LONDON — Dressed entirely in white, Sally Becker gripped the Olympic flag and walked into the Olympic stadium to the beat of drums. Queen Elizabeth II had just declared the 2012 Games open, and nearly a billion people were watching worldwide. Supporting the flag opposite her, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who had earlier shook her hand, looked across at Becker and smiled.
“I really was chuffed,” says Becker, using British slang for ‘pleased.’ “I felt that I’d come full circle.”
Two decades earlier, Becker had helped nearly 300 sick and wounded children in the war-torn Balkans get to medical aid, often in very dangerous circumstances. But while the Angel of Mostar, as she became known, was initially celebrated by the media in her native Britain, they eventually turned against her, buoyed in part by UN officials who had tried to discredit her and obstructed her work. Now she has written a memoir, “Sunflowers and Snipers,” about her time in the Balkans – and her journey from heroine to villain and back again.
Looking back, she says a major factor in both phases was her own innocence. She was just 32 when she entered the war zone in 1993.
“Yes, I was naïve,” she admits. “I couldn’t really understand the reason why the UN and other aid organizations were not just going in and getting the children out. But if it wasn’t for my naivety, some of those children might not have survived. I was naïve enough to believe that if a child is sick and needs help, you do whatever you can. I didn’t look at the political elements, at the need to set up hospital beds [before evacuating the children]. I just saw they needed help…”
Becker, a towering woman with a deep voice, had no experience in aid work and knew nothing of Bosnia before she went there. Brought up in the seaside town of Brighton, she dropped out of school at 16 in order to join a kibbutz (she had completed her leaving exams early so her parents, she says, were “fine about it”) and held a series of random jobs in Tel Aviv and Europe throughout her twenties.
She was clearly attracted to danger. In 1978, when Israel invaded Lebanon, she recalls fetching food for the residents of Kibbutz Hanita from the dining hall during a Katyusha attack, while in 1990, in the run-up to the first Gulf War, she joined the Gulf Peace Team, a group planning to act as human shields for civilians in Iraq. Unfortunately, she had forgotten to mention she was Jewish, so when the team found out on the plane to Jordan, they made her stay in Amman to handle PR.
“I had no interest in politics, I didn’t understand the war itself,” she says today, echoing her comments about Bosnia later. “I was interested in the fact that people believed they could do something to try and protect the innocent.”
In any event, Becker saved the day: when Saddam Hussein sent the team to a Baghdad hotel, effectively trapping them, she contacted Jordan’s Queen Noor, who managed to arrange their evacuation. Afterwards, however, Becker returned to Europe.
“I wasn’t looking for a purpose,” she said. “I was taking advantage of whatever came along and seeing the world.”
Soon after, she found purpose anyway. In 1993, Becker happened to catch a television report about a woman and her young son trying to cross “Sniper’s Alley” in Sarajevo, shielded by an armored UN vehicle, during the Bosnian war.
What resonated most was the woman’s cry: ‘Why is nobody helping us?’
“I could only imagine her fear,” she says, but what resonated most was the woman’s cry: “Why is nobody helping us?”
For Becker, this had immediate associations with the Holocaust.
“Throughout my childhood, I wondered how people could simply turn their backs and let it happen,” she says.
She became determined to do something to help, no matter how small. After arriving in the region with a Croatian charity, she was approached by a teenager in Mostar, who needed antibiotics for his grandfather, an elderly Holocaust survivor who had been shot with a phosphorous-filled bullet. Discovering that the Jewish community, which numbered around 70-80 mostly elderly people, had run out of food and medicine, she decided to focus on helping them.
“The JDC was doing amazing things for the Jewish communities and their neighbors throughout Bosnia but somehow the small community in Mostar got overlooked,” she says.
At the time, the city was divided between the Croat-controlled West, where the Jews lived, and the Muslim east, which was under siege and had no running water, electricity or medicine. In a highly unusual gesture, following a request by the head of the Jewish community, the ministry of defense granted Becker permission to roam the West side freely. Driving around in an old Renault, she delivered food supplies to community, which she partially paid for by selling family jewelry.
Soon a United Nations officer realized that she had government connections, and asked her to get permission to evacuate an injured child from the east side of the city as well. The ministry went one better: It allowed her to evacuate all children in need of medical treatment and their mothers.
The decision changed Becker’s life.
Traveling in a borrowed ambulance, Becker crossed the front line, shot at by snipers although the ministry had organized a brief cease-fire. Arriving on Marshal Tito street, she found a UN convoy of vehicles which had entered the east side earlier, physically surrounded by women and children. They were stopping the soldiers from leaving because they believed their presence was preventing shelling.
“I sauntered along in jeans and a t-shirt, passing the UN guys who were huddled inside their vehicles dressed in flak jackets and helmets,” she says. “Everyone was worried because the ceasefire could break at any moment. I’d been shot at and was not in a good mood.”
The UN officers asked her to get them out under the cover of her convoy, which she agreed to do in return for certain resources such as helicopters to transport the wounded to a field hospital once on the other side (“I hadn’t thought what I was going to do with the children once we got them out,” she confesses).
