In a Bosnian Trench is the powerful melancholy autobiography of Bosnian teenager Elvir Kulin, a boy a who stayed home in a village just southwest of Sarajevo and had war come to him; perhaps underscoring Leon Trotsky’s adage that while you may not be interested in politics or war – they might be interested in you.
The Bosnian war of 1992 to 1995 that Kulin survived was nasty, brutish and not nearly short enough. It was also highlights, if any illumination was needed at that time, of just how useless the standard United Nations peacekeeping approach was; based as it was – and is – on a “no-fault” refereeing between the fire and the fire brigade.
The book is the result of the efforts of the co-writer, Maury Hirschkorn to better understand the war. In a short introduction, Hirschkorn, a freelance journalist at the time of publication in 2005, writes that he as early as 1996 was seeking pen friends in Sarajevo “to get more information about the recent war.” Kulin was one respondent and as he could speak and write English, correspondence flourished. By 2001 the duo decided there was material for a book.
The book starts with a brief introduction to Bosnia and its complex history,proceeding quicklime to the pre-war family life of Kulin, best described as working class and secular. Kulin, recalls the death of long-time ruler Tito in 1980 when he was about five. He noticed his parents and neighbours were “concerned if Tito’s successors would have his wisdom and experience to run a country with different ethnic groups and religions, each wanting to assert their authority.”
Political mobilisation and propaganda increased until June 1991,when Slovenia seceded from Yugoslavia. Those who could armed and formed paramilitaries and later manned roadblocks. Those who couldn’t, kept their heads down. This suited the leaders of the two largest ex-Yugoslav states, Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia and Franjo Tudjman in Croatia. Having clashed along their common border, both now looked at Bosnia, where there were substantial Croatian and Serbian populations, for territorial expansion. The UN Protection Force (UNPROFOR), deployed there, did nothing, except to prevent Bosnian loyalists from defending themselves.
Kulin was still in high school at the outbreak of war in early 1992 and as a 17-year-old was not immediately conscripted. His parents also stopped him from enlisting before his 18th birthday, when he could be – and was – conscripted. In the meantime he had to help feed the family and endure sniper, mortar and artillery fire. The cut-off electricity to Hrasnica, Kulin’s village, and the consequent failure of the waterpumps, returned the besieged city to pre-industrial conditions. Food and water queues were also a favourite target of the besiegers.
Anyone believing the UN was there to help the weak against the strong – or help them at all – will quickly be disabused of this notion. Kulin records UN rations including biscuits baked in 1973. then there’s the shame of Sarajevo airport: during the siege, crossing the runway was the only way civilians on one side could reach their neighbours on the other. UN troops there sought to prevent this movement, even at night when they shone searchlights on the residents, lighting them up for the besiegers to shoot at.
Kulin and his twin-brother were conscripted in February 1993 and given a week of elementary training, including the use of the AK47 assault rifle. They were then both assigned to the 3rd Cheta of the 104th Brigade on the wooded Mount Igman, a vital hill in Bosnian hands. Indeed, the only road out of the city ran over it. Conscripts were not paid, were not issued uniform other than a pair of “plastic boots” and were hardly armed: assault rifles had to be shared and ammunition had to be strictly conserved. The frontline consisted of a trench protected by a minefield and was backed by dormitory bunkers called “cabins”. Some of these were up front while others were further back. The Kulin brother typically spent two days on duty in the forward trench and cabins before rotating to the rear for two days. Every few months they could go home. “Amir and I spent our first night on the front line listening to animals, moving [Serbian] tanks, and distant gunfire. Soldiers’ experiences in war movies looked much more interesting and heroic. I had never seen a movie that showed troops able to shout at each other from their trenches. And I’d never seen one with a soldier who walked or rode home periodically to shower and change clothes. And the lack of ammunition, guns and uniforms seemed all wrong. It was not the way movies depicted war. Of course, I’d never known what war would be like when it came close to home. I wished I had never had to learn it either.”
Because of the scarcity of weapons and ammunition, Kulin’s unit at least, was mostly on the defensive. One exception was a counterattack in August 1993 to retake Mount Igman after it was captured by the besiegers. Even then there were not enough rifles. It appears they caught the attackers digging in. “I heard the commander say ‘It’s time to attack’. I heard someone yell ‘Allahu Ekber!’ which in Arabic is ‘Allah is the greatest’ and we all ran out of the woods towards the Chetniks (Bosnian Serb besiegers) yelling ‘Allahu Ekber!’ while shooting at them. The Chetniks looked at us with surprised, confused expressions, ducked into their trench, and shot in our direction. I saw some Chetniks shoot in different directions proving they weren’t sure where we were. I shot my rifle at them. Fire from their trench stopped, but we still ran toward it, yelling and shooting. As I got closer, I was preparing to face them in hand-to-hand combat. I jumped into their trench and was surprised to see nothing. There were no Chetniks, not even a dead or wounded one. We must have been terrible marksmen…”
This was probably the highpoint of his war. On his off days he has to make long marches to a farming area within government lines to barter there for food for his family. A congenial heart condition emerges. He is sent to hospital but they say they can do nothing until the war is over. Such is the straights of the Bosnians, that Kulin is re-assigned to an invalid unit guarding an area of level ground (his condition making it difficult for him to scale hills).
In late 1995 the war wound down as NATO troops deployed. This meant more time at home – with a father Kulin did not get along with – and attempts to resume a life interrupted. Demobilised in 1996, Kulin by 2001 had held a number of odd jobs but had been unable to achieve his goal of either emigrating or becoming an English teacher. And that’s the tragedy of war: Lives interrupted, dreams ruined, progress set back.
Kulin’s account is to my knowledge one of the few English-language local accounts to emerge of the Bosnian war. That makes it important for students of that conflict or of peacekeeping generally. Too often the combatants, their motives and aspirations are only vaguely understood. One hopes Kulin can help this change.
In a Bosnian Trench – A wartime memoir of a Muslim Bosnian Soldier
Elvir Kulin with Maury Hirschkorn