How Workers Organised Aid During the Bosnian War

The activities of International Workers Aid during the 1993-1995 war in Bosnia and Herzegovina proved the power of solidarity – and gave the Left a model of internationalism we can emulate today.

On the way to Tuzla: IWA truck waiting at an HVO checkpoint near Mostar, with Ulrik Kohl, 1994. Credit: Thomas Proctor

Bosnia and Herzegovina is mired in a spiralling crisis. Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik has been chipping away at the country’s constitutional order for years, eroding the authority of the international bodies tasked with implementing the Dayton Agreement that ended the 1992-1995 war and overseeing the peace. But recently things have come to a head, as Dodik has brought forward laws that would see the Bosnian Serb entity withdraw from state institutions and form their own army—a provocation which, if enacted, would demolish the fragile peace and open a path to renewed conflict.

Nicolas Moll’s history of International Workers Aid (IWA), Solidarity is more than a slogan: International workers aid during and after the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, is therefore timely. For readers new to the Bosnian conflict, it explains the war’s twists and turns. By committing the story of IWA to print, he provides a valuable study of a key ‘solidarity mobilisation’ of the ’90s, highlighting the joys and tensions involved, and with lessons for those keen to offer solidarity today. But most of all, the book tells the story of a group of young people who, incensed by the brutal violence against Bosnia’s defenders, turned off their TVs and decided to act.

The story begins with a journey and a sectarian split. A convoy of 15 trucks with the UK-based organisation Workers Aid for Bosnia (WAB) is driving to the besieged city of Tuzla. They approach the Croatian town of Županja near the Bosnia border. Things feel tense, and they hear shelling in the distance. ‘Nobody on the convoy was really prepared for this,’ one volunteer recalls. ‘We were all exhausted and afraid.’

Tuzla lies 80 kilometres ahead, but the route crosses Serb lines and it’s too dangerous to go on. The convoy returns to Zagreb and donates most of their aid to refugee camps there. But three trucks, one Swedish and two British, decide to push on to Tuzla by the longer ‘southern route’ through Bosnian Croat (HVO) territory. They arrive in the Croatian city of Split in late October, and while there, a conference is arranged to take place in Manchester, UK, to discuss the tense situation and what to do next.

One of the first three IWA trucks in Tuzla, November 1993. Credit: Jenny Mees

The war came at a time of fragmentation on the British Left. The formation of the SDP in 1981 had divided the left vote; Thatcher’s ‘shock therapy’ saw three million unemployed by 1983; the defeat of the miners in 1985 smashed the back of the trade union movement; and any remaining islands of municipal socialism, such as the Greater London Council, were wiped out. These centrifugal forces, along with the shockwaves from the fall of the Berlin Wall, split the parliamentary Left when fighting erupted in Bosnia in spring 1992.

A faction around Tony Benn demanded a policy of non-intervention, if not tacit support, for Milosevic’s ‘rump’ Yugoslavia through the Committee for Peace in the Balkans, while MPs aligned with former Tribune editor Michael Foot supported an independent, multi-ethnic Bosnia through Labour Friends of Bosnia. The extra-parliamentary Left, too, struggled to keep a consistent ideological line after the collapse of ‘actually existing socialism’, and lead figures in Workers’ Aid for Bosnia were members of the Workers Revolutionary Party, a group known for baroque theorising and internal feuds.

Swedish IWA member Ulf B Andersson describes the atmosphere at the Manchester meeting in October 1993: ‘Each small sect has its own newspaper in which the working class is informed about the right path to the revolution. Capitalism is constantly moving towards its downfall and the events of our time are preferably analysed with a map and compass taken from the 1917 storming of the winter palace.’

At the meeting, international delegates protest the authoritarian way decisions are being taken and the position adopted on the first day: to expose the UN’s ‘dirty’ role in the war and force open the ‘northern corridor’ to Tuzla despite the policy’s likelihood of failure, or worse, injury to the volunteers themselves. The next day, the internationals, along with several British delegates who share their misgivings, split to form International Workers Aid (IWA), a new organisation based on four principles: Solidarity with workers of the Balkans! No to ethnic cleansing and ethnic partition! Solidarity with multi-ethnic Bosnia! Asylum rights for all those fleeing the war in ex-Yugoslavia!

The IWA aims to organise ‘political, material, and humanitarian aid’ to forces in the former Yugoslavia who oppose the war and all forms of ‘national chauvinism’. United around a common platform, decisions are taken by consensus, but national groups have autonomy. ‘This would be a broad organisation with no hidden agendas from obscure left groups,’ writes Ulf B Andersson. ‘The goal was to fight against the war by providing support for the multi-ethnic forces in Bosnia and to persuade Europe’s unions to finally, after 18 months of war, engage with their abandoned sisters and brothers in the Balkans.’

While the Manchester meeting splits the movement, the three trucks leave Split on 4 November, cajole their way through HVO checkpoints, enter Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina-controlled territory, and arrive on the evening of 8 November 1993 after a two-month journey. ‘Tears came to our eyes as we saw this sign: Tuzla.’

