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Officer Norway’s Corner – A civil war in the heart of Europe

By SRO Kjell Michelsen

My next adventure out in the world on behalf of the Norwegian military presented itself in early spring of 1992, this time in (the former) Yugoslavia. The situation there had started to slowly unravel all the way back to the early 1980s when their authoritarian President Josip Tito died.

By the end of the 1980s and the fall of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact, other former independent countries that had been a part of Yugoslavia now wanted their sovereignty and independence back. In 1991, Slovenia was the first to break free from the federation, followed by Croatia, and the ingredients for civil war was set.

This time Norway had decided to send down an ambulance unit to support other UN forces in the area. We were scheduled to only be there for three months when an ambulance unit from the British Army would relieve us. But before we could deploy, some of us had to pass a pretty challenging medic course. The course usually lasts for three months, but because of the urgency, they gave us the short, intensive three-week version. Those were some long grueling days reading, memorizing, practicing and testing.

Our unit had three ambulances, all white and marked with a big red cross on each side. We were stationed in a Croatian village called Daruvar. Luck would have it that they had an old resort hotel there and that became our new home for the next three months.

This mission was indeed a surreal experience. We were in a war zone less than a two-hour flight from Norway, almost in the heart of Europe. We would often drive through the front lines, and pass burning buildings, military vehicles, dead livestock and indeed human beings, civilians and soldiers alike in the ditches and fields along the roads. In a way, it was almost like being in a dream with images from World War II, but this was real.

We had to send one of our ambulances to Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina. A few days after their arrival their hotel came under heavy artillery fire so with no time to spare they had to evacuate with other UN personnel. It was not until they came back to the town we were in that they discovered that the big red cross on the side of the ambulance had several bullet holes in it like someone had used it for a target. Luckily they all made it back in one piece.

War is always gruesome, and when you like in this civil war mix in ethnic cleansing and genocide it truly shows the worst side of human nature. Working in a war zone or even traveling to parts of the world where you see people fighting for survival makes one truly appreciate the freedoms and opportunities we are given, the blessings most of us can count on every day, or as the saying goes: “Many pray hard for what we take for granted.”

Until next time, be safe, be happy and be grateful.