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General Lewis MacKenzie
Road to Sarajevo

"If I could convince both sides
to stop killing their own people
for CNN, perhaps we could have
a ceasefire."

Lewis MacKenzie
United Nations Protection Force
Sarajevo, July 1992


"The Convoy Incident"

May 3, 1992

"Definitely the worst day in my life," begins my diary for this date.

Around mid-morning, Bosnian (Muslim) Vice-President Ejup Ganic came to my office... (and) explained that (Muslim) President Izetbegovic on his return from Lisbon, had been kidnapped at the Sarajevo airport; he was being detained by the JNA (Yugoslav Peoples Army) at their Lukavica camp, just east of the (Sarajevo Butmir) runway. Ganic said he was not a strong leader, and needed his President back in order to control the radical officers within the Bosnian (Muslim) TDF (Territorial Defense Force), who were rapidly getting out of control.

TDF forces had General Kukanjac's (JNA) headquarters under siege in the eastern part of the city; Ganic feared that if they attacked the General's barracks, the JNA would retaliate by leveling Sarajevo.

Our conversation was interrupted by one of our officers, who reported that the JNA Officers' Club in downtown Sarajevo had just been attacked, and three JNA officers had been killed. The JNA was now retaliating with tank fire against the Presidency building and the Mayor's office. A good deal of downtown Sarajevo was on fire...

Colm (Doyle of the EC.) and I decided to find out what was happening.

pp 165, 166

...(In JNA controlled Lukavica camp, outside Sarajevo) we found the (Muslim) President, his daughter Sabrina, and his bodyguard. The President was on the phone talking to General Kukanjac and seemed to be in pretty good spirits...

He took the phone away from his ear and explained, "General Kukanjac now insists that he be permitted to remove his entire staff of 400 along with himself in exchange for my release."

"No way!" I exclaimed, "I can't accept responsibility for those kinds of numbers. I'll have enough trouble just keeping the four of you alive."

(Muslim President) Izetbegovic was in a box, and (JNA General) Kukanjac was holding the key. The President looked at me and said very carefully, "General MacKenzie, don't worry. I WILL ACCEPT RESPONSIBILITY FOR THE SAFETY OF THE JNA PERSONNEL."

I was surprised; this was quite a commitment. "YOU GUARANTEE IT?" I asked.


I paused, and Colm and I exchanged glances again. "Okay," I said. "We'll give it a try."

...It was decided that Colm and the President's bodyguard would stay at Lukavica as "collateral". I would take President Izetbegovic, Sabrina, Steve, the Swedish guards, the French drivers and twenty-plus empty JNA trucks to General Kukanjac's (besieged) headquarters in the heart of Sarajevo, where we would load up Kukanjac and his JNA personnel. On our way back out of town, one armored personnel carrier would break off and deliver Izetbegovic and his daughter to the Presidency, while the rest of us returned to Lukavica...

pp 167 - 171

We arrived at General Kukanjac's headquarters. I rushed to his office, leaving Izetbegovic in one of the armored personnel carriers. As I entered his office, I was shocked to see Kukanjac having coffee with the commander of Izetbegovic's TDF forces. They explained that the commander was there to accompany Izetbegovic back to the Presidency. I felt pretty good about this: his presence would certainly enhance our security, since it was his soldiers who were blockading Kukanjac's barracks a scant twenty meters away...

I received a call from my headquarters: the deal was off, according to Dr. Ganic.

"What the hell are you talking about?" I thundered. "I've got the President of Bosnia here and his commander of all the TDF forces in the area, and they've guaranteed the safe passage of the convoy - I can't do much better than that. Let me speak to them again."

I ran over to the President and explained the situation. "Who do I listen to, you or Ganic, Mr. President?"

"No problem, General MacKenzie. YOU HAVE MY WORD AND THAT OF OUR COMMANDER," he replied.

I got on the radio and told our headquarters, "We're moving. Tell Ganic."

...We would keep the two key players in the same vehicle, until we got to the point close to the Presidency where Izetbegovic and his daughter would transfer to another APC (vehicle) and drive 300 meters to safety.


...As we proceeded at a snail's pace along the reverse of our route into town, I could see a number of (Muslim) TDF soldiers down the side street sand in the windows of the buildings that overlooked our convoy. (Second in command) Steve and I were standing with our upper bodies outside the top hatches of our vehicles, exchanging hand signals as required.

We had gone about a kilometer when I thought I heard a shot. I turned around and looked at Steve. His SUSI was a lot taller than my VBL and he could see back down along the column of trucks. I knew from the look on his face that something was seriously wrong.

I jumped out of the VBL and started to run back towards the sound of the shooting, which no longer consisted of single shots but sustained bursts of machine-gun fire. I hadn't asked Steve to come, but within seconds he was beside me.

The heaviest shooting was about fifty meters away. I could see TDF soldiers sticking their rifles through the windows of civilian cars that were part of the convoy and shooting the occupants. As Steve and I ran by, we saw blood splattered over the windscreens of some of the cars.

When we reached a crowd of some twenty TDF soldiers, we realized they had driven a car across the road to split the convoy in half. The JNA soldiers were SITTING HELPLESSLY in the back of their trucks; the TDF were demanding that they throw out their weapons and military equipment. To make the point, one of the TDF soldiers, who had two grenades hanging from his teeth, was threatening to throw a third into the back of the truck full of JNA soldiers if they did not hurry up and surrender their weapons.

