Christmas In A War Zone

As we unpacked our Christmas tree ornaments this week, my sweetie, a former photographer for The New York Times, (now an editor there), pulled out a Ziploc bag and handed me a small reddish brown booklet, the length of my middle finger, crumpled and water-stained.

He found it in a ski chalet in the mountains of Bosnia, in December 1995, that had been turned into a war hospital.

Its black and white photo shows a clean-shaven man wearing a dress shirt, woolen vest and dress jacket. His name, it seems, is Sokolac Mehmedovic, born May 9, 1950. My sweetie found his identity papers, for this is what they were, lying on the floor.

Was the man dead? Fled? In that bleak, freezing, terrifying place and time, one could only guess.

He also brought home a beige piece of paper from IFOR, the UN peacekeeping force of 60,000 sent to Bosnia after the Dayton Accords, negotiated by the late Richard Holbrooke.

The paper, a list of Serbo-Croatian words and phrases, contains normal things like Hello (Zdravo), and Please (Molim).


Cease fire (Prekid Vatre)

Don’t shoot (Ne Pucajte)

Mine  (Mine)

Sniper (Snaiper)

Drop Your Weapon (Spustite orujze)

He arrived in Bosnia on December 6, according to one of his battered press passes, the one issued by the United Nations Peacekeeping Forces in Zagreb. He came with 20 power bars, long underwear and a carabiner, a light, strong metal clip used by mountain climbers.

Why would he need a carabiner?

It ended up saving his life.

His vehicle, containing a reporter and interpreter, got stuck in deep snow at dusk. Two German UNHCR peacekeepers, one named Wolfgang, a former photojournalist, towed them out — attaching their truck to the car with a cable they looped through the carabiner. My sweetie had picked it up, as an afterthought, at the checkout counter at Eastern Mountain Sports on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

A little voice had told him: “You’re going to need this.”

For a month, he was cold, wet, tired, scared. On Christmas Day, he was alone in a hotel in Tuzla.

His New York Times colleagues had packed a pile of trinkets for him, knowing how hard that being far from home in so frightening a place would be. One enclosed two packs of Marlboros, and several pairs of women’s stockings, with a card that explained: “This worked for my father in WWII. Maybe this will work for you.”

By 4pm, he hadn’t eaten all day. No one else was staying at the hotel and he found the restaurant closed. Begging the manager, he was given a piece of bread and a bowl of hot chicken soup — broth only.

That was his Christmas meal.

This week – warm, dry, employed, safe from guns and knives and rage and freezing cold — we celebrate our Christmas.


5 thoughts on “Christmas In A War Zone

  1. I had to google carabiner – amazing that he knew he would need it. I can understand your gratitude at the warmth and safety of home at Christmas. Eastern Europe went through such awful times, gosh. I am sure the new nations are grateful for peace and freedom today.

  2. belongum

    My hat off to your fella.

    I’m lucky enough not to have actively served in any official war-zone. I have however, waited on the edges of potential ones – waiting for those subtle (or not-so-subtle) moments or accidents of time where things ‘shift’ and before you know it – the whole shebang escalates at an amazing rate of knots!

    The waiting has scared me witless at times… the only thing I had around me was my mates – also there – also waiting.

    To think on anyone – going through these types of things (and worse – because we all know, there’s so much worse out there happening) = by themselves… well – I think you have to be a particular (perhaps a little peculiar too hmmm? 🙂 ) type of person to be able to do this ‘well’ and keep your wits about you.

    As I said – my hat off to your fella – he sounds like a very interesting man – who I’d enjoy having a yarn with. From all accounts I’ve heard of that particular ‘conflict’ I’d have hated to have been there in any role. So yes – for mee too it’s this time of year that I reflect on things and remember to be so very, very grateful…

    There but for the grace of God go I…


    1. It definitely scarred him mentally. Which is sad, but which, no doubt, makes him a more compassionate person. He also came home and became a devout Buddhidt — after realizing all we can do, as Buddhism requires, is to live in the moment.

      Great to hear from you down Under!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s