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Former Peacekeeper Crowdsources On Facebook To Reconnect With Bosnian War's Childhood Survivors

Spanish UN peacekeeper Salvadoro Andres Pelaez with 8-year-old Haris Behram and his cousin, 11-year-old Almir Behram, in a 1993 photo from Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Spanish UN peacekeeper Salvadoro Andres Pelaez with 8-year-old Haris Behram and his cousin, 11-year-old Almir Behram, in a 1993 photo from Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina.

SARAJEVO -- Salvador Andres Pelaez is still doing his best to keep the peace.

Just this month, the former Spanish peacekeeper rekindled old friendships from a foreign war that ended almost three decades ago.

Pelaez spent six months in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1993-94 as part of a UN contingent protecting civilians amid overlapping conflicts for control of territory in the former Yugoslav republic.

Thanks to an online network of veterans of international stabilization and peacekeeping efforts there, he reconnected in January with childhood survivors of the war.

"These children taught me the great values of life," Pelaez told RFE/RL's Balkan Service after being in touch with some of the Bosnians who, as children, had buzzed around him and other UN Protection Force (UNPROFOR) troops while tragedy unfolded around them in Mostar and nearby towns.

"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 100,000 or so residents died in the 1992-95 Bosnian War.

The fighting for Mostar and its iconic 16th-century Old Bridge over the Neretva River became a powerful symbol of the ethnic and religious enmities that wracked the region and charged multiple wars.

Over the course of successive sieges -- the first pitting Serbs against Croats and Bosniaks and the second pitting Croats against Bosniaks -- Mostar was transformed from a picturesque mix of religions and cultures to a symbol of division and stalemate that lasted for decades after the guns fell silent.

While it has a single mayor and city council, it is still afflicted by parallel institutions that emerged from the kind of ethnic and political rivalries that have paralyzed Bosnia-Herzegovina more broadly since the 1995 Dayton Agreement.

'Less Shooting With Them Around'

One of the young men Pelaez was back in touch with this month is Haris Behram, who as an 8-year-old along with other boys spent long days nearby the Spaniards and their armored vehicle on the east bank of the Neretva, in the center of Mostar.

"We played around those transporters for two years," Behram, now a thirtysomething entrepreneur in Mostar, told RFE/RL. He said he and the other children stayed within 200 or so meters of the peacekeepers for protection from stray grenades, artillery, or gunfire. "If I told someone that now, they'd tell me [that's like] being in prison."

Haris Behram in Mostar today.
Haris Behram in Mostar today.

The soldiers frequently shared their rations, Behram said, with one of the foreigners' ready-made 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 that we played a lot and there was less shooting because there were UNPROFOR [troops] there," Almir Behram, who is now a firefighter, said. "I also remember that they gave us food, but I don't like to remember that time too much."

Almir Behram
Almir Behram

In an allusion to the majority Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs who fought over the fate of the former Yugoslav territory at the time, Haris Behram told RFE/RL that "all three sides have three [separate] stories" about the conflict.

"Whoever was under occupation, I wouldn't want to repeat it to him," he said.

He said his most vivid memory illustrating the significance of the international peacekeeping efforts in his country was seeing Bosnian women and children lying in the street in a failed bid to prevent the UN contingent from leaving Mostar.

'Is This A War Or A Playground?'

UN peacekeepers including Pelaez were deployed to Mostar and other Bosnian towns after hostilities escalated between Bosniaks and Croats in 1993.

Pelaez recently recalled the first thing he saw when the doors swung open of the armored vehicle that sped him and his fellow peacekeepers into central Mostar after they arrived in September 1993.

"The first thing I saw was the children," he told RFE/RL.

Many were asking for food and sweets, he said, others for pens and paper.

"I wondered, 'For God's sake, what's going on here? Is this a war here or a playground?'"

The Neretva River effectively separated an eastern portion of the city, defended by the nascent Army of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and a western portion defended by the Croatian Defense Council.

Fighting simmered with occasional flare-ups of artillery fire for the next two years, until the Washington Agreement ended the conflict between the Croat and Bosniak sides in 1994 and the Dayton agreement followed with a more comprehensive regional peace among Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks in late 1995.

Around 25,000 troops served the UNPROFOR mission over more than three years and provided considerable humanitarian aid but were unsuccessful at ending the fighting, most spectacularly in the failure to protect 8,000 Muslim men and boys encircled by Bosnian Serb forces at Srebrenica in 1995.

A NATO-led Implementation Force followed to enforce the 1995 Dayton agreement, giving way to an EU force in 2004 that still maintains hundreds of soldiers in Bosnia, where Bosniaks are the majority with sizable Croat and Serb minorities.

Pelaez and some of his former comrades from the Madrid contingent returned to Mostar in 2018 to mark 25 years since their UNPROFOR deployment.

Pelaez (left) and fellow UN peacekeepers in Mostar in 1993-94.
Pelaez (left) and fellow UN peacekeepers in Mostar in 1993-94.

But they didn't manage to track down any of the civilians they'd protected decades earlier.

Three years later, Pelaez turned to Facebook, with better results.

'Everyone Was Trying To Help Us'

The Bosnia Veterans page was set up as a forum for former UN and NATO troops who served during the 1992-95 Bosnian War, and now includes around 8,400 members.

It is full of shared images and reminiscences, as well as crowdsourced efforts to identify people and places.

Pelaez joined the group about a year ago.

In a post earlier this month, he shared his story and wartime photos alongside children "with whom I shared many days of games and the little fun that I could provide them in their childhood."

Pelaez holds an infant alongside other children in Mostar.
Pelaez holds an infant alongside other children in Mostar.

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 picture, he said.

"When I left town in 1994, I thought about how they would survive, how they'd grow up," Pelaez said. "I had a lot of questions in my head."

He said he plans to travel to Bosnia this year to meet some of those survivors, and to show his wife places like Mostar, Jablanica, and Sarajevo.

He recalled some of his visit three years ago -- before the current intensification of political efforts to divide the country -- suggesting that there is cause for hope.

"I saw a lot of destroyed buildings that haven't been repaired since the war," Pelaez said. "But people are trying to live in peace. They say, 'OK, we fought a war, but now we want to survive.' I think people are ready for that."

With contributions by Andy Heil in Prague

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