Majo Topolovac - a memorial address
by Noel Malcolm, 2 December 2004
Soon after the beginning of the war in Bosnia, a number of groups and organizations sprang up in England – groups of ordinary people who were shocked by what the West was allowing to happen in Bosnia, and wanted to do something to influence public opinion and official policy. One of the first of these was ‘Action for Bosnia’, which was run by a group of people including Adrian Hastings, John Yarnold, Saba Risaluddin, Ben Cohen, George Stamkoski – and Majo Topolovac. I remember my first visit to their office in central London, some time during 1992. I was introduced to Majo, who was sitting in a little room with a telephone, a fax machine, and a pint of beer. He immediately engaged me in conversation, and I was struck not only by his wonderfully sunny, good-humoured personality, but also by his beautiful, perfect, idiomatic and somehow deliciously old-fashioned English. Each of his funny anecdotes led on to another anecdote, and we talked for quite a long time.
Although I was utterly charmed, I admit that at the back of my mind I was also asking myself: ‘does this man actually do any work?’ But of course, as I later realized, what I was experiencing was something very Bosnian. He did not want to give the impression that work was the most important thing; he wanted me to feel that the most important things were conversation, friendship, and making a guest welcome. Yet, as I also later discovered – and this too, I think, was very Bosnian – when he was not attending in this way to the feelings of others, he was in fact working extremely hard. ‘Action for Bosnia’ did many things (pamphlets, conferences, lobbying, etc.), but the core of all its activities was the daily news briefing it produced, which was faxed to a large number of journalists, politicians, and other people with potential influence. This briefing was the product of Majo’s extraordinarily hard work; not only did he scour the media of the former Yugoslavia, but also he spent hours on the telephone to his own personal contacts in Sarajevo and other cities, often gathering news that had not appeared in any of the Western media.
Did all this work have any effect, any influence? As always with such attempts at influencing policy or opinion, it is almost impossible to tell. But let me just give one example of a case where such efforts may have played a direct role – may, indeed, have saved a large number of lives. This is a story which Majo himself told me, several years later. I don’t know if he told many other people; he was not at all a boastful person, and I am strongly inclined to believe in the truth of what he said. On one of the many occasions when Goražde was under heavy bombardment, one of Majo’s contacts in Sarajevo, who was himself in contact with a radio operator inside Goražde, told him that he had just learned that the Serb forces were advancing: they had moved some of their artillery forward, and their tanks were moving towards the town. He (the contact in Sarajevo) had got in touch with UNPROFOR to inform them of this, but his report had been dismissed on the grounds that it was ‘unconfirmed’. So he now begged Majo to get this news broadcast by the Western media. Majo rang an old friend at the BBC World Service, who said: ‘Come on, Majo, you know the rules – we can’t broadcast something as news until we have it from at least two independent sources.’ Majo pleaded with him: ‘You know me, you can trust me; please, just do this for me – I’ll never ask such a thing of you again.’ So the news was broadcast; and within a couple of hours, UNPROFOR reacted to it, issuing a warning to the Serb forces to halt their advance and threatening action if they did not. Soon afterwards, the advance was halted.
A total human history of the Bosnian war – a history of what every person did, of what role they played, what influence they had – will never be penned, at least not by a human hand. But if ever such a history were to be written, I believe that it would contain a very special chapter entitled ‘Majo Topolovac’.