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Documentary : Afraid of Flying? Try Catching a Ride Aboard 'Maybe Airlines' to Sarajevo : Just getting to the plane can be humiliating, complex, perilous--and sometimes funny.

November 08, 1994|CAROL J. WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — "Aren't you afraid?" sensible people ask foreign correspondents as they set out for besieged Sarajevo.

It's a logical question, as this forsaken Bosnian capital has been savaged by combatants for 2 1/2 years, and the bombs and bullets make no distinction between the Sarajevans who are their targets and the U.N. peacekeepers, foreign aid officials and journalists.

It's a question that would get an unqualified affirmative answer, at least from me, if my natural instincts for survival weren't so thoroughly distorted by the mental and physical gymnastics required to get here in the first place.

Merely getting aboard a U.N.-operated relief flight to Sarajevo has become so complicated, humiliating, perilous and unpredictable that putting that part of the trip behind me makes me feel like I've got the world beat.

After being bumped a dozen times to make space for anything from leotards to lentils, finally jumping from the open tail of a C-130 cargo plane onto the Sarajevo runway in a blizzard of exhaust fumes has the same satisfying "yes!" sensation as spiking a football after a touchdown.

It feels like winning the lottery, beating the odds, putting one over. And it even has its amusing moments.

On the surface, there would seem to be little to laugh about in the United Nations' courageous, expensive and trouble-plagued undertaking to feed hungry Sarajevans. But behind the scenes, the humanitarian airlift that has fed this rebel-encircled city since July, 1992, operates like a black comedy crossing "Catch-22" with "Top Gun."

The airlift is known by its pilots, ground crews and passengers as "Maybe Airlines," operating under the proud motto: "Maybe We Fly, Maybe We Don't." You can buy "Maybe Airlines" T-shirts from a French canteen tucked behind a wall of sandbags at the airport. The "airline" brings together by-the-book soldiers and bizarre civilians, from swaggering Tom Cruise wanna-bes who pilot the cargo planes to Ukrainian ground crewmen in plastic sandals--even in winter. Then there's the explosives-sniffing dog "Foster" who has the entire French contingent vying for his affection.

After 26 months in service, the operation is replete with stories, from the scandalous to the absurd.

There was the time a Canadian pilot bumped four senior North Atlantic Treaty Organization officers to make room for a Canadian television crew that planned a documentary about his brave flyboys.

A German journalist for an obscure dance magazine who wanted to bring in neon-colored tutus for a Sarajevo ballet school managed to get the Luftwaffe to up his standing to military priority with the contention he was carrying "vital cargo."

French flight crews have commandeered relief aircraft to fly in personal stocks of wine and pate, and Bosnian black marketeers with bogus press credentials use the airlift as a free shuttle on which to transport suitcases full of coffee, sugar, liquor and cigarettes.

Journalists, who have the lowest priority among the soldiers, relief workers, missionaries, peaceniks and assorted do-gooders, often find themselves forced onto an aerial trapeze, swinging on commercial flights around southern Europe in vain efforts to get in the right place to catch the airlift that is the sole, if unreliable, access to Sarajevo.

How the white-knuckled flights come to impart a sense of accomplishment is best explained by the disorder and frustration that afflict each journey's onset.

You set out laden with guilt, as well as tons of luggage. Spouses, parents, children, even other colleagues, act like you're headed off for certain death--a prospect we correspondents try to treat as ridiculous so as to calm our families' fears, as well as our own.

"You're going to get stuck there forever one of these days," my husband admonished as I set off in mid-October, well aware that the airlift had been grounded for the two previous weeks.

"I wish you would stop doing that," my mother said disapprovingly in a phone call, as if going to Sarajevo were some kind of unseemly habit, like showing up at the dinner table chewing gum.

The logistics of getting there as safely as possible help you focus on something other than fear. To gain access to a U.N. relief flight, you must scurry across the Balkans to collect credentials, then obtain a helmet and flak jacket that together usually weigh more than 20 pounds.

The more experienced you get with Sarajevo's deprivations, the more gear you consider essential.

Fears of being caught up in an intensified siege or being marooned by a prolonged suspension of the airlift compel most of us to bring in at least small caches of "backup food": dry soup mixes, granola bars, peanut butter and the like. They can always be given away to grateful Sarajevans before departure.

You want a first-aid kit, candles, flashlights, a shortwave radio and heaps of batteries. And of course, without a laptop computer you'd be unable to send back any news stories.

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