Like O'Grady, Two French Peacekeepers Evade Serbs
Isolated on a hill, they ate chocolate (not ants) in 16-day ordeal
SARAJEVO, BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA — FRENCH TV talk shows aren't frantically trying to book them as guests, and no call from French President Jacques Chirac is expected.
"No one writes a book about a carpenter building a house," says Sgt. Luc Houzelot, one of two French United Nations peacekeepers who refused to surrender their isolated post to Bosnian Serbs for 16 days.
"Why should anyone write a book about a soldier doing his duty?" he asks.
When the Bosnian Serbs began taking UN peacekeepers hostage after May 25 and 26 NATO airstrikes, other UN units quickly surrendered. But at a weapons-collection point in Bare, 10 miles west of Sarajevo, the Serbs came away empty. "We had a mission," Sergeant Houzelot, a boyish-looking soldier says. "It was our job."
Houzelot and Sgt. Major Giles Vanuxen, withdrawn from their posts on June 18 along with nearly all UN peacekeepers in Serb territory, shun comparisons to American pilot Scott O'Grady - shot down by Serbs on June 2 while flying an F-16 over Bosnia - and downplay their lonely stand.
Houzelot, clean-cut and talkative, and Major Vanuxen, bearded and modest, say they were only following orders and hope to rejoin their platoon at its new posting in Sarajevo this week.
Parts of their 16-day saga were dramatic, others mundane. The heroic tale of an unarmed Houzelot getting in a fistfight to free himself from a group of assault rifle-toting Bosnian Serbs is true - almost.
"I was going between the house and my jeep destroying documents ... and the [Serbian] military police decided I should stay in the jeep," he says matter-of-factly. "I pushed them apart and walked to the house. There was no boxing."
Vanuxen, who barricaded himself in a small wooden house 400 yards from the larger house Houzelot hunkered in, experienced his worst moment during a Bosnian government shelling attack on the tanks and artillery the Serb soldiers had taken back from the weapons-storage site. "During the last day of the Bosnian offensive," he says, "the shells fell 39 feet from my post."
But Houzelot says a far-off event pained him the most. "The defeat of the French rugby team in the semi-final," he says with a smile, referring to the Rugby World Cup championship currently being played in South Africa.
After two weeks in separate posts, the two decided with a commanding officer they could reach by radio that Houzelot should move from his more exposed post and join Vanuxen.
The two Marines, who both had satellite televisions in their posts and communicated with each other by telephone, said they never felt the Serbs would harm them or storm their positions.
"We saw two or three stories about us on French television so we knew we were famous in France at least, and we didn't think the Serbs would try anything," Houzelot says."We knew we had our captain and our general behind us, and because of the media, all of France."
Despite several angry exchanges with the Serbs' commanding officer, they felt the Serbs respected them for making a stand. "In every discussion with the Serbs, I used the argument that we were professional soldiers with a mission," Houzelot says. "This was something the Serbs could understand."
They passed the time fortifying their positions, observing the Serb and Bosnian government forces in the area, and watching "news, sports, and rugby" on TV during the six hours a day when they ran their generators.
Houzelot rarely spoke to the Serbs around his post. When he could, he smiled and said insulting things in French that they couldn't understand.
Vanuxen chatted daily with the half-dozen soldiers who surrounded his post.
"I tried to get information from them about the weapons at the weapons-collection point and the tactical situation," Vanuxen says. "What I could get, I transmitted to my commanding officer."
Both unmarried soldiers had enough rations and water to last 10 men for 20 days, bought before the crisis, but no French bread or cheese. "We had other food we could eat instead of the combat rations," Vanuxen says, "We opened the British rations for the chocolate."
They were left behind by the other members of their unit on Friday, June 2. Their commanding officer, after ignoring threats for a week that the two houses the soldiers lived in would be destroyed by two Serb tanks, gave in to Serb demands and surrendered.
Vanuxen confirmed that a UN mishap led to their lonely stand. A French military observer duped by the Serbs, convinced a commanding officer that a Bosnian government attack was imminent, and the officer and 15 soldiers left.
No infighting in the French government has erupted, and they have no complaints.
They will return to France at the end of July when their unit's tour ends. No parades are planned and no visits to the lysee Palace - the French equivalent of the White House - are expected.
"Captain O'Grady is American," Houzelot says. "We are French."