THE BOSNIA INTERLUDE travel blog

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What we bring with us, when we deploy overseas, and how we conduct ourselves

while we are here, is just as important as the things we leave behind. What

are the good and the bad that we sift through and present to the world as

representative of our culture, our values and our way of life?

I had an opportunity to ponder this question while on my recent trip to Tuzla.

Tuzla is located in the eastern part of Bosnia (I'm sure by the time I return

home, you will all have whipped out your atlases and be as familiar with Bosnia

as I am from my travels!) and is in an area of responsiblity allocated to the

Americans. That presents an ability to compare the two bases - BLMF, where I

am located, and Eagle Base, where the Americans reside.

In making these comments, keep in mind that next year will be the tenth

anniversary of the cessation of hostilities in Bosnia and ten years since there

have been any significant incidents towards international troops.

When we deploy, what is interesting is that we come to an area to assist in

it's rehabilitation, to provide humanitarian assistance, to prevent or

interfere with the resurgence of hostilities, and so forth (put in it's

simplest terms but all of which is debatable, I know, and depends upon the

specific mission mandate). However, in doing so, we don't immerse ourselves in

the culture of the area. For example, BLMF is predominately a British and

Canadian locale and, therefore, we tend to think in many ways in a similar

manner given as we have common cultural backgrounds. We bring with us

trappings of the comforts of home, like little bits of our nations, with which

we can have peace of mind while we are here and, perhaps more importantly,

familiarity. For Canadians, we have Canada House - a building where we can

have Tim Horton's coffee and cappuccinos (no ice caps, alas, but nothing's

perfect!), buy small foodstuffs from a down-sized Canex, play video games and

watch US television (CBC doesn't appear to have made in-roads here).

For the British, they have Brit House with similar ammenities plus the NAFFI

(their version of Canex) where British chocolate bars (see, I told everyone not

to worry!), crisps, magazines, football jerseys, and so forth can be

purchased. In the gymnasium, their televisions blast British rock videos

towards a captive audience (yes, disco and Olivia Newton-John workout spandex

are STILL alive and well! It's really sad...) and in one of the restaurants,

Sky Sports display the latest football scores and matches.

When we purchase items on the camp, it's in Euros. Euros and KM (convertable

marks) are the two currencies accepted in Bosnia).

The only times that we carry weapons are if we are leaving the base for a

journey of longer than one hour or the alert state has changed. So, we

aren't "packing".

The little evidence of Bosnia culture is relegated to voluntary language

training at the Education Centre or in the local employees who are hired across

the base. To our credit, virtually everyone here attempts to try out a few

Bosnia words and phrases with those employees as a means of being polite and

having everyone get along together.

While there are many of us who are keen to get out and see Bosnia, to try it's

local cuisine or sample it's culture, to be honest, there are equally as many

who prefer not to go out and explore because they have formed the opinion that

they don't like it or don't want to know about anything that is foreign to

them. It takes them out of their comfort zone. Yes, things that are unknown

can be scary and challenging but the unexpected is often worth the risk and a

great growth experience. It's enough for them that they are on tour overseas.

Each to their own - there's something here for everyone, perhaps.

Our views on the Base proper are commensurate with our culture. While we may

go to different alert states as the need may warrant, the camp is surrounded by

one chain-link fence with a row of barbed wired across the top. The road to

the base has the occasional concrete road-side barriers, less to stop people

from getting in and more to stop people like myself from doing the Indy 500 up

to the main gate. Apart from this evidence, and the proliferation of ISOs (the

sea containers in which we live and sometimes work) there is little to suggest

that it is a military camp, complete as it is with a huge factory warehouse and

outbuildings that already existed prior to our arrival. Even at the main gate,

it is simply a barrier with a guardhouse. In short, it's all very low-key and

somewhat understated.

My visit to Eagle Base was telling in that it presented the other side of the

coin. First impressions are usually the most indelible and this was also the

case here. I don't wish to offend any of my American friends with my comments,

and hope that they will take my comments less as a critcism and more as an

observation (after all, I recognize that Americans view us as too soft, on the

other side of the coin).

You know you have reached the base when you come across the outer perimeter

(yes, outer...we'll get to the rest). The outer fencing consists of concrete

barriers, a concrete and wire post fencing, and then a chain-link fence with

barbed wire. Following that is a roadway that encircles the base with an open

grassy area; this is where the frequent security patrols roam around in their

humvees. That open grassy area has guardtowers and spotlights. Then, behind

that are another series of fences.

The approach to the main gate is also about 100m, like ours, but consists of

maze of concrete barriers. They are so tight together, and require so many

turns that I actually wondered if our Terrano was going to fit between them!

The whole area is lit up like a Roman candle. When you reach the actual

guardhouse, not the gate, they have to physically feel your ID's to check for

security marks (that's one person) while three other people check around the

car, check each person out visually, and look under the car with a big mirror.

If you pass the mustard, then you are allowed in.

As you drive in, there are big warnings that absolutely no pictures are allowed

(no "happy snaps" here as the UK would say) and there are areas all over the

interior of the base marked off with mine tape and UXO signs (unexploded

ordinance). So, in effect, they have locked out both the outside world and

locked themselves inside, too. Everywhere you go, whether they are in uniform

or PT gear, the Americans have their C7 rifle strapped to their backs. Hmm, I

wonder if they sleep with it at night, is it fraternization? Just kidding...

When I tried using a few words in Bosnian for "good morning" or "hello", the

local employees seemed shocked that I was actually talking to them in something

other than English. Not once, in three days, did I hear an American even try

words in their language.

They go further in their hiring of locals than we do and employ many as

civilian contractors, whom they provide uniforms for, to do much of the liason

work with the local communities to get this or that accomplished. On our end,

we don't rely on those persons and do the work ourselves. From an operational

security perspective, I think that's better as there is less opportunity for

any one group to influence our operational plans or our ways of thinking and

also less opportunity for "loose lips to sink ships"; however, that's just my

take on it. In fact, the Americans are quite open about the fact that if they

have something that needs doing, they have the resources and the attitude that

they will just throw enough money at it to solve it. Does that actually work

in the final anaylsis? You be the judge.

The base is entirely American in perspective even though the Finnish also

occupy it. Where we utilize mobile containers and existing buildings

(basically, we scrounge things and put them together to make them useful), the

Americans have built all of their buildings and the place looks like movie

versions of training camps from the 50's and 60's.

When you purchase any items, it's in US currency only - no Euros here, please.

They have managed to bring over their Cinnabon, Burger King and Baskin Robbins

franchises as a service to their soldiers. It was so very surprising for me to

see that, in any event, in an operational theatre as opposed to just a base

back in the US.

In short, the best words that I would use to describe my visit to Eagle Base

would be "unduly paranoid". Part of our job here is to be out in the local

community, to actually be seen, and to be assisting them with getting their

country back on it's feet. However, the US have been so shaken by 9/11 that

they see terrorists in every corner and employ this "keep away, keep out"

mentality that is so overt and in one's face that it is no wonder that people

are not warming up to them.

I was talking to an American major regarding my experiences thus far in Bosnia

and then mentioned the upcoming elections. We then proceeded to have what was

a very interesting conversation about the American elections even though my

reference had been to the Bosnia elections (which are occurring today as I

write this note). To me, it just seemed an example of the disconnect between

mind and mission.

So, as one can see, there are two different ways of working here that are

evident in Bosnia, from a military perspective. Having not worked at both of

them, I must be fair and say that I'm hardly the one to say which is more

successful. However, each say something about how we live, think and operate,

don't you think?

Speaking of elections, it is very interesting to see the political machine at

work here. Since my arrival, there have been a plethora of billboards and

posters for various policical candidates running for election. This is also

the first occasion, I understand, that Mayors are being elected in Bosnia.

What is interesting is that none of them smile on their promotional material as

they do in the West. They are all very grave and serious on their posters (one

or two exceptions) and campaigning is very much at a grass roots level. While

they don't put placards on their properties (like pink flamingos on some poor

soul's unfortunate birthday), what I have seen is that political parties will

paint up vehicles and roam up and down the streets with them, with attached

flags and loudspeakers, getting their message to the public. It's really

somewhat amusing to see as that is the way that political parties used to do

things in the 50s in North America. That seems to be the extend of reaching

the people as there are no debates and the various parties have been taking pot

shots at each other in their legislatures and in the press, changing positions

all the time and playing off one ethnic group against the other in the race for

votes.

It's very interesting that even at the university student union level or the

municipal level, candidates are running not as individuals with positions but

as representatives of the various political parties.

While nothing dramatic is expected to change after the elections, in terms of

who is in power, the real key is getting the public involved in democratization

and how it works. Rome wasn't built in a day and neither will it be in the

short-term that Bosnians understand the voting process and how different it is

from the communist system. Indeed, the Office of the High Representative and

the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe are working on a Code

of Ethics for governmental officials and attempting to demonstrate exactly why

that is a good idea. Seems strange from our perspective that it should even

have to be mentioned, but these are some of the concepts that they are battling

with here.

'Til next time.



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