Colonel Colm Doyle helped broker peace in former Yugoslavia - he reveals all on his incredible career
Colonel Colm Doyle played a significant role in brokering peace in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s and has now published an account of those brutal times. He tells Declan Power about his extraordinary career
'As I sat there, I silently cursed, suddenly understanding what was causing the agitation among the soldiers around me. At that moment, Gagovic looked at me and drew his pistol… my mouth was suddenly very dry."
This was Colm Doyle's reaction when faced with what appeared to be a breakdown in a deal he had negotiated between Muslim and Serb forces in Bosnia's bloody war in the 1990s.
This was a war of unheralded ferocity that occurred with the break-up of Yugoslavia into Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. If the ethnic differences weren't bad enough, the religious ones were to add fuel to the sectarian fire.
Catholics, Russian-Orthodox and Muslims all fought for dominance in their regions and all committed atrocities in varying forms.
It's not every Irish soldier who has gone head to head with presidents, warlords and war criminals in the pursuit of peace, but Doyle is no ordinary Irish soldier.
In the early 90s, while still only an officer of commandant rank (major equivalent) in the Irish Defence Forces, he had found himself in charge of the European Community Monitoring Mission (ECMM) to the former Yugoslavia, just before it descended into the chaos of inter-ethnic slaughter.
This led to his becoming what the famed BBC war reporter Martin Bell was to later call "the prime witness" into how the war in the Balkans begun and developed. It was this knowledge that led Doyle to being selected to become the special envoy of Lord (Peter) Carrington, the former British foreign secretary who had been appointed by the then EC to chair a peace conference and mediate between the warring parties in the now broken up Yugoslavia.
To have any hope of making this work, Lord Carrington decided he needed someone with a thorough knowledge of what was happening on the ground, particularly in Bosnia where the city of Sarajevo was to capture the world's attention.
He addresses this in his recently published and long overdue book, Witness to War Crimes, on his time in the Balkans and later testifying at the War Crimes Tribunal in the Hague.
The other qualities that Carrington decided that Doyle could bring to the table were impeccable credentials in mediation, negotiation and impartiality. While these qualities had been exhibited with the ECMM, they had been fashioned and honed on peacekeeping missions in Lebanon and Cyprus, as well as myriad of roles Doyle held in the Irish Army.
These qualities and skills, coupled with an ability to speak reason to chaos were what saved Doyle's life when he found himself facing down the barrel of the pistol of Colonel Gagovic, an officer of the Serb-dominated Yugoslav National Army (JNA).
As was typical during the Balkan wars, bloodshed was often caused by misinformation which led to emotional overreactions. In this case, Doyle had brokered a deal to allow the safe transit of JNA troops through Muslim-held lines.
Word came through on the JNA radios that the deal had been broken and JNA soldiers were being stripped, tortured and shot. An enraged Colonel Gagovic held Doyle responsible for the supposed death of his men.
Powers of persuasion
Doyle, however, was receiving reports from his ECMM monitors escorting the JNA troops that while the troops had their weapons confiscated, there were no deaths or atrocities.
Thus Doyle's powers of persuasion were put to the ultimate test. His life and a tenuous ceasefire were the prize. As he says: "I had often wondered how I might react as a soldier if faced with something like this."
True to his training and instinct, Doyle stood his ground and convinced the pistol-wielding Gagovic that his information was inaccurate and that he was the one with the up-to-date information.
Then, rather than plead or back down, the implacable and unarmed Doyle admonished the colonel. "My voice was trembling but I continued stating that if he continued to point his pistol at me, I would have him arrested for threatening the life of Lord Carrington's personal representative. He hesitated, then slowly put his pistol back into its holster and led me back inside."
This was all a far cry from 1963, when the then 17-year-old Colm Doyle was travelling with his father Frank to their home in Drogheda. Frank asked his son what he wanted to do when he left school.
Doyle elected to stay quiet, uncharacteristically so, as many of us who knew him later in his career might think. "I hadn't a clue what to say," Doyle recalls as he chats to me on a sunny day at his brother Noel's comfortable house in leafy Rathgar… a million miles away philosophically from the turmoil he was later to see in his career. Third in a family of five boys and one girl, Colm Doyle was a twin to his recently deceased brother Frank. There was one girl, Mary, also a twin to his brother Michael. Tragically, Mary died young, leaving a house full of hurling-mad boys.
