Sarajevo, 1993: A couple runs to shelter from snipers behind a bus carrying the legend “Sarajevo brigade”
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Lessons of Bosnian war and peace

I’m still haunted by a murderous conflict the Western world ignored until it was too late

This article is taken from the December 2020 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.


Twenty-five years ago last month the Dayton Peace Accords were signed in Paris, ending the bitter Bosnian war.  The general framework of the agreement was brokered during three weeks of negotiations at Wright-Patterson airbase in Ohio, thanks to a mix of “diplomacy, bluffing and bullying” by the towering American diplomat Richard Holbrooke. 

By that point, the Bosnian war had become a large point in my life. I first arrived there in the late summer of 1992, working in Central Bosnia for the Sunday Times. The editor, Andrew Neil, dispatched and supported me even though I had little experience, displacing one middle-aged male correspondent who threatened to sabotage my voyages into Sarajevo, even giving me maps of the wrong roads. Such was competitive Fleet Street in those days: my first taste of internecine fighting.

Those were pre-politically correct times, pre-#MeToo, too. If that happened now, the unhappy man would be fired and shamed. But I was youthful and very ambitious, and a war in Europe was a place I could make my name: I couldn’t care less about office politics.

Di Giovanni speaks to a UN peacekeeper in Bosnia in 1993

Innocently, and without much knowledge of the Balkans, I set off for Zagreb, then took a plane to Split, followed by a long drive over the mountains in a sputtering Lada Niva towards Travnik, where refugees from cities that had already fallen were piling in for the long, dark winter ahead. 

We thought the war would be over within a year. Instead, it went on for close to four more. I had no idea how the next years would mark the rest of my life and my career, how consumed I would become by a country on the edge of Europe I had barely heard of before. 

I had no idea that long after the war ended, I would continue to work on war crimes in Bosnia; write two books about that conflict; and later, use that war as a template for other wars I would report and analyse: Syria, Sierra Leone, Yemen, Iraq. A quarter of a century on, the war in Bosnia — and what happened there in those dark times — has never really left me. 

The war in Bosnia — and what happened there in those dark times — has never really left me

My first trip to Sarajevo, the besieged capital, was in December, 1992. I was meant to find a Catholic Croat family and spend Christmas with them. That was my assignment: I had paused to tell my foreign editor that Sarajevo was a multiethnic city with a majority of Bosnian Muslims, and I’d do better to find Christians in Croatia, but he waved me off. 

I arrived one snowy day in mid-December for the long haul, with several duffle bags of supplies — mostly batteries to feed my Tandy word processor, some flashlights, tins of food and medical supplies. I also had a 40 kg flak jacket and helmet with a piece of tape pasted with my blood group — B+ along with the wound dressing in case I had to grab it quick and push it onto someone’s arterial wound. 

I also had a few treats. Someone had told me to bring pens for children and perfume for the wife of the family, not yet known, I would stay with. I had packed industrial-sized bags of Mars bars, and an airport-size bottle of Chanel Number Five alongside my ugly acid-green parka and my itchy long underwear. (To this day, I am always prepared for the worst-case scenario because of learning how to prep for war in Bosnia.)

I didn’t even know how to strap on my helmet correctly so it did not fall off when I ran away from incoming mortars

Today it would be unthinkable to send such a green reporter into such a hazardous situation with no training. I had never really covered a war before — not one where people were shot or killed in front of me, and I had no idea what I actually did with the wound dressing that was meant to clot blood for a lethal shooting. I had no CPR training, I did not know what a mine looked like. Now, of course, I do, and I know how to work my way out of a minefield. But God looks out for fools and children and, miraculously, I survived. 

In terms of battle, I was woefully unprepared. I didn’t even know how to strap on my helmet correctly so it did not fall off when I ran away from incoming mortars. My male colleagues talked endlessly about the make and size of weapons, and very little of the civilians and what was happening to them. Very quickly, I learned all about the AK-47. (“What you really need to know,” one drunk defence correspondent whispered in my ear, “is that the bad guys always carry AKs.”)

There were few women working in those days in conflict reporting: those who did eyed each other suspiciously. The men took us along to drinking sessions in Split before we departed for the front lines of Bosnia and generally regarded us as decorative features. But often we became useful when getting through checkpoints of drunk Serb soldiers who preferred to speak to women rather than to men. 

“Come out of the car and let me give you ten little Serb soldiers,” one soldier, full of slivovitz, creepily suggested to me at one roadblock outside Sarajevo. This was before we knew about the mass rape camps up the road in Foca. Did I really have the audacity to tell him to fuck off? I did. I did not know then that he could have easily shot me and hauled my body into a bush. 

Columbia School of Journalism could not have given me a better training to be a field reporter

I was driven into Sarajevo that first time, that first December of war, down Sniper’s Alley (so called because the Serb snipers positioned on the hills above the city took pot shots at anything that moved) by an angry male photographer — angry because he wanted his mate to have the job I had — so, after terrifying me by telling me about how his friends had all been shot and maimed, he dropped me off at the entrance of the broken and dilapidated Holiday Inn without any instructions (such as not to walk on the side facing the snipers) and sped off. I was alone. 

The Holiday Inn, my home on and off for the next three years, was darkened — there was no electricity. At the front desk a sombre man with a starched white shirt and bow tie — I kid you not — handed me a key to a room on the fourth floor. I felt as if I was in a Beckett play. 

The elevator did not work, he informed me. And meals would take place on the mezzanine at certain hours. There was no water to flush toilets, and no baths or showers. When I asked how we washed or used the loo, he raised an eyebrow. A woman came up behind him. “You’ll manage,” she said.

And manage we did. The French have a wonderful expression which I learnt in those years called Système D — which stands for débrouille, meaning making the best of a bad situation, getting on with it. And over the next few years, I got on with it. I learnt how to survive the biting cold, how to read and write my stories by candlelight and file over a satellite phone to a copytaker in London. 

I learnt how to run on street corners with groups of people so we wouldn’t get shot by snipers, and how to hit the ground fast when a shell fell too close to me. I learnt how to persuade commanders to take me up to the front-line trenches around Sarajevo, and how to count dead bodies in the morgue. Columbia School of Journalism could not have given me a better training to be a field reporter. 

After terrifying me by telling me about how his friends had all been shot and maimed, he dropped me off without any instructions

In my freezing-cold room with plastic windows and a candle forever burning on my night table, under the sleeping bag I lived in for the next few years, I wrote my stories on my Tandy word processor. I wrote of the hospital doctors who stood in puddles of blood and wept after shifts because there was not enough anesthesia to properly numb patients when they performed amputations. I wrote about the wild dog with the human hand in its mouth after a brutal shelling. I wrote about orphans I befriended who took me around the city scavenging for food. I wrote of poets who were going mad and burning their books for heat. I wrote of the lack of food, but also of the way people survived.

Dayton architect: Richard Holbrooke at Sarajevo airport

Very quickly, I fell in love with Bosnia: perhaps not the best recipe to be an objective reporter, but sometimes the truth is not objective. I fell in love with the resilience of the people — the waiters in the Holiday Inn who played football in the dining room after meals were served, and the women who home-schooled their kids, for years. I fell in love with their gallows humour, and their resistance to letting their beloved city fall into Bosnian Serb hands, despite an arms embargo. 

But Bosnia left me bitter and a perpetual seeker. After that war ended, I reported from many more countries where atrocities and war crimes were rampant — the Rwandan genocide, Somalia, Ivory Coast, Liberia, Sierra Leone, most of the Middle East, Afghanistan, Iraq. I worked as a conflict analyst for three decades. At some point, fearing I did not have enough academic cred to let me investigate war crimes, I went back and got further degrees in international law and security. Unlike the young woman with the acid-green parka in Bosnia in 1992, I wanted to go armed into battle. 

Bosnia taught me that war criminals can fade into obscurity and no one really cares. And it taught me — something in my role as a professor at Yale that I constantly harangue my students about — that sometimes wars end very badly.

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Richard Holbrooke had first made his name as an ambitious young US Foreign Service official in Saigon in the early 1960s, then during the Paris peace accords in 1973. He was best described as “the last great freewheeling diplomat”. His last gig was as President Barack Obama’s Afghanistan tsar, but Dayton was the pinnacle of his career. He died in 2010, never expecting that Dayton would endure so long. It was meant to halt the bloodshed of a miserable, cruel war that had lasted nearly four years, killing an estimated 200,000 people and displacing 2.2 million. But it was also meant to be revised. Instead, a quarter of a century has passed, and in terms of state-building Dayton is deeply flawed. 

Kofi Annan, the much-celebrated former secretary-general of the UN, had much to answer for

To start, ethnicity was institutionalised via a tri-ethnic rotation of the presidency as well as ethnic-based federalism with veto powers, which contributed to reinforcing divisions within society. This nationalist bias led to segregated schools and social institutions, and a media that caters to political and ethnic constituencies. Dayton left Bosnia a mess, with amongst other things, the highest youth employment in the world, a simmering caldron of ethnic tension, and war crimes that went unpunished.

Bosnia also became synonymous with crimes against humanity: ethnic cleansing, systematic rape, the longest siege in modern history, starvation as a tool of war and, finally, genocide in Srebrenica in July 1995 when 8,000 men and boys were slaughtered in a forest. But Dayton gave few provisions for transitional justice. Most of the war criminals have never been brought to justice, and as time goes on, their crimes become forgotten, except to the victims. 

“As a critical component of the reconciliation and peace-building processes, more should have been done at all levels to counter the denial of crimes and human rights violations,” says Velma Saric, from Sarajevo’s Post-Conflict Research Centre (PCRC). “There is a dire need in the region to recognise the victims and establish the facts about the conflicts.”

Bosnia also became synonymous for a failure of the international community. Kofi Annan, the late and much-celebrated former secretary-general of the United Nations, had much to answer for. He presided first over the 1994 genocide in Rwanda as head of Department of Peacekeeping Operations when a million Tutsis died in the course of a few months. A year later, in the same role, Annan contributed to fatal decisions not to intervene in Bosnia. To be fair, he did go on to “apologise”, and to draw up a fairly useless political commitment called the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) — but not until the atrocities were committed. 

Dayton ignored people who did not fall into the Croat, Serb and Muslim package: the Jews, the Roma

Wars do not have to end that way — with mass murder. Early humanitarian intervention in Bosnia — as in Syria — would have halted the war in the early stages. But other than a few noble politicians, including Margaret Thatcher, very few stepped forward. Lady Thatcher wrote an impassioned plea in the New York Times as early as April 1992, at the dawn of the war under the headline “Stop the excuses. Help Bosnia now”. 

She wrote: “Some say that nothing can be done by the West unless we are prepared to risk permanent involvement in a Vietnam- or Lebanon-style conflict and potentially high Western casualties. That is partly alarmism, partly an excuse for inertia.” 

I had written in the Sunday Times about a young boy who had been blinded while playing football during a lull in the shelling in Srebrenica. He was in a hospital near Tuzla and I sat by his bed day after day holding his hand while he would whisper to my translator, “But what happened to my eyes?” Lady Thatcher read the article — that was the power of the press in those days — and went on the warpath. In her usual way, she wagged a finger and lectured, but it was the moral and right thing to do, and she was correct: inertia was behind the inaction. Nonetheless, the world turned its back on Bosnia.

Tasked by President Bill Clinton to make peace in the Balkans in 1995, Holbrooke roamed the country, meeting with Serbia’s leader Slobodan Milosevic and Aliya Izetbegovic, president of Bosnia and Herzegovina, warlords and journalists. He desperately wanted the war to end, partially for humanitarian interests, partially for his own interests. Exceedingly ambitious and relentless, Holbrooke wanted the legacy: he would later write a book called To End a War. His friend Walter Isaacson wrote of him: “Holbrooke was perpetually in heat.” He even lobbied for himself to be given the Nobel Peace Prize following Dayton.

But his fatal flaw was to push through a premature agreement that led to greater rancour. Holbrooke ended the war by rewarding the perpetrators of the violence — Milosevic and the Serbs — and giving them more land than they had when the war started. The Bosnians, led by a weakened and humiliated Izetbegovic, were beginning to win back their land when the talks began, but were forced to concede. 

Holbrooke pushed to get Dayton signed quickly. Aside from the Nobel, he also wanted to be Secretary of State, but Clinton gave it instead to Madeline Albright. “Ambition is not a pretty thing,” Holbrooke’s biographer, George Packer, notes wryly. 

Men who had raped women to impregnate them with Serb babies were still free

Dayton also ignored people who did not fall into the Croat, Serb and Muslim package: the Jews, the Roma. As Velma Saric notes: “Vulnerable groups and ethnic minority communities are routinely excluded from decision-making processes, political representation, and public services (e.g. education) . . . These institutionalised ethnic differences feed into social and educational segregation and tensions that, if unaddressed, pose a threat to the stability and peace of the region.”

The mess of Bosnia, the moral darkness surrounding the war, the lack of international attention, haunted me for many years, particularly the lack of political will to chase war criminals. When I returned to Bosnia, I researched sexual violence during war; the worst thing to witness was that the men who had violated women in “rape camps” still roamed free. They had raped these women sometimes up to 16 times a day with the purpose of impregnating them with Serb babies. And they were still sitting in cafes in Foca and other villages, drinking coffee. Their victims were the ones who dropped their eyes in shame; who lived on anti-depressants; whose lives were broken in two. 

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Part of my research today at Yale’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs is identifying conflicts and the threads that bind them together. For instance, what can we learn from the failure of humanitarian intervention to help us end wars in Syria or Yemen? Why did Bill Clinton jump into a 78-day bombing campaign in Kosovo, yet ignore Bosnia until the bitter end, until a genocide prevailed? How did a small group of British special forces led by General Sir David Richards (then a Brigadier) end a brutal 14-year war in Sierra Leone (without permission
from Whitehall) and what can that teach us in peacemaking
decisions today? I always look to Bosnia as a template as to what not do in terms of humanitarian intervention: i.e. wait until it is too late. 

The US reminds me too much of those early days of the Bosnia war, when neighbours turned against neighbours

Living in America in the run-up to the nastiest election on record, I am afraid I use my conflict analyst tools too often. I see a country ravaged by a pandemic but worse: more divided than it has ever been since the 1860s and the Civil War. Then trade and slavery divided America; today it is Republican and Democratic party interests that spill into tribalism. 

All of the institutions we count on to bind us together as a nation are eroded: the rule of law (the George Floyd killing), human rights (the attacks on peaceful protesters in Kenosha, Seattle and Portland), and our justice system (Amy Coney Barrett’s hurried nomination a few weeks before elections), not to mention freedom of the press. The press in America on both sides should be ashamed: both sides playing dirty, both using their platforms as partisan mouthpieces, both confusing and angering viewers and readers. Disinformation is rife and it’s not just coming from the Russians and the Chinese. 

Which leaves us where? I am worried about the number of guns that have been purchased since the pandemic began; the rise of right-wing and left-wing militias and paramilitaries. It reminds me too much of those early days of the Bosnia war, when neighbours turned against neighbours. 

When I ask Velma Saric what could be done to prevent future wars like Bosnia, she is thoughtful: “Always listen to the voices of underrepresented and marginalised groups and find concrete ways to involve them in all decision-making processes,” she says. “Without their voices and inputs, no real stability can be achieved.”

 I don’t believe a Balkan-style backyard war can happen in the US, but I do believe we are polarised and will see civil strife if the elections are stolen or contested. Or perhaps we are headed for a new form of democracy. Perhaps we need to rewrite the rules. John Adams, the second President of the United States, said: “Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.”

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