Monday, February 15, 2010

Big Mistake

Today was a little warmer, probably mid-30’s, and the sun even came out for a while so I thought I would take a walk and take a few photographs. My first stop was the Olympic stadium, barely a half mile from our apartment. Then I set off for the US embassy. I wanted some pictures of the front gate and fence – all you can see from the street. So there I was standing in the small park across from the embassy taking some snapshots when I was approached by a very large Bosnian policeman. He spoke to me in his language and I replied in English. There were a few exchanges, neither of us understanding the other. When he motioned for me to follow him, though, it was clear what he meant and my heart sank.
I followed him across the street to a small kiosk at the corner of the embassy compound. In addition to a second Bosnian police officer, there were two guards there carrying AK 47’s. They also had handguns strapped to their thighs.

The second policeman knew some English and he started questioning me about taking photographs of the US embassy. I explained I was a US citizen and didn’t know it might be a problem to take photographs. He asked me to wait while he contacted his supervisor.

The supervisor appeared wearing a sweater with a Embassy Security embroidered on one should and an American flag patch on the other. He was also Bosnian, but his English was excellent. Now he started questioning me: why was I taking photos, didn’t I see the signs prohibiting photographs, what was I doing in Bosnia, where did I live, etc. Thank heavens I had my passport with me. I showed him my passport and freely admitted taking photographs of the embassy. I had just meant to be able to show my family the embassy compound where we had been welcomed a week earlier. He said that it was all okay, but they would have to take my passport and make some notes and I would have to delete all the photos of the embassy. Although it would be easy to take as many photos as I wanted with a cell phone camera and they would be unlikely to notice,  I certainly wasn’t going to get into an argument with someone backed up by two men carrying automatic weapons. He watched while I went through all the photos on my camera and deleted all the embassy photos. Then we reviewed all the photos left on the camera to make sure all embassy photos were gone.

He was really very polite and pleasant about the whole thing and even apologized for taking up so much of my time. He didn’t have a threatening manner, yet the vision of a small dark cell with a single bare light bulb occupied my thoughts while I was waiting for my passport to be returned. I was very relieved to be sent on my way.

I won’t make that mistake again. The US embassy compound is surrounded by a high white concrete wall and takes up a good half block. The buildings are well back from the wall. You’ll just have to use your imagination – I’m not going to try to get a photo.