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Counting the consequences of Bosnia’s war

By Graham Cooke - posted Wednesday, 9 January 2013


There is a point in his book, In Harm's Way, where Martin Bell relates that his cameraman turns to him and says "you know, there are times when I hate this fucking job." Bell agrees.

They are covering the flight of Croatian refugees during the Bosnian War, but at any time during this brutal conflict it could have been Muslims or Serbs. An elderly woman and her granddaughter, burdened down with what are now their sole possessions, are making their faltering way down a cart track that is known to be mined.

In all humanity they should have been helping the pair, but if they had they would be missing their deadline; if they had survived they would have been arrested by the Serbs, and their credibility as impartial observers would have been destroyed.

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"It seemed a lame excuse then. It still does now," he writes.

I met Bell, a hero of mine for four decades, in Burma. Retired from BBC Television and a career in which he covered 18 wars, he is now an Ambassador for the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) along with such celebrities as David Beckham and Elle Macpherson. "Of course you can't send these people into war zones to publicise the plight of children there, so they send me – I am the expendable ambassador," he said.

Interestingly, the Burmese Governments this year released a list of journalists who had previously been banned from the country, but who would now be allowed in. "My name was on the list even though I had never visited it until now and, as far as I can remember, not said a word about it."

What he has said and written about extensively is the Bosnian War he covered from its beginnings in 1992 until the acceptance of the Dayton Accords which put an end to the war, or at least to the overt hostilities, three-and-a half years later. In Harm's Way is an updated version of the original edition, which he wrote before the end of the war "by candlelight in my room at the Holiday Inn in Sarajevo" and contains his reflections on its legacy.

He calls it the most consequential war of our time – because the West, flushed with success in reversing Iraq's annexation of Kuwait and brokering a ceasefire in the conflict between Croatia and Serbia, declined to get involved in what it saw as Bosnia's internal problems.

Yet Bosnia contained all the ingredients that had ripped apart the manufactured republic of Yugoslavia. There were Muslims, Croats and Serbs and also, most significantly, foreign fighters allied to the Bosnian Government but not under its control: the Mujahedin. They came because television had brought pictures of ruined mosques and fleeing Muslims into Islam's heartlands; they wanted revenge and they took no prisoners. Because of this, reporters on the war tended to give the 'Muj' a wide birth. The world was hardly aware of their presence, but they were there, the pioneers on the road to September 11.

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It was also consequential for what happened afterwards. Stung by the very valid criticisms of inaction and weakness that had led to atrocities, the worst of which was the Srebrenica massacre, world leaders over-reacted. While Bell points to some success from this new robust attitude in Sierra Leone and Kosovo, it also led to the Iraq debacle in the Second Gulf War. "Put simply, the outcome was that in seeking to avoid another Bosnia, we found ourselves in another Vietnam," he writes.

Both in the book and in our conversations, Bell forcefully laid down his four principles for military intervention.

"First it must be legal under the United Nations Charter or a specific authorising resolution; second it must conform to the Geneva Convention on the conduct of a war; third it must have the general support of the populations of the countries taking part and fourth it must be doable.

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About the Author

Graham Cooke has been a journalist for more than four decades, having lived in England, Northern Ireland, New Zealand and Australia, for a lengthy period covering the diplomatic round for The Canberra Times.


He has travelled to and reported on events in more than 20 countries, including an extended stay in the Middle East. Based in Canberra, where he obtains casual employment as a speech writer in the Australian Public Service, he continues to find occasional assignments overseas, supporting the coverage of international news organisations.

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