunity to kill legally (the latter tended to either be killed rather quickly or fleeing like cowards). Many European volunteers went to defend Croatia in 1991 in HV and HOS units against the Serbian JNA, RSK and VRS. When a shaky truce settled in Croatia, many moved onto Bosnia and they ended up in similar units. When the HVO and ARBiH split in 1993 many former colleagues ended up on opposite sides of the front lines, a strange confluence of events that brought former friends into direct armed conflict.
Alan was none of the former, he was someone by circumstance found himself in the middle of the Siege of Sarajevo at the beginning of the war. He was neither a volunteer or a recruit, he was more of an example of someone, like so many in Bosnia swept up into the tide of war that was consuming Bosnia with the appetite of a Tsunami and leaving similar carnage and destruction in it's wake.
Alan's story at the beginning reminds me of the Mel Gibson character in Air America, a man a bit off kilter, ending up in a bizarre surreal situation (ironic because of the Bosnians love of surrealism). It then tilts into a much darker, hopeless realm of the battle on the front lines in Dobrinja 1992. For those lacking in understanding of the Siege of Sarajevo, Dobrinija was hell on earth in 1992. It was cut off from the rest of the Siege lines in Sarajevo (a siege within a siege) was situated right on the front lines and was attacked by the fourth largest army in Europe (the Serbian JNA/VRS). Dobrinja was partially occupied by the Serbian VRS and was just across the road from the heavily contested Aerodrom (airport) Sarajevo. If you have ever seen the pictures of what these buildings ended up looking like during the war, you would never forget it. The Siege of Sarajevo and the fighting in Dobrinja, it was hell on earth and a hopeless situation. How one could survive a situation that looked liked the 10th circle of hell from Dante's inferno is beyond me.
The end result and the sad story is Alan left Bosnia with little acknowledgement for his contribution to the Bosnian war effort, like all Western volunteers who fought for Bosnia. Unlike their brethren who fought for Croatia whose war efforts were recognized and rewarded. Those who defended Bosnia have never been given the proper dues they deserve. In fact CFIVA (Croatian Forces International Volunteers Association) recognizes those who defended Bosnia by fighting in the HVO and ARBiH the same as those who defended their motherland of Croatia. While Bosnia has done nothing to recognize or reward her defenders. It is a shame that such a situation has become the norm in Bosnia. More than anything the murky situation of Mujidhadeens has led to this overlooking of her defenders (and the total disorganization present in the ARBiH in 1992-93). It is a long overdue process that their should be some level of acknowledgment by the Bosnian government after 20 years for these volunteers who defended Bosnia with their blood, sweat and lives. It is a shame that those who risked everything to defend Bosnia at her birth have no acknowledgment of their contributions. That because of the situation with the Mujihadeens who were rewarded with citizenship and given homes and support by certain Bosnian officials, that these brave Westerners who fought to defend humanity, have been given nothing in return, no official acknowledgment, no plaques, no monuments no official or unofficial recognition at all.
Alan's contribution to Bosnia at it's birth, in the middle of the faultiness as she was starting to crack under the pressure of nationalism, deserves a better fate than this. A man who has participated in the last defense of humanity in the 20th century, on the verge of the 20 year anniversary, finally deserves at the very least a thank you. From me and all who love Bosnia for what it stands for, humanity, civility, multiculturalism, tolerance. I want to say to you and all who defended Bosnia while the international community poured gasoline on it and Milosevic, Karadzic and Mladic lit the match, thank you. Thank you for not being a capo at the concentration camp, choosing who lives and who dies, or turning your back on Bosnia the ideal and what that means for humanity. Most Bosnians fought because they had to, out of fear of total annihilation, like what we saw in Srebrenica and all over Bosnia. Others fought for an idea, that multiculturalism, civility, a shared common humanity must be defended at all costs.
In the current climate of mistrust, hate and fear that gives birth to a madman in Norway who praises Putin and Karadzic and curses Bosnia and all it stands for. Your stance in the defense of humanity is just as important today, as it was 20 years ago. Once again, thank you from me and all who love and defend the ideal of Bosnia then and today.
The interview with Alan Todd follows....
Q) When and under what circumstances did you arrive in Bosnia?
I arrived as a civilian contractor in March 1992. I was there to help bring in a few helicopters from the former East Germany. We ferried things around, landing at different locations and unloading boxes. It sounds much more exciting and covert than it actually was! All I did was load and unload boxes and people now and then. They could have been anyone. I've no idea really. I've no idea where the helicopters are now either!
