Former peacekeepers take to Facebook to reconnect with childhood survivors of the Bosnian war
SARAJEVO – Salvador Andres Pelaez always does his best to keep the peace.
This month, the former Spanish peacekeeper rekindled old friendships from a foreign war that ended nearly three decades ago.
Pelaez spent six months in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1993-94 as part of a UN contingent protecting civilians amid overlapping disputes over control of territory in the former Yugoslav republic.
Through an online network of veterans of international stabilization and peacekeeping efforts, he reconnected in January with child survivors of war.
“These children taught me the great values of life”, Pelaez told the Balkan service of RFE/RL after coming into contact with some of the Bosnians who as children had buzzed around him and other United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) soldiers as tragedy unfolded around them in Mostar and the towns neighbours.
“They played, but they were very smart and at the same time they understood the situation they were in,” Pelaez said. “They were constantly looking for ways to survive.”
An estimated 2,000 of Mostar’s approximately 100,000 residents died during the 1992–95 Bosnian War.
The fighting for Mostar and its iconic 16th-century old bridge over the Neretva River has become a potent symbol of the ethnic and religious enmities that have ravaged the region and sparked multiple wars.
In successive sieges – the first pitting Serbs against Croats and Bosniaks and the second pitting Croats against Bosnians – Mostar has grown from a picturesque mix of religions and cultures to a symbol of division and stalemate that lasted decades after the guns fell silent.
Although it has a single mayor and city council, it is still plagued by parallel institutions that have emerged from the kind of ethnic and political rivalries that have crippled Bosnia and Herzegovina more broadly since the 1995 Dayton Accord.
“Less filming with them around”
One of the young men Pelaez has reconnected with this month is Haris Behram, who aged 8, along with other boys, spent long days near the Spaniards and their armored car on the east bank of the Neretva, in the center. from Mostar.
“We played around with these carriers for two years,” Behram, now a 30-something entrepreneur in Mostar, told RFE/RL. He said he and the other children stayed within 200 yards of the peacekeepers to protect themselves from stray grenades, artillery or gunfire. “If I said that to someone now, they would tell me [that’s like] being in jail.”
The soldiers shared their rations frequently, Behram said, one of the foreigners cooking meals feeding “three or four” of us.
Behram’s cousin, Almir Behram, was also in the photos. He was 11 at the time.
“I remember we played a lot and there were fewer shots because there was UNPROFOR [troops] there,” said Almir Behram, who is now a firefighter. “I also remember they gave us food, but I don’t like to remember that time too much.”
In an allusion to the majority of Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs who were fighting over the fate of the former Yugoslav territory at the time, Haris Behram told RFE/RL that “the three sides have three [separate] stories” about the conflict.
“Anyone who was under occupation, I wouldn’t want to repeat that to them,” he said.
He said his most vivid memory illustrating the importance of international peacekeeping efforts in his country was seeing Bosnian women and children lying in the street in a failed attempt to prevent the UN contingent to leave Mostar.
“Is this a war or a playground?”
UN peacekeepers, including Pelaez, were deployed to Mostar and other Bosnian towns after hostilities between Bosnians and Croats escalated in 1993.
Pelaez recently recalled the first thing he saw when the doors opened of the armored vehicle that took him and his fellow peacekeepers into central Mostar after arriving in September 1993.
“The first thing I saw were the children,” he told RFE/RL.
Many asked for food and sweets, he said, others for pens and paper.
“I thought to myself, ‘For God’s sake, what’s going on here? Is this a war here or a playground?'”
The Neretva River effectively separated an eastern part of the city, defended by the fledgling army of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and a western part defended by the Croatian Defense Council.
Fighting simmered with occasional flare-ups of artillery fire for the next two years, until the Washington Accord ended conflict between the Croatian and Bosnian sides in 1994 and the Dayton Accord followed. with a more comprehensive regional peace between Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks in late 1995.
Around 25,000 soldiers served the UNPROFOR mission for more than three years and provided considerable humanitarian aid, but failed to end the fighting, the most dramatic being the failure to protect 8,000 men and boys. Muslims surrounded by Bosnian Serb forces in Srebrenica in 1995.
A NATO-led enforcement force followed to enforce the 1995 Dayton Accord, giving way to an EU force in 2004 that still maintains hundreds of troops in Bosnia, where Bosniaks are majority with significant Croatian and Serb minorities.
Pelaez and some of his former comrades from the Madrid contingent returned to Mostar in 2018 to mark 25 years of their UNPROFOR deployment.
But they failed to find any of the civilians they had protected decades earlier.
Three years later, Pelaez turned to Facebook, with better results.
“Everyone was trying to help us”
the Bosnia Veterans Page was created as a forum for former UN and NATO troops who served in the Bosnian War from 1992 to 1995, and today has around 8,400 members.
It is full of shared images and memories, as well as participatory efforts to identify people and places.
Pelaez joined the band about a year ago.
In a post earlier this month, he shared his story and war photos alongside the children “with whom I shared many days of play and the little pleasure I was able to give them in their childhood”.
He asked anyone who recognized the people in the photos to contact him.
Pelaez told RFE/RL he was “surprised when people started texting him” within days.
“Everyone was trying to help us find the boys” in the photo, he said.
“When I left town in 1994, I thought about how they would survive, how they would grow,” Pelaez said. “I had a lot of questions in my head.”
He said he planned to travel to Bosnia this year to meet some of these survivors and to show his wife places like Mostar, Jablanica and Sarajevo.
He recalled part of his visit three years ago – before the current escalation of political efforts to divide the country – suggesting there is reason for hope.
“I saw a lot of destroyed buildings that has not been repaired since the war,” Pelaez said. “But people are trying to live in peace. They say, ‘OK, we went to war, but now we want to survive.’ I think people are ready for that.”