1 May 1997 Edition
War through occupation
The British Army's new training ground
Special report from Mary Maguire in Bosnia.
The reality of the presence of the forces, although described as a peace-keeping operation, is a strategic and calculated presence in the heart of the potentially explosive Balkans, at a stone's throw from a Russia with which the West strives to find an agreement on NATO issues
The day peace was brokered in Bosnia, a new war of long-lasting foreign military occupation began. The British Army sees the region as a new Six Counties where they can continue their training, occupation and imperialist attitudes.
It could have been Ireland. At the reinforced check-point accross from Doboj, the lights blink in the fog. The car stalls as ID is handed over to two soldiers brandishing SA-80s and backed by more. Had the road sign planted further up the road between the mines not spelt Doboj with a painted arrow, the windy road could have been the one to East Tyrone. The endless green hills, peaceful country roads are no different in the heart of Bosnia. Nor is the occupation of the land.
The day the final ceasefire was declared, the people of former Yugoslavia woke to a similar military environment as during the four years of bitter war. Mira (peace) - the word that symbolized a return to normality, roads freed from military patrols, front line observation posts and oppressive military presence - died on the day. If the shelling, bombing, snipering had stopped, the local volunteers had been replaced by 60,000 troops of a multinational military force nicknamed IFOR (Implementation Force), 10,000 of whom were British. Heavily armed, their duty was to ``implement peace'' and they were instructed to retaliate to any potential threat. Their attitude? The one of victorious occupants as if their operations could never fail. All they were fighting was peace.
Relief was first felt in December by the Bosnians, Croats and Serbs on the day IFOR proudly drove into their battered cities and villages. The ``peace-keepers'' had arrived, and were now pouring out of high security military barracks, flying over the destroyed villages in Chinooks, and clogging traffic on every road of the country with armoured vehicles and tanks decorated by their national flag. Children greeted their ``saviours'' as the local prices rose, making the foreign currency of Deutsch Marks national. Patrols, local army barrack inspections, military movement, monitoring and random checks were made a routine. The armies based themselves in pre-war factories that could not proceed to reconstruction and resume work.
Today,17 months later, nothing much would have changed if it were not for the attitude of the people. A total of 38,000 troops, of which 5500 are British crown forces, continue to be deployed. Now named SFOR (Stabilisation Force), their mission has become one of ``peace stabilisation''. The relief first felt by the people has now faded into submission. Every civilian rule of life, such as commercial laws, refugee rehousing, reconstruction, school programmes are still dictated by the international institutions. The sleazed elections legitimized the war lords. The Croat-Bosnian army has been totally equipped and re-armed by the US and the Serb economy will recover with difficulty because of biased international aid.
Local people's attitudes towards the military forces are also changing. ``The forces imagine that they are adored,'' explains Miroslav, barman in a coffee house in Banja Luka, 3 miles from the British headquarters based in the metal factory. ``The British are just like the others. They set big boys rules and we have to follow them. The situation is already changing. People are starting to realise that their oppressive presence is exaggerated and unnecessary. No one wants to keep on seeing them in our streets and occupying our land as if it was theirs''.
Bosnia, in the interests of the SFOR contributing nations, has nothing to do with humanitarian aid. This gives SFOR an excuse for being in the country. The reality of the presence of the forces, although described as a peace-keeping operation, is a strategic and calculated presence in the heart of the potentially explosive Balkans, at a stone's throw from a Russia with which the West strives to find an agreement on NATO issues. Politically, SFOR is an excuse for a united and strong NATO multinational force which is proving so difficult to agree upon. In recent months it has been reported that the Dublin government is preparing to send troops to Bosnia as part of NATO's so-called Partnership for Peace. It will be the first time that 26 County forces will be under direct NATO command, with enormous implications for Ireland's neutrality.
As the SFOR mandate officially runs until mid-1998, there is no doubt that it will be extended in some form for a decade at least. On the ground, the barbed wire and sandbags of the first barracks are already disappearing under the thick concrete of long-term reinforced military bases.
For the individual armies such as the British, the training facilities offer a genuine armed conflict situation under a public image of peace-keeping. Their normal duties, such as support to the international police force - IPTF - if needed, high-profile fire power demonstrations, monitoring of barracks and the internal border between the Republika Srpska (Serb entity) and the Croatian-Bosnian Federation, are in reality military exercises to perfect tactics to be used in different theatres such as the Six Counties.
If the British commitment to peace and to the country were true, their forces would de-mine, provide security to mass grave and missing persons experts, and would, in particular, arrest the war criminals. But on this issue, it is not worth compromising their training grounds (by facing potential civil unrest) in order to detain for a few hours those responsible for the genocides and crimes against humanity.
The British, the third biggest troop-contributing nation, has currently spent an officially estimated £180 million per year in Bosnia. The major units present are the Scots Dragoon Guards and the 1st Battalion the Green Howards, the 4th Artillery Field Regiment, backed by logistical support including bomb disposal units. The logistics include 29 helicopters and 37 tanks and a wide range of the latest armaments. British headquarters are situated in the Serb town of Banja Luka and cover Sarajevo, the south-west region including Gorni Vakuf and Mrkonic Grad. The civilian agencies are flooded with information officers.
Bosnia also seems to be a career springboard as positions are interchangable with assignments in Ireland. General Rupert Smith was Commander of the UN force in Bosnia in 1995 before becoming GOC in Lisburn. Bosnia's multinational force Chief-of-Staff General Drewienkiewicz was adjutant to the engineer regiment that rebuilt Long Kesh in October 1974. Brigadier Wilson, now commander of the 107 Ulster Brigade, was chief of civil affairs in Bosnia in 1996. General Cordy-Simpson, first chief-of-staff of the UN force is currently deputy commander to SFOR. He commanded the 13th/18th Royal Hussars in Fermanagh in 1979 and in 1990 was assistant chief-of-staff of the Northern Army group. General Webb-Carter, now Bosnia's British HQ commander, brought a Grenadier Guards Battalion to Belfast as a reinforcement deployment in 1985. Colonel Kirkland, commander of the 1st Battalion. of the Green Howards in Bosnia was a member of the Northern Ireland Training and Advisory team based in Kenya in 1985.
Bosnia was never described as the new post-war partitioned Germany or the training ground that it has become. The presence of troops is necessary. But not under this form. And it won't be long before the warm-hearted people of the country realize how the foreign armies, British in particular, have learned to best exploit their suffering and their war-torn countryside for training purposes. A calculated long-term presence will not go without the opposition of people who already today wish that they could draw up, alone, the future of their own land and children.