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Sunday, May 28, 2006

CDs, Get Your CDs Here

The war in the Balkans had ruined the economy. Most heavy industry had suffered and there was little light industry. Susbsistence farming had been a way of life for many but the ethnic cleansing and presence of mines prevented people from returning to their old way of life. For many of the younger generation the prospect of returning to an isolated village with no electricity or running water after a few years living in a major town was not a pleasant one.

So how do you make a living in a country like that?

It was quite simple really. You flogged CDs of dubious copyright legality to the peacekeeping forces stationed in your country. On some of the main routes there would be a small shack selling all the latest hits every mile or so. Outside some of the main SFOR camps there would be a whole host of outlets - all promising you the latest tunes at the cheapest prices.

The squaddies loved it.

And when your only opportunity for retail therapy for 6 months was buying CDs - you bought CDs.

Looking back at my CD collection now you can tell when I was in the Balkans by the number of crap CDs I own from a particular year. Did I really need that R Kelly - Singles Collection, I'm now wondering.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

A Trip Up Route Gull

During my first tour in Bosnia I wasn't working in a normal infantry platoon. The job I was doing got me out and about all over the country and I routinely journeyed from one end of the Battalion area to the other.

This suited me fine and the more of the country I saw the more I loved it. One day I hope to go back with my wife and travel along some of the routes.

My favourite stretch of road was Route Gull. Wending its way north, following the line of the Vrbas river. A trip along it was never dull.

Beginning in the fertile, farmed areas you'd overtake hand drawn carts piled impossibly high with hay. The wife stoically plodding along while the husband sauntered along, scythe over his shoulder and the inevitable cigarette smouldering away.

Not surprisingly, the plains had seen much fighting and as you drove through some villages with not a single house left with its roof, you could see the progess of the battles.

As Route Gull connected up with the river the terrain changed. Foothills sprung up either side of the road. The route, orginally a cattle path, had somehow been clawed out of the space between the steep rocky walls of the valley and the river.

Hairpins every hundred metres or so combined with the eccentricities of the average Bosnian driver made this stretch of the route intresting to say the least. You would have thought that the presence of the rusting hulk of a car every mile or so in the river bed would have served as some sort of warning. Whether the war had made life cheap or whether the average Bosnian driver actually believed that they were invincible is a debatable point. Whatever the case maybe overtaking on hairpin bends was the norm rather than the exception.

As the route moved further north it climbed up one side of the hillside giving views back down onto the river. Perched on top of a small rocky outcrop on the other side of the valley, a small decaying stone hillfort dating back to the Ottoman Empire, offered a reminder that the situation here dated back hundreds of years.

Eventually Route Gull pops out of the Vrbas valley into the plains near Banja Luka. I can't remember exactly where the route names changed but eventually you'd join up with a 'motorway'. This offered its own unique driving challenges. A single lunatic driver overtaking on a hairpin was one thing. A steady stream of lunatic drivers convinced beyond doubt that they were the only individual with right of way was a completely different kettle of fish.

For anyone interested I found a great collection of photos of Bosnia here.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

A Week Of Interesting Questions.

At the moment (I.E not in the memoir) I've had a very boring week. The upside is that it's been with a good bunch of blokes I didn't know before. Topics of conversation to date:

  • What makes a biscuit a biscuit, a cake a cake, and a chocolate bar a chocolate bar? Where do Twix, Jaffa Cakes and Tunnocks Caramel Wafers fit into the equation?
  • What would win in a fair fight - a crocodile or a great White Shark? - We decided it depended whether the fight was in the water or not - on land the Shark is pretty useless.
  • If you had to spend 5 years travelling to Mars and back which 2 female celebrities would you take to accompany you?
  • Who is harder - Batman or Spiderman?
The questions have run a little dry the last couple of days - any suggestions?

Sunday, May 14, 2006

About Town

The town we'd been deployed to was perhaps fairly representative of the country as a whole.

Prior to the war the town had been of mixed ethnic groups and the Bosnian Croats and Bosniacs had lived quite happily together.

During the early stages of the conflict the area had been defended against a Bosnian Serb advance.

Later on when infighting between Bosnian Croats and Bosniacs had broken out in the country the town split.

The main road through the town had become a front line with Bosnian Croats on one side and Bosniacs on the other. Former neighbours and friends had become bitter enemies.

Although the fighting had ended by the time I arrived the results of the conflict were still very evident. Bullets had pockmarked every house close to the road. Roofless houses, an enduring sight from the country, were everywhere. The open areas around the town were now draped with white tape and signs warning of minefields. The population remained deeply suspicious of each other.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Things I Hate About The Army - #2

I've been forcibly reminded this week that there's a slight difference between the kingsize double bed I'm used to and something that feels about 2 feet wide, my feet hang over the end and the springs are that slack that it feels like I'm in a hammock.

Ah - the joy that is an army bed in transit accomodation.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Name That Road

Whenever the army go anywhere they rename the road system.

It makes sense really. You move into a war torn country and road signs are likely to be lacking somewhat.

So the nice chappies in the Royal Military Police take along a lot of signs with little symbols on them and rename the roads. You can sometimes see the signs on roads around the UK if there's been a major exercise.

In Bosnia we had Route Gull (which was my favourite and more on that another day), Route Square and Route Diamond. There were a host of others that I can't remember now.

So my question is this. If you could rename a road in this country what would you call it and why?


