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Consular Tales from Croatia — The Good, The Bad, and the Bianca Jagger

The Bosnian War spanned from April 1992 to December 1995 and was a result of ethnic tensions that boiled over after Bosnia declared independence from Yugoslavia. Bosnia was split between Muslim Bosniaks, Orthodox Serbs, and Catholic Croats. Neighboring Croatia, which had declared independence earlier, sought to incorporate parts of Bosnian territory into Croatia and supported the Bosnian Croat forces.

This led to a spillover of violence and political upheaval in Croatia, as well as unexploded landmines, car bombs, and a number of refugees and orphans — and the foreigners who wanted to help them, often without bothering with such formalities as visas and passports.

Ann Sides, a consular officer in Zagreb at the time, recounts the heart-pounding and head-scratching cases of a Foreign Service officer in a conflict zone and her run-in with Bianca Jagger and Congressman Torricelli.

She was interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy beginning in October 2010. See her perspective on the start of the Bosnian War and the moral issue of refugees. Read other stories dealing with Congressional delegations.

“Holy Shit, This guy is trying to get me killed!”

SIDES: We had the widest range of consular problems, and they were all really challenging. …I remember one I was given was that of a Serbian woman — a U.S. citizen, but ethnic Serb — who lived in America but owned a home in Vinkovci [Croatian town near Vokovar]…. She learned that the Croatian army was using it as a command post, and she wanted her property back. She got a congressman involved. I was tasked to make an effort to get the Croatians to give this lady her house back. So I took a Croatian consular assistant and we drove through the snow, east from Zagreb toward the front lines.

I remember this was the winter of 1992-’93, and Vinkovci was one smashed up, beat up, shelled-down town. It must have been pretty before the war, but a lot of it was in ruins then….

The deputy mayor of Vinkovci received me. As usual, before one could get any business done, one got the long historical lecture intended to put events into their perspective. Then I got the tour.

We walked around in the snow, and he was showing me the destroyed buildings. “That was our hospital that we just finished, and the Serbians bombed it,” and so on and so forth. I had to go through this whole thing before talking about the house….

He said, “Well maybe you could get us some detectors for land mines. We have land mines scattered all over the place. Some of our children in the town have stepped on them and been killed; some of the townspeople were killed. They could be anywhere under the snow.” He was walking me around the snow!

I noticed that my consular assistant and the drivers had gone back up on the road and they were standing on the pavement. So here I am walking around with this guy in a place where there are supposedly unexploded mines.

I thought ‘Holy shit, this guy is trying to get me killed!’ Of course, he could get himself killed too, but who knew what they might do? “American Diplomat Killed by Serb Mine”…I could see the headlines.

I kind of fell behind him, and was walking where he walked and in his footsteps. Then he would fall back beside me and he would be trying to show me this or that. I have to say, I was pretty damned scared. On the other hand, I was very focused. I had to keep this guy engaged and get the house back; it wouldn’t do to act like a wimp.

Finally the deputy mayor took me to the house. It was pretty well ruined, but the army had left it. They agreed the lady could have her house back. So I was able to go back to my office and report to Washington and that I got the house back…. She eventually swapped it to a family of Croatian refugees who had fled from their home on the Serbian side, and she got their house in Vukovar. A lot of house swapping went on at that time….

Unexpected Packages

There was a [dangerous] incident [that occurred] at the Zagreb embassy while I was there, as well. It is important to understand that some of the people who fought for the various sides, Croatians, the Serbians and the Bosnians, were professional criminals who used the conflict and the disorder it created for their own ends.

One day, a car drove by the embassy, and something dropped out from underneath it. Apparently it was a time bomb, a home-made bomb attached underneath the car by stereo magnets.

Anyway, the car went over the tram tracks and the bomb fell on the street, just opposite my office window. We had no security officer at post at the time, and Ronna Pazdral, our management officer, was responsible for security matters.

Ronna was a quick thinker. When she saw the bundle of explosives, and the passers by running screaming away from it, she set off the external assault alarm. That alarm sent us all scurrying across the floor on our hands and knees into the interior corridors away from the windows.

She had the security camera at the front door rotated to focus on the explosive, and we watched on the security monitor as the Zagreb police expert came and cut the wires on it and took it away in a dust pan. It had a little clock and sticks and everything, just like something out of a cartoon.

Had it gone off when it fell, I could have been killed in my office by the flying glass. I’m embarrassed to admit that when I heard the noise in the street I actually opened the window with the Mylar film on it so I could better see what was going on.

Speaking of strange incidents, we had an arrest case in 1993 where an American of Hispanic origin who converted to Islam in his hometown jail was arrested in the Zagreb airport for shoplifting jewelry. He was involved with some so-called Islamic relief organization…. Within a few days, a couple of Middle Eastern men in suits came to see me. They had a suitcase full of money, and they wanted to help him. I called Rick, the vice consul, into my office, because where there is money involved you don’t want to be alone in the room. I explained to them how they could deposit it to his account at the jail and hire a lawyer for him. Eventually he got out.

