Encounter with Fear
by Cynthia Lee
When I arrived in the former Yugoslavia for the first time in February 1993 to begin shooting a documentary about children and weapons of war, I was a complete novice in the art of navigating through a war zone.
I was lucky enough to have traveled as a guest of Human Rights Watch and that gave me a sense of security and safety, but my silly illusion of being safe in Bosnia lasted about three days.
We were driving back in a U.N. vehicle from a refugee camp near the ancient city of Vukovar, Croatia, and were detained, for no apparent reason, at a Bosnian-Serb checkpoint. It was at this time that the merciless shelling and destruction of Vukovar was making international headlines. Since I was an American with a press card, I was subjected to the hostile glares of deranged-looking militiamen with AK-47s, who looked like they hadn't shaved or bathed in at least a month.
I hid my camera under the seat and prayed they wouldn't search the van. Instead, they angrily lectured me about the unfairness of the American press, grabbed my passport and disappeared into their sandbagged bunker. It was snowing, night was descending fast and I was cold and hungry. I was with three other women in the middle of nowhere and there was no help in sight.
Forty-five minutes went by and it was getting colder by the minute. The soldiers continued to scowl at us. Every now and then, one of them would walk over, swing his machine gun around in the air and then leer into the van. It made us very uncomfortable.
They still had possession of my passport and we were worried that something bad was going to happen, if not to all of us, certainly to me.
Suddenly a U.N. tank appeared in the distance through the falling snow and roared down the road toward us. One of my female companions jumped out of the van and frantically waved at the tank, trying desperately to get them to stop, but the tank sped by like a phantom in the night, leaving us to contend with our armed and unfriendly highwaymen. This was my first taste of the unsavory side of United Nations presence in Bosnia.
We were furious at them for not stopping to help and felt betrayed by their unwillingness to even find out what was going on. I'm certain they saw us waving at them for help. The four of us were all Americans, with U.N. credentials (my companions as relief workers and myself as a journalist) and we were in a U.N. vehicle. But it didn't matter.
In Bosnia, the U.N. often played by a set of unwritten rules that seemed to defy logic. This small but memorable episode makes it easier for me to imagine the rage and betrayal the refugees from the so-called safe havens of Goradze and Srebenica must have felt when the U.N. did so little to protect them.
Once the U.N. tank had disappeared into the darkness, a clean-shaven, good-looking, spit-and-polish Bosnian-Serb military police officer emerged from the bunker. I guessed him to be an intelligence officer who monitored checkpoints from time to time. He just didn't fit in with the rest of them. He was about 30, very cool in demeanor, with ice-piercing blue eyes and a swagger in his step.
He walked over to my side of the van. I rolled down the window and watched him move toward me, intimidated by him, but fascinated as well, He stared into my eyes for a very long minute, long enough for me to realize that this was a deliberate power-play and one of us would have to blink first. It was a game of chicken, and I lost. I blinked. He grinned like the cat who swallowed the canary.
He called me by my first name, speaking to me in perfect English with an accent that had a sophisticated ring to it. He exuded confidence and used a slightly threatening tone. "Cynthia, this is a very dangerous country, especially for a woman. And for a women who is also a journalist, it can be deadly. I'd be very careful if I were you."
He handed me my passport and told us he could not allow us to go through the checkpoint. We would have to turn back and drive the mountain route to our destination. This meant an extra three hours on the road in terrible weather conditions and in the dark. We weren't even sure if we had enough fuel to make the trip.
We protested, citing the bad weather and the danger of highway robbery in the mountains, where gangs of thugs often roamed, preying on international relief workers. But he was unmoved. lt was obvious that he wanted to put us in harm's way, wanted us to feel the danger and to know who was pulling the strings. He enjoyed his sinister little game and you can't reason with that kind of cruelty. We had no choice but to head into the mountains and take our chances.
I tell this story because it was my first experience of fear in Bosnia. There were many times later on when I was far more fearful for my life, but this incident had an intimate quality to it and it taught me something about my own private fears and the type of fear that drives a war machine. Fear is a potent motivator and it's probably at the root of every human catastrophe, including the war in the former Yugoslavia.
I knew at that checkpoint that if I hoped to accomplish anything in Bosnia, I would have to grapple with fear every day. Not just my own, but the fear of those I would come in contact with.
This brings me to the heart of my film, A Wound To The Soul, because at its center is the fear that war instills in children, not only through violence, but through the emotional, psychological and spiritual void it creates for those too young to comprehend what is happening. This is a wound children carry through life and it may also be part of the reason why war is a continuous cyclical event.
Children of war grow up in the worst conditions imaginable. A lost childhood can never be regained and a child will often subconsciously grieve for its loss right into old age. This kind of inner turmoil, fueled by fear and rage, can lead a child of violence to become a violent adult.
When children become the actual targets of war, as they were in Bosnia, the consequences of such outrageous violence against them probably won't be known for years to come. And so the cycle of war continues, passed down like an old relic from adult to child, from one generation to another, with sadly predictable results, If there is any chance of breaking this destructive cycle in the Balkans, or in any of the world's war zones, healing the wounds of war has to start with the children. They are the real hope for peace.
Cynthia Lee is a writer and filmmaker based in Los Angeles. Her film deals with the pervasive use of land mines, as well as other anti-personnel weapons, and the suffering these weapons cause children. She has been covering the war in Bosnia since early 1993. To learn more about Cynthia's documentary, or to help her raise finishing funds for the project, you can leave a voice mail message in the United States at (310) 289-7419 or EMail Berserkistan.
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