By Bob Myers. 5 April 2022
International trade union convoys to Bosnia were a vital reminder that the world cared about the people there and their struggles. Now’s the time for something similar for Ukraine
It is May 1995, and Bosnia is in its third year of war. I’m travelling with a Workers Aid convoy from the UK, Spain and France. After a week of driving, our dozen or so lorries arrive at the foot of Mount Milankovic, which is territory controlled by the Bosnian army. A soldier approaches us. A local volunteer, he wears jeans and plimsolls.
“Good news,” he says. “We’ve pushed the enemy back and now control the road round the mountain, but it’s under sniper fire. You can take the old track over the mountain, or this road.”
We have a convoy meeting. First-timers want to go over the mountain. Old hands want to take the other route and risk the snipers.
We are trying to get to Tuzla, a mining and industrial city of 120,000 people that has been besieged for two years.
All real roads into the city are blocked: the only way to reach Tuzla is a dirt track made during the war, complete with crazy hairpin bends and so steep in places that clutches burn out.
Lorries that get stuck often have to be pushed over the side of the mountain to keep this one track open. Drivers in the know prefer to risk the snipers, and explain why. We have to take out all the bulbs from our lorries and then drive, in total darkness, bumper to bumper behind a police car whose driver knows the way. Though the previous convoy was hit, we get through unharmed and deliver our supplies of food, mining equipment and educational material to the city’s trade unions.
Workers Aid for Bosnia was started in 1993. Everyone had seen images of extreme violence against civilians on television, but most people, including me, felt powerless. The war was reported as an ethnic conflict. Bosnia’s population was an equal mix of Croats (historically Catholics), Serbs (Eastern Orthodox) and Bosniacs (Muslims). Few people were actually religious. The media and Western political narrative was that these communities woke up one morning and started killing each other. If this was true, what could anyone do? Western policy backed the idea of geographically separating people.
It’s us, the people of Europe, who have to take matters into our own hands and give support without ulterior motives of geopolitical gain
So I watched TV, helpless with horror. That is, until a Serbian socialist started sending letters to people he knew in the UK. This was not an ethnic war, Rade Pavlovic said. The collapse of the Eastern bloc saw politicians, gangsters and outside financiers all trying to get their hands on what had been either state or public property and turn it into their private property. In Yugoslavia there was widespread workers’ opposition to this theft of their industries, which, though incoherent and unorganised, was an obstacle to the vultures. In the chaos of the collapse of Yugoslavia, the vultures sought to overcome this popular opposition by war. Croatia and Serbia thus invaded Bosnia with local nationalist militias.
Pavlovic pointed us to Tuzla, the historic birthplace of the workers’ movement in the region. Here was the city with the highest number of inter-ethnic marriages in Yugoslavia. Its workers had taken control of a large region at the outbreak of fighting and declared it a free territory – free for all ethnicities. They were surrounded by ethnic cleansers.
Pavlovic told us that Tuzla’s miners had regularly sent money to the UK National Union of Mineworkers for its strike fund during the miners’ strike in 1984 and 1985. Couldn’t the British trade unions now return the solidarity and get food to the besieged city?
A small group of people met in London to discuss Pavlovic’s proposal. We passed on his appeal to the trade unions. But we knew that a lot of UK union leaders sympathised with the Serbian leader, Slobodan Milosevic, because he claimed to be a socialist and an opponent of the US and NATO. Rather than just sit around and wait for the unions to do anything (or nothing), we decided we would organise our own convoy. I thought the idea was barmy. We were 50 people with no money, no lorries and nothing to fill them.
What I’d not reckoned on was the level of public anger at the scenes of ethnic cleansing. Once we announced our proposal for solidarity with the defence of multi-ethnic Tuzla, support began pouring in. In weeks, branches of Workers’ Aid were formed across the UK. People began collecting food and money outside supermarkets and were deluged with support. People volunteered to go on the convoy, mostly young unemployed people, but also ex-servicepeople and others.