While he was still in jail the FBI attaché from Embassy Vienna came to interview him. Somehow, this jailbird Muslim convert had been recruited by what I now understand was an Islamic jihadist organization — probably he was used as a courier because of his U.S. passport.

There were a lot of strange organizations supposedly helping the Bosnians, and a lot of money going around, and a lot of very odd people involved, people who had no obvious connection with the former Yugoslavs and their quarrels….

Invasion of the “Baby Snatchers”

[I also had issues with] …the Americans I had to deal with as a consular officer. One strange phenomenon of the time was what I called the “baby snatchers.”… They were people who took advantage of the chaos to try and adopt cute little European children.

Some of them were well-intentioned people who saw things on television and just decided to come and grab some kid from an orphanage and “save” him.

Many were emotionally needy people who couldn’t or didn’t wish to adopt through the channels set up to screen out unfit adopters. They’d come to institutions for children called “dječji domovi,” often mis-translated as “orphanages” rather than “children’s homes.”

Many of the children who lived in the children’s homes weren’t orphans in the sense of being totally without family. They had parents or other close relatives who couldn’t care for them for one reason or another, but continued to visit them and be concerned about them.

The would-be adopters were eager to delude themselves into thinking the kids had no families, or if they did, the families had abandoned them, which was often not the case. Americans would fly into Croatia, determined to leave with a baby. They were pretty clueless and just assumed you could pick one off the shelf like a souvenir. Then they’d find out there were formalities like visas and passports that could not be avoided.

They had made little or no attempt to get immigration authorization. I was usually able to talk people out of hare-brained adoption schemes, explaining the immigration procedures and how long it took and how there had to be a home study, and so forth….

Moves Like (Bianca) Jagger

Issues involving children were very emotionally-charged. Many people with good intentions—and sometimes a well-developed instinct for publicity—wanted to take Bosnian kids to the USA for medical treatment, or summer camp, or whatever. They had no understanding of visa requirements. They saw consular officers as being heartless and obstructive.

I had a particular problem with a Member of Congress, Robert Torricelli.…At the time, in 1993, he was involved with Bianca Jagger, whose claim to fame was that she was the former wife of Mick Jagger, of the Rolling Stones.

She was jetting around the war zones, trying, it seemed, to promote herself. UN people told me they considered her a nuisance; they had to deal with a lot of celebrity nuisances at the time.

Bianca Jagger called me on the phone, saying she was in Tuzla, in Bosnia, and said that she had some children that she wanted to bring to the United States for medical treatment. She wanted to pick up their visas.

You don’t just tell a consular officer, “ I am coming to pick up the visas.” I mean there were no applications, no explanations, no evidence of nonimmigrant intent. The kids were not even in Croatia.

I don’t know what Bianca had in mind, but I explained to her there was a process for this and there have to be applications. They have to establish when the children were coming back, what arrangements were made for the medical care, what kind of medical care was needed. Who was paying for it?

She said, “Well, hasn’t Congressmen Torricelli told you to issue the visas?”

I very unwisely told her that while Congressmen made immigration laws, they couldn’t order us to issue a visa. I discussed the application process and advised her to have the kids get their treatment in Zagreb or Vienna, where there were good children’s hospitals; there was no need to transport them all the way to the USA.

The next thing that happened, Torricelli wrote a letter to the Director General of the Foreign Service. Torricelli described me as a “heartless bureaucrat,” and wanted me fired. Fortunately, under Civil Service rules, the letter could not be placed in my personnel file, nor could the Congressman get me fired.

However, the DG’s [Director General] office passed Torricelli’s letter to Ron, my boss. He wasn’t very happy about it. In retrospect, I should have been more careful; I was under a great deal of stress.

For several years after, until Torricelli’s career ended in disgrace [in 2002, Torricelli suddenly withdrew from campaigning after disclosure of illegal contributions to his campaign by a businessman connected to North Korea], I’d sort of go into hiding whenever a CODEL [Congressional delegation] including Torricelli came to a post where I was….

We had another species of “war tourist” in those times; Americans who enlisted in one of the warring armies. A couple of my problem children were Croatian-Americans who were in the Croatian army and were captured. Eventually they were exchanged for Serbian Americans who were in the Serb forces and were captured…..

After I got to Croatia, [Consul General] Bob Tynes in Belgrade and I in Zagreb were trying to work an exchange where a Serbian-American POW and a Croatian-American POW would be exchanged.

We had another POW case, too, a fruitcake American who became a lieutenant in the Croatian army even though he couldn’t speak Croatian, and was captured. He was a deserter from the French Foreign Legion. I think he read too much Hemingway.…The vacuum created in these situations, the vacuum of normal law and order, attracted these people like flies to a honey pot.