United Nations High Commission for Refugees - Sarajevo

International Information

International Operation Name: United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR)(Sarajevo Airlift)

International Mission Name: United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR)(Sarajevo Airlift)

Mandating Organization: United Nations High Commission for Refugees

Region Name: Europe

Location: Bosnia and Herzegovina

Mission Date: 2 July 1992 - 9 January 1996

Mission Mandate: To fly humanitarian supplies into Sarajevo at the request of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.

In early 1992 the ongoing conflict in Bosnia-Hercegovina and the Bosnian Serb siege of Sarajevo resulted in two operations. The Security Council authorized the creation of the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR), and a United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) request resulted in the UNHCR airlift of supplies to Sarajevo. Although the Security Council tasked UNPROFOR and later UN operations in Bosnia-Hercegovina with assisting the airlift, the Council was not involved in its creation.

With the onset of war in the former republics of Yugoslavia in 1991, the UNHCR was the lead agency for the delivery of food aid to refugees, and to villages and towns that were cut off from normal food supplies because of the fighting. Over 4 million people received aid, 2.7 million in Bosnia. Initially, this aid was delivered by road; however, as the extent of the war in Bosnia increased and as the Bosnian Serbs made it ever harder for humanitarian convoys to deliver aid, the UNHCR began to rely more upon the airlift of aid into various locales in Bosnia. The Bosnian Serbs found ways to cut off this means of resupply. Sarajevo and its environs with 440,000 people became cut off. 

On 5 June 1992, UNPROFOR brokered an agreement with the Bosnian Serbs that would allow UNHCR flights into Sarajevo. Although UN troops under Major-General Lewis MacKenzie arrived on 29 June, the Bosnians Serbs still controlled the airport with heavy weapons, anti-aircraft guns on its approaches, and troops within sniping range. Road access to Sarajevo was still very heavily hindered. The size of the airlift required to supply Sarajevo was beyond the capabilities of the UNHCR and its hired aircraft. The UNHCR thus turned to military partners for assistance.

On 3 July 1992, the UNHCR airlift into Sarajevo began with personnel from 21 nations participating. In the first half of the operation, flights into Sarajevo originated from Split and Zagreb in Croatia, Frankfurt, Germany and Ancona, Italy. In 1995 these were consolidated into Ancona to save money. The airlift was coordinated by the UNHCR in close co-operation with the participating nations and UNPROFOR, which provided security at Sarajevo airport.

The airlift was always vulnerable to interruption. It was suspended after NATO airstrikes against Serb targets on 5 August 1994; it resumed again on 22 August. It was suspended again on 21 November when the Serbs threatened the flights if NATO did not stop enforcing the “no-fly” zone over Bosnia. In March 1995, the airlift had to be scaled back 40 percent as the Bosnian Serbs were hindering deliveries from the airport to the city. The airlift ceased altogether on 8 April when heavy fighting around the airport made it too hazardous. The Serbs then cut off the supplies of natural gas, electricity and water in May and seriously hindered the delivery of aid by road. The airlift did not resume again until September 1995.

In the most serious incident, on 3 September 1992, an Italian Air Force G-222 transport was hit by a surface to air missile while 27 kilometres from Sarajevo airport. All four crewmen on board were killed. Over one hundred incidents were recorded where small arms fire was directed at the aircraft.

Over the course of 3 ½ years, the airlift delivered over 160,677 tonnes of supplies into Sarajevo, including over 144,000 tonnes of food and 15,850 tonnes of medical supplies and equipment. Over 1,100 patients were evacuated from Sarajevo.

Canadian Forces (CF) Information (AIRBRIDGE)

Name: No Canadian Op name -Date: 3 July 1992 - 4 March 1994 

Name: Op AIRBRIDGE -Date: 3 April 1994 - 9 January 1996

CF Mission/Operation Notes: Canadian participation in the UNHCR airlift began with the first flight on 5 July 1992. The missions were a continuation of the Canadian presence in Zagreb in support of Operation Harmony. Originally there was no name for the mission, but on 4 March 1994, it officially became Operation AIRBRIDGE. The government reviewed the commitment to the airlift every six months.

The detachment originally operated out of Zagreb, Croatia, but moved to Ancona, Italy in February 1993, although 426 Squadron occasionally flew out of Split in 1994 and 1995. The detachment consisted of one CC-130 Hercules and about 44 air and ground crew. The two aircrew rotated shifts as they were flying three flights a day, seven days a week. Each month a new rotation would arrive, with some personnel having more than seven tours and many having five and some eleven or more. All squadrons operating Hercules became involved in this operation, 

Because of the threat posed by the defences around Sarajevo 20 minutes before entering Bosnian airspace, the aircrew would don helmets and bullet-proof vests. For self-defence, the aircraft were equipped with radar warning receivers to detect radar-guided threats, and had chaff and flare dispensers to counter missile attacks.

Canada flew 1860 flights into Sarajevo, fourth behind the United States (4597), France (2133) and the United Kingdom (1902).


Description: Sarajevo - Capt Milek flies a Canadian Forces Hercules aircraft into the city of Sarajevo, carrying relief supplies for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). Capt Milek is a pilot with 429 (T) Squadron in Trenton, ON.

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