Return to Bosnia-Herzegovina: a British Peacekeeper’s Time in Hell

This is the tenth part in a series about Bosnia-Herzegovina thirty years after its civil wars.


The Jewish cemetery in Sarajevo in which Serbs fought Muslims during the Yugoslav civil wars of the 1990s. In his memoir Trusted Mole: A Soldier’s Journey into Bosnia’s Heart of Darkness, Milos Stankovic, a British officer who served in Bosnia, writes: “It was a depressing place, heavy with irony: Orthodox Serbs and Bosnian Muslims fighting, bickering and squabbling over a Jewish cemetery. That’s it in a nutshell; fucked-up necrowar.” Photo: Matthew Stevenson.

On my last day in Bosnia-Herzegovina, I had meetings in Maglaj and Tuzla—both are in central Bosnia—and then a flight home from the airfield in Tuzla that had seen some heavy fighting during the wars.

The public library in Maglaj, located in a part of the city hall, was one of the best that I have seen. It even had a small room with children’s books, and most of the shelves and rooms were clean and modern, unlike other libraries that felt like archives in some ministry of fear. With the head librarian, I walked around the facilities, and on one of the walls she showed me the high-water mark where a flood in 2014 had inundated the first floor, destroying most of the books. By then they were used to such devastation, as during the war years the library had also been destroyed.

Including the stop in Maglaj, Tuzla was a four-hour ride from Sarajevo, and located in a valley surrounded by mountains. There I met with more librarians at a branch of the National Library, and made arrangements to donate books that were coming from a United Nations library in Geneva, which was replacing some of its books with online resources.

Unlike that in Sarajevo, or even Maglaj, Tuzla’s collection included many Islamic texts that were bound in leather and kept behind glass. From the library, we walked to a nearby restaurant in the old town, much of which had been damaged during the worst of the fighting. Tuzla was hard-hit during the Yugoslav wars, as it lay close to the seismic fault lines between Serbs and Muslims.

Trusted Mole

Wondering about the war in central Bosnia, I searched online for memoirs from 1992-95, and came away with Milos Stankovic’s Trusted Mole: A Soldier’s Journey into Bosnia’s Heart of Darkness, in part because of Martin Bell’s blurb: “Milos Stankovic served longer in the Bosnia war than any other British soldier… he was the outstanding liaison officer of his time…. [Trusted Mole] is the best book yet written on the Bosnian war, certainly including my own.”

The memoir begins with Major Stankovic, back in the United Kingdom, being placed under arrest on charges that sound a lot like consorting with the enemy or treason. In effect, his memoir can be read as a brief to his lawyers to explain what he did during his almost three years in the Bosnian war, but it ends before his case is tried in the British courts.

What tipped Stankovic for liaison work with the peacekeeping forces in Bosnia was his fluency in the language, once called Serbo-Croatian. His father was born and grew up in what was then Yugoslavia, and only later emigrated to Britain. The son writes:

My father was born in Kraljevo [south of Belgrade] in 1920. His mother died when he was very young and he was brought up by his two older sisters, the eldest of whom was killed during an Allied bombing raid in 1943. He was educated in Skopje in Macedonia where he was studying law when the Germans invaded. He’d been politically active throughout the 1930s and had been a staunch anti-Communist and supporter of the King.

When British troops were seconded to the United Nations protection forces (often called UNPROFOR) in Bosnia, Stankovic (his nom de guerre was Mike Stanley so that no one would think he was part Serb) was sent in to act as an interpreter, although given his rank—a major in the British army—he was soon in close contact with senior UN commanders and officials and often handled sensitive negotiations with various warring parties, notably the Bosnian Serbs, who had their headquarters in Pale, just outside Sarajevo in the hills.

Stankovic wasn’t commanding troops or trying to enforce peace but was a witness to nearly all the important battles that were fought in Bosnia between 1992-95. For example, of Mostar he writes:

Mostar looked like Stalingrad at the height of its destruction. It was by far the worst example of concentrated, wholesale annihilation in Bosnia. There was scarcely a single building either on the cluttered Muslim east bank or the more extensive Croat west bank which had not been virtually completely destroyed. The ancient fifteenth-century Ottoman arched bridge which had finally succumbed to Croatian shell fire on 10 November 1993 had been replaced by a rickety wire and wooden board footbridge which swayed alarmingly 100 feet above the turbulent green and white Neretva river below.

Here’s a passage typical of many in the book, written in the language of a front-line officer who has been asked to broker cease-fires and truces, few of which ever hold:

We made our way forward on foot to the edge of the cemetery, a no-man’s-land of weeds, fallen, battered and broken headstones clustered around a dilapidated pagoda-style mausoleum all of which clung precariously to a steep hill. It was a depressing place, heavy with irony: Orthodox Serbs and Bosnian Muslims fighting, bickering and squabbling over a Jewish cemetery. That’s it in a nutshell; fucked-up necrowar. Below us Sarajevo, hot, hazy and tatty-looking, stretched away westwards towards Stup, eastwards towards Bascarsija and the Turkish fort above, and northwards past the Residency towards Zetra.

Eyewitness in Srebrenica

From the airfield outside Tuzla, Stankovic made several trips to the doomed enclave of Srebrenica. He wasn’t there when the Bosnian Serbs overran the town in 1995, but in the preceding months he was there long enough to dread that the center—at least there—would not hold. He writes: “The fate of Srebrenica was being decided thousands of miles away in New York by the Security Council. On 16 April the Council passed Resolution 819 declaring Srebrenica to be a ‘Safe Area’. No one knew what that meant, least of all me. But it was now a Safe Area.” He later added: “Something was achieved that night, but, secretly, we all knew we’d been sent into Srebrenica to fulfil a UN mandate with wholly inadequate resources.” And he says bitterly: “Thomas Hobbes summed it all up in Leviathan – ‘Covenants without swords be but words.’ Pretty good epitaph for that whole bungled Bosnian affair.”

