It was a standard dream. I was being chased by soldiers in camouflage uniform who meant to cut my throat. My feet were mired in clay. I couldn’t get away. I woke to the sound of bombardment, but that, too, was an illusion. Just a thunderstorm, rolling in from the mountains of the interior. I checked my watch. At four I would be leaving by truck for Bosnia. There was no point going back to sleep.
The day hadn’t gone well. At lunch I’d seen a soldier shoot a dog. Along the cobblestone promenade, half visible through the cafe umbrellas and the Phoenix palms, seen him draw his pistol and stoop over the stricken animal, lying on the roadway where it had been run down. There was something casual about the bullet.
And then I’d surprised another soldier practising karate kicks. He was marching down a lane, shoulders set in a swagger, delivering kicks to imaginary heads. A double-edged dagger was in his hand. His hair was shaven in such a way as to leave a ridge of bristles running along the top of his head. Like a boar or a rooster. The Croatian town I was in is a coastal resort on the Adriatic, and was full of soldiers. They all had the same haircuts. The same swagger. In from the front.
In from a place of true nightmare. The television images had been playing too much on my mind. A woman waiting for a bus is felled by a sniper’s bullet. A child lies on a mortuary slab, gaping knife wound to the throat. Cattle truck deportations. Implacable politicians with strange names and eyes cold as stone, who everyone knows are responsible but who are never held to account. And in the middle of it a bunch of UN soldiers wearing helmets of baby blue.
I’d flown first to Zagreb, Croatia’s capital, and there, too, the omens hadn’t been good. I visited the Zagreb cathedral. Inside this raw cave of overpowering size black beetle women scuttled across the flagstones. Before Cardinal Alojzije Stepinac’s crypt they dropped to their knees, crossing themselves, wordless prayer sliding from their lips. Stepinac’s priests oversaw the slaughter of some 500,000 Serbs (of the Orthodox faith) at Jasenovac in Bosnia, forcing conversions to the Catholic faith at graveside.
Zagreb is full of statuary that celebrates Croatia’s imperial past, when Bosnia lay within its borders. There is no end of bronzed, flaring-nostrilled horses with bodies muscled like armour, and Vlad the Impaler-types astride them, swords pointing forward—but the slaughter at Jasenovac is more recent.
Barely 50 years ago, during the second world war, the Croatian Nazis, the ustashe, invaded Bosnia on a kind of latter-day crusade and pogrom wrapped into one. The Catholic church was up to its rosaries in the blood. A Franciscan friar known as “Brother Devil” by his captive flock actually ran the concentration camp at Jasenovac. Now, against the evidence, the church disputes the figures. No more than 60,000 died, they say. During his recent visit to Zagreb the Pope made a pilgrimage to the crypt of Stepilac.
Head of Croatia’s new government, Frano Tudjman, argues that the camp’s inmates carried out most of the killings themselves. This is like Helmut Kohl holding the Jews responsible for the Holocaust. Tudjman has a word on that, too, saying that genocide is a natural phenomenon for Jews, allowed and even recommended by the Old Testament. Frano put that into a book he wrote about Croatia’s destiny. On the subject, Tudjman is now saying he doesn’t want the UN to bring any more blacks or Muslims into his country.
It’s not surprising, then, to find a massive statue of Ante Pavelic, the ustashe Croatian Nazi dictator, holding pride of place in Zagreb. Or to find the checkerboard flag of the ustashe party fluttering at every street corner. Back at the Zagreb hotel the receptionist was again pleased to see me. “Kiwi, ah? Grite cowantry. Many Croatians in your cowantry.” Into a discussion about the present unfortunate situation I gently inserted Jasenovac. “This is lies from the Serbs. There was mistakes made on both sides. The ustashe were doing their best for Croatia, taking back our rightful lands.” The answer floored me. “But Greater Croatia hasn’t existed since A.D. 925,” I muttered to myself as I walked up to my room, past the air raid warning signs.
Watching some glittering Croatian game show on television didn’t restore my mood. Nor did ads for Miral soap powder complete with Enzymo-Plus. It’s hard to feel comfortable among people who venerate a Nazi past, and the simpering joviality of the box struck me as obscene. I returned to a journal of the Bosnian war written by Bosnian journalist Zlatko Dizdarevic, who speaks more of the destruction of human spirit than that of flesh and bone and brick, although there is that, too, in plenty.
“That’s what this war is, nothing but a long goodbye. You say goodbye to your illusions and your past, your dreams, your projects, all things great or small, and all the places inseparable from days gone by. But above all, you take your leave from many, many people who are divided into entirely separate camps, connected only by the thread that will join them forever: the war.”
Zlatko writes of an 11-year-old whose mother and father were killed by sniper fire in Sarajevo while waiting in line for water. “Today it is hard to fight back the tears, in eyes that have run dry. After the shooting the boy started to fetch and pour water over the bodies of his dead parents. He didn’t want to stop even when his sister, seriously wounded, called out: ‘Stop, Berin, stop. They’re dead.'” Zlatko asks if Bosnia is at a point beyond hatred.
I was due to travel to the village of Santici, which, like the rest of Bosnia, has been less in the news than the telegenic sufferings of Sarajevo, where the strategic situation is relatively straightforward. In Sarajevo, Bosnian Serbs with weapons supplied by Serbia are pounding a Bosnian city whose inhabitants are Serb, Croat and Muslim. At least in Sarajevo there aren’t Bosnian Croat forces, armed by Croatia, to further confuse the picture. Don’t bother re-reading the above. In a hundred years it wouldn’t make any better sense.
Think in terms of family. A family after the death of a beloved father, all down at the lawyer’s office arguing the estate with AK47s. When father figure Tito was alive he kept the stepbrothers of the rough and ready Yugoslav clan in line. Even though they all shared the same bed it seemed to work. Slobodan (Serbia) always wanted to be the bossy one. Frano and the others always hankered after their own rooms. But they shut up about it, else, by cory, they’d get a crack across the knuckles.
Tito left a will, all right: please live together in peace and harmony. But the bossy one took it on himself to be the executor. The UN has been busy trying to arrange a family conference ever since. Being a social agency, it’s not allowed to whup sense into them like they’re used to. Now the only heirloom left is Bosnia. The bigger brothers have decided to smash it into a thousand fragments so they each get a piece.
A New Zealand army captain, Kamlesh Singh, put it this way. “The thing is, all these buggers are one people. They worked together, played sport together, and all of a sudden turned around and started killing each other’s children! I don’t get it with these people.” That is the central question of the Bosnian war, a war that’s killed 200,000 people and torn millions from their homes. All that in a nation of 4.5 million people.
And so I hitched a ride with the Queen’s Own Ghurkas into Bosnia. They were running a re-supply convoy to the British base at Vitez, where the Kiwis were due to pick me up and take me on to their camp. Between the coast and our destination lay 200 kilometres of mountain that would take 14 hours to cross.
These ranges are separated from the Adriatic by an enormous rampart, a great bulldozer blade of rock. Streaks of daylight were showing by the time we reached the brow of the cliff. Through the mist that hung heavily at the pass crumbling watchtower castles stood guard. Soon enough the ruins of ancient civilisation would give way to more modern ones.
For hours the convoy crawled on through a grey empty wilderness of stunted, windswept trees, until finally we were amongst the snow and ice of a military mountain road specially made by the British to allow relief supplies to reach the starving besieged villagers of central Bosnia.
The convoy entered the little town of Prozor, where the Croatian militia had forced thousands to flee into these frozen mountains—this while their allies, the Bosnian army, were off fighting the Serbs who until then had been their common enemy. Tudjman had seen a chance to grab a chunk of Bosnia for the good of greater Croatia. So he took it.
In Prozor militia members pinned Nazi regalia to their uniforms as they performed the customary work of beatings, rape and murder—burning the houses of non-Croats so there could be no return. This has left a pattern of destruction that is the signature of ethnic cleansing: maybe every third house is a gaping, charred wreck while its neighbours are untouched. On these buildings there is not much pockmarking from bullets because there was no fight. The able-bodied men of these families were at the front.
I leaned out of the window to photograph such a group of houses. I hadn’t seen the soldier. He advanced on the truck, drew a finger across his throat and raised his machine-gun. But I was part of a big military convoy, and my Ghurka driver packed his own weapon. In the instant of his hesitation the truck jolted forward. The danger had passed. I thought of families wandering dazed and bleeding through the frozen night.
By late afternoon the weather had cleared. In a way, that was worse. The sparkling spring sunlight revealed a Julie Andrews country of whitewashed farmhouses, haystacks, hillside meadows bursting with wildflowers. Flocks of geese. But it was The Sound of Music with screenplay by Stephen King. Whap! Turn a corner and there’s nothing but rubble and destruction. In one village built around a tumbling stream with a little park and picnic area every house was destroyed. In fact, nobody was there. The village was entirely abandoned. Each and every cuckoo-clock chalet burned and blackened.
I spied two figures on the road ahead. Two outcast boys, possibly of subnormal intelligence, each with his swag. One carried a bundle of blankets on his head. Lashed to that was a toy machine gun he’d made with a birch branch for a barrel. Nearer Vitez, more children appeared along the roadside, running after the trucks for sweets or some treat. My driver had brought extra food, and, where we could, we passed it over. They didn’t squeal with delight so much as release little breathless sighs of pleasure. One child, through desperate effort, managed to keep up with the truck, little skinny legs flailing until we could toss him a pot of yoghurt. A little Forrest Gump, going for it.
I couldn’t stop thinking of how the first British troops to reach here had found the body of a child nailed to a door. Where’s the hammer? Who’s got the nails. Here, take a leg.
And among the smashed villages, along the river flats, the people were busy with spring planting. Husband and wife poking fingers into chocolate pudding soil. Or maybe a wooden plough behind a horse. Arbors at the back door. Tulips. The whitewashed trunks of carefully tended orchards. Chickens.
Travelling through these shattered towns, I wanted to shout out to no-one in particular: “So you’re all satisfied, are you? You all put your heads together, did you? And you came up with exactly what you wanted. Congratulations all round, is it?” Since the calibre of the answer was likely to be about 9 mm, I refrained.
Besides, it would have been unfair to taunt people who are nothing more than victims of old-guard politicians holding on to power any way they can. Politicians who discovered that stirring up the dormant grievances held by their natural constituencies won them advantage. At stake is the very survival of the tribe, they said, when the end game was about their own survival and always has been. It only took one well-planned atrocity. Human nature took care of the rest.
There’s Nothing Unusual about a politician plunging a country into chaos for electoral advantage. Muldoon used a rugby tour because he knew it would swing key marginal provincial seats in his favour. Fancy that! A country coming to blows about a game of rugby. In New Zealand, rugby was like religion. In Bosnia, religion is like religion.
The war at one level is all about old empires coming and going and leaving in their wake three different faiths which were adopted by native Bosnians. Croatia brought Catholicism, Turkey, Islam and Serbia, Orthodox. They all speak the same language, are completely indistinguishable racially, they intermarried, lived in mixed communities. The sole difference at a personal level was religion. Even then, few Muslims ever attended a mosque. The Bosnians were the most secular Muslims in the world.
Each empire left behind its own raft of scores to settle, but what king such-and-such did to king so-and-so during the Hapsburg dynasty (if that’s what it was) had become about as interesting and as relevant to the average Croat, Serb or Muslim as it was to me nodding off in the back of a sixth form history lesson back in New Zealand. But atrocity takes care of that.
In the current wars there can be no argument that Serbia is the principal aggressor; first of all invading its brothers Slovenia, then Croatia, and, through its proxy army, Bosnia. It’s about Serbia’s view of itself as the dominant power within the postwar confederation of Yugoslavian states—that happy family. This is a view shared by Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia, which was why they took advantage of the fall of communism to declare themselves independent, to break free from Serbia’s increasingly bossy and heavy-handed attempt to grab the levers of power. They wanted their own rooms.
Serbia, acting, it said, on behalf of the confederation, attempted to crush what it saw as rebellions—doing no more than what Papua New Guinea has been doing in Bougainville for longer than the Bosnian conflict. The pretext? Serbia claimed that Orthodox Bosnians who it holds to be Serbs needed to be “protected” from a wholly fictitious Islamic jihad about to be waged by Muslim Bosnians. By and by, while Bosnia was busy fighting off the Serbs, Croatia snuck in to grab its share at places like Prozor.
The initial problem for Serbia was that Bosnians of all religions were mostly very happy being Bosnian. They elected a representative parliament. Those who voted in a referendum on independence were almost unanimously in favour. Ethnic cleansing is about taking care of that inconvenience by creating a climate of fear, then providing the atrocity to justify it.
Serbia laid down the first barrage in that war, and it was a cannonade of radio and television propaganda fired across the border up into the remote mountain valleys where, to put it mildly, the average peasant is comprehension-challenged. They were told the jihad was coming. And that’s what enough of them—the ones given the guns to launch a pre-emptive strike—believed.
When you spend every day of your life tending a few anorexic sheep on some godforsaken hillside, picking up a gun in defence of the tribe is always the more interesting option. But you don’t have to be thick as two planks and flushed with testosterone to fall victim to scaremongering. It’s the sort of refrain that sent New Zealand troops to Vietnam to fight communists who weren’t exactly in the next valley—but were coming all the same.