We didn’t simply want to feed hungry people – you can do that in the UK – but to try to develop practical international solidarity and self-organisation
We bought our first lorry and began a campaigning tour starting at the Timex factory in Dundee, which was striking over layoffs, and winding down through the UK holding meetings and getting more support. We bought more lorries and obtained warehouses. Many Bosnian refugees came to pack and label supplies. Then the convoy set off, the first of many.
As our campaign developed, we gained support from grassroots trade unionists, but at the top office level we largely found hostility. Union bureaucrats told their members to give money to charities. Workers Aid was not a charity. We took sides. We didn’t simply want to feed hungry people – you can do that in the UK – but to try to develop practical international solidarity and self-organisation. This is why we also arranged for multi-ethnic delegations from Tuzla to tour Europe and tell people what was really going on.
After the war, a Tuzla miner wrote about the terrible first year of the siege, trying to find food, sheltering his wife and daughter from the shelling:
“And then, like the sun on the horizon, the most beautiful news for Tuzla and its suffering people, A CONVOY IS ARRIVING! A CONVOY FOR TUZLA MINERS! Food, clothes, shoes, school materials and medicines. Everyone waits, hoping that it will get through the blockade. We just keep hoping. In the evening, we miners make plans by candlelight how to distribute the aid. We need everything, we have nothing except for a part of our soul that is still smouldering and resisting. But for how much longer? So we wait to welcome the good people of Europe. You finally remembered us. It is nearly too late for us. But you are coming, just one step before the end.”
Some 30 years on, Russia’s war against Ukraine is a very different situation from Bosnia, but once again people need practical solidarity.
According to the UN, over four million people have left the country in fear of war. Inside Ukraine, there is a huge displacement of people from their homes, as they try to find safety and stability outside Russia’s rocket and shelling attacks.
In response, an unprecedented wave of solidarity has been shown by Ukrainians, who are delivering food, medicine and other necessary goods and evacuating people from areas under shelling.
In Bosnia and Ukraine, it appears everything is settled by the great powers. But these are the same people who start the wars
While thousands fight in the Ukrainian army and territorial defence units, workers in healthcare and emergency services are working around the clock to protect their communities and save lives.
Others are trying to find new jobs and survive as Ukraine’s economy suffers a crushing blow from Russian invasion. And they do this while Russian forces conduct a horrific siege of Mariupol – and evidence of their war crimes emerges north of Kyiv.
In Bosnia and Ukraine, it appears everything is settled by the great powers. But these are the same people who start the wars. It’s us, the people of Europe, who have to take matters into our own hands and give support without ulterior motives of geopolitical gain.
Today, I’m a pensioner and don’t have the energy I had back in 1993. But I’m heartened to see the Solidaires trade union in France is organising a convoy of medical supplies and financial aid for Ukrainian trade unions, and former participants in Workers Aid have organised a solidarity convoy to Ukraine.
Known for its massive and militant railway workers’ branch, Solidaires has made a point of finding class comrades in Ukraine, so that their aid passes directly from the hands of French organised workers to Ukrainian unions organising in the same industries. The train with the aid is going to arrive in Ukraine by the end of April or the beginning of May – a good way to celebrate the International Workers Day.
Solidaires’ own discussion of the Russian invasion could be instructive for those who want to take practical action. First, it calls for support to people in Ukraine who are directly affected by the war, including giving the “means to resist”. Second, it calls for supporting “the millions of people condemned to exile” and finally “those in Russia who oppose the war and the Putin regime”.
“Concrete action will be more useful than multiplying declarations appealing to our governments, the European Union or any other institution of the capitalist order which is part of the problem,” it concludes.
Back in Bosnia, Tuzla was never defeated, but the war left ruin and mass unemployment. In 2014, the population of Tuzla rose up in revolt against the corrupt political elite and system that the West had imposed in the Dayton Peace agreement that ended the war.
“Give us jobs, no more corruption,” was the message that came from the mass demonstrations. Young people set up a public assembly to try to take democratic control of the city.
They failed on this occasion, but they will continue – all this was only possible because Tuzla resisted ethnic division and nationalism in the first place.
As a woman from Tuzla told me after the war: “Thank you for the food. But what was even more important was that you came, you saw and we knew you would tell the world the truth about the lie of this so-called ethnic war. You gave us hope.”