Saturday 15 December 2018

'My tears only fell 20 years after facing down the butcher of Bosnia'

In an extract from his new book, Irish peacekeeper Colonel Colm Doyle tells of how he witnessed the horrors of the Bosnian War and then went on to testify against Karadzic and Milosevic

Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic.
Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic.

As I swore my oath on the witness stand of the UN Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague in May 2010, I glanced at the face of Radovan Karadzic - the former leader of the Bosnian Serbs at whose trial I was to appear as a witness for the prosecution.

"I solemnly declare that I  will speak the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth..."


I had known Karadzic very well when I served in Bosnia, both as a member of the European Community Monitoring Mission in 1991 and later as Lord Peter Carrington's personal representative in Bosnia. Karadzic had sought a list of prosecution witnesses who were scheduled to testify at his trial. His defence team was anxious that he should have the opportunity to meet with some of these witnesses individually prior to their testimony. After much consideration I agreed to meet him - under certain conditions.

A Bosnian Croat soldier blindfolds Muslim prisoners before turning them over to Bosnian Serb forces for ‘interrogation’ in Konjic, Bosnia on June 14, 1993
A Bosnian Croat soldier blindfolds Muslim prisoners before turning them over to Bosnian Serb forces for ‘interrogation’ in Konjic, Bosnia on June 14, 1993

I checked in to the hotel under a number rather than a name. The protection of witnesses is a serious matter for the tribunal. I remember being very nervous on my way to the detention centre and being very glad to have insisted on a member of the prosecution accompany me. I feared that Karadzic might try to take advantage of my lack of knowledge on legal issues.

We came face to face in a small room close to his cell. Though we had not met for 18 years he looked much as I had remembered him. We exchanged pleasantries.

The meeting lasted for three hours, most of which was taken up by him questioning me on my testimony at the Milosevic trial in 2003. Much of that testimony centred round the events in Bosnia of which I had first-hand knowledge. I was told by his legal team that they had sought and been granted 15 hours to cross-examine me. In court time this meant three days. I drew a deep breath. I had not expected this and suspected that however cordial he might appear in the confines of this prison, his cross-examination of me in court over the next few days would be anything but pleasant.

But then my memories of Bosnia were not pleasant.

Of the many horrific stories recounted to me during my period there, one in particular stands out. It was in late October 1991 when I was serving in Banja Luka, Bosnia's second city. Myself and a few colleagues got talking to a group of men in a cafe one evening, and after explaining our role in Bosnia, invited them to give us their views.

Initially hesitant to enter into conversation, they gradually opened up, telling us they did not trust their politicians. They looked upon them as old men who seemed to dwell on past events and animosities, had no vision for a future Bosnia beyond ethnic hatred and cared little for the younger generation.

Serbs guard a group of Bosnian Muslim men from Srebrenica on August 5, 1995.
Serbs guard a group of Bosnian Muslim men from Srebrenica on August 5, 1995.

Then one of them, a Serb who had just completed his service with the federal army, told us in graphic terms of entering the destroyed home of a Serb family in Croatia and having being directed towards a cooker in the kitchen, found a baby in the oven that had been cooked to death. Attached to the cooking tray was a message: "Dessert for the Chetniks".

I was completely dumbstruck. How could such a barbaric act take place in the heart of Europe? I had no way of confirming the young man's story, but it was another signal, among many, that we had entered a darker phase.

On February 5, 1992, I met Lord Peter Carrington, who had recently been appointed chair of the International Peace Conference on Yugoslavia and was on a visit to Sarajevo, where I was based. He asked if I could brief his officials that visited Bosnia over the following few months. After he departed I gave my operations chief Dermot Cogan the good news that he would have to arrange updated briefings in advance of any conference delegates arriving to Sarajevo.

It was a short-lived arrangement. The siege of Sarajevo began in April 1992 when the Bosnian Serbs blockaded the city. On May 11, 1992, Antonio dos Santos informed me that all his European Commission monitors were being withdrawn from Bosnia. I assumed this would mean I would be leaving also.

