One summer day in mid-1996, a man in his early thirties stepped out of an aeroplane and into a war-torn city. He walked on a potholed air strip to the decrepit arrivals hall of the airport. After checking through, he picked up his luggage. He had no idea what next to do. He had a sheet of paper in his pocket with an address where to meet his contact in the city centre but he did not know how far it was or how to get there. When he was approached by someone who seemed to be some sort of taxi driver, he just agreed and hopped in.
Once arrived in the city centre, he paid the driver and got out. The city was completely new to him and he had no idea where the building was he was supposed to go to. He had brought along an old map but that didn’t help much because the street signs seemed to all be different. So he asked around, in English. Eventually, he found a person who knew where the address was. He dragged his oversized suitcase through town until he found the house. He entered and pulled it up several flights of stairs. The stone floor was chipped and broken, the glass windows smashed in. Not one door had an entrance sign.
On one of the floors he finally found a sign that he recognised – it was the insignia of the organisation that had hired him. He knocked, entered and found himself in front of a man in his late 50s, with close-cropped hair. He was holding himself very erect, like a soldier, although he wore civilian clothes. The young man, feeling quite intimidated by this time, received a wad of papers and a thick envelope. He then was introduced to a stout man with greying hair, who was to be his driver for the next days and spoke only little English. He was told to show up again the next day with the young man and then set off to the place that was going to be their final destination.
Two days later, the young man dragged his luggage out of the car booth and entered his new, transitory home. A woman with fake blonde hair greeted him in broken English at the door. She was to be his interpreter. A story had been set in motion that was going to be theirs for the next six weeks.
The city that was the young man’s first port of call was Sarajevo, ravaged by years of war and scarred from shelling and sniper fire. The town where he worked for six weeks, was Foca, a small place of Turkish origins that during the war had been completely emptied of its Muslim inhabitants and afterwards turned into a hub for Bosnian Serb war criminals and refugees from Sarajevo.
Once his mission ended, the young man returned home but came back, this time to a city in the south of the country: Mostar. He then went home again and came back, yet again, a few months later. This time he decided to stay.
I lived four years in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In July 2000, I left for the last time. And I didn’t come back.