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Irish witness to war crimes: 'My wife said, I have waited for you to break down after 20 years'

Colm Doyle has written a book about his time mediating between Serb and Croat leaders during the Bosnian War.

Image: DPA/PA Images

THE BOSNIAN WAR was a horrifying conflict, where between April 1992 and December 1995, Serb and Croat entities were embroiled in a conflict that left over 100,000 people dead.

The war was part of the breakup of Yugoslavia, and followed Slovenia and Croatia leaving the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1991. The Socialist Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina passed a referendum for independence the following year.

The country was made up of a number of different ethnicities – Muslim Bosniaks made up 44% of the population, followed by Orthodox Serbs at 32.5% and Catholic Croats at 17%.

The Serbs were led by Radovan Karadžić and were supported by Slobodan Milošević’s government. They boycotted the referendum, and began to try to secure their own Serb territory – including using ethnic cleansing.

Things escalated to become the full-blown Croat-Bosniak War in 1993.  The world watched as people were killed and raped in the name of identity and war, and as over 2 million people were displaced.

War crimes

The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia brought some people to justice for what occurred, finding them guilty of war crimes.

One of those who took to the witness stand at the tribunals in the Hague was Irish man Colm Doyle. He had been in charge of the European Community Monitoring Mission (ECMM) to the former Yugoslavia, after being seconded there by the Irish Defence Forces.

He was then selected to become the special envoy of Lord Peter Carrington, the former British foreign secretary who had been appointed by the then European Commission to chair a peace conference and mediate between the warring parties in the now broken up Yugoslavia.

It was a remarkable thing to be asked to do. “It felt overwhelming,” says Doyle.

It was an incredibly difficult role to play, but one that Doyle was proud to undertake. Now, Doyle has written a book about what it was like to be a witness to war crimes. The book details meeting troubling figures during the war, and what it was like to give evidence at the Hague.

DR RADOVAN KARADZIC Radovan Karadic, Bosnian Serb leader Source: PA Archive/PA Images

It was being encouraged to join a memoir writing course (by his wife) that convinced Doyle to write his book.

One week, the participants were asked to write two pages on some aspect of what they would cover in their memoir. When Doyle read his piece out for the class, he says “everybody just looked at me. They weren’t surprised at the quality of what I wrote because I don’t have a creative talent in my body, but it was what I wrote”.

He realised that as a witness to history, it was incumbent on him to write the book. But at first, he found it hard to get a publisher. His friend, BBC war correspondent Martin Bell, helped put him in touch with the people who would eventually publish his memoir.

Negotiator and mediator

Doyle set out “not to sensationalise or dramatise” his experiences. In truth, what he went through could hardly be over-egged.

The key to his story is that he can tell the story of the Bosnian War from all sides, as he was a negotiator and mediator between both sides of the war. His job was to try to broker peace and get the two sides to agree to ceasefires.

He describes what it was like working in the middle of a warzone: “You had to be careful – the first battle that took place was right outside my window in my hotel. I got under my bed quicker than a ferret would go down a ferret hole.”

It was a bit like high noon, walking down the middle of the street with hundreds of people looking at me, wondering which of these guys would shoot me.

His experience serving in the Middle East with the Defence Forces stood to him.

“As a young Irish cadet in the Curragh I learned about negotiation and mediation and being impartial, never realising I would be putting all those skills into practice,” he adds.

“One of the things you learn when involved there, you have to learn to be impartial. Don’t take sides because if you lose the trust of one side you can’t take it back.”

Slobodan Milosevic Slobodan Milosevic

When negotiations took place, Doyle would first walk into the room and open with small talk. “Then I would sit down, and say I am here because you can’t agree on something.”

He would tell the Bosnian leaders on both sides that they needed to understand that he was a witness to what was going on, and that his role was to “persuade you if you are going to look for a solution you have to be able to compromise, give a little and take a little”.

He tried to convince them it was “a win-win situation”.

‘OK, you are a Serb, you are a Croat. You are a Serb, tell me what your fears are, so go talk’, and I would listen. And then the other side would come in and of course they would argue against everything the other guy said. After a while I said to our guys: we can’t talk to them together, let’s keep them apart.

He would mix up the order of who he talked to first, to avoid any accusations of preference. The most important thing was to listen to what people said – but to let them know if what they were saying was not of use.

“After a while I used to say to them, the last thing I need is a history lecture. I don’t want to know what happened 3,000 years ago.

“And you always maintained a respectful distance, but also you respect each side even though you don’t agree with them.”

But he adds of negotiating with the people leading the Bosnian conflict: “You are very nervous… You also must be careful you don’t put your feet into it from day one before you establish a relationship. I had good people around me.”

‘He was charming’

In the book, he describes what it was like meeting the Serb and Croat leaders. “Milošević – of course he was charming, he has to be. I had to be extremely careful with him. We had a meeting that was about 70 minutes. He wanted to tell me things because he knew whatever he told me I would be passing those messages onto Europe.”

He believed that Milošević felt that if he treated him well then Doyle would go back to Europe and say “this is a very nice man, he offered me coffee, offered me orange juice. He is doing nothing wrong”.

He described Karadžić as “more flamboyant”, a man who constantly played with his hair. “After a while I got to know him sufficiently well enough to say ‘you’re not telling the truth’,” recalls Doyle.

Lord Carrington told Doyle “forget you’re a soldier – you are Mr Europe out there – don’t put your life in unnecessary danger”. “You had to be careful,” says Doyle.

He says that he also met “wonderful Serbs as well as Croats as well as Muslims – I wasn’t taking any sides”.

“I came under a lot of pressure from the government to publicly condemn the Serbs,” says Doyle. “I said no, I won’t do that because if I publicly condemn the Serbs they won’t talk to me anymore. Whereas I would have had my own views, I never aired them in public to the extent to condemn one side over the other. Even though we knew the Serbs were the main protagonists in this country. They didn’t want to be the minority, even though they had the senior position.”

‘I broke down’

Source: AP Archive/YouTube

While he was in Bosnia, Doyle’s wife and children were at home in Ireland. “I was very lucky, I had a family here who totally supported me,” says Doyle.

But there was a price to pay for what he went through. After giving evidence at Karadžić’s trial (he was arrested in 2008 and eventually found guilty in 2016), Doyle broke down.

“My wife said, I have waited for you to break down after 20 years, so just do it. She is a qualified psychotherapist. She was fantastic,” he says.

The Karadžić trial was intense for Doyle, involving three days and 15 hours of questioning. “Realising at the end of the three days that this man firmly believed he had done nothing wrong really got to me,” says Doyle. “When I got out I had an emotional breakdown.”

But he maintains that he was not as brave as others, describing how some witnesses during the trial were so terrified that they could not look at the men they were testifying against.

They are the brave ones, not me, because these are citizens of Sarajevo who were under siege for four years and didn’t know when it would stop.

He is conscious that he was lucky, and could leave whenever he wanted. “The citizens of Sarajevo who were living under the shelling, they had no [relief] whatsoever. I had it easy.”

He fears the impact the conflict had on future generations, noting that Bosnia is still quite divided today.

He also questions the impact of his work. “What did ye guys achieve out there?” he asks himself. “Actually very little – we didn’t stop the war. Any ceasefire I got was gone within a few hours. The UN operation wasn’t a great success. It was a success in the huge matter of humanitarian assistance but did it save lives? I don’t think so. But certainly we tried.”

Doyle’s hope is that the book will help educate people, especially young people, about what happened in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 1990s, so that the terrible conflict won’t be forgotten.

Witness to War Crimes by Colm Doyle, published by Irish Academic Press, is out now.

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