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
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
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
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
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.