In a couple of days of cheating, I am continuing the tale of my trip to Sarajevo in 2004 that I started yesterday….
After half an hour I felt the change in air pressure in my ears and sensed the plane descending. The attendant walked through the cabin examining seat belts. I wondered how many she would find undone.
I could see an ocean out of the window; grey in the distance becoming bluer and bluer the closer we came. I gripped my hands into fists, tight in my lap. As the wheels hit the ground I held my breath until I felt the brakes pull me backwards. As the plane pulled up to taxiing speed the man beside me let out a single convulsed sob, as people behind us began clapping.
The plane stopped some distance from the airport building, a forbidding Soviet era grey block, built of browning concrete fraying at the edges, leaking rusty stripes from the three visible windows.
There was none of that activity that is usually on display at airports, no little trucks drawing baggage trailers, no petrol tankers; no men wearing ear mufflers waving orange and white table tennis bats. Nothing. The airport looked closed.
The engines stopped. The silence on the plane was short lived as everyone behind me was on their feet emptying overhead lockers and pushing their way forward.
A camouflaged green and brown truck approached us. A dozen or so soldiers, green uniforms, black boots, hard hats, and automatic weapons ready in their hands, surrounded the ‘plane.
‘It doesn’t look like we were expected,’ my neighbour said.
From my vantage point I could see the front door of the plane open and a set of steps extend to the ground. The pilot walked down and stood at the bottom, looking around at the soldiers. How old are you when you watch an airline pilot and wonder at his extreme youth? I realised I had reached that age at that very moment.
A young man in a well-tailored Lufthansa pilot’s uniform, he stood beside the plane he had barely recovered from disaster less than an hour before, his hands outstretched palm upwards towards the officer in charge of the truck full of soldiers. He took a mobile phone from his pocket and carefully dialled a number. He concentrated intently on his conversation, his eyes on the ground, avoiding looking at the soldiers around him. Then he climbed back into the ‘plane and stood in the aisle and made a long announcement in German.
‘What is he saying?’ the man next to me asked. I shrugged my shoulders.
‘Speak English,’ a man shouted.
The pilot stopped abruptly. ‘We are in Split. We cannot land here. We fly back to Munich and try again tomorrow.’
An immediate roar of protest erupted from the passengers, who I had now deduced to be mainly Bosnians. One large man pressed forward and puffing himself into his chest stood only a few inches from the pilot and shouted ‘Let us off plane. We go to Sarajevo not Munich.’
The pilot retreated until his back was against the flight deck door.
‘I cannot fly to Sarajevo from here. We are in Split. It is Croatia. Croatia is a different country to Bosnia.’
The passenger let out a barking shout. ‘We know. We have war to prove it.’
The captain raised his hands. ‘We have no permission to fly from Croatia to Bosnia.’
‘Impossible!’ the man shouted. Others joined in. Now everyone who thirty minutes before had been terrified and praying that the nerve and skill of the pilot would hold had forgotten their overwhelming feelings of relief to be safely on the ground again, and were angry and mutinous.
‘I get off plane,’ the man shoved his chest closer.
‘Wait. I call Germany again.’ The pilot walked back down the steps onto the tarmac and spoke into his phone. He returned.
‘You can leave here. If you want Lufthansa to care for you, you must stay in the plane and return to Germany, stay in a hotel. Tomorrow we try again.’
My expectation of a bus ride from Split to Sarajevo courtesy of Lufthansa was dashed. Of course, this was the Balkans, things would be different here. A few months before this trip, a flight I had taken to Lyon had been diverted to Geneva and British Airways had provided coaches to take us back into France. But that was ‘normal’ Europe; this was the Balkans. Lufthansa couldn’t arrange for us to cross the border between Croatia and Bosnia. I was reminded of that saying ‘you’d have been much better off not starting from here.’
So I had a stark choice. Get off the plane and take my chances in an apparently closed airport with an armed welcoming committee, or fly back to Germany. I had no idea what to do. I had two phone numbers for L, at the office and the flat she shared with two other students. But I knew she would be at neither place as she would be at the airport waiting for me.
I called the office number and let it ring 20, 30 times. Then I tried the flat number. I couldn’t bear to listen to it ring unanswered. I didn’t know what I would do next, so I just let it ring.