Life & Culture

Sally Becker looks back on a life in the war zone

When former Serb leader Radovan Karadzic claimed at his war crimes trial that he should be “rewarded” for his actions in the 1990s Bosnian war...


When former Serb leader Radovan Karadzic recently claimed at his war crimes trial in The Hague that he should be “rewarded” for his actions in the 1990s Bosnian war, Sally Becker suggested on Twitter that an appropriate reward would be a nice “rest” at the Holiday Inn, Sarajevo.

Twenty years ago, it was from there that Serb snipers targeted defenceless civilians. A long siege and 11,000 deaths followed. Today, Karadzic’s welcome at the hotel would be more than warm; it would be infernal.

Becker’s own place in the blood-soaked modern history of the Balkans is genuinely deserving of reward. For her heroic efforts in raising money, delivering aid, rescuing injured children and alerting the world to the devastation of a historic city in Bosnia-Herzegovina, this Jewish woman from Brighton became known as the “Angel of Mostar”.

These days, Becker is a goodwill ambassador for Children of Peace, a charity dedicated to “breaking the cycle of violence between Palestinians and Israelis” by bringing together young people from both sides.

Worthwhile work, certainly, but serene in comparison with dodging bullets or being incarcerated in a Kosovo prison.

‘I don’t think I'm different from other people. I just happened to be there'

Yet, for all her encounters with violent destruction and heart-rending human damage, Becker is keen to play down her bravery. “I don’t think I’m different from other people,” she insists. “It just happened that I was there, so I did it.”

How she did it, and the horrors, frustrations and occasional bright times she experienced, is described in her book, Sunflowers and Snipers, in which she writes: “Tough I am not”. But, given that she returned to the frontline time and again, hadn’t she developed a taste for war?

“Some people do say that war can be addictive,” she concedes. “You’re living on the edge. Life is more colourful, more meaningful. But it frightened me so much, there’s no way I would call that ‘getting a taste for it’. Every time I was in danger, I was terrified. It was just that, having done it, I felt I had to go on doing it.

“I think,” she proffers, not entirely flippantly, “it’s to do with Jewish guilt. I learnt about the Holocaust as quite a young child. And I certainly felt a sense of responsibility, because people died while the general population turned a blind eye.”

She also identifies a more literary inspiration.

“I read Nevil Shute’s novel, The Pied Piper, when I was about 12. It’s about an Englishman on holiday in France in 1940 who is asked to take a child home with him because of the approaching danger of the Nazis.

"He ends up going from place to place gathering children to bring out. It was my favourite book so I’m sure that something of it lodged in my subconscious.”

It was during the first Iraq War in 1991 that Becker’s subconscious duly delivered its irresistible mix of idealism and chutzpah. She joined the Gulf Peace Team, an assembly of people intent on protesting within the very theatre of war. They met in Jordan and made their way into Saddam Hussein’s Iraq — without Becker.

“When they found out I was Jewish, it was decided that I shouldn’t go,” she explains. “I was asked to stay in Amman and take care of PR. One day, there was a telephone call to say the whole team was trapped in the El Rashid hotel in Baghdad. They had no funds and, anyway, the taxis had all been commandeered by the press, who were leaving fast.

"I thought: ‘I wonder if King Hussein of Jordan’s wife, Queen Noor, would help’, and so I sent her a fax.”

Queen Noor responded immediately and arranged for two buses and a car to take Becker to the Iraqi border and pick up the stranded volunteers.

“After that,” she says, “I felt it was time to do my bit for my own people.” So she went to Israel, where she “spent a lot of time in air-raid shelters helping children with their gas masks”.

She was already familiar with Israel — and danger — having spent several months on Kibbutz Hanita, close to the Lebanese border, after leaving school. On March 11 1978, there was a PLO rocket barrage. Becker and the other volunteers spent the night in a shelter.

The following morning, with Katyushas still falling, she volunteered to run to the kitchen to bring back food to the shelter.

Fifteen years and one Iraq war later, she was once again a volunteer, this time with an aid convoy travelling to Bosnia, for what she expected to be a single, three-week stint. The first port of call was a camp housing hundreds of Muslim refugees where Becker was introduced to a woman known as “Mama”.

In Sunflowers and Snipers, Becker describes what happened when Serbian nationalist extremists attacked Mama’s village.

“They systematically began to force out the residents at gunpoint or flush them out by setting fire to their homes. Many had been burned alive, trapped in the basements where they had sought refuge. Some of the men were arrested and taken off to camps but Mama’s husband and son had been shot in front of her.”

Hearing this and accounts of other outrages, particularly where children were involved, ensured that this period in Becker’s life would amount to a great deal more than three weeks of hand-outs.

Having not even heard of Bosnia before leaving Brighton, she soon became aware of the desperate plight of the inhabitants of Mostar in the Herzegovina region in the south-west of the country.

Upon her return home, she made an appeal on BBC Radio Sussex. It worked: “People brought blankets, feeding bottles, nappies and anything else they thought might be useful.” The International Council of Jewish Women sent aid for Mostar’s isolated Jews.

So it was back to the Balkans, where Becker received a message from Zoran Mandlebaum, president of Mostar’s Jewish community, telling her he was sending someone to meet her.

This turned out to be 15-year-old Damir Rozic, whose 83-year-old grandfather, Haim Romano, had been stuck for weeks in the basement of Mostar’s overcrowded hospital with an infected wound. Throughout this time, his daughter — Damir’s mother — had daily defied snipers and rocket-propelled grenades to visit him.

When Becker, by determined resourcefulness, found she was able to get a consignment of antibiotics through battle lines, thereby helping to save Haim Romano’s life, she resolved to build on the experience, cultivating a passionate, can-do attitude.

The ensuing months saw her driving a range of vehicles through a range of places exposed to a range of dangers. She hustled, pleaded and cajoled individuals and institutions for assistance.

Though witnessing cruelty, deprivation and bigotry, she held off despair and stiffened her resolve in the face of cold intransigence and — perhaps inevitably after the “Angel of Mostar” tag — a backlash of personal criticism.

Constantly, she and her fellow aid workers had to negotiate their way through the confused mesh of Serbs, Croats, Muslims, Jews and Catholics. All the time, the fate of the children was her overriding motivation.

This it was that took her eventually to Albania, where her apparent invincibility ran out. Along with the British government’s refusal to allow her to bring wounded children to the UK, Becker herself became a victim when she was shot in the leg.

She found herself in the care of a man with whom she had already fallen in love: Major Bill Foxton, a veteran British soldier who had lost part of his left arm in combat. Later, when Becker was having her wound checked back in Brighton and reported that she was experiencing nausea, the trauma specialist told her it was because she was pregnant.

But Foxton had a wife and two children in Britain. He did see Billie, his and Sally’s daughter born in 1999, a few times before he was off again — to Afghanistan. Then, in 2007, Becker learned Foxton was dead. Not on some remote battlefield but in England.

Having lost all his money in a Madoff scheme, his fearless resistance was at last broken. Bill Foxton was sitting on a park bench in Southampton when he put a semi-automatic pistol to his head and fired. The uplifting coda to all this is that Sally and her daughter, Bill’s widow and their children, have all now grown extremely close.

Earlier this year, Becker was included in the small, select group that carried the Olympic flag at the London 2012 opening ceremony. “As the flag was raised,” she recalls, “I said a prayer for the Israeli athletes killed in Munich. It was a very special six minutes.”

And another very special memory for this defiantly courageous woman’s collection.

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