Monday, 28 July 2008

Other People's Wars

For the last week I've been writing about animals and boules and an off-tune accordian player and city beaches... I thought long and hard about writing the following because it isn't about Paris or London - the theme of the blog. It isn't even vaguely amusing and it is probably of no interest to readers who want fun and games from France. Maybe. Maybe not. Apologies, but I had to get this off my chest.

They arrested Radovan Karadzic and I've been raising glasses to this long-awaited if not happy event since a Balkan friend sent me the news by SMS last week. "Dr K picked up" was all it said. Normally, I don't believe in wishing anyone ill but I will make an exception for Dr Karadzic sometimes known as the Butcher of the Balkans, though there were a number of rivals for the title. When arrested, this evil little man, like Saddam Hussein, had turned himself into a Father Christmas complete with bushy beard and "who me?" expression. I expect some youngsters didn't even know who he was and others thought "so what", but lest we forget: this is the man directly or indirectly responsible for the deaths of thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands of people and the worst atrocities and slaughter in Europe since the Second World War. The dry death toll figures still being haggled over, fail miserably to convey the tragedy of Bosnia and of Karadzic's victims. The slaughtered. The tortured. The raped. The women who lost husbands and sons. The children who lost fathers and brothers. The boys who lost their lives. The girls who lost their innocence. The people who lost their homes and personal history. The civilians rounded up and taken by bus to dig trenches to be lined up, shot and buried where they fell. The prisoners starved, tortured and forced to perform unspeakably inhuman acts on each other for the amusement of Dr Karadzic's sadistic foot soldiers. The women and girls raped as an act of power and humiliation. Pensioners chopped up with chainsaws by the same neighbours they'd drunk coffee with, whose sons had married their daughters. The "lucky"; the dispossessed forced to flee with little more than the clothes in which they stood and the "unlucky"; those burned alive in their homes, their charred skeletons twisted in agony like nightmarish models for Munch's Scream.

I met Dr Karadzic, a practising psychiatrist and cod poet in Sarajevo before the war, at the Bosnian Serb military HQ in Pale, the mountaintop town from where he masterminded the siege of the Bosnian capital and its Muslim population. He had foppy hair, a flaccid handshake, pockets full of maps and a tenuous grasp on reality. Even more scary was his daughter Sonja, a small, plump ugly Medusa with wild hair and a penchant for stiletto heels, brassy make-up and inappropriately short skirts. She was the Bosnian Serb press spokeswoman and terrified the soldiers biletted at Pale, of whom one over-promoted and weedy specimin was introduced as her boyfriend. He had the haunted look of a man who was about to have his balls ripped off if he hadn't already. The first, and thankfully only, time we met Sonja ended up inviting me and the photographer to do a Paris Match-style 'at home' piece with her and her ghastly family. The photographer was mortified, thinking she was hitting on him. He was more afraid of her than her spotty-faced soldier boy. She urged me to come saying, without the slightest irony, that I would see how the world had misjudged her father. I remember she was particularly keen for me to see how wonderful he was with the family dog and to show how the animal reciprocated this adoration as if this was the key to rehabilitating his reputation as a monster. Dr Karadzic, kind to (Serb) children and animals? I wondered if this was some kind of clever double-reverse propaganda trick that was not what it seemed, but realised she was deadly serious and just plain bonkers. So bonkers I wanted to do it. I told her I might stand a better chance of getting back over the mountains at a later date to do the assignment if her father would stop the Bosnian Serb artillery pounding Sarajevo and call off the snipers picking people off the streets. She laughed, a mad, deluded laugh that even seemed to unhinge wild nimbus of hair around her over-painted face. She looked like a badly-drawn villainess from a children's cartoon. She said: "Those aren't Serb guns or Serb snipers. They're Bosnian Muslims killing their own people. They blame Serbs to make us look bad." She knew I had driven past the artillery positions, had seen the Serb uniforms, had noted the Serb flags. She is out of her tiny mind, I thought.

It was equally depressing to witness the impotent and incompetent heights scaled by the United Nations. This reached its apogee in Srebrenica but there were other stupendous failures. Few of us who worked in Bosnia will forget how in 1993 French UN troops taking Hakija Turaljic, the Bosnian deputy Prime Minister, to a meeting stood by as Bosnian Serb soldiers dragged him out of the vehicle and shot him dead. In front of them. (After the war, when Dr Karadzic went into hiding, French troops who controlled the area where he was, were accused of tipping him off whenever snatch squads were ready to pick him up.) In the UN's supposed "safe haven" of Gorazde British troops were too late to stop another wave of what became known as "ethnic cleansing". They could not do much even when several of their own men were kidnapped. Their frustrated commander told me the Serbs had overrun the town, summoned local Bosnian Muslims - known as Bosniacs - and told them: "You have 24 hours. Stay or go. It's up to you". Those men who stayed were rounded up and fed to the local sawmill. Those who fled were hunted down with dogs like animals and slaughtered. This experienced British commander looked visibly shocked as he described how he and his men had come across the bodies of Bosniacs who had been crucified with nails on trees as a warning to others. In central Bosnia young British squaddies grew increasing angry when they were unable to prevent bloodshed because of orders from on high that effectively tied one hand behind their back; or more accurately had one hand rummaging in their fatigues for the plastic laminated card they had to carry. This regulation prompt had something like "United Nations troops. Drop your weapon or I'll shoot," written in all local languages and they were supposed to shout this - in all local languages - before even so much as releasing the safety catch on their weapons. Highly trained soldiers with sophisticated equipment found themselves completely stymied if the local drunk pointed his rusty machine gun at one of them - and there were a lot of drunks with machine guns - and threatened to shoot. His comrades were under absolute orders not to fire unless they themselves were directly targeted. Gentlemen's rules of war dreamed up by armchair generals and politicians in a country where every bozo and his bozo dog had a khaki uniform, a kalashnikov and a checkpoint. It would have been funny if it had not been so tragic.

In the beginning foreign correspondents were greeted like saviours. "Help us", "Do something", women would beseech us. They would pull us into their homes to tell us their tragedies while the resident grandma, small scarved figures with faces as round and brown as hazelnuts, sat cross-legged on a scratchy woven rug in the corner of the room grinding, grinding, grinding coffee in ornate brass mills; a seemingly interminable process that would end some time later in the production of thick treacly coffee. We did the only thing we could: we reported, we wrote and day after day, week after week, we filed our stories and pictures. Nothing happened. Over crackly satellite telephones, we were accused of "going native" or taking sides or exaggerating and even turning Bosnia into a media war. God how I wish some of the dreadful stories I wrote had been sensationalised and not true. As the war ground on through the 1990s as relentlessly and interminably as the brass coffee mills, people despaired and became angry with us. They still invited us in for coffee, if they still had some, but the pleas turned to accusations: "Why don't you help us?", "Why don't you do something?". We would sit with the women who had lost their husbands, fathers and sons - in some cases dozens of menfolk in one family - and would hang our heads and cry with them, they in grief and sorrow we in shame. Afterwards we journalists would go off and get drunk on local beer that had a nasty tang of aluminium, which we joked blackly would give us Alzheimers if the Serbs didn't get us first.

Then we all went home and got on with out lives, all of us damaged in some way by the passing of Dr Karazdic's cold, cruel hand over the beautiful land that was once Yugoslavia, though none of us so much as those we left behind who had felt its icy touch.

The arrest of Radovan Karadzic brought it all back. For me it was a moment for celebration though the champagne is still on ice until Dr K's henchman turned nemesis Ratko Mladic is under lock and key or under ground.

I never got to do the "At Home" with the Balkan Butcher and his family pet. My newspaper editor decided nobody was really interested. That was the story of Bosnia those days and even now it makes me angry. Western politicians deciding it wasn't really a war and if it was it was someone else's; armchair editors deciding it wasn't a story.

5 comments:

Jaywalker said...

I'm tremendously glad you did write this. You must have been a fantastically powerful correspondent because this was gripping and moving and appalling.
Thank you.

Parisgirl said...

Thank you Jaywalker.

Scotty said...

Brilliant!

Irene said...

I am glad you published this and reminded us what it was like and what we didn't know and what we had forgotten. You are a powerful journalist and I hope you still get the opportunity to put this excellent skill to work. Truth needs to be written in plain and strong words. We all need to have our faces shoved right into it.

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