Biking a Path of War, Intrigue, and Tragedy in Bosnia

A filmmaker recalls the horrors of the war his father ended.

On a perfect July day in Bosnia and Herzegovina, I pedal out of Sarajevo, passing buildings pockmarked by gunfire and shells two decades earlier. These physical reminders of the war are stark and ugly, but something even more disturbing lurks inside so many people here—their memories. As Roger Cohen of the New York Times wrote: “To go to Bosnia was to become familiar with ghosts.”

If such ghosts exist, they likely reside on Mount Igman, which looms over this capital city. Its road was considered the most dangerous in Europe during the horrific war in the Balkans, a conflict brought to an end by my father, the late Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, during peace talks that began 20 years ago this week.

I ride up Mount Igman and steadily gain elevation on the steep climb to get a vantage point of Sarajevo. I see the distinctive red roofs that are so prevalent in Europe, but the other color that stands out is the white that marks the numerous and expansive graveyards needed for the tens of thousands of civilians killed in Sarajevo alone from 1992 to 1995, during a siege that would become the longest in history. Victims included innocent Sarajevans, such as the 68 people killed by a shell at a fruit market or the 35 third-graders and their teacher who were obliterated when a mortar screamed into their classroom—all intentionally targeted by the malevolent forces of the Bosnian Serbs.

I’m in Bosnia directing The Diplomat, a documentary about my father, whose career began in Vietnam and spanned every Democratic administration from John Kennedy’s to Barack Obama’s. He’s best remembered for his achievements as the special envoy to the Balkans, where his task was to end a war that had gone on for four years, taken more than 200,000 lives, and become a growing cancer in the middle of a new post-Cold War Europe. His last mission was for President Obama, who appointed him special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. Tragically, his work ended when he collapsed in Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s office on December 10, 2010. He had suffered an aortic dissection—“His aorta basically shredded,” his brilliant Pakistani surgeon told us—and he died three days later.

History and Horrors

The Bosnian War gave us the new phrase “ethnic cleansing,” which was really a euphemism for genocide. When photos surfaced of emaciated men being held behind barbed wire, the world could only be reminded of the Holocaust, leading my father to describe the conflict as the “greatest collective security failure of the West since World War II.”

I had never been to the region before and immediately immersed myself in a thicket of history and horrors, which gets more confusing the more I understand it. The basics are this: The mountainous region had been a hot potato for centuries as various empires, from the Turks to the Austro-Hungarians, fought over it, leaving behind a melting pot of religious and ethnic diversity.

In 1914, World War I first ignited in Sarajevo, and after World War II, a fierce army veteran named Tito fathered the country of Yugoslavia, which was ostensibly communist but uniquely independent during the Cold War. The country’s varied ethnicities remained stitched together until Tito’s death, which left the country in tatters as nationalist politicians broke it apart to form their own entities, including Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, and Serbia.

The most aggressive and virulent of these politicians was Slobodan Milosevic, the charismatic leader of Serbia who wanted to reclaim land that he felt had been taken from his people over the last several centuries. His quest for a greater Serbia led him into war against Bosnia, and in April 1992 his forces began the siege of Sarajevo, systematically removing Muslims from their ancestral homes in towns all over the country. As my father wrote in the Washington Post after he visited the region in August 1992: “We drove through silent and dead towns that had once held as many as 20,000 people—every single building destroyed.”

As the war escalated, so did the atrocities: The Serbs surrounded towns and gathered everyone together on soccer pitches and warehouses, where the terrified Muslim population would be forcibly separated by gender. What happened next is almost unspeakable—except that not to speak about it makes it all the more likely for it to happen again. Young girls were raped repeatedly, expectant mothers had unborn fetuses ripped out of their wombs, while fathers were forced to orally castrate their sons before being executed and dumped into mass graves.

One would think that this incessant slaughter would have provoked some sort of international outcry, but George H.W. Bush’s Secretary of State James Baker famously stated that, “We don’t have a dog in this fight.” And, at first, the Clinton Administration did no better. As Roger Cohen wrote, “America abjured its unique ability to lead in Bosnia … The Balkan wars then fell between Europe and America, passed back and forth like a poisoned chalice.” As CNN’s Christiane Amanpour told me, the journalists there “were screaming bloody murder from the rooftops, but no one was paying attention to Bosnia until Holbrooke showed up.”

Unnecessary Tragedies

Nearly two decades later, a very different Holbrooke has shown up in Bosnia. Besides being a filmmaker, I also program Telluride Mountainfilm, a documentary film festival. I never wanted to be a diplomat like my father, but as I make this documentary, I find myself literally following in his footsteps.

Before this trip, I thought I’d understood the conflict my father ended, but after filming for more than a week immersed in the pain and pathologies that make up Bosnia, I realize that I only knew the tip of the iceberg, and we all know it’s what’s under the water that’s most frightening. Everybody had a horrific story to tell me about the war, including a young man who was in that third-grade classroom targeted by the Serbs. “I heard the shell coming in, and I ducked under my desk, and when I looked up my best friend was gone and my teacher’s hair and scalp were all over the blackboard.”

