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War & Pivo

Steve Gaunt was born in Leeds, England in 1957 and left home and school at age fifteen. A self-taught writer and administrator, he went on to publish his own journal of English politics and became a high-level manager of a British tour company. He has always been what's known as a people person.

Steve is not the type of person to take problems lying down. During his stint as a tour manager he dealt with all kinds of tourist-induced chaos that prepared him well for the upheaval in war-torn Croatia in late 1990.

War & PivoWatching the war unfold in Croatia on TV, Steve felt complelled to take an activist role. So with no military experience at all, he packed himself off for the front as a volunteer soldier. It was the beginning of an odyssey through which he evolved into a seasoned soldier, a war invalid, and a professional photographer.

During the war years, Steve Gaunt kept a diary which he dubbed War and Pivo -- pivo is the Croat word for beer. Gaunt spent most of those years in Eastern Slavonia where The people of that region adopted him as their own. He was awarded Croatian citizenship after the people of Vinkovci actively petitioned on his behalf. He is now working as a photo reporter for Glas Slavonije, and has earned a reputation of one of Croatia's best photojournalists.

War & Pivo is a time capsule that takes you back to the first unsettling days of the war in the Former Yugoslavia. Steve's entries capture the confusion of the period -- the thoughts and feelings of men becoming soldiers to take up arms. In 1991 no one could have predicted what the next five years would bring to the Balkans and that uncertainty is obvious in Gaunt's diary -- along with a feeling of dedication to what he, and his fellow soldiers, felt to be their duty to humanity.

War & Pivo
War & Pivo
NOVEMBER 4th, 1991

I woke this morning and somehow decided to go to Croatia. Not knowing what to expect, I withdrew some cash and bought some good boots and combat trousers. After meeting Jimmy Whit for a drink in the Blackamoor, I went home to plan.

NOVEMBER 7th 1991

Tim took me to Scunthorpe station and I attempted to make my way back to Selby using British Rail. After visiting such places as Doncaster and Goole, I finally made my way to Selby by taxi. I said my good-byes and caught the train to Manchester, where I was forced to catch a taxi to the airport. The flight to Marco Polo was uneventful as are most flights. I took a taxi to the train station and caught a train to Trieste. I wasn't impressed by Trieste. It seemed to believe it was living in some grand era in its past and this was reflected in the grand price I had to pay for a room in some gothic pile of a hotel.

NOVEMBER 9th 1991

I woke up with toothache and savage indigestion. After breakfast I found a chemist and stocked up on painkillers. I went to have a look around the city during daylight. I found the city to be full of bars, each one with an agreeable looking girlie to minister to our thirsts. In fact, I haven't seen a barman yet. Soldiers and militia are everywhere, bristling with weapons. I approached two of these and made clear my intention to join the fight. After looking extremely surprised, they told me that they would collect me from the hotel at 11 o'clock.

War & Pivo While I was waiting for them I learnt my first Croatian word. Pivo means beer. At 11 o'clock they returned but couldn't take me as their unit was about to go into action, so instead they took me to the headquarters of a local division. When I eventually made clear to the guard what my intentions were, they let me in. I almost immediately came across a group of English lads who were there for the same purpose. We soon found out that the organization was almost non-existent and security very lax. We walked on and off the base as we liked. The canteen is open 24 hours a day and is free, but we soon got fed up with endless sausages.

The lads I had met seemed a nice group, consisting of a French paratrooper and three English lads called Ben, Carl and Ken. Ken was the only soldier out of the three and had spent many years in the Royal Artillery despite his youth. He was born into the army. As he put it himself, he is a `Squaddie Brat`.

We wandered down to the city center for a few beers then back up the hill to the camp. As we bedded down in what was the shooting gallery of the police college which was now our base, two English lads came in from the front line. One of them was George Paterson, who is a 17-year-old student and has been in the papers back home. They told us about current conditions in Vinkovci and Nustar, where they had just been.

They dropped off their weapons and we all went out for a drink. The other chap was called John and between the two of us, we drank the town dry. Luckily, we found someone to take us back to base. Once laid on my cot, I spotted a pile of 7.62 ammunition, which I liberated.

NOVEMBER 12th 1991

Ken accompanied me to the dentists this morning. She pulled my tooth out which was agony. We later made our way to the Hotel Intercontinental and had a coffee, which cost 187 dinars each, compared to 9 dinars back at the barracks. In the afternoon, the kit arrived and the job of distributing it fell to me.

War & Pivo We leave tomorrow for the front. That afternoon, we went down to the central station to see if any volunteers had arrived on the trains from Munich or Paris. We met some militia from HOS, the unit formed by the Croatian Party of Rights. They gave me a grenade and I arranged to meet them to swap kit for grenades and ammunition. They are short of kit but have a large amount of ammo. We sorted out some gear to swap with them and met them at the Hotel Central. Picked up some more grenades and 7.62 ammo. We got a lift back to barracks from president Tudjman`s head of security.