Q) How did you end up fighting for the Bosnian government during the war?
When the work ended (it didn't last long), me and a couple of other guys were stuck there. We were given the chance to leave before it got really hot and one guy took it. I decided to stay because in a fit of madness it seemed like a good idea. I don't know why really. It was I suppose a case of wanting to do the right thing, mixed with a bit of adventure.
Q) Did you meet or fight with any other internationals? If so who were they?
There was a Belgian guy called Wit who was contracted with me. He had flown for the Belgian air force in the late 1980's. Wit was killed in 92, other than him I didn't meet anyone at all. I knew there must have been others, but I didn't see them.
Q) In what theatre of operations did you end up serving in?
Being the adventurous sort I ended up in the theatre closest to the airport. My war extended from the airport, right across the road to Dobrinja! So my theatre was I guess Dobrinja, Mojmilo etc?
Q) what was the specific unit you fought in?
I was with 3 Batt Dobrinja Brigade. Part of 12 Division. Our boss was a guy called Hadzic and my section lead was a a guy called Cela. He didn't survive the war.
Q) How did the Bosnian government compensate you during and after the war?
I didn't get anything from them. I am not even sure I was on the army list. I didn't have any wages as such. I did get some money now and then, but not much. And I got nothing afterwards. I'm okay with it. The country has bigger problems than organising my army pension!
Q) When and under what circumstances did you leave Bosnia?
I left in the autumn of 1993. Things were a little easier then and the ethnic make up of 1 korpus was changing a bit. We heard the Serbs had a lot of mercenaries in their units from Romania, Bulgaria, Greece etc and the govt BiH was making a big thing of it. So there was apparently a clear out on our side of foreign volunteers. We knew a guy on the UN side who got me on a plane out.
I've no evidence btw that the Serbs did have foreign fighters or that BiH got rid of their 1 korpus foreigners. You have to understand that nobody got the full picture. I don't think we ever will.
Q) Has the Bosnian government ever recognized your contribution to the defense of the country?
No. I am happy about it and I don't think they will now. It doesn't matter really.
Q) What kind of weapon did you carry during the war?
I had an M70 (similar to a Soviet AK-47). I was lucky that I got hold of one when I was involved in the air side of things. We were really short of weapons though and I know a few guys who rotated their weapons around the unit. I never had enough ammunition or magazines though. I was always looking for spare magazines.
Q) What is your most memorable experience of the war?
I guess it was actually leaving. I was very tired and emotional by then. I was just relieved that I was going home okay.
Q) What was the scariest moment of the war for you?
Everyday was scary! I got separated once from the rest of my unit. We were very close to the enemy at that time and I thought I was done for. I spent a few hours alone thinking I wouldn't get out of it. I cannot imagine how the civilians held things together. It was a very traumatic time for everyone.
Q) were you ever wounded in combat?
No. Not a scratch. Not good. Just very very lucky.
Q) Did you ever lose someone close to you during the war?
I lost quite a few friends. But then everybody did really. Wit was a nice guy in the time I met him. At first it was very upsetting. But then you just get through it. I still think of them.
Q) Your impression of the ARBiH/HVO/VRS during the war?
I didn't see too much of the HVO really.They were on our left hand side I think more towards the centre really. They seemed okay. The HVO in Sarajevo stayed loyal to us. The enemy (Romania Brigade) were very organised by the look of things. They had lots of heavy weapons that they put in good positions. But they were awful people. There was no need to attack civilians really, but they just kept at it. If we were representative of ABiH we were a mess. The guys were good and very motivated. But we had no support, no decent kit no heavy weapons, no command and control. At first it was a bit chaotic.
Did you ever meet anyone famous? No... no famous people or news agencies near me. We were left well alone!
Q) Did you ever go through the Butmir/Dobrinja tunnel or travel over the airport tarmac?
I went over the tarmac a few times. But only a few. It was really dangerous. I didn't see it myself but I heard people were targeted by the UN as well as the Serbs.
Q) if you could describe the Bosnian war in three words what would they be?
Bosnian war in 3 words? Absolute fucking mess? no you can't use that... What about absolute senseless tragedy?
Q) If you had it all to do over again would you go back to Bosnia and would you change anything about your wartime experience?
Would I go back? I would like to think I would say yes, but I don't know. If it would be exactly the same then I don't know. I don't think I made any difference at all to what happened. Everything was such a mess. I look back and think it was all so sad.