Wrung out from all of this heartache, I needed to clear my head, and the best way for me to do that is usually on a bike. I found an opening in our production schedule, rented a mountain bike, and headed for Mount Igman. As I rode uphill, I passed endless flirting and fluttering butterflies, purple and pink wildflowers, skittering lizards, and the occasional shotgun shell—a stark remembrance of how this road was also once the front line.

Mount Igman is also where one of the worst days of my father’s life took place. In the summer of 1995, he and his team were engaged in an arduous round of shuttle diplomacy, going back and forth between the Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian capitals. They had asked Milosevic for safe passage into Sarajevo Airport, which his gunners were firing upon, but the Serbian president refused the request. On August 19, the American diplomats had to drive into the capital using the treacherous road on Mount Igman.

There were two vehicles—my father’s American Humvee, carrying him and his military aide, Gen. Wesley Clark. A Peugeot armored personnel carrier followed behind, carrying several of his diplomatic colleagues. The vehicles came to a tight spot in the road, and my father’s comparatively nimble Humvee squeezed through. The hulking APC did not. It slipped off the soft side of the road and tumbled 30 to 40 times before coming to a stop in the thick forest.

The gruesome crash killed the French driver and three American diplomats—Nelson Drew, Robert Frasure, and Joe Kruzel. As President Clinton told me, “It isn’t just soldiers in battle who are in danger. Diplomacy in dangerous areas is inherently risky.”

The unnecessary tragedy changed the dynamics of the mission for my father. Now that he had lost these crucial colleagues, it was personal, and he was going to work like hell to honor their loss by bringing peace to the region.

Keeping Ghosts at Bay

Nearly two decades later, I ride up a scrappy dirt road. I’m tempted to jump on the various single-track trails I see but instead stick to the main road. I’m riding alone and have been told by everyone that Igman is still rife with landmines, a miserable hangover from the war.

I cycle past a logging truck, which is hauling old-growth timber and leaving behind diesel fumes to ride through. I nod at the tough-looking men who are working and get nothing back but a hard stare. I can’t help but wonder what they were doing during the war.

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My rental mountain bike is way too small for my 6’6” frame, but then I think about how cramped the APC must have been and ignore my silly whining. There are several mountain-biking signs pointing in different directions, but I have a destination in mind. After an hour of riding, I reach the memorial marking where the APC fell off the side and stop and look down at the dense forest. In his book To End a War, my father wrote that, “About six inches of red clay seemed to have broken off the edge of the roadbed … Below us trees had been flattened as if by a giant plow.”

Heavy growth has replaced the path that the vehicle took, but the actual APC is still in place where it came to rest after its violent descent. I speed down on my bike to the road where the rusted Peugeot now lies. It’s easy to see how its odd trapezoidal shape helped it picked up speed once it started rolling. What’s striking is that vehicles are designed to compact in a crash, yet this one is barely dented after the hellish ride it took down the mountain.

Two months after the accident on Mount Igman, my father sequestered the presidents of the warring factions at Wright-Patterson Air Force base in Dayton, Ohio. Over 20 days of incredibly tense, high-risk negotiations, they hammered out the Dayton Peace Accords, which ended the war. It wasn’t a perfect agreement, but the nature of negotiation makes perfection and diplomacy mutually exclusive concepts.

Two decades later, the peace agreement holds, but it’s as fragile and frayed as the APC is impregnable. The drums of war aren’t beating yet, but those ghosts that Roger Cohen wrote about seem to be rattling their chains. What will happen next is uncertain, but my hope is that the international community, led by the United States, gets involved before anything violent happens rather than after.

It’s a region worth saving—especially from an outdoors perspective. While the biking has some additional obstacles (such as landmines) that we don’t have back home in Telluride, the mountains there remind me of our San Juans, thrillingly sharp, intense, and in-your-face. The rock climbing looks stellar and makes me wonder why I haven’t seen any great climbing films submitted to Mountainfilm about this place (hello, Sender and Camp 4). We go for a hike way up into the mountains, and when I ask our local friend if there’s any wildlife in the region, he tells me that soldiers with high-powered assault rifles killed most of it during the war. The rivers my family and I raft are stunning, but our taciturn boatman doesn’t want to talk about the war despite my several attempts at this line of conversation. However, he becomes quite voluble when we tell him we live in Colorado. He has paddled there and dreams of rafting the Grand Canyon.

Perhaps these dreams of the outdoors—and the resilience that so many of us find there—can be a part of the future for Bosnia.

As I biked, hiked, and rafted around the region, I often thought about my father with gratitude for his tireless diplomatic work, which, among its lasting effects, allowed my family and me to enjoy this stellar landscape. I only hope that more and more Bosnians create a new kind of memory here that can help keep the peace my father created—and keep those ghosts at bay.

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