A British Army veteran is returning to the Balkans for the first time since the Bosnian War, one of the most brutal conflicts in Europe since the Second World War, to attempt the 100km Peaks of the Balkans Trek and raise money for the charity Link to Hope.
The small British charity helps to rebuild lives in Ukraine, Romania, Moldova and Bulgaria through education and by sending much-needed supplies like food and hygiene products.
Former Corporal Mark Pawlak was a Combat Medical Technician in the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) and deployed four times to Bosnia, initially with 1st Armoured Field Ambulance (1AFA) then twice with 1 Regiment Royal Horse (1RHA) Artillery and again with 2 Battalion The Royal Green Jackets (2RGJ).
One crucial part of the work done by the charity Link to Hope the British Army veteran will be raising money for is the 'I AM' project.
Mark spoke to Jess Bracey, broadcaster for BFBS the Forces Station, about the project and why he is so keen to support the small Sussex-based charity. He said: "They've been doing it for 30 years and they aim to provide really basic healthcare and human rights and deliver some of the most fundamental things to people, such as helping them repair their homes and get identity papers so they can access education and support.
"I just have a personal leaning towards the smaller charities that don't always get the airtime and that don't always get visibility and do fantastic work."
Many people in Eastern Europe have no identity papers for a variety of different reasons. This leaves children unable to access education, older people can't qualify for a pension and families can't get any financial help for basic necessities.
Link to Hope explains on their website just how vital getting official documents like birth certificates can be, saying: "Without them, the poorest who already struggle have an even harder battle to survive and the circle of poverty continues.
"This is particularly true for the children who need documents in order to be able to attend school."
In addition to their 'I AM' project, Link to Hope also appeals to their supporters to send shoeboxes filled with essential supplies for men, women and children of all ages to them for them to take to the people who need help in Eastern Europe – the charity says that, so far, one million boxes have been sent.
Link to Hope asks that people fill shoeboxes with gloves, hats, a toothbrush, toothpaste, soap, a flannel, sweets or chocolate and small games.
Then, depending on whether you are sending a box to a family or an elderly person, five extra items can be added such as crayons, a soft toy, reading glasses, shampoo and so on.
The British Army veteran spent much of his time in remote parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina where he first appreciated the region’s dramatic countryside, but it was on his tours as a battery medic with 1RHA where he got to travel most
He said: "I deployed each week with a gun troop from Sanski Most and we toured far and wide; it was probably those tours that opened up my eyes to just how spectacular the region is.”
Starting on 11 June, Pawlak will join others from the UK to walk for six days across Albania, Kosovo and Montenegro on a route which traverses the Western Balkans along ancient mountain tracks, a tough circular trek. He said: "It's been 25 years since I first went to the Balkans.
"Returning has been a long-held aim of mine. Beautiful countryside, dramatic and undiscovered.
"It's nice to see that things might move on and that our memories of things which happened in the past can be replaced by something a bit more positive and discover more good things about an area than it's sometimes labelled with."
The epic walk passes through villages that are separated by strict borders and fortified by bunkers, built more than two generations ago when Communist regimes controlled Yugoslavia and Albania.
As part of their adventure, the team will walk to the stunning Gashi Valley, which became a UNESCO Natural World Heritage site in 2017, and climb the 2,366m Tromeđa, translated into English as the Three Borders Peak.
After leaving the British Army, Mark went to university and worked with number of digital businesses before taking his current role as Editor at adventure travel company AWE365.com and as a Content Officer at the University of Brighton.
"The army really gave me my passion for the outdoors and adventure.
"This trek is a fantastic opportunity to re-visit a part of the world still largely off the beaten track and raise money for a tiny charity doing excellent work."
Find out more about his adventure and donate via his JustGiving page.
Cover image: Mark preparing for his return to the Balkans (Picture: Julia Horbaschk).