You’ve won a 2 week an all-expense paid trip to scenic Bosnia!

I was an election supervisor in Bosnia.    I happened to be ‘in the right place at the right time’ and was asked to apply for the position.  Here is how it happened.

I was doing some program development for CHP International in 1996 when we got a broadcast fax asking for people with both election supervisory  experience and experience in a crisis situation overseas—-& Howard Raik, my ‘boss’, laughed and said, “Robyn! That’s you!”

Guilty.  I have been a judge of election in the City of Chicago for over 20 years, and, due to my experience in Malawi, I was uniquely qualified.

I didn’t know if I wanted to do it.  I mean, there was a war going on.  But Howard said I had to apply.  It would be a trip of a lifetime.  Really?

The Chicago Tribune even interviewed a few of us:  “Yes, I am from Chicago, and I am here to see that you have a free and fair election.”  Right….  & as the Chicago Board of Elections  said, “If there’s anything they will be able to recognize, it’s fraud…”

So I did. The organization looking was the United Nations, & I would be a UN Volunteer.  I would be working for the Organization for the Security  and Cooperation in Europe.  They were really looking for lawyers, but they couldn’t get enough volunteers. As the news of bombings was reported, the lawyers were dropping out.

I was also grooming dogs at the time. It was September. Although September is not a busy time, the person I was grooming dogs for gave me grief because she wanted me available. She did not want to tell her clients they had to wait because I was  working on a democracy issue in Bosnia.

I barely knew where Bosnia was.  I knew where Yogoslavia was, but at the time, there was still confusion of what would be called what.  Not only that, I could not find much on the internet.  It was 1996, and any info available was rudimentary.

‘They’ called me a week ahead of time, told me to go to O’Hare airport, and gave me the flight number. They told me my name was on the list—just bring my passport.  I had an electronic ticket.  We flew to Paris, and someone held up a sign after we cleared immigration there, and led us to another flight—to Split, Croatia. From there, we were assigned, and those going to Banja Luka (the capital of the Republic of Srbska in Bosnia-Hersegovia) got on another bus, and  after what seemed about  two hours (it was actually more like 6 hours, but I was sleeping), we got to our next staging area.

The OSCE with UN soldiers began out preliminary training. We were given  first aid kits, radios (which never worked), election supplies, and our per diems in German Marks.  I am no mathematical whiz, but you learn to calculate values quickly, because we paid for living expenses in Marks & were given change in Dinars.

We were  introduced to our interpreters & drivers, & they took us to apartments that were rented for us.  Banja Luka is a good size city, so I really lucked out.  There was a lot to see and do in the city, and we were free to walk around—as so much area was paved.  Many people who volunteered were in more rural areas. They could not go out of their hotels because so much of the area was mined.

The first actual day we were in Bosnia, we went for preliminary training. We were told how we would be trained, how we would get election supplies, where we would be assigned, and what our actual duties were.  This session did not last more than a few hours.

We went out to eat, sometimes joined by our interpreters & drivers, every night.  Someone had told me that the Serbs always smoked, even during dinner.  It was true. Cigarette smoke was all over.

The next day, we went for  ‘land mine training.’  Much of the world’s governments have banned the manufacture and use of land mines—but  not the United States—because we have manufacturers here.  The problem with landmines is that they are rarely mapped:  ‘fighters’ just sprinkle them around. They are not collected after the war is over, & so many innocent civilians lose limbs.  We were all given maps of the country which showed where landmines were laid down, and shown the pins of landmines.  These devices are very small—the size of poker chips—& you’d never see the pins, once they are buried.

The next  day, we met our counterparts & saw where  we’d be working the election.  I was assigned to Celinac, a rural community in the mountains.    We were also given some training on using the radios. The problem was, however, that  the radio signals don’t go through mountains, and so they didn’t work.

That night, there was a demonstration in downtown Banja Luka.  We did not know the details. It was not to advocate boycotting the elections, and it was peaceful, but the tension was palpable.

The following day, we got more training on the logistics of how the election—to be held over  2 weekend days, would  be handled.  There were about  20 political parties on the ballot.  All  with ‘socialist’ something in their names.  We met with some of the ‘party regulars’ who would be allowed to oberve.  I sort of joked about how they coulkdn’t say anything, & said, “NO Kibbitzing,” and they totally understood what I meant.

