bosnia report
No. 9 February - March 1995
Rose-Tinted Spectacles
by Calum Macdonald

Lately, in much of the media, we have seen a myth being created. It is that General Sir Michael Rose, the former chief of the UN forces in ex-Yugoslavia, has exposed the Muslim propaganda machine in Bosnia by revealing its mendacity over key episodes in the Bosnian war, such as the sieges of Gorazde and Bihac.

The defining moment of these journalistic exposes came with John Simpson's Panorama interview with Haris Silajdzic, as Simpson pursued the Bosnian Prime Minister for claiming at one stage 70,000 deaths in Bihac when "only" 1,000 had died. In fact, Silajdzic's meaning was that 70,000 lives were at risk. His imperfect English let him down. This is obvious both from the simple fact that the total population of the Bihac safe area is only 70,000, and from Silajdzic's own words: "So we can say now I will talk to General Rose here right now. Mr Akashi, he is responsible for the death of 70,000 people in Bihac right now. There is no call for the air strikes from General Rose here, from Mr Akashi - those are the responsible people. If a lot of people die in Bihac, it is because of them." John Simpson's scoop vanishes into thin air.

At no time during the Bihac crisis did the Bosnian government claim 70,000 dead. Nor does it now claim 16,000 dead as Simpson reported. The figure is obviously absurd, given the total number of deaths in the whole of Sarajevo since the start of the siege three years ago is 10,000. The regular communiques I received at the time from the Bosnian embassy in London certainly spoke of relentless bombardment and enormous suffering, but of daily deaths only in single figures.

Nevertheless, Rose's account of Bosnian duplicity is in danger of becoming received opinion, despite its being seriously flawed in all of its main charges. On Gorazde, for example, in Simpson's film Rose accuses the Muslims of ethnically cleansing 12,500 Serbs from the town. In fact, there is absolutely no evidence for this in any of the voluminous reports painstakingly compiled by the UN's own special rapporteur on human rights.

Why should Rose make such a terrible and unfounded accusation? Quite simply, he made a dreadful hash of his year in Bosnia. He incurred not only the contempt of the Bosnian government, and of seasoned journalists on the ground, but also the anger of Nato commanders for his pusillanimity in the face of the Serbian aggressors.

But Rose went further than simple inertia and obstruction. He even passed details of Nato flight plans to the Serbian side, warning them in advance of Nato strikes so that they could move their hardware out of the way - actions regarded by Nato officers as little short of treachery. Rose reached the nadir of appeasement in July when he tried to excuse even the fatal shooting by Serbian forces of one of his own British soldiers, guarding a UNHCR convoy, as simply a mistake. "I'm afraid we are in a period where there is a lot of tension, and opportunity for misunderstanding", said Rose. During the assault on Bihac, Nato commanders repeatedly urged air strikes against Serbian heavy weapons, and Rose repeatedly refused. Asked why, he replied with a sophistry that showed he had indeed learnt much from his conversations with Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic. The UN mandate, he said, was only to prevent attacks on civilians in the safe areas. The fact that the assault was in progress showed that protection had failed and therefore Rose had no responsibility to act further.

It was this cold-blooded hair-splitting in the face of deliberate slaughter that enraged Silajdzic into making his televised attack on Rose. The truth of his accusations cannot be doubted. Responsibility for the UN's failure to stop the attack rests with Rose.

One incident that Rose invokes to make his case against the Muslims (as he calls them, rather than Bosnians) was a mortar bombardment of Serbian positions around Sarajevo on the eve of President Izetbegovic's departure for a visit to Washington. It is extraordinary that Rose and Simpson should see anything sinister or culpable in this. After 1,000 days of siege and 10,000 deaths from snipers, shells and disease, it is hardly surprising that the Bosnians sometimes shoot back.

The paucity of Rose's case against Bosnian "propaganda" is best illustrated by just two counter-examples of the UN's own disinformation machine. The first was an incident in October last year when a Bosnian government patrol carried out a successful night-attack on a Serbian command post near Sarajevo. The UN issued a press statement the next morning accusing the Bosnian patrol of executing and mutilating Serbs, including four female nurses. The accusation was intended to be broadcast by the world's media, and it duly made the pages of the Western press.

Unlike Silajdzic's accusation against Rose about Bihac, the UN's accusation was entirely false. It was later quietly dropped in a UN retraction. It had served its purpose, however, of muddying the Bosnians' reputation and helping to absolve Rose for his failures by implying that both sides to the conflict were equally guilty.

The second example is every bit as telling. Many readers will remember how Tuzla airport was reopened by the UN with great fanfare last March, after having been closed since the start of the war. Akashi flew in for the benefit of the TV cameras assembled for the occasion. In fact it was all a big con. That was the only plane to get into Tuzla airport; not a single aid flight has got in since.

Simpson mentioned neither of these deceits in his interviews with Rose. Nor did he mention the extraordinary letter Rose sent to Mladic in September: "Dear General, following your telephone conversation today with Brigadier General Brinkman [Rose's chief of staff], I would like to confirm that the UN always regrets the need to use force in its peace-keeping mission. As Commander BH Command, I fully agree with you that we must, in the future, avoid all situations which necessitate the use of force, whether it be applied from the ground or the air. We can only do this through close liaison and cooperation. As you know, UNPROFOR is in Bosnia to help return this country to peace through peaceful means. It is not part of our mission to impose any solution by force of arms. We are neither mandated nor deployed for such a mission".

Following the receipt of such a missive, the Serbs had the measure of their man and, in the midst of the Bihac crisis, Karadzic's aide was able to radio Rose and employ somewhat different language: "The message is, don't mess with us, don't fuck us around. If you hit us, it )means war. Repeat, if you hit us, it means an all-out war".

In his film of Rose's visit to Gorazde, Simpson made much of the warm reception accorded to the UN commander. He apparently didn't hear or didn't understand the town mayor's weary words off-camera, captured on his film, when asked who had "saved" Gorazde: "I guess ifÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌ` you're British television, we'll have to say it was the British Army".

Calum Macdonald is Labour MP for the Outer Hebrides, co-chairman of the parliamentary All-party Bosnia Group and sponsor of ADB-H. This text first appeared in The New Statesman, 10 February 1995.


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