Two Visits to Sarajevo: Total Elapsed Time 17 Minutes

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Two Visits to Sarajevo: Total Elapsed Time 17 Minutes

By Richard H. Curtiss

As the plane bringing me from the Middle East landed at dusk, I counted eight camouflaged U.S. Air Force C-130 Hercules transport aircraft with their propellers spinning on the U.S. military air base runway that parallels the civilian runway of sprawling Frankfurt International Airport. They were taking off for one of the airdrops of food and medicines into beleaguered Bosnian enclaves that had taken place almost nightly since Feb. 28, 1993.

In the half-dozen visits to Frankfurt I had made since the U.S. Air Force began what it calls "airland" relief flights into besieged Sarajevo on July 3, 1992, the massed military aircraft always intrigued me. I knew they were a major factor in the survival of the largely Muslim-led Bosnian government despite 22 months of relentless shelling by the heavy guns of the former Yugoslav army, now in the hands of Serbian "volunteers" and Bosnian Serb militiamen of the "Srpska Republic," which has broken away from the multicultural Republic of Bosnia.

Bosnia's ordeal, since it seceded from the former Yugoslavia following a March 1992 plebiscite of its 4.5 million citizens, has included Serb seizure of 70 percent of its territory, "ethnic cleansing" of Slavic Muslims and Croats from that territory resulting in 200,000 deaths, most of them Muslim civilians, and displacement of 2 million Muslims and Croats.

Indifference by many European governments and betrayal by the neighboring Republic of Croatia had ignited indignation among Muslims from Morocco to Indonesia, and appalled public opinion in Europe and the United States. Public pressure finally resulted in the threat of U.S.-led NATO airstrikes that had ended the shelling of civilians in Sarajevo only days before my arrival in Frankfurt.

The "airland" relief flights I had come to observe started under the administration of President George Bush. The "airdrops" were initiated under President Bill Clinton. Together they have buttressed defense of its remaining territory by Bosnia's Muslim-led government and have blunted attacks by the Islamist critics who preach unremitting hostility to the West in general and the U.S. in particular. That's why, on the morning after my arrival, I called the U.S. Air Force joint information bureau at the Rhein-Main airbase to ask if I could accompany the humanitarian airlifts.

"When could you go?" asked Senior Airman Stuart Camp, who answered the telephone.

"Well, I was thinking of the airdrop tonight, the Sarajevo trip tomorrow and, unless I could stay for a couple of days in Sarajevo, I could catch up on sleep on the plane back to the U.S. the following day," I said with forced casualness.

"That would be impossible," he said flatly. "We couldn't have your request processed in less than a day or two."

"Well, please do the best you can," I said, relieved that I was dealing with a seven-day-a-week operation, since he hadn't mentioned the fact that my request spanned a weekend. I hung up and the phone rang immediately. It was S/Airman Camp verifying my number, a good start.

The next call was from his commander to ask, "Who are you again?" This time I dropped two names of Pentagon personnel with whom I had spoken two weeks earlier before leaving for the Middle East.

"Never heard of him," he said of one in the Pentagon information chain. He didn't challenge the other, however, in the office of the secretary of defense.

I didn't mention that both had warned me that the Air Force "isn't running a taxi service," and that if I rode into Sarajevo on a military aircraft, I would have to fly right back out again on the same plane.

The next call was from Senior Airman Chris Thomas, one of Airman Camp's colleagues. He asked for my preference between a nighttime airdrop of up to six hours' duration or a 15-hours-or-more "airland" operation, which would involve three separate landings in Sarajevo before the aircraft returned to Frankfurt. …