Witness to war crimes: an Irish soldier’s account of war in Bosnia

Little did I think I would be embroiled in the midst of Europe’s worst conflict since the second World War


“I solemnly declare that I will speak the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”

As I spoke these words at the witness stand of the United Nations Criminal Tribunal in the Hague in May 2010, I glanced across at the face of Radovan Karadzic, the former leader of the Bosnian Serbs, at whose trial I was to appear as a witness for the prosecution. I had been very apprehensive at the prospect of having to undergo cross-examination by Karadzic himself, who seemed determined to prove that he was an innocent victim of the Bosnian conflict. I had earlier been informed that the trial judges were granting him 15 hours to cross-examine me and I feared that this experience would greatly challenge my memory. This trial was, for me, the culmination of events which had begun in 1991 when I was seconded by the Irish Defence Forces to serve with the European Community in Former Yugoslavia,

When I deployed to Bosnia Herzegovina in October 1991 little did I think that I would find myself embroiled in the midst of Europe’s worst conflict since the second World War. Yugoslavia presented the international community with almost every type of armed conflict imaginable: civil war, inter-state war, a war of secession and a war of territorial expansion. While one may argue as to which of these is the most appropriate to describe the Balkan conflict, it is beyond question that it was one of quite brutal proportions played out in the heart of Europe.

In Bosnia as in most of the other republics, the Communist Party had disintegrated in early 1990 and a set of national parties had been formed. From 1989 onwards the neighbouring nationalisms of Serbia and Croatia had become intimidating presences, with the ultimate ambitions of Croatia’s President Tudjman and Serbia’s President Milosevic barely concealed. Bosnia had reason to be wary of both. During 1989 senior Bosnian officials were expressing fears that both Serbia and Croatia would seek to redraw the map of Bosnia. Since the outcome of the Serbo-Croat question was always likely to decide the fate of Yugoslavia, Bosnia was caught hopelessly in the middle and despite the best efforts of its Muslim President Izetbegovic to keep the situation calm he was powerless to prevent the conflict which was breaking out in Slovenia and Croatia from reaching Bosnia.

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Into this uncertain mix the European Community Monitoring Mission, of which I was a member, was deployed. Up to 1991, whoever went to Bosnia and inquired about relations between Muslims, Serbs and Croats was often told that there were no real problems, beyond isolated incidents. But to others (including this writer) something was amiss. While visible evidence of undisturbed ethnically mixed life was real, undercurrents of intolerance could be spotted in unguarded remarks. Reference was made increasingly to Chetniks and Ustashe and conversations at many of our meetings were turned to the atrocities of the second World War. Confidentially, one was told of widespread mutual mistrust, at least in certain localities and even in Bosnia’s capital, Sarajevo. It soon became clear that in organising political parties along ethnic lines the Bosnian nationalities were beginning to turn on each other. As Misha Glenny wrote: “Bosnia could only have been saved if a political party which spanned the three communities had emerged as the most powerful after the collapse of Communist power”.

Having spent some weeks working in the Serb city of Banja Luka, meeting  the various parties and listening to their concerns, I moved to the capital Sarajevo having been invited to take over as head of the mission for Bosnia. It was there I quickly learned how the leadership of the three main parties were steering their followers along opposing paths. Serbs were all too aware that while Yugoslavia remained a federation they not alone enjoyed the status of the largest nationality and thus the major influence, but with the republics seceding Serbs would become minority nationalities in both Croatia and Bosnia. While Serbia had never stated that a “greater Serbia” was its aim, its proxies were in little doubt and whether this might lead to conflict with their former compatriots was of little consequences, particularly as they assumed the support of the federal army with its dominant Serb officer corps.

The Croats of Bosnia, who were living mainly in Western Herzegovina, had little loyalty to Bosnia (there were exceptions in Sarajevo) and wished to be governed by Croatia. There was much evidence of Croatian flags, currency and influence from Croatia during 1991 and early 1992.

Bosnian Muslims, however, saw the main threat as coming from the Serbs and the presidency turned a blind eye to events in western Herzegovina. I was quite surprised when a report we had compiled on this development was totally ignored by the government.

The result of Bosnia’s referendum on independence was the turning point in its recent sad history. In the Serbs’ view such a declaration without their prior agreement was contrary to the existing constitution and they were resolutely opposed to a unitary state with a Muslim majority. Within hours of the result I found myself embroiled in escorting election monitors through heavily-armed and dangerous checkpoints, negotiating ceasefires and mediating with the party leaderships into keeping conflict at bay. It was a hopeless task. Reports from our monitor teams deployed throughout the republic showed an alarming increase in incidents of intimidation, disappearances and expulsions. Ethnic cleansing was rampant, exercised by all sides but particularly Serbs.

The arrival of the United Nations force, UNPROFOR, did little to halt the road to war and I gradually learned that unless the parties to a conflict are determined to avoid conflict the influence of any intermediary or peacekeeping force is a futile exercise. The force was limited in size and it is my conviction that while the threat of force can be a powerful weapon it is only effective if it is believable. In other words do not threaten force unless you are prepared to use it. However, the force should only be judged on what it was mandated to do by the UN Security Council which was delivering humanitarian aid.

As a member of Lord Carrington’s peace conference, between April 1991 and September 1992, I was aware of the issue of military intervention being frequently mentioned, particularly by the Muslim leadership. It soon became apparent that the Serbs discounted intervention as a likely course of action, nor did its possibility deter them from pursuing their policy of ethnic cleansing and seizing territory. They realised only too well that nothing but the use of force by the international community could have deterred them from their aims and since no such force was seriously considered negotiations were simply a cosmetic and public relations exercise.

To the Muslims, military intervention was the key to their survival. They were convinced that with recognition the international community would intervene to protect their sovereignty and halt Serb aggression. In the pursuit of this goal the Muslim interest in a negotiated settlement was less than enthusiastic.

Despite numerous ceasefires being negotiated, peace talks being held throughout Europe and commitments being promised by the parties, violent conflict took a firm hold, resulting in the deaths of close to 100,000 people over a four-year period. Little did I ever think that I would be directly involved in negotiating the hostage release of Bosnia’s President Izetbegovic, holding key talks to effect the withdrawal of the federal army from Bosnia or mediating with the warring faction leaders in London, Paris, Lisbon and Brussels.

This war was not merely one between the forces of good and evil. It was a conflict cloaked with ethnic, religious and historic animosities and not amenable to any single solution. It required patient and persistent handling and limited objectives. To me it was clear that Bosnia would have an outcome rather than a solution.

  • Witness to War Crimes: The Memoirs of an Irish Peacekeeper in Bosnia is published by Merrion Press