Weapons and kit were flying out the back of the truck and landing all around the TDF soldiers. I had a vision of a shark-feeding frenzy from the movie "Blue Water, White Death."

I approached the soldier with the grenades in his teeth and put my hand on his shoulder. When he spun around, I could see he was drunk or high on adrenaline. His pupils were dilated, and he looked wild enough to make me think carefully about what I should do next. A hand grabbed my shoulder; one of the TDF leaders said, "I wouldn't do that if I was you. I certainly wouldn't, and he works for me. All we want are the weapons, no one will be hurt!"

"Somebody has already been hurt - probably killed," I replied. "And your President guaranteed the security of this convoy."

...At that moment, we heard the klaxon horn of an approaching vehicle. It was a JNA ambulance driving straight towards us, half of the sidewalk and half on the street. The driver was frantically sawing on the steering wheel, trying to avoid hitting anyone. His task was made all the more difficult by the JNA colonel collapsed on his right shoulder and missing half his face. The Colonel was obviously dead or about to die; every time the driver pushed him away, he immediately snapped upright, then collapsed onto the driver's shoulder again. It was as if the two were attached by a strong rubber band. Everyone stopped and stared for a moment, and then the TDF carried on with their intimidation... the killing stopped. The stealing of equipment was still going on, but at least people weren't being EXECUTED.

Thomas yelled back that he had just been told on his radio that the TDF had fired through the gun ports of a JNA armored personnel carrier at the tail of the convoy, and EVERYONE inside was killed. The Swedish guards at that location were being threatened and shots were being fired all around them, so I told Thomas to have them break off and go back to the PTT. There was no sense having our people killed; they were outnumbered a hundred to one...

I told (Muslim) President Izetbegovic that his people had broken his promise and were ambushing the JNA convoy... Izetbegovic retained his composure; I told him to open the top of his hatch of the SUSI and stand up and turned to face his TDF officers...

After five minute of conversation with their President, the TDF leaders returned to their troops along the convoy; however by now the damage was done. Some 200 JNA soldiers had disappeared. At first I assumed they had bolted for the serb-controlled area just south of the ambush site; later I had discovered they had been taken prisoner. All of the JNA weapons and military equipment of any value was confiscated by the TDF, and six to seven JNA officers had been KILLED IN COLD BLOOD during the incident. Our modest UN presence of ten people had prevented a massive blood bath

A kilometer further on... Izetbegovic and Sabina were cross-loaded into another armored personal carrier and departed for the Presidency...

At the first TDF checkpoint... I asked (a TDF sentry) what had happened. He explained that the TDF soldiers had received an ORDER FROM SOMEONE IN THE PRESIDENCY TO ATTACK THE CONVOY. We never found for sure who gave the order, but my suspicion was that Vice-President Ganic wasa lot tougher than he wanted to admit, and had given the green light to carry out the attack...

Needless to say, we were not well received at the JNA camp. Word had been passed that the UN had guaranteed the safety of the convoy, but that we have failed our promise. This was not the time, however, to point out that we were merely accompanying the convoy as impartial witnesses and go-betweens, and that it was the President of Bosnia and his TDF commander who had guaranteed the convoy security...

pp 174

May 4, 1992

The next day... I received an early-morning call from the Presidency to say that they were interested in negotiating a prisoner-of-war exchange

Within a few minutes, I departed for the Presidency with the senior European Community military monitor in Sarajevo, Mr. Santos. On arrival, we met with Bosnian Minister of Defense Jerko Dogo, who wanted to do a large POW exchange with the JNA. "And who do you intend to exchange?" I asked.

"Why, the JNA soldiers we captured yesterday," he replied.

"No deal," I said. "You captured those soldiers by breaking a promise of safe passage, promised in front of witnesses by the President himself and the commander of your TDF. You have put the UN and myself in a very difficult position. I want those prisoners back without any matching concessions from the JNA."

pp 178 - 179

May 6, 1992

I spent the full day with Mr. (Marrick) Goulding (UN's Undersecretary for Special Political Affairs, responsible to the Secretary-General for all peacekeeping operations round the world), briefing him all morning.

In the afternoon, we went on a tour of the city with President Izetbegovic and came under modest fire in the middle of the Muslim Old City. There were very strong indications that it was an orchestrated show for the accompanying media, intended to put the Serbs in a bad light.

Goulding held a press conference at the end of the day's activities. We fell it was important that he condemn the TDF attack on the JNA convoy, and so he made the following statement:

"I also went at my request to see the scene of a particularly horrible incident on Sunday evening, where, as I think a number of you know, some soldiers of the Yugoslav People's Army were killed in a cold blood when commanders of the Bosnian Territorial Defense had failed to honor a promise on safe conduct which they had given our people who were evacuating the HQ of the Yugoslav Army in Sarajevo."

Months later, when I have left Sarajevo for good, I was surprised to discover just how little media coverage Goulding's strong statement had received around the world. I couldn't help thinking that IF JNA HAD AMBUSHED THE TDF, INSTEAD THE OTHER WAY AROUND, IT WOULD HAVE BEEN FRONT PAGE NEWS...


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