Democratic presidential candidate Senator Hillary Clinton recently had to backtrack on claims that when she visited war-torn Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1996, she landed amid dangerous sniper fire. MTV’s own former first lady (of news) Tabitha Soren flew into the same airbase in Tuzla about six weeks before Clinton did and sent back reports from the front on young U.S. military peacekeeping forces flown in to make sure there were no more flare-ups in the conflict that had cost more than 250,000 lives.
Arriving just weeks after the Dayton Peace Accord effectively ended the war, Soren recalled feeling tension in the air, but said she didn’t sense that her life was in jeopardy.
“The reason MTV News wanted to go into Bosnia was primarily because of the age of the soldiers serving both in the peacekeeping forces and the forces that went in before the Dayton Accords,” Soren remembered. “Their average age was about 26, and that obviously connected directly to our audience. Once the Dayton Accords were signed, MTV sent me and a producer and a cameraman in there. We stopped over at the Ramstein airbase in Germany and then flew into Tuzla in a C-17 cargo plane, which meant that I sat in some sort of cargo net on the flight over.
“It was winter, it was a bumpy flight, the weather was not great, and it was very noisy on the plane. I believe we all had bulletproof vests on, but they weren’t bulky like you’d expect or some sort of thing you’d see in ‘Batman.’ They were pretty lightweight and you could still be shot, but they covered the important parts. It was nerve-racking because you didn’t know what to expect, but because the Dayton Accords had been signed, it didn’t feel like we were flying into an active war zone.
“I was told the most hazardous part of flying into Tuzla was the land mines that they hadn’t excavated yet. They were real adamant that you had to stay on the path, and anytime you went off the path, someone was there to yank you back on. At anytime, there were landmines that you could run over, so that was the most threatening part — not landing at the airport. We didn’t expect any sniper fire, and this was a month before Hillary Clinton landed, so there was probably less of a chance of that kind of heated conflict later in the year. Although having the first lady land might have gotten more attention than just another media crew coming in.
“I grew up in the military, so to me, we were landing on a military base on a military plane, and it was not that scary. But anytime you’re surrounded by people with guns, I’m a little tense. I didn’t feel like we were in immediate danger, but it did seem like an unpredictable situation, mainly because of the land mines.
“The conditions were really bad for the soldiers living on the base and for the people living in the country. It was also hard to get work done, because the power at the hotel didn’t work half the time. There was a certain amount of power each day, and there was a toilet and shower, but the shower didn’t always have water and most of the time the only light that worked was in the bathroom. So I did most of my preparation and research lying in the bathtub, which gave it a real primitive feel.”
Soren was accompanied on the trip by producer Wilson Van Law, an Air Force veteran who was familiar with combat situations. He said the team landed at dawn while it was still dark, and while the avowed news junkie followed the situation closely enough to know that missiles were not being used to shoot down planes, he was still a bit on edge about the early morning landing.
“I wasn’t overly concerned, but it was interesting that they wanted us to land before daylight, which made me wonder if they were worried about fire,” Van Law recalled. “It turned out to just be a logistical thing, but it did seem like the base was slightly tense. We were far from home, but it seemed completely secure and we didn’t have to run from the plane anywhere and hide. I don’t remember feeling remotely uncomfortable or hearing virtually any gunfire.
“The only time I felt unsafe was when I left the base with Tabitha and went on a helicopter ride close to the front lines. We saw where they dug trenches so they could walk without being in the line of fire, and we saw farms that were set on fire — some were completely destroyed, some were untouched and some were still smoldering. We saw some of the results of the ethnic cleansing that had gone on, and it was incredibly sad to see these beautiful scenes of rural solitude with some farms destroyed, while some [farms] 100 meters away were not.
“At one point in the helicopter, they saw something and they either stopped or took some mildly evasive action. I was like, ‘OK, what does this pilot know?’ They did see something and refused to move until they figured out if it was a real threat. I think Hillary is getting hammered on this, maybe unfairly. Maybe she was exaggerating, but that happens a lot in politics. I wasn’t there when she was, and things could have changed, but the situation was very secure when we were there, and I can’t imagine it was any less secure when the first lady was there with her daughter. It was not a war zone by any means.”
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