Overheard at Twickenham yesterday:

Squaddie: "So how's this compare with the crowd you get at an international match?"

Policeman: "Well you get far more twats at the internationals but you lot are professional drinkers."

Is that a compliment?

Friday, May 05, 2006


I can almost feel the hangover already.

I'm going to be busy for the next few weeks so I probably won't be posting as much.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Am I Living In Box, Am I Living in a....

The mere mention of a Corimec will bring out a wry smile in some squaddies and a cold sweat in others.

A prefabricated box about 4m long and 2m wide it would accomodate anything between 1 and 4 soldiers.

In the early versions you were lucky if you got a window that opened or a functioning heater. These days if you are lucky you get aircon.

When I turned up and 'moved in' to my Corimec in Bosnia the first thing I noticed was the elaborate guttering that the previous occupant had fashioned out of polystyrene cups.

It was certainly going to be interesting when it rained.

* - Pictures from this website.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Show and Tell

Courtesy of the lovely Annie who is the kind of cool teacher I wish I'd had at school. So tonights homework is explaining my links list:

After The Rat Race - Laura has turned her back on a high faluting lifestyle and is back studying - when she's not finding excuses not to.

Backroads - funny bits and pieces. He doesn't like other peoples children by the way - that's still better than me - I don't particularly like my own.

BoyOnTop - a recent addition - the Boy within the Man. Mainly domestic goings on which I can relate to.

Brom Man - not around as much as he used to be. Scientist and part-time musician.

Copper's Blog - the now infamous David Copperfield relates the trials and tribulations of modern day policing. And it's funny too.

Chav Mum - funny, very funny.

Chez Milady - lots and lots of poo, sex and drinking - sounds appealing huh? Funny (if you hadn't noticed I like funny).

D Flat Chime Bar - a Surly Girl being surly (and humourous - see how I looked up another word for funny there).

Earth Girl - one of the first blogs I ever read - she ditched a boring job and is travelling for a year.

Easily Lead - great photos of somewhere I love and lots of other interesting stuff too.

Everything Is Electric - a gelastic blog (according to Rogets that's another word for funny - sounds a bit rude if you ask me).

Four Dinners - pretends he doesn't give a f**k - obviously does. And he's a trade union rep as well.

GirlOnATrain - short and too the point. And now my music library is much bigger.

GirlWithA - Pink's not very happy at the minute so pop over and say hi - oh and if you ask nicely she sometimes posts pictures of her bum and boobs.

Greavsie - nice bloke and waggish with it.

Guyana Gyal - fantastic tales and fabulous writing.

Haggiswurst - tales from a local council.

Happy Dave - bits and pieces from a bloke who's happy.

I Am Livid - says what I'm usually thinking. Dryer than a dry martini.

I'm Not A Drain On Society - Merys is going to be a doctor one day.

Informationally Overloaded - beautiful blog, fascinating content.

JonnyB - FUNNY.

JustJane - lovely lady.

L'Oiseau - get yourself a hat, she's getting married.

LittleRedBoat - Anna is a much better writer than most of her colleagues at the Guardian.

Mrs Soldier - the missus - nuff said!

MyBoyfriendIsATwat - yes he might be but he likes Kylie. Zoe's blog is rapidly becoming the U2 of blog award ceremonies.

NF Girl - she's notoriously fickle apparently. Not Safe For Work. Definitely not safe for you mum and dad.

Past Imperfect - Pat finally started a blog and it's fascinating.

Petite Anglaise - another blog superstar, currently missing in action but I'm sure she'll be back soon.

Seize The Nite - every post a drama in itself.

Slaminsky - she started this - blame her. Oh and send her a postcard.

Special Copper - doing a job I wouldn't want to get paid for and doing it for free.

Status Anxiety - come back Anxious we love you!

Trolley Park - has a strange fetish for trolleys. Oh and she's an artist too.

Vitrolica Webb'site - lovely pictures which frequently adorn my desktop.

View Through My Window - another dad trying to get through life and managing to make it funny too.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Gentlemen Start Your Engines

Apparently instead of having Formula One car racing in Croatia they prefered to race coaches.

At least that was the only reason I could think of for the driver having fitted racing slicks to his vehicle.

Which was a really comforting thought as the driver began to negotiate a series of hair pin bends on our way out of Split.

As we gained height you could look down on Split itself. From above there was a stark contrast between the traditional architecture and the stark concrete blocks that had arisen during the communist era.

Sitting there I began to wonder about the driver. He would certainly have been of military age during the conflict.

Had he killed people? Had he fought decently or committed atrocities? Had he fought at all?

This was a question that regularly ran through mind during my time in the Balkans. It was also one which was very rarely answered. Few people would admit to having fought and those who did were very reticent about what they had experienced.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Leaving On A Jet Airplane

We'd been training for several months and now it was time to get on the plane. Apart from the language and history training we'd spent weeks practicing our shooting. We'd practiced patrolling around a pretend village that looked like it belonged more in West Belfast than Western Bosnia. We'd learnt what to do if we ended up in one of the many minefields still in existence (stay very, very still).

The Bosnia we were flying into wasn't one of daily sniping and mortar attacks - the Dayton Peace agreement had been signed sometime earlier. We were still going to be keeping the peace however.

We flew out to Split airport on a Sabena airlines 747.

We spent most of the flight ogling the pretty Belgian stewardesses.

I'm fairly certain the slightly camp Belgian steward spent most of the flight returning the favour with interest. Top of the British Blogs