Back where she saved the children

Sally Becker returns to Mostar, 15 years after the war in Bosnia

Sally Becker carrying the Olympic flag

Sally Becker carrying the Olympic flag in London, with Ban Ki-moon, Daniel Barenboim and Muhammed Ali

Some weeks ago, Sally Becker received a message inviting her to be a friend on Facebook. It was from a teenager living overseas. “She said she was the baby I had saved when she was seven days old,” Becker explains, “and that her parents have always talked about me.”

It took Becker back to the early 90s, and the events in Bosnia that had made her briefly famous around the world. An artist living in Brighton, she’d been so upset by TV reports of the war that she decided to go and help aid agencies for a while. She ended up staying for months, organising evacuations of injured children without help from the UN – indeed, despite the UN’s obstruction – and earning for herself the name “Angel of Mostar”.

She turned into a lifelong campaigner for peaceful interventions in troubled places, but only now, exactly 15 years after the war ended, has Becker returned to Mostar to meet that new Facebook friend, Lela Greljo, and her family. The emotional reunion is captured in a BBC documentary to be broadcast next week.

Talking at her sunny bungalow in Brighton, Becker still glowed with pleasure after seeing these old friends. But she also looked churned up to be reminded of children she was unable to save.

Becker was 33 and single when she first applied to help NGOs, but they only wanted qualified doctors and engineers, so she found a small group taking out aid and tagged along, hoping to work with children as an art therapist.

In Croatian-held west Mostar she was approached by a boy who had heard that she was Jewish, like him. He asked Becker to help get treatment for his grandfather. She got permission from military commanders to ferry people and medicine around, and before she knew it she was responsible for the entire (albeit small) Jewish population.

Then a Croatian, Brigadier Dr Ivan Bagaric, promised her a ceasefire so that sick and wounded Muslim children could cross Mostar's centuries’ old, landmark bridge and get treatment in Croatia. Becker asked a convoy of the UN and NGOs to help, but without success. “They said they didn't have the capacity.”

The following day, arriving in east Mostar, the UN convoy was held captive by Bosnian women and children who thought it protected them from shelling. So Becker got hold of an old ambulance filled with medical supplies and drove it herself to no-man's land. “I thought, this is a doddle.” But then snipers started firing at her from the hills. “I thought, do I go back? Instead, I put my foot down but this heavy old ambulance didn't move fast.” Eventually, she reached the stranded UN convoy and what was known as east Mostar's hospital – not a proper one, but a dark, dirty, overcrowded basement where doctors performed surgery in near-darkness.

Sally Becker with Elmir

Becker and Elmir. Picture copyright Sally Becker

Inside, she was horrified by what she saw. “It was like a scene from Dante's Hell.” The floors were slippery with blood. Doctors didn't have enough anaesthetic, and used it only on the people with the best chance of survival. Becker saw one girl forsake painkillers so her younger brother could have them – the girl chewed on a teddy bear, instead, while her arm was amputated at the shoulder.

The experience changed Becker’s life, she says. “Instead of just a few weeks in Bosnia I was committed.”

I ask what made her go to Bosnia. After all, others who felt horror stayed at home. “Remember that I'm a Jew,” she says. “The fact that I grew up knowing about the Holocaust made a difference.”

All the same, when she first went to Bosnia her parents thought she was mad. “I remember my dad shouting down the stairs, ‘You can't get insurance for dismemberment.’”

It was in east Mostar that Becker came across the Greljo family: two boys aged five and three, and a newborn girl. They all had horrific shrapnel wounds after a tank shell destroyed their kitchen. The older child Damir, 5, would not survive, but Becker managed to evacuate three-year-old Elmir, seven-day-old Lela, and their mother Sendzana.

Before they left, UN representatives who had previously refused to help Becker evacuate the children asked her to persuade the Bosnians to release their captive convoy, as if it were part of the evacuation.

“I was absolutely furious!” she recalls. “I said, how dare you!”

The British public was wowed by Becker's courage and resolve, and donated generously to her appeal, enabling her to take 57 ambulances back to Bosnia later that year, and save many more children on that and subsequent visits.

Sally Becker and her ambulance

Becker in her ambulance. Picture copyright Sally Becker

The war’s end must have felt like an anti-climax, I suggest. But Becker published a book and used the income to fund further missions soon after, to Chechnya and Kosovo. She was shot at and seriously wounded, and imprisoned. In 1999, she had a daughter, Billie, but didn't stop visiting conflict zones for long. They moved to Spain for three years but even then Becker travelled – to help people on the Israel-Lebanon border during the 2006 war. “Billie has grown up knowing what I do,” she says.

Becker doesn’t discuss her private life, and she’s unusually careful about everything she says, because the overwhelmingly positive media she received initially gradually soured. “People were led to believe that I was doing this on a kind of whim,” she says with a pained expression. “But everything I did was with the proper permission. I was never putting lives at in danger needlessly.”

Prompted by that Facebook message to return to Mostar recently, Becker rushed to stand on it and take in the beautiful view – something that hadn't been possible during the war. (The river and its banks were anyway choked with bodies.)

She had emotional encounters with her old interpreter, and walked along the former front line with Bagaric, the military doctor who secured permission for her to travel safely. In the former hospital she met the doctor (“a real hero”) she watched extract a bullet from a boy's brain by torchlight.

But the most moving reunion was with the Greljo family. In the BBC documentary, the father Muharem speaks through an interpreter while they drink pomegranate juice and eat cake: “I cannot express my feelings,” he says, then declares: “If only there were more people like her in this world!”

The mother, Sendzana, told Becker how painful it had been, having just lost one child, and only recently given birth, to say goodbye to her husband and take the remaining children into what was, in effect, enemy territory for treatment.

Becker with Elmir and Lela

Becker with Elmir and Lela. Copyright Darren Fletcher

Becker was terribly sad to learn that Mostar remains divided, despite the new bridge. “There is only one mixed school: Muslims attend in the morning and the Croatians in the afternoon.”

Taking the Greljos out of their part of Mostar, Becker sensed their unease. “It's understandable, because people there might go into a shop and for all they know the man behind the counter is the one who raped their wife, or killed their children.”

Looking back, Becker says she coped with what she saw in Bosnia because she was constantly living on adrenaline, and busy. She has never had counselling. But after revisiting the improvised basement hospital she has found herself churned up by the memory of one particular girl, as old then as Billie is now. Becker promised the girl's mother she would send help – but learned days later that the girl had died.

“I feel completely responsible. I saw the mother on the BBC, saying she hoped Sally Becker would help her child but she never came. I know I helped a lot of kids, but I didn't help her. And she's the one I remember most.”

First published in The Sunday Times, December 2010