Doyle's father, being the pragmatic professional civil servant he was, suggested banking and insurance as possible career paths to his son. But they cut no ice with the young, emerging sports enthusiast and outdoorsman that was later to be known to his troops as 'The Doyler'.
"The Army was the one thing he mentioned that caught my interest," recalls Doyle of that fateful conversation with his father. As a result, he quickly enlisted in the FCA, the then reserve Defence Force. After learning the art of square-bashing, bull-shining boots and hefting a rifle to his shoulder, Doyle went on to win a place with the 39th Cadet Class at the Defence Force Military College in the Curragh.
"We were timetabled to the last minute of every day, told what to do and how to do it. This included training men in weapons handling, shooting, marching, planning and the principles of leadership."
After two years of being packed with knowledge, the real military education of Doyle began under the stewardship of the experienced sergeants and corporals of the 12th Infantry Battalion in Clonmel.
"I was lucky, these men were solid, good NCOs (non-commissioned officers), they taught me a lot about how to handle men and how to lead," he recalls.
By the time he was 21, Doyle was a platoon commander, leading 32 men on peacekeeping operations with the UN in Cyprus. At that stage, the conflict had largely settled and for a young officer, it was an ideal place to learn his trade. "It was perfect for me really, as we were overseas, we had full manpower and equipment and were either training or deployed on patrols and other operations. I learned a lot."
But it was to be Lebanon where Doyle would really get to grips with keys skills that not every professional soldier has the aptitude for, the arcane arts of mediation and negotiation.
He was one of the first Irish soldiers to enter Lebanon in 1978 as part of the Irish battalion that would keep the peace there for 25 years. Six years later he returned, this time as UN Military Observer (UNMO).
These officers would patrol the ceasefire lines between Syria, Lebanon and Israel. It was demanding work and it was in the heat of Lebanon's furnace that Doyle's mediation skills were forged.
"We were accepted by all sides as we were unarmed and travelled only in pairs in soft-skinned jeeps. One day myself and my partner were tasked with attending to a stand-off between heavily armed Norwegian UN forces and the South Lebanese Army SLA (this was a proxy force created by Israel to act as a security buffer. Local Lebanese regarded them the same as Irish people did the Black and Tans).
"Things were very tense when we arrived with both sides facing off each other in firing positions. Luckily, I recognised one of the SLA soldiers and greeted him with the words 'Salam kaifa haloka?', meaning 'hello, how are you?' He jumped down off his vehicle to smile and embrace me, then gave an order to his subordinates and the tension was eased."
It wouldn't always be such a fortunate ending for Doyle. During his time in the Balkans, he was to see much of the human misery wrought by war. Even when he left the Balkans, the Balkans didn't leave him.
He was called back to testify on up to seven different occasions at the war crimes tribunal in the Hague.
Dealing with men like Slobodan Milosevic, Radovan Karadzic and General Ratko Mladic, whose names became bywords for savagery, was to leave its mark on Doyle. Following the final courtroom session that led to the conviction of Karadzic for war crimes, Doyle recounts: "At the session's end, I felt bruised and embattled… back alone in the witness waiting room I felt a huge wave of emotion hit me… suddenly I was in floods of tears. I couldn't explain it… I thought back to my year in Bosnia and with this came the realisation that, despite our best efforts, little had been accomplished."
Setting the record straight
However, perhaps again, it is the wordsmith Martin Bell who can better sum up Colm Doyle's Balkan odyssey. "It's not that Doyle always succeeded, it's that he never stopped trying… and in doing so, undoubtedly saved lives."
Doyle went on to retire as a full colonel. I and others had the honour of serving under him in Defence Headquarters. He is too much the loyal and professional soldier to be drawn on the matter, but for those of us who served with him, it is a major bone of contention that this man was denied the Distinguished Service Medal
It has been said by many, in other countries, that his work in the Balkans would have earned him many accolades and decorations. But for Doyle, the important thing has always been setting the record straight.
"In March 2016, Karadzic was found guilty… of genocide and crimes against humanity. He was sentenced to 40 years imprisonment and I hoped that it would give some small sense of justice and closure to his victims."
Declan Power is a former soldier and UN advisor who now writes and comments on security and defence affairs. He is the author of Siege at Jadotville