FIKRET ALIC stood close to a barbed wire fence within the confines of a Serb detention camp at Trnopolje, in Bosnia, in Aug 1992. His skeletal appearance was dramatically photographed, and published on the front pages of the leading newspapers, including the Sunday Times in its edition of Aug 16, 1992.
That morning, I was in Brussels as a member of the International Peace Conference on the Former Yugoslavia. As Radovan Karadzic, the then leader of the Bosnian Serbs, was having his breakfast, I approached his table with a copy of the paper under my arm. “Your breakfast reading Mr Karadzic,” I said as I dropped the paper on his table. Without giving him time to respond, I withdrew from the dining room.
Ed Vulliamy was one of a small band of international investigative journalists, including Penny Marshall, of ITV, and Ian Williams, of Channel Four News, present at Trnopolje on the day of the photograph. They exposed the camps. These dramatic events and the Alic moment are vividly described in Vulliamy’s latest book, The War is Dead: Long Live the War, which charts the lives of a group of Muslim prisoners who were interred in what Vulliamy calls “concentration camps” — at Omarska and Trnopolje, Keratern, Visegrad and Srebrenica — and the fate that befell them.
“The book is about violence, trauma, memory and survival — things which have no final solution, let alone closure,” Vulliamy writes. He says the story “is nothing if not an attempt to record what happened to some of the people who survived and were bereaved by the concentration camps, in particular, and how they built new lives to resurrect or replace those that had been taken from them”.
Vulliamy explains in considerable detail why he refers to “concentration camps”, even though those words conjures up comparisons with The Second World War and the Holocaust. He writes about his visit, with some of the prisoners, to Auschwitz. While I can understand this approach, I find it unsettling. The treatment suffered by these Bosnian Muslims stands on its own without any need for a comparison with the concentration camps of The Second World War .
Vulliamy seems an angry man. He vents this anger at “the response or lack of it” by the so-called “international community”, which he finds ‘flabbergasting’. The targets of his wrath are governments, including the British and its then foreign minister Douglas Hurd. It is Vulliamy’s contention that Western governments were aware of the existence of these camps but that “no one in Britain would speak” and that, furthermore, there existed a “conspiracy of silence along Whitehall”.
Nor do international organisations, such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or the International Committee of the Red Cross, escape Vulliamy’s criticism. He is scathing in his attack on the United Nations and its operational arm in the region, UNPROFOR, over its involvement in the conflict, and he has harsh words to say on its handling of the Srebrenica massacre perpetrated by Ratko Mladic.
Vulliamy provides a detailed description of the testimony given to the United Nations International War Crimes Tribunal, in The Hague, by the victims. He says that the creation of the tribunal was “the flip side of the same coin with which the United Nations was selling Bosnia to the slaughter, and thereby an act of contrition as well as ambition”. He acknowledges, however, that despite its shortcomings, the tribunal “has established a great deal, legally and historically”.
The ordeal for the victims in giving their testimony must have been overwhelming, and while it may have been a platform to tell their stories, it could never expunge the memory of their suffering, nor bring any degree of closure to those terrible times. Vulliamy describes the victims who testified before the court as “older than their years, aged by memory”.
Vulliamy relates his own testimony at the Karadzic trial, and it is engrossing to me. Perhaps this is because his experience mirrored my own when I testified at the same trial, as a witness for the prosecution, in May, 2010. Karadzic’s cross-examination of me over 15 hours was a severe test of my memory. Karadzic denied that there was any camp at Trnopolje and contended that the dramatic photograph of Fikret Alic was ‘manufactured’. Vulliamy left the courtroom “enraged and offended on behalf of the good people I have met over the years whose lives have been destroyed by those camps”.
Because Vulliamy ‘walked the walk’ with this band of refugees, he has undoubtedly absorbed their stories and sufferings and shared their understandable bewilderment at the apparent lack of response by the outside world.
But reality never matches expectations. While one may criticise the international community for how it handled the war, there can be no denying its efforts to solve the crisis. This war was not the fault of the international community.
It was home-based, planned and conducted by Yugoslavs. Hundreds of international negotiators, and thousands of peacekeepers, were positioned throughout the republics seeking to find a solution acceptable to the three warring sides.
NATO deployed its strength. It is easy, in hindsight, to write that the world’s diplomatic leaders should not have had any dealings with Karadzic, but the reality was quite different. In order to make progress in Bosnia, one had no choice but to negotiate with Karadzic, who was the undisputed leader of the Bosnian Serbs. It may have been unpalatable, but as one such negotiator, I make no excuse for my frequent dealings with him.
However, the main theme of Vulliamy’s remarkable book is the story of the victims and it is they who rightly take centre-stage. We share their suffering and pain, their anger and frustration. We see them as they were then and how they are now.
As Vulliamy correctly points out “those most horribly insulted, of course, were the disbelieving camp survivors and relatives of the dead. They ask little, these people, but I believe that those who survive and are left bereaved by such crimes are owed at least one thing: they should be given back their lives by an admission of what happened. Their sanity requires that history records and acknowledges the truth of the atrocities that were committed against them and those they lost”.
Perhaps ignoring this is the greatest crime of all.
* Col Colm Doyle is a retired Irish Army officer who served in the former Yugoslavia as head of the EC Monitor Mission for Bosnia from Oct 1991 to Apr ’92. He has also served at United Nations in New York as chief of staff of the military division, Department of Peacekeeping Operations, from Jan 2004 to Mar 2006. He has testified as a witness at the trials of Slobodan Milosevic and Radovan Karadzic, at the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague, and will give evidence at the forthcoming trial of Ratko Mladic.