Inside the IWA office in Makarska, 1995, with Michel Wenzer (left), one of the convoy leaders, and Peter Öholm. from the office staff. Credit: Hanspeter Gysin

From December 1993, after the split, the IWA establish the infrastructure that sustains their work over the next seven years. A co-ordination committee manages the efforts of the national groups (including Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, and the UK); a logistics centre in Split opens in March 1994 before moving to Makarska a month later; and an office opens in Tuzla in September 1994. While each national campaign handles their own finances, a common budget is agreed to cover the costs of the Makarska and Tuzla offices that works on a sliding scale, with the better-funded campaigns paying more, though all groups have equal voting rights at the international meetings which happen three or four times a year.

What did the IWA do? The Bread Programme was the IWA’s core activity during the war, taking donations of food and other materials to Tuzla where it was distributed by the Miners’ Trade Union. As well as food aid, a women’s convoy brought hygiene products for the Tuzlan Women’s Association, and equipment for schools and medical equipment was brought into the city.

The IWA also launched long-term structural projects that continued after the war. They funded a trade union magazine, Sindikalna Informacija, the first issue coming out in December 1995 (later renamed Rudar) and a women’s magazine Pogled Zena (Women’s View) in 1996. They established the women’s centre IVA Saliniana the following year, providing training, support, and an emergency line for women suffering domestic abuse. In contrast to other well-funded NGOs, all IWA volunteers paid their own costs; their Tuzla office was located in a residential flat; and their first means of transport, a bicycle, was replaced by an old Zastava and then a beaten-up Volvo estate.

But what they lacked in funds they made up in other ways. At an online event to launch the book, Lejla Majdancic, former Head of International Affairs at the University of Tuzla Students’ Union, described the wartime situation in Tuzla: ‘At that time, we had already too many international humanitarian organisations but they were not listening to us. They were bringing food to refugees,’ she says. ‘We were not refugees. We were not allowed to have that humanitarian aid. And we were suffering a lot.’ She also touched on the effect the IWA volunteers had on people trapped in the besieged city. ‘To have people beside us, with us, who were listening to us, supporting us, talking with us, that was really a great thing.’

The book doesn’t shy away from the problems the IWA faced, however. As well as the difficulties involved in bringing aid to war-torn Bosnia, including the loss of two trucks on the Mount Igman road to Sarajevo, the organisation faced flagging support from donors later on and the toll of years of activism. The projects in Tuzla didn’t always go to plan either. When Pogled Zena came out, for example, IWA members expecting a political slant were disappointed to read about Richard Gere and Cindy Crawford’s divorce. The minutes of one meeting reflect that ‘no project actually turned out like we wanted it to,’ but rather than the organisation imposing its own priorities, Moll describes their policy of devolving power to locals as a strength, despite the problems this may have caused at times.

What explains the IWA’s success? The book shows how organisational pragmatism and a ‘considered solidarity’—solidarity as a practice which respected the dignity of the recipients—helped them negotiate the tensions involved in the work, one issue being relations with bodies like the UN, the main humanitarian organisation in Bosnia during the war. The first WAB convoy had blockaded UN headquarters in Zagreb at its refusal to open the northern route, and many in the IWA were unhappy about cooperating with an organisation they saw as prolonging the agony of the Bosnians and appeasing the Serbs.

Yet non-involvement had its costs. As well as losing access to information, they would have lost the UN identity cards essential to the security of the convoys, as well as access to UN helicopters flying from Tuzla to Split. The IWA was also reticent about working with the European Community, who at one point donated several tonnes of beans marked with the European flag. Several members argued against taking the food, calling it ‘propaganda’, but they finally agreed to deliver the goods due to the time, money, and goodwill already invested. ‘We do not agree with it. Don’t let it happen again in the future, and it is finished.’

IWA convoy in Central Bosnia, 1994. Credit: Thomas Proctor

Tensions also flared around the NATO bombing campaign of late August 1995, a move driven by the fall of the UN ‘safe areas’ in eastern Bosnia and the genocide at Srebrenica. Several did actually leave the German IWA branch around this time, accusing other members of being ‘counter-revolutionaries, conservatives and imperialists’, but the organisation kept a neutral stance on NATO and other contentious issues. ‘Cooperation was in IWA’s DNA’, Moll writes, and any partisan activity would have jeopardised the organisation’s work in Bosnia, and its capacity to support the development of civil society in Tuzla.

The book’s title, ‘Solidarity is more than a slogan’, draws attention to the sloganeering common to the Left then as now. As the late Mick Woods, a British member of the IWA and driver of many convoys into Tuzla, wrote: ‘It’s a damned sight easier to play with slogans such as “arm the Bosnian resistance” than ensure the “rolling-convoy” had spare parts and diesel to drive flour up to Tuzla every ten days.’

Considering today’s crisis in Bosnia and Herzegovina, I contact Nicolas Moll in Sarajevo for his opinion on recent events. People in Western Europe don’t know what is happening and how nationalist forces are gaining strength, he tells me. Just as in the 1990s, many European governments are stuck in a ‘logic of appeasement’ while no one is listening to local voices battling the country’s disintegration. How should people show solidarity today? I ask. ‘The best way for people on the Left to show solidarity,’ he says, ‘is to react now, before the situation gets totally out of control.’

If solidarity is more than a slogan, it’s also more than a tweet, a Facebook like, or an Instagram post. This book helps us realise that events in Bosnia demand not only our attention, but the solidarity of every internationalist worth the name, before the forces that tore the country apart in the 1990s succeed in dragging the country, and its people, down the same destructive path.