NOVEMBER 15th 1991

Ken and the Canadian, whose name is Randy, went to the local headquarters to try and get more rifles. I went on a patrol with John to see what I could scrounge. We came back with a map showing the latest enemy positions and some eggs and walnuts. Ken and Randy came back with four more AKs. At lunch at the local base, the commander there questioned us and said he would come round to see us.

We practiced with the weapons until we could strip and assemble in less than thirty seconds with a blindfold on. A local girl called Monica turned up with the commander. After he satisfied his curiosity about us, Monica invited Randy and I to her house. We watched TV and chatted about inconsequential things until shelling locally forced us to return home.

NOVEMBER 19th 1991

We got up early to wait for the commander to collect us. The other lads set off back to Zagreb. The commander, whose name was Jura Petrovic, dropped by to tell us to be ready for that afternoon, so we went to lunch.. On our return I decided to take a bath as I wasn't sure of when we would have the luxury again. A new bunch of lads turned up from Zagreb while I was scrubbing myself, mostly English with a couple of Bulgarians.

Shortly afterwards, we moved to our new home in the east of town, in the village of Mala Bosna. As if to greet us, the house was machine-gunned which was interesting. Later on, Randy went outside for a piss and was nearly hit by a mortar shell. We didn't flinch as we thought it must be normal, but later we found out that they thought that we were lunatics. I went to bed at 7 pm to the sound of heavy gunfire.

NOVEMBER 23rd 1991

A mortar round landed outside the house last night and wrecked three vehicles. The new lads had moved into a house nearby last night so it was a baptism of fire for them as it was for us. One of the Croats made me laugh at breakfast. The radio was playing 'Hi-ho, hi-ho' and the Croat, Zwonko by name, nodded at me knowingly and said, 'Ah yes, snow girl and the seven small people.' Then again, I'll laugh at anything.

I was on duty at noon and all was quiet, but when I finished, all sorts of heavy stuff came over. Back in our cellar, Randy and Ken were poring over maps and charts. They are planning to do something with our mortars. Ken came to me later and told me the armory was issuing weapons. I dashed round and selected an excellent Serbian AK47. I lent my Rumanian AK47 to Ivan, one of the Bulgarians. Another sad aspect of the war is the amount of abandoned pets everywhere you go. We have taken in a kitten. No doubt the sad plight of these animals would touch the hearts of the British, while they ignore the suffering of the people.

War & Pivo NOVEMBER 26th 1991

I am still feeling terrible. All the foreigners have been formed into a tank-hunting group and we have been issued with the appropriate weaponry. We spent the morning getting to know the weapons. In the afternoon, the Chetniks started shelling us and using heavy machine-guns so it wasn't very safe out. The new commander of our group came to see us all in the evening, which boosted morale. He seems a decent enough chap.

NOVEMBER 28th 1991

Losing Ken and Randy is proving to be a blow. This morning, I went with Mile to see if we could find them. We couldn't, so we went to Mile's village to see his family. On our return, I got the lads digging trenches. You can never have too many trenches. Walking to town for a coffee, a wire-guided rocket went overhead. It was going so slow and making such a noise that it reminded me of something out of Flash Gordon.

I was tempted to take a few shots at it but decided to let it pass. It scored a direct hit on a bronze statue outside the church. On duty with one of the new chaps at 6.00 pm. His name is Ian Thorburn and he is a deserter from the Irish Hussars. Tanks are his subject and he spent the evening trying to identify the various tank shells that were flying over our heads. Some cease-fire!

DECEMBER 3rd 1991

A frosty morning. After sentry duty, I braved the machine-guns to go to the hospital canteen, only to find it closed. Tanks shelled the town in the afternoon but no attack came.

DECEMBER 5th 1991

I was on guard early this morning, when our bunker was hit by machine-gun fire coming in from Ceric. I hope it was by good luck rather than judgment as it was very close. No casualties. There was the sound of prolonged heavy shelling to the north, probably Osijek, the poor buggers. Spent the rest of the day digging out a bunker, and after sentry duty, I went to another cellar for a beer.

War & Pivo DECEMBER 9th 1991

I was off to Djakovo again this morning, this time with Mark 'Dickhead' Dickinson. I had taken some photos with a cheap 35mm camera I'd been given, so I took the film to be developed. After the statutory few beers, we hitched back home. I did some spotting in the afternoon and found a target, a truck unloading about a mile away. The rocket man fired two rockets at it but managed to miss.

In the evening, I went with Thomas, Mark Weston and a Croat called Belagich, to the hospital canteen to meet Ljubica. She seemed pleased to see me and gave me a little Teddy bear, much to the amusement of the lads.

DECEMBER 13th 1991

On duty at midnight. After I got back and went to sleep, I was awoken by heavy shelling which made us all have to miss breakfast as we could not come above ground. When it calmed down, I took off for Djakovo to pick up my photos. They turned out to be rubbish, so I threw the camera away and went for a drink. When I eventually arrived back in Mala Bosna, I found that Monica had been issued with a rifle. Good Grief!

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