And now, in the biggest deployment since that war, some 250 New Zealand soldiers are engaged in a different task. That of peace. The Ghurkas drop me off at the British base at Vitez. There I wait for a Kiwi to show up. In the quagmire of the camp, with its portable container-style cabins dropped every which way in the mud, struts a bandy little cock rooster sergeant-major, a swagger stick crooked under his arm. He’s crowing for all he’s worth at the squaddies, telling them to do things, not to do things and to do other things faster. Crowing in the mud.
In the days ahead at the Kiwi camp I learn that the New Zealand army is a completely different kettle of fish. Learn that any Kiwi officer or NCO throwing his weight would be told quick-smart by the men and women—by a cold shoulder if nothing else—to pull his head in. The Kiwi approach is about co-operation and teamwork. From the haka through to the easygoing manner between ranks, the Kiwis are a mystery to the British. It’s been that way since the Boer war.
And if they scramble the British idea of rank and class, the Kiwis also confuse the hell out of the locals’ idea of what constitutes a soldier. The Brits patrol the streets as if they were in Northern Ireland, the militia prowl around like Rambos, but the Kiwis stroll about the place waving out with long lanky arms to the locals at every step. “Gidday, dobro dan. Kiwi nay chechen, eh? Kiwi super dobro?” The warmth and friendliness leaves the locals no choice. “Ya,” they reply, with silly unaccustomed grins breaking out of lined grim faces. “Ya, kee wee nay chechen. Kee wee super dobro!”
I’ve no idea how to spell chechen, but it means chicken, and our boys point to the Kiwi emblem on their shoulder badge when they call it out. Then maybe they might stop for a game of hopscotch with the kids. Or drop off a bag of flour to an isolated cottage. Or cut firewood for a widow. All important stuff that is in no UN mandate.
Now, after nine months and two Kiwi contingents, the locals are the first to wave and smile, an absolute contrast to the stony response you get in a British vehicle. For some reason I found this hugely emotional. People who’ve been through more than you even want to know about, finding a reason to smile. The Kiwi soldiers, too, wear that as a badge of pride.
There is still the sound of artillery 20 km up the valley where the Bosnians—those who swear allegiance to the Bosnian state rather than a religious faction—are fighting the Serbs for possession of a mountain. But around Vitez itself—as elsewhere in Bosnia—the Croats and the Bosnians have formed a federation. The Bosnians have been forced to accept the gains made by the Croats.
The village of Ahmici, right next door to the Kiwi camp, shows how the Croats did their work. Colonel Bob Stewart, commander of the first British forces to the area, describes how the village two years ago was assaulted at dawn from two sides, with snipers picking off anybody who attempted to leave their houses. “Each house was taken out by squads of soldiers. Their orders were quite clear: ‘first kill the men, then the male children, then the rest’.”
The UN arrived after it was all over. More than 100 were killed, their bodies burned in their houses. Stewart reports entering one house. “It looked to me as though the father and son had tried to protect the remainder of the family. The mother, another adult and maybe four remaining children had sought shelter in the basement, but had been found. Possibly some had been shot, but two young children had almost certainly been burned alive.”
Now, just across the road from Ahmici, I spied an old woman sitting under a tree. I balanced along a narrow path that threaded through her burgeoning garden and across a patch of wasteland where, like as not, mines were waiting to bloom. Her daughter emerged from their bullet-blasted house. I learned that the mother, in the weeks that the killing raged about her, had hidden in the basement. Being Croat she had not herself been a target of the massacre.
Through an interpreter, Marija Kulic, the daughter, spoke of the abiding pain. I could make out the names Tudjman, Milosevic, Karadsic, spat out like swear words. “Yes,” she says, “the leaders were responsible for all of this. We, the small people—there was nothing between us. We were all friends with our Muslim neighbours, but now they are gone. One man lost two sons and his daughter because he was away fighting. But he still speaks to us when he can visit. We know together what we have lost. But many cannot forgive. That is the hardest part, looking for forgiveness.”
From the main road, Ahmici looks like a scene out of a western, the one when the cavalry arrives too late at the ranch. Some Croats celebrate the Ahmici anniversary. And then I think of how long it was that we believed the Indians were the bad guys; how easy it is to feed out the exact inverse of the truth. How the cavalry which did most of the burning and pillaging became the popular heroes of American-style ethnic cleansing from a different century.
Certainly, the Ahmici massacre and others like it achieved their purpose of causing Muslims to flee areas of Croatian strength and of forcing Croats to flee predominantly Muslim areas for fear of likely reprisal. It takes only one side to coin the currency of atrocity. The result is a vision of Bosnia’s future. In a valley a tad bigger than the Hutt there are now maybe a dozen hermetically-sealed ethnically-cleansed settlements, each with its own borders and bickering mayors.
On a map, this fragmented spattering of settlements looks like some sort of psychiatrist’s Rorschach ink blot. To the architects of ethnic purity the pattern represents the fulfilment of a dream; the whole pattern smells as sweet as a rose. To anybody else it’s a work of madness, a work that extends over the whole of Bosnia.
In one settlement I attend a parade of Croatian soldiers. The lead truck has a swastika scratched into the paintwork of the cab. Riding on the tray is a group of blackshirted Nazi militia who stand to attention next to a heavy machine-gun. The schoolchildren have been brought out to wave. The parade is heading to church. The men in the blackshirts exchange casual Sieg hells as they disappear into church for absolution. The Kiwi soldiers remain studiously neutral.
Noting the absence of any interdenominational church committees of reconciliation, I ask one Bosnian woman about the role of the churches. “The priests now, they are like gods who have dropped out the part about forgiveness. They always tell us we must remember our friends who have fallen and to honour our obligations. Never forgiveness or tolerance.
“What kind of future do we have?” she asks, tears in her eyes. “I am not afraid of the war, I am afraid of the peace. What sort of country can it be when it is run by these kind of people? Where everyone is divided by the sword and the memories. I refuse to accept that. My mother was a Serb, my father a Croat and my husband is Muslim. Now they demand you step one way or the other.
“To search for answers to this madness you must take a look at a very big picture. That mankind is descended from the apes and that we are stuck half way in evolution between that and some future higher being. A future higher being that one day will bring sanity back here.”
I thought of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey—the moment when a dominant apelike creature discovers it can use a bone to club submission from the troop; and keeps on clubbing and doesn’t know when to stop. For the sake of the tribe.
Lest we wax superior, what difference lies between the visceral proximity of killing your neighbour’s child with a knife or doing a more vicious job at the civilised remove of cluster bombs dropped from a plane on any one of the thousands of civilian targets that the West, in very recent years, has deemed necessary to obliterate? A million civilians dead in Vietnam alone. For the sake of the tribe.
And now the Kiwis are engaged in the infinitely more complex business of bringing peace. At a physical level, the Kiwi role is about supervising border crossing points and patrolling the confrontation lines that run around each enclave; to report on any military activity among the trenches that have, by mutual agreement between the Croats and the Bosnians, been abandoned.
For the soldiers, manning border checkpoints is a gruellingly tedious exercise. Many checkpoints lie across country lanes that lead from one village where nothing happens to another village where even less happens. Passing along these lanes, which twist among orchards laid out with a peasant meticulousness, you suddenly encounter a full-on contingent of Croat police decked out in gold-buttoned uniforms of royal blue. These police carefully check the citizenry’s paperwork for irregularities so they can demand bribes to overlook them. A stone’s throw further on, the Bosnian police, decked out in green, are waiting to perform the same procedure. That is, if a car ever comes.
In between, the Kiwis man a redoubt of razor wire and gravel-filled bastions complete with a tank-like armoured personnel carrier. Somewhere off the road a peasant is sprawled in the long grass watching his single scrawny cow chew cud. He falls asleep, The police and the soldiers watch on, glad of the diversion. For inspired lunacy only Spike Milligan’s Puckoon beats it.
But in these drowsy hollows the hatred burns on. One Bosnian policeman congratulated the Kiwis for killing two Croatian children, who were run over by a Kiwi APC. Thinking he’d misheard, the Kiwi agreed it was a tragic accident. “No, dobro, dobro! Good! Good!”
In this territory the army cannot afford to take chances. I discovered this when I accompanied a patrol along the confrontation lines, or rather, during the briefing the night before. There was something surreal about sitting in an accommodation container in the middle of Bosnia being asked for my blood group, a precaution taken mainly to assist identification of body parts in the event of a mine going off.
Sergeant Durham Quigley, in crisp military style, with map and pointer, briefed the patrol. “The mission: to patrol an extensive line of trenches, bunkers and fire positions to the east of Busovaca to ensure former warring parties have continued to de-escalate the manning of the trenches. Risk: they do mount extensive patrols armed with long-barrelled weapons. There are extensive mines and there are booby traps.” Durham liked the word extensive.
“Order of march: in single file myself, our guest, the sergeant, and Smitty, you bring up the rear. Action on contact: take cover immediately. Return fire if source located. We will provide covering fire until you, sergeant, can withdraw with our guest. Action on mines: freeze. Use bayonets to prod forward to the casualty Chain of command: me, sergeant, Smitty. If it gets down to you, Mark, keep running!”
In improbable Man From Uncle fashion we then synchronised watches—something as a child I was forever doing, minus the watch. Two minutes later, watching CNN, the improbability faded. The image of the frozen eyes of a French peacekeeper staring from the mud of Sarajevo where he lay dying from a sniper’s bullet showed this stuff was for real. Was it a Serb who shot him, or did the Bosnians pick him off, knowing the camera was there ready to record what would be taken as the latest Serb outrage? In any war that kind of question cannot go unasked.
On this patrol some wildcat sniper’s bullet couldn’t be ruled out, but mines would be the main danger. “Remember, stay on hard ground, follow in my footsteps, and when we get to trenches don’t touch anything because there are booby traps. The mines are everywhere. They’ve got them white to hide in the snow, red to attract the kids.” Sergeant Quigley was giving a last warning as we left the Land-Rover and headed off into the hills wooded with a fresh green spring growth, up past the abandoned farms with their whitewashed plastered buildings floating on a sea of fragrant wildflowers. A Renoir painting.
Soon we were amongst the sodden clay of the trenches, peering into the makeshift bunkers from which wires led out into no-man’s-land, wires used to trigger mines still visible. In one bunker, safe to enter, was a litter of empty cans of relief-aid baby food. A drowned hamster floated in a saucepan. A horseshoe was nailed to the door. There were notches cut into the lintel.
Later I Travelled To Maglaj, nearer Sarajevo, where a small group of Kiwis working with the British had just been shelled by a Serbian tank. Nearing the town, where we had to run an unprotected gauntlet before the guns, I strapped on a helmet and body armour. I’d promised my family to stay away from danger, but, illogically, I didn’t want to shrink from the challenge. But the body armour only pointed out how much of me it left exposed. Like a turtle I tried to pull my head into the Kevlar shell.
Yet I was relatively safe in my little UN capsule. I had a full belly, the soldiers with me were armed and our exposure to risk was for minutes only. Outside on the streets were people with none of that security and with no choice but to daily play the lethal lottery of snipers and shelling that Serbs from a vantage point overlooking the town had devised. Arriving at the base, I saw blue tarps spread around the compound to blind the snipers, but this was no protection against the tank shell that crashed through the observation post where Kiwi Captain Kevan Scott had been monitoring the Serb lines.
“I saw the tank entrain toward me. I remember the muzzle flash. Then I saw the wall just come in at me. The shock wave of the shell threw me back through the door. It was surreal, like being in a car crash that came from absolutely nowhere. Everything went black, the room filled with sand. Then I realised I was alive.”
This was one lucky Kiwi. The Serbs had fired a solid anti-tank round which contains neither high explosive nor shrapnel, but is designed to punch through the armour of a tank. At the observation post I see the gaping hole not two feet from where Kevan was sitting. Through field glasses I study the terrain. Nothing is happening, but it is a very interesting kind of nothing. Running across the farmland in front of me is the clay scar of Serb entrenchments. To the right is a deserted hamlet where the snipers lurk. On the ridge-line, in a gap between the trees, I spot the tank dug into earthworks. The bloody tank’s still there! “Oh yeah, the UN command wouldn’t let us retaliate. If you see it swing this way, let us know.”
I look closer. The barrel is pointing toward town, where it periodically fires phosphorus and shrapnel shells that are fused to explode above ground level for maximum injury.
Then I notice farmers still working in their fields. Every so often some sniper in the hills decides to shoot one, but the farmers have no choice. I’m reminded of what one Bosnian told me. “To flush the toilet you must go to the river with a bucket, and there are snipers. Why risk your life to flush the toilet? But you get the water anyway. It is your little piece of bravery to show that you will live a normal life, that you won’t be defeated.”
I ask Kevan how he handles coming so close to death. “I know they don’t hate me personally. They were making the political point that they hold all the cards around here. You tend to think you are immune, but I have to say that this adjusted that viewpoint a little.” I remind Kevan that he is a young man. I ask him why he’s prepared to risk dying for Bosnia. “I’m a professional, and we are doing a professional job. The people here need us.”
A Nato jet is due, a British Jaguar. Out in the compound Kevan spreads an aerial photograph of the area and directs the pilot towards the tank. But it isn’t easy. We can hear the jet engines high above the clouds. Kevan calls instructions into his radio. “See the bridge north of the town. That is your anchor. Follow the road to the first Y junction. Now take that as one unit. Four units north up the road there is a ridge. Three units up the ridge there are three farmhouses. One unit further on there is a gap in the trees. There is a tank in that gap. That is your target.”
This process takes ten minutes. Kevan is hunched over his microphone, tense with concentration. But the circling pilot can’t see through the cloud, and patches of shade obscure detail. Finally, the Jaguar, running low on fuel, is locked on to by Serb anti-aircraft radar. Half an hour later Kevan repeats the performance for a Spanish jet. The weather clears, the tank is identified. Some twitty British officer calls out, “Tell him we want the full Monty, wot.” But everyone knows this isn’t for real. The UN has decreed that the tank will not be hit. The targeting is simply a warning. The rules of engagement allow only return fire. Not later retaliation.
Two hours after we leave, the tank fires another round. This time it slams through a dinner queue of squaddies, seriously injuring six, one of whom loses a leg. The British pour some 70 rounds at the gap in the trees; they fire three anti-tank missiles but the Serbs weren’t born yesterday. After firing, the tank simply withdrew beyond the brow.
So is Bosnia another UN wimp out? If not, then what is the UN achieving if it can’t protect the peacekeepers, let alone the population? To understand that requires a fundamental reversal of attitude to what an army is for, and, for that matter, what is achieved by a shooting war.
Any peacekeeping mission is composed of three parts. The first stage is about dramatic intervention to deal with the trauma of all-out war. In Bosnia, as with Somalia, this meant providing protection for relief supplies, restoring bridges so convoys can move and providing shelter for refugees. All of which requires some kind of contact with warring faction commanders. In the Vitez area, it involved barging through the barricades in tanks and politely grabbing the commanders by the scruffs of their necks. Only the UN could have done it.
At first the contact is about negotiating safe areas for certain restricted purposes, but then the UN officers, through sheer force of diplomacy, widen the scope of the co-operation. They might get local commanders to meet face to face. Often the first meeting is to discuss the exchange of bodies or prisoners.
But the UN officers, as they shuttle backwards and forwards across no-man’s land, keep levering on points of mutual interest until, in some slow fraught way, the commanders—who probably went to school together—relearn what it is to be human, and reach agreements about this, that and the other thing.
This process isn’t confined to matters military. The same delicate business of re-establishing dialogue between shattered communities is also applied to civilian leaders. Joint committees. Morning teas. It’s about consolidating steps toward normalisation.
The final stage is where both sides are talking, where the people are fed and sheltered and a basic infrastructure is restored. At this point there is very little more the UN can do except to continue to promote dialogue, to support the process of a political solution. This is where failure is seen to occur, but it is not a UN failure. If, after all the patient diplomacy, the careful suturing together of these severed parts, the opposing sides want to keep shooting then there’s nothing the UN can do short of becoming a participant in the war.
Meanwhile, the gains have been forgotten. In Bosnia, the UN intervention has saved hundreds of thousands of people from starvation and genocide. There is now peace between the Croats and the Muslims, a fragile peace that still needs careful support, but one which has its own momentum.
None of this is new to the most experienced peacekeeper on the Kiwi team, Captain Kamlesh Singh, himself a victim of a version of ethnic cleansing at the hands of Colonel Rabuka—where like Bosnia the stakes were more about protecting the power-base of a conservative elite than any sincerely held view about racial threat. Singh served three years in the Middle East.
“What is the alternative to this peacekeeping? War? What does that achieve? You might lose ten men assaulting an objective, like a bridge or a ridge. They will die in heroic style, but that ridge might be bloody useless. How many more ridges are there? And everybody will forget the ridge when it’s finished. At the end, you still have to find some way toward peace. With peacekeeping you might lose ten men in six months. They won’t die in old heroic style, they will be picked off one by one—but maybe, just maybe, the mission might achieve something real along the way.
“The more successful a mission is, the more normal it seems; the less the soldier feels he is needed. But it’s normal precisely because the soldier is there. The civilians forget that, too—about the starvation and the full-on war—and they start to complain. Once they get their feet on the ground they want to know why we are not off fighting the Serbs for them. You can understand why they want us to deal with the Serbs who are shelling a town, but if we go off and do that a lot more of our soldiers will die. Will that stop the fighting? No. We could shoot all we like, but the solution lies with the people here, not with us. The reason the UN was set up was for people to sit down and talk. That’s the opportunity we have provided.”
