I’m no hero, says ‘Angel of Mostar’

SHE may have been dubbed the Angel of Mostar, but it is not a moniker Sally Becker enjoys.

The affable Sussex woman helped to rescue around 300 sick and wounded children during the Balkans conflict of the early to mid-1990s.

And she went on to lead a mission in Kosovo, where she helped the numerous women and children affected by the war there.

“They gave me the name ‘Angel of Mostar’ and it was across the front pages of the newspapers and they used it on Sky and CNN,” Sally, of Hove, told me.

“All I could think was that people must have imagined this beautiful, blonde, young woman with a halo, instead of this spiky-haired person in a t-shirt and jeans.”

In fact, Sally seems to possess modesty in spades — despite her heroic work.

Sally insists she is not a heroine and declares that “people do this sort of thing all the time”.

Several of the children she rescued in Bosnia and Kosovo now live in the UK and in America.

Sally’s story began in her native Hove.

She left school at 17 to move to Israel where she took part in the ulpan programme and lived on Kibbutz Hanita, in the far north of Israel.

“I had been to Israel a year earlier and was determined that I would be able to return as soon as possible,” Sally recalled.

She eventually moved to Tel Aviv and worked in an art gallery and later ran a nightclub in Jaffa.

Israel, Sally conceded, was a different place back in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

She said: “It is a wonderful place and was then — but in a different way.

“Israel seemed more innocent, but there was something special in the air.

“It was a new country and people were much more patriotic, but in a gentle way.

“There were not such extreme views on both sides.

“People seemed to care about one another, whereas today it is all about technology, which is the same across the Western world.

“I had the best — and some of the happiest — times of my life in Israel.”

Sally left the country when she was in her early 20s, as she could not afford to live there.

She moved around Europe, living in Spain, France and Austria while earning money from working as an artist.

However, as the first Gulf War approached in 1991, Sally linked-up with the voluntary organisation Gulf Peace Team, which planned to go into Iraq to help refugees there.

But on a flight to Jordan, she mentioned to one of the team members she was Jewish.

Sally said: “I was told I could not go with them into Iraq, as I would put them in danger.

“It was suggested I remain in Amman and act as their spokesman and deal with the Press. I was not happy about it.”

She then returned to Israel and helped at a shelter where she showed children how to put on their gas masks, as Saddam Hussein’s scuds rained down on Tel Aviv.

It was while living in Spain that she saw television images which would lead her to Bosnia and Herzegovina.

“There was a woman trying to cross the road in Sarajevo, carrying a small boy,” Sally remembered.

“The only way across was to crouch behind a UN vehicle because of the snipers.

“The woman turned to the TV camera and said, ‘why is nobody helping us?’.

“It reminded me of the Holocaust.”

She contacted the major charitable organisations, but nobody wanted her due to her lack of experience in the field.

Finally, Sally found the Croatian charity Sundokret, which was happy to take her on.

She flew to Bosnia and went to the city of Mostar, where native Croats and Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) were fighting for control.

“My father thought I was completely mad,” Sally said.

“He said, ‘They are all Nazis and as soon as they find out you’re Jewish, they will kill you’.”

The Jewish community numbered around 70, who were mainly elderly.

Some of them had been imprisoned in concentration camps during the Second World War under the Croat fascists Ustase.

They lived in the Croat-controlled west Mostar. Many of them had intermarried and were seen as completely neutral.

Sally explained: “A young Jewish Croat called Damir Rozic came to see me and told me his grandfather had been shot by a sniper.

“The bullet was filled with phosphorus and he was dying because the hospital did not have the right antibiotics.

“I contacted a German organisation in Zagreb and they sent someone to Mostar with the correct antibiotics.

“Damir’s grandfather began to recover and it made me realise how much could be accomplished by just one or two people.”

The 60,000 Bosniaks — men, women and children — in the east side of the city were trapped.

They had been forced across the front line by the Croats and the Serbs were behind them, leaving them besieged.

Sally was given special permission by the Croat authorities to deliver aid in west Mostar.

She was then asked by a UN officer if she could obtain permission to enter the east side of the city — which she did.

There, she helped to evacuate wounded Bosniak women and children.

A particularly alarming moment came when Sally was driving a Bedford ambulance across the front line.

“I was with a British guy called Paul driving the ambulance,” she remembered.

“A sniper shot at us and I have never been so terrified in my life.

“Paul was shouting, ‘drive, drive’.

“I put my foot down and weaved from side to side, like I had seen in the movies.”

Sally returned to Britain, where she set up the charity Operation Angel.

She headed back to the Balkans, to Albania, when the conflict spread to Kosovo, which had a majority-population of Albanians, but was controlled by Serbs.

Sally took aid to both sides and then trekked through the mountains of northern Albania into Kosovo in an effort to bring medical supplies into a besieged village.

Helping injured children and their families one day near the border, they were ambushed by Serb paramilitaries.

Sally noticed a woman and her baby trapped beneath a tree, caught in the crossfire.

She said: “The trapped baby was shouting, ‘mama’ — it was just terrible.

“A soldier put a pistol to my head and said if I did not come with him, he would kill me.”

Sentenced to 30 days in prison, she was pardoned after two weeks.

“I would have welcomed death, as I didn’t want to be aware of death on my conscience when it came to that women and her baby,” Sally explained.

“I asked the British embassy about the families and children who were ambushed and found out they had made it safely into Albania.

“I went back to the village to find the children and applied for visas to get 50 of them into Britain.

“At the last minute, they were refused by Jack Straw.

“I sent a fax to Tony Blair appealing the decision.”

A few days later, she was shot in the leg by masked gunmen and was rushed to hospital.

Sally later set up centres in Albania and Kosovo for women and children traumatised by the war.

In 2009, Sally, who is mother to 15-year-old Billie, became a goodwill ambassador for Children of Peace, a multi-faith charity dedicated to building friendship, trust and reconciliation between Israeli and Palestinian children.

In 2012, she carried the Olympic flag on behalf of peace and justice at the opening ceremony of the London Olympic Games and, a year later, her autobiography, Sunflowers and Snipers, was published.

In January, 2012, Sally endured a battle of her own when she discovered a small lump in her breast. However, following a mammogram and ultrasound, she was assured there was no need to worry.

Sally recalled: “Fifteen months later, I returned to the hospital having noticed some changes and they did some more tests.

“The lump turned out to be malignant and I was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“I had to undergo major surgery to have it removed and was advised to have radiation treatment and chemotherapy.

“As the cancer hadn't spread to my lymph nodes, I declined.”

Sally, who recently became a trustee of Hadassah UK, a charity which raises funds for Jerusalem’s Hadassah Hospital, established the non-profit organisation Road to Peace in November.

It helps to promote peaceful co-existence between communities in conflict.

Sally said: “If dialogue doesn’t happen between both sides, Israel will cease to exist.

“There will only be peace if both sides recognise each other.”

* and

© 2015 Jewish Telegraph