I had mixed emotions. I had hoped to conclude an agreement on the withdrawal of the Federal Army from Bosnia but trying my best was getting nowhere. Despite long hours of negotiation, persuading and cajoling I felt we were banging our heads against a wall. I was frustrated, annoyed and sad. The half million citizens of Sarajevo were bearing the brunt of the pain.

I was told that I would be flown out of the city by federal helicopter early the following morning from the army base of Lukavica. Before retiring I walked out on my balcony to view the night sky. Sporadic shelling and machine gun fire could clearly be heard - and I had a sudden urge to weep, although the soldier in me refused to give in to it.

PEACEKEEPER: Colonel Colm Doyle is now retired
PEACEKEEPER: Colonel Colm Doyle is now retired

The following morning at Lukavica, the helicopter lifted off and flew towards Pale, now the home base of the Bosnian Serbs. En route we flew over most of the Serb positions on the hillsides overlooking Sarajevo. I could see rows of tanks, artillery, mortar and heavy machine gun positions - all aimed at the city below. It seemed the Bosnian Serb leader Karadzic had his army under the command of General Ratko Mladic and I shuddered at what might lie ahead for Sarajevo's population.

A few weeks later, I bumped into Bosnia's Foreign Minister, Haris Silajdzic in Lisbon, who pronounced that he was "very relieved to see me alive".

When I asked him to explain he said that the helicopter taking me out of Sarajevo was to have been shot down by the Serbs.

I was shaken by this news - more so when he explained that even though there had been a Serb general on board, "it's you they targeted". He explained that the Muslims would have been blamed for the attack - as killing Lord Carrington's representative would have been big news. Later when trying to make sense of the war, I began to wonder if this was just a fanciful bit of drama. However, I was much shaken by it.

The final occasion that I confronted Karadzic was in a hotel in Brussels on August 16, 1992 where we had been having negotiations with the parties to the conflict over two days. I was walking through the lobby when I saw a Sunday paper in the hotel shop. Its front page picture was of an emaciated and skeletal prisoner standing behind a barbed wire fence in a place called Trnopolje - one of many Serb detention camps in Bosnia.

This was the first published photo which showed the horrors of Bosnia. Paper in hand, I immediately headed for the dining room where I knew Karadzic was seated alone having breakfast. As I approached I was confronted by his bodyguard, who stood in front of me, arms folded across his chest.

Recognising me, Karadzic nodded to the bodyguard to allow me pass. When I reached his table I held out the paper, placed it on his plate and said "Your breakfast reading Mr Karadzic." Before he had any time to react or speak, I turned round and walked out.

But the war continued and over the next three years the world saw ethnic cleansing, the genocide of Srebrenica, the "systematic rape" and "sexual enslavement" of 20,000 women and girls. The war "ended" with the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement on November 21, 1995.

My last encounter with Karadzic, 18 years after that breakfast scene, was when I gave my testimony at his trial. I felt bruised and battered and as I stood to leave I glanced over at Karadzic. He caught my eye but remained passive.

It was not the manner of the cross-examination that affected me but the question: How could this man justify what he had done, and yet firmly believe that he was innocent of any crime? Alone in the witness room I felt this wave of emotion hit me - and this time I could not stop my tears. I couldn't explain it.

I phoned my wife Grainne and recounted my tears. Calmly, she said: "I've been waiting for a reaction like that from you for nearly 20 years."

I went back to my hotel thinking about my year in Bosnia and realised that despite our best efforts, little had been achieved. The international community had not prevented a brutal war and people like Milosevic, Karadzic and Mladic had continued on their course of action with near impunity.


Six years later, in March 2016, Karadzic was found guilty of 10 of the 11 counts against him including those of war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity. He was sentenced to 40 years imprisonment.

'Witness to War Crimes: The Memoirs of an Irish Peacekeeper in Bosnia' by Colm Doyle (Merrion Press)

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