Bob Parr - novel writer
Updated: Jan 2, 2019
When I decided to write Blood on the Iron Hard Ground, I knew from the outset that it would be a love story. Given that a substantive part of the narrative is set in war-torn Sarajevo, this probably seems an unlikely premise. But the truth of the place in that time was that the majority of people in the city - and indeed throughout the country of Bosnia-Herzegovina - simply wanted peace and security; a chance to live and to love, to protect their families, and to see an end to the fighting.
Working as a member of the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) in the centre of Sarajevo for almost a year over this period, I witnessed first-hand how the barbarity of war can impact people. How it can maim them and kill them for sure, but also how the perennial greyness, endless tragedy and lack of hope drove human spirit into despair and brought out the worst in people.
But also the best.
The UN at that time seemed to be forever the target of a hugely critical international news media. And it certainly attracted the vitriol of various governments, hell-bent on pursuing national agendas. In the eye of the storm, a handful of us worked at the political level with the "warring faction" leaderships; Karadzic, Mladic, Izetbegovich and the rest. Elsewhere, small patrols of our men (they know who they are) worked tirelessly and at great personal risk to enable the implementation of various peace initiatives formulated by a UN leadership in Sarajevo more keenly apprised of ground truth realities than anyone in London, New York or Washington D.C.
Meanwhile, throughout Bosnia-Herzegovina, the men and women of UNPROFOR struggled - in the face of all obstruction and difficulty - to continue their mandated task of delivering humanitarian relief. It was a task of high moral imperative, and it is a travesty of history that almost nothing has been made of the many UN lives lost in driving this mission forward. Throughout all this though, it is true that millions of people suffered, and thousands of innocent children died.
Where then, in all this, was there room for love?
The challenge of writing a novel set in the heart of conflict - particularly the form of conflict seen during the Balkan Wars of the early 1990's - is to have the reader engage with the visceral reality of war, yet draw from the narrative some sense of proportionality that reduces the epic scale of tragedy to a human level. In this story, I have tried to do this by focusing on an unlikely love affair between two members of the UN Protection Force, and by making some comment about the precious nature of innocencent young life.
It is for the reader to judge whether these devices are successful or otherwise in bringing home the consequences of conflict in a way that moves the heart.
Most of the people portrayed in this book are real, in the sense that their characters are a composite of real people. Most of the incidents portrayed here are also real; many are based on personal experience. There is one incident in particular that is central to the story, an incident that I witnessed and have kept locked away for all these years. I didn't discuss it with my colleagues in Sarajevo at the time; I simply couldn't. I still find it a painful and difficult memory; anyone who reads my book will understand what it was.
The Schindler's operation was equally real. I participated in a handful of these myself; on one occasion, entirely alone. They had no political or military significance. They were originated in a basic form by the French; taken up as a personal initiative by NC when the French had to stop; further developed at great personal risk by MS; then taken to a rare form of professionalism by GS, JLP and others during the height of the Siege... including Muki, who entrusted his life to us time and again when we had no guarantees for his protection.
Of all the things I have been involved in across the years, those operations - harking back as they did to similar initiatives conducted during World War II - give me the greatest personal satisfaction. Everyone involved should understand the enormous significance of these missions... humanitarianism with no agenda; doing something that was right, simply because it was right. In a time of terrible pain and suffering, and from the heart of a once-great European city, our interpretation of Schindler's served as a small beacon of hope for a small number of families who were, in many respects, lucky to survive.
I feel there are very few people who served with the UN in the Balkans who will not in some way feel that their lives were changed by the experience. I know this to be equally true for many of the journalists who were there too. Martin Bell of the BBC; Tim Butcher of the Daily Telegraph... there are countless others. Martin wrote eloquently of his experiences in his excellent book In Harm's Way; Tim wrote with equal eloquence in his recent book The Trigger, an account of Gavrilo Princip's path through Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia to his eventual assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on a Sarajevo street corner in 1914... an event that catalysed the Great War. Both of these writers were fundamentally affected by their time in the Balkans.
So was I.
In fact, we should all be affected. Some of those criticisms of the United Nations were justified. The Siege of Sarajevo, in particular, was an appalling example of failed leadership at a time when humanity seemed to have lost its moral compass... if it ever had one. There was an overpowering argument for intervention. But the UN was never mandated for this, and those of us on the ground were certainly not equipped for it. Ultimately, it took the resources of the United States and of NATO to bring a tremulous end to the internecine fighting, and to the humanitarian tragedy. By then, in this European country, more than a hundred thousand people had died. More yet had been injured.
My novel Blood on the Iron Hard Ground attempts to reduce these mind-numbing statistics to an understandable level. To give a sense of what it felt like to be there. And to leave an impression why, at a human level, it is so important that we never allow such a thing to happen again.
Blood on the Iron Hard Ground is available as a paperback or an ebook through Amazon/Kindle: