hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Friday, 27 May 2011

The Balkans 2011: A Road Not Travelled?


“Somewhere ages and ages hence: two roads diverged in a wood, and I took the one less travelled by and that has made all the difference”. So wrote American poet Robert Frost a century ago. He could have been speaking of my Balkan experience. Has a corner been turned?

Ratko Mladic has been arrested. Or, to put it more accurately the Serbian authorities have decided to detain the 'General' at a politically apposite moment having known his whereabouts for many years. Nothing is ever what it seems in the Balkans, and neither is this. That said, President Boris Tadic is to be commended for facing down Serbia’s powerful nationalists for whom Mladic and all his genocidal doings still resonate with the clarion call of dark heroism. Ultimately, little Greater Serbia has lost out to Big Serbia and its bid to join the EU. A clearer example of the benefits of Union there is none – for all its many Byzantine failings.

Will the arrest of Mladic finally mark the true end of the Wars of the Yugoslav Succession? Probably not, but the Mladic detention does at least provide an opportunity to move just a step further on a long road to true peace. It also provides a moment of reflection for all engaged in a war that tragically defined a post Cold War decade that should have been joyous.

Recently I was driven by a young Bosnian-Serb diplomat from Sarajevo Airport to Pale, the political heart of Serb Bosnia where Karadzic and Mladic held court. To be precise (something of a rarity in the Balkans) he was a Bosnia-Herzegovian diplomat of Serb extraction, which goes to the very heart of a continuing problem. I am not going to reveal what he said because he was genuine in his desire to see all communities come together and impressive in his grasp of past and present and I have no wish to get him into trouble. He is very much a man of and for the future of a truly European Balkans.

Nor was it the first time I have travelled that road. I go to Sarajevo two or three times a year and have done for many years. Often, I go the other way to Camp Butmir home of the EU force guaranteeing peace. You do not see much of them, but in conversations with Bosnians of Bosniak, Croat and/or Serb extraction the message is always the same; their presence is vital. Tensions remain very close to the surface of a fractured society held together as much by EU aid and American commitment as political reconciliation. Everyone is a victim in the Balkans; noone ever an aggressor.

Nevertheless, progress has been made. When I first started to lecture to Bosnian officers they wore the uniforms of their violent, sectarian past and proudly so. I was present the day a common uniform was issued. It was the source of much hilarity and triggered jibes similar, albeit more pointed, than one might hear between English and the Scots. Sectarianism is not a local phenomenon.

The television picture last night recalled that dark past in which two hundred thousand died. These are images that cannot be dissolved by antiseptic edict. The pictures showed a T-74 Serb tank pounding the centre of Sarajevo. It was the road I had just travelled.

Each year the bullet strikes on buildings lessen and the shell holes I recall have now gone, but not the scars. What strikes any visitor to Sarajevo is the beauty, the intimacy and the tragedy of the place. So tight is the valley, so dominant Mount Igman, that there can be no hiding place in Sarajevo – physically or politically. The city has sat at the tectonic epicentre of European politics since the days of the Ottoman Empire. There was certainly no hiding place from my road, below which Sarajevo cowered in injured remembrance. As we drove on the road turned north and east and began to climb away from Sarajevo through yet another soaring mountain valley.. After fifteen kilometres we passed a sign – Welcome to Republika Srpska. It was 2010.

History, of course, laughs at us with subtle irony. It is circular because we make it so. If Mladic is well enough (a big ‘if’) he will be transferred to The Hague to stand trial. Mladic established his enduring infamy in 1995 for the massacre of eight thousand Bosnian Muslims, at the tragically ill-named UN ‘Safe Haven’ of Srebrenica. The most exposed of several such havens the place was defended by the lightly-armed Dutch troops of Dutchbat.

Mladic humiliated them and for many years Srebrenica has been synonymous with the failure of the Dutch Army to protect civilians under their care. In fact, the Dutch were hung out to dry by an international community that had done everything it could to avoid confronting the tragic reality of a brutal war amongst the people. The UN was utterly divided both politically and morally about how and if to use force, the European Union, having declared this to be the ‘hour of Europe’, failed cataclysmically and the United States at the time was ‘not cleaning windows’, as one rather myopic American put it. Dutchbat had no chance and honourable men were made to pay for the utter failure of political masters and UN apparatchiks across the West and beyond.

Paralysed by a dispute over the precise meaning of a UN Security Council resolution and to what extent under international ‘law’ civilian populations could be protected by force, the politicians buck-passed and the diplomats fiddled as the hills around Srebrenica became charnel.

“And both that morning equally lay; in leaves no step had trodden black; Oh, I kept the first for another day! Yet knowing how way leads on to way; I doubted if I should ever come back”.

I have travelled that road and it now leads towards Libya.

Julian Lindley-French

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