“It’s very hard to tell a soldier that we are not here to fight, but you don’t come in shooting from the hip—it’s all cooking and looking. There’s no problems up to the point where one of your comrades dies; until then it’s like a huge multinational training exercise. But peacekeeping is not just waving and saying hello to people. It can change in the time it takes to pull a trigger. And if someone dies the natural reaction is to say, ‘Bugger this, I am going to shoot back. I’m not going to stand about.”
It’s clear that peacekeeping requires a new brand of courage and discipline, but at the time of writing most Kiwis had yet to experience hostile fire. Instead, for the officers at least, it’s about negotiating a political minefield of different personalities, hidden agendas, burning feuds and extraordinary intransigence as they try to encourage dialogue between the leaders of each group—the same ones who were responsible for the slaughter.
I attend a meeting between Croat and Bosnian commanders hosted at the Kiwi camp. Over a jug of cordial, a Griffins sampler box and a bottle of brandy the two men display all the delicacy and tentativeness of an estranged couple with—in this case—one of them responsible for murdering the kids. They have a laugh about which brand of cigarettes is better, Marlboro or Lucky Strike. A Kiwi officer provides ashtrays for both. There’s some other joke. It’s small talk, but at least it’s talk.
The camp commander, Major Lofty Haywood, innocently asks if they’ve seen the trees planted by the Kiwis—which totally incidentally have underneath them a plaque dedicated to an everlasting peace in Bosnia. Yes, they have. Another Kiwi, brisk and businesslike, turns the focus to mine clearance. He’s not asking them to consider cooperating in identifying mines each side has laid. His manner simply and subtly takes it as read that, of course, as decent people they’re probably keener than he is to get on with doing the right thing.
The Croat, Yuri, responds as if nothing had ever been closer to his heart. The Bosnian, too, never really liked putting them there in the first place. The Kiwi suggests naming a time and place for delegated mine clearance representatives to meet. Delegating mine clearance representatives, let alone the idea of them meeting, is news to both, but they don’t let on. Military people like the idea of a time and a place—so it’s a crisp military “no problem” from them both. The mine clearance may or may not happen, but they’ve agreed to meet. More bikkies?
All through this area of Bosnia, Kiwi liaison officers are out chipping away at bringing these people together. Colonel Barry Vryenhoek, overall commander of the New Zealand contingent, is justifiably proud of their work. “Some of the mayors weren’t talking when we got here. Now they’re talking. But it’s a day-by-day business to keep them at it, working together to get the infrastructure back in place: the water, electricity. You’ve got to get some kind of economy back in here. It’s all about laying the foundations for change long term, and in our area we’re playing a very valuable part. The officers and NCOs did negotiation training packages where they learned the skills of listening, of identifying common ground between the parties and, above all, of persistence. That’s just building on the skills inherent in many New Zealanders—about being friendly, open and positive.”
The Kiwis also do small-scale community projects like restoring water to schools, testing water quality, providing medical care where there is none and distributing mountains of gifts sent by the people of New Zealand for the children of Bosnia. Box after box of lovingly presented gifts. I see the Kiwi dedication, and the delight at the crucial relief they’re bringing to the people of this little valley. Then I think of a Serb sniper sitting on a hill waiting for a child to stray into his sights.
I find myself cheering Margaret Thatcher’s impassioned plea to provide weapons to the Bosnians, so that at long last they can defend themselves. It’s a strategy that seemed to work for Israel. Even more appealing is the idea of a sudden unannounced ferocious storm of cruise missiles smashing into Serbian infrastructure, with the promise of another, and then another until they cry uncle, or whatever their word for uncle is. That seemed to work with Saddam.
There’s just the small matter of the two million-plus actual people who rely on the UN for their daily food, who will be left to starve; that is, those who don’t fall victim to a fresh escalation of a war that, for all its nastiness, is now a shadow of its former evil self.
Peacekeeping may be a slow game but I think of the woman who spoke of mankind being in evolutionary transition toward some higher being. Maybe, just maybe, peacekeeping—with all its faults—represents a few steps forward, away from the ape who discovers the club and uses it to kill and keep on killing. For the sake of the tribe.
Should New Zealand play its part? Sergeant George Koia probably spoke for most: “Every night I have the same dream about coming home. I hug my wife first. Then I drop to my knees and the children come running. I kiss their photograph every night so I can dream that dream. But what about the kids here? You give them some old stale army roll, see their faces light up . . . see that round here there is a chance of peace. Turn your back on that? I don’t think so.”