I asked my interpreter how people could tell which party from which, and she told me that  party people went out and visited.  Another thing to keep in mind was that in many places, unless people had satellite dishes, they did not get TV or radio. They were eager for information.

But what I was most curious about was that all urban housing in Banja Luka had been  ‘public’ housing—owned by the (former) government of Yugoslavia.  If you wanted to own property, you  could own rural property, but—to prevent speculation & inflated ‘land rents’—the government owned the land.  Most people don’t realize that this is how many urban areas around the world are.  You can get a 99-year lease, and build on a plot, & this would be your hedge against inflation.  Our capitalist government isn’t too keen on that idea—- although anyone who has bought a condominium on Native American land owns this way.

I had brought craft materials with me.  I was sure I would find a woman’s group, and, as it happened, my interpreter knew of one.  Everyone I was staying with had laughed at me for bringing the stuff: buttons, beads, embroidery thread—but the women’s group was overjoyed to have the stuff. I bought doilies and a lace curtain from them.  They were also selling sweaters, but they weren’t ‘me’.  Iwas able to inform the others in my group, and they  also went to the women’s center to buy  crafts.

In any case, the election was held over the weekend.  Any place in the world, it starts out the same.  You get up early & set up the election ‘station’  people are assigned job tasks.  My ‘job’ was just to observe & answer questions.  We actually had soldiers in uniform—with guns, thanks to the UN, from the Swiss Army.  Yes—there  actually is a Swiss Army, and they wear a sort of purple  camouflage pattern.

It was amazing how orderly things were, and also how a turnout we got.  In the end, it was over 90%.  Problems? In that part of the world, with a high degree of macho, many men wanted to vote for their wives.  Even though they had been told that this would not be allowed, several still tried, and it was up to me to tell them that that era was over.

Sunday was a miserable, drizzly, chilly day, and things were going very slowly.  I realized that the problem was that, with so many ‘socialist parties’, people could not find their party on the ballot.   We had an oversize sample ballot in the hallway, and what I did was tell people to  look at that oversize sample ballot, & either count from the top how far down their party was, or how far up their party was from the bottom, so when they got in the room to vote, they would be able to find their party easily, and  things would go more quickly.  & it did.  At one point, we ran out of the spray used to  spray fingers to indicate people had voted so they would not vote elsewhere).  I told the  Bosnians to just fill the bottle with water.  It was 3:p.m. Sunday afternoon.  We realy had to go through the motions at that point.

Everything went smoothly.  After the polls closed, with soldiers still out in the hall, we counted the ballots.  Over 90% had voted for 1 party. Amazing.  There were election supplies leftover:  tape, pens,pencils, mainly office supplies.  I knew they’d be trashed if I brought them back to OSCE, so I just handed them out.

The party regulars had planned a dinner party for after the counting was over:  pickles,  roasted lamb, and lots of slivovitz and vodka.  We all were really tired & wanted to get  back to Banja Luka, but they insisted, so we sat down for about 1/2 hour & ate & drank.

We were given Monday off, but debriefed on Tuesday. Everything went very well. Then, OSCE & the army guys wanted the leftover supplies back. As most of us were Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, we told them we had all given the stuff away.  Also, being Americans, we wanted souvenirs.  I took photos, but  that wasn’t enough.  One of our group had T-shirts made, with the OSCE (organization for security & cooperation in Europe) logo, but with the words “Operation for Spreading Confusion in Europe” under it.  But the best thing I got was the OFFICIAL SWISS ARMY KNIFE—and it is even inscribed “Peace keeping forces Bosnia-Herzegovina 1996” The best souvenir.  I was only able to get one. they ran out.

To get out of Bosnia—we had to go to Croatia, and that was an over 10 hour bus ride.  Bosnia had been trashed. There was evidence of the war everywhere.

We flew to Paris and had a 4 hour layover.  I badly wanted to see the Eiffel Tower.  I was advised to not even try, because the  metro system was slow, but I did, and I got within a mile of it, and it was great, and I returned to the airport and flew home.

The end.  Nobody in America really cared.

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