‘I’d been shot at and was not in a good mood’
Although the child she was initially meant to rescue had already died, the local hospital, where the floor was slippery with blood and part of the top floor was missing, was full of desperate cases. One 13-year-old patient, Nermina Omeragić, had been hit by a mortar shrapnel while preparing medical supplies for the wounded. Her leg was badly infected and her life was in danger. Another 10-year-old girl, Selma, had her arm amputated without anesthetic so that her brother could have it instead.
“She told me it’s nothing,” says Becker.
At that moment, saving the children became her mission.
“How could I think of my own situation?” she asks. “Crossing the front line that first time I had no concept of how dangerous it really was. Seeing the bravery of that little girl, I would have laid down my life for her.”
Her hospital visit was covered by the BBC and other news crews, and when both her patients and the UN convoy made it out safely, the mission made headlines around the world. Becker was suddenly “the Angel of Mostar” – a reputation that only grew when, a few days later, she re-entered the east side in order to rescue the children she had left behind.
“I suddenly had the world’s press behind me. It was very surreal,” she says.
Becker downplays the courage it took to go into east Mostar, laughing at the idea she was a hero.
“It was completely by accident,” she says. “I happened to be in Mostar, I happened to be the only Jew. I’m sure had someone else offered to help they would have received permission [to work in the West] as well.”
Back in Britain, Becker launched a new charity, Operation Angel, and began organizing aid missions to the region, taking care to help all sides (she jokes that even she still finds it hard to remember who was who). In December 1993 she led 200 volunteers and 56 trucks and ambulances mainly to Muslim areas, while in February 1994, when the weather prevented convoys from getting through, she airlifted to safety 55 wounded Catholic Croat children and their families who were trapped in a monastery.
Later in the decade, after the war spread to Kosovo, she led a mission to Albania, serving a month in a Serbian jail after being arrested by the authorities. Soon after her release she was shot in the leg by a masked gunman.
‘I had to answer accusations that I had put three women in danger when they hadn’t even been to Kosovo’
The larger operations proved problematic, largely because there was often not enough time to screen the volunteers adequately. Not only were some obstructive, some also complained to the media about their lives being put in danger and about poor organization. The UN, meanwhile, briefed against her, claiming that they could have carried out some of the work without her, and on one occasion accused her of spying. Becker was convinced they themselves could have done more to help the children.
The British media lapped up the conflicts, running long interviews with the aggrieved volunteers and headlines about Fallen Angels, and accusing Becker of publicity-seeking. In November 1998, to protect the brand of Operation Angel, she resigned, and went back to working on her own.
Becker accuses the papers of “inaccuracies and nonsense,” and took legal action against The Daily Mail, which she won. She was in a difficult position, she says, because she needed the media to attract publicity for her cause, in order to raise the necessary funds.
“I was trying to highlight how in Kosovo, children were being burned and maimed, and instead I had to answer accusations that I had put three women in danger when they hadn’t even been to Kosovo,” she says. “The press listened and made three- and four-page features, it was unbelievable.
“I only wanted them to write about the war, they didn’t need to mention my name.”
Becker says that the British press, which that decade hounded Princess Diana, was far more aggressive then than it is now, and believes that the local media goaded at least some of the volunteers into making their accusations. Had she been a man, she would have been taken more seriously, she thinks: “Some of the articles were very sexist.” (On the other hand, being a woman probably helped her gain the trust of some officials and soldiers on the ground.)
She is far more understanding about the UN’s obstructions, which she now blames on individuals; and about its own failures to act, which she puts down to the bureaucracy and red tape involved in any large organization.
Her own reputation is clearly flourishing, as evidenced by the invitation to bear the Olympic flag at the opening ceremony last year.
‘How terrible it must have been for those women, especially the mothers in Kosovo, who trusted me with their children’
Nowadays Becker stays far away from active war zones, out of a sense of responsibility to her own daughter, 13-year-old Billie – who has little patience for her “boring old war stories.” (One revelation in the book which caught the imagination of the British press was that Billie’s father was Bill Foxton, a red-haired, hook-armed former British army major whom she met in the Balkans. Foxton, who was halachically Jewish, committed suicide in 2009 after losing his life savings in the Madoff scandal.)
Being a mother herself now makes her realize “how terrible it must have been for those women, especially the mothers in Kosovo, who trusted me with their children. If God forbid I was ever in such a position, I don’t know if I could trust a stranger with my child. It shows how desperate they were.”
She is still fighting for children. Becker is a Goodwill ambassador for Children of Peace, a multi-faith charity that runs programs for children in both Israel and the Palestinian territories, and recently agreed to head their youth ambassador program.
Over the past few years, she has also returned to Bosnia, and met some of the children whose lives she saved. Damir Rozic, the boy who first approached her about antibiotics for his injured Jewish grandfather, is now a doctor himself, still in Mostar. Several others are in the United States, including Selma, the girl whose arm was amputated without anesthetic, who now works for Google. Becker and Billie recently attended her wedding in New York.
“When I met her in hospital, her mother was crying, saying that ‘My Selma was so beautiful, but look at her now’. I told her the doctors could make her beautiful again but didn’t really believe it – she was in the most terrible state. I said it to try and reassure her.
“When she walked down that aisle, she was simply beautiful. Her mom looked across at me and I know she remembered what I said.”
She adds wistfully, “My only regret is that I could not save more kids.”
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