The book is an excellent primer on why peacekeeping missions fail. The peacekeepers lacked the resources to separate the combatants, and their commanders more often than not deferred not to the senior UN generals but to their home country’s ministry of defense. Nor did any of the peacekeeping forces relish the idea of direct fighting in the name of peace.

Stankovic writes: “The problem was that, without risking troops in combat on the ground, air power was seen by NATO as the only tool available to express force. Convinced by the efficacy of so-called pin-point, surgical strikes in the Gulf War, NATO failed to see how desperately inappropriate they were in Bosnia…. That was the essence of the problem. Bosnia really was little more than a mad professor’s laboratory in which a very unpleasant war was used as a proving ground to define the set of the New World Disorder.”

Sarajevo’s Siege and the Fog of War

Some of the most vivid passages of the memoir are his descriptions of navigating around sniper-ridden Sarajevo—sometimes to broker a ceasefire and other times simply to visit friends or deliver aid to older residents trapped in their apartments. It was some of these mercy missions behind the lines in Sarajevo that might have led to his arrest, as he was seen dropping off packages in strange places, although in truth all that was inside his parcels was aid to keep the recipient alive in the harsh Sarajevo winter.

The memoir never spells out the charges leveled against Stankovic or how he was exonerated, but my sense from the book is that what really turned the army against him wasn’t his fraternization with Serb or Muslim refugees but his disillusionment with the goals of the peacekeeping mission. Here’s how he described the muddled confusion about the Sarajevo market bombing that killed so many civilians. He’s unwilling simply to go along with the received wisdom that “the Serbs did it.” He writes:

Either side could have done it. That’s the bottom line. But then you’ve got the politics of the whole thing. The likeliest explanation is that the Serbs did it in revenge for the commando raid on the dressing station. That fits with the mood of the moment. Their eagerness to show us around the building might have been a ruse to make us think that they were blameless. The BiH [Bosnia-Herzegovina] may have done it knowing that, in the mood of the moment, the Serbs would automatically get the blame. As with the aircraft, there was a lot of double and treble thinking; you could have tied yourself up in knots with one theory or another. All L-P [Major Jamie Lowther-Pinkerton] could do was submit a report stating quite correctly that the burst of fire could have come from any number of firing points, Serb or BiH.

By contrast, armies prefer their officers to tow the company line.

Failed Peace Plans

He expresses the same cynicism about the breakdown of the many peace plans (such as that of Vance-Owen) that failed to end the war sooner than did the Dayton Accords at the end of 1995. In most cases, what killed off the chances of peace was the Serbs refusing to accept the terms of the settlement, feeling that they would be left out in the cold in a federation dominated by Croats and Muslims. But Stankovic is equitable in his analysis of the peace failures, and depending on the proposal lays blame also on the Croats and Muslims. Here’s his description on the Croatian attack with American support on the Krajina (land between Croatia and Bosnia where some 250,000 Serbs once lived):

If you look at the timing of the proposal, Karadzic and gang had already got themselves into a mindset as early as October 1994 that the Serb-held Krajinas were expendable and could be bargained away. I’m sure they didn’t tell them that, but in reality the Krajinas were untenable without Republika Srpska. As early as October 1994 they were quite prepared to shaft their own people in Krajina and when the Croats finally attacked on 4 August 1995 the region crumbled within twenty-four hours – no resistance, nothing except headlong flight. They’d been sold out almost a year earlier, mentally at least. It’s only my opinion, I’m sure academics and other Balkan gurus the world over will disagree, but from my perspective and experience on the ground we missed an opportunity to find a solution to the war before the winter of 1994.

He concludes, in what reads as a confessional chapter (it’s entitled “The Mad Hatter’s Teaparty”) that re-creates a conversation with an army psychiatrist after the war:

‘So where does the blame lie?’ [Stankovic is asked.]

‘For this Bosnian mess, this Purgatory? The Serbs for saying no to the Contact Group Plan [1994]. The Contact Group for drawing a line in the sand. The international community for not moving on the “global solution”, which would have given the Muslims far more than they eventually got. The international community, again, for failing to move and exploit the COHA [Cessation of Hostilities Agreement] and for fuelling a return to hostilities and taking the easy option of resorting to the rule of force rather than the force of peace. Net result: NATO first, Croats second, Serbs third, Muslims fourth and UN last. Ironic, isn’t it? The winner in a peace support operation is a warfighting machine. The loser is the peace organisation. And, the very people the international community was hell-bent on helping came last in the local league. All this because we, the UN and the West’s negotiators, were incapable of operating at anything other than the superficial level.’

A Kafkaesque Trial

When I went online was I able to trace the resolution of the criminal charges against Major Stankovic. After coming back from Bosnia and receiving both a medal and promotion, he was arrested “on suspicion of breaches under Section 2b of the 1989 Official Secrets Act”—in other words, he was consorting with the enemy, in this case, General Ratko Mladic, commander of the Bosnian Serb Army in Bosnia.

In 1999, after the Military Police conducted more than 200 interviews—including with his former commander, General Sir Michael Rose—it decided not to press charges, although then for another year yet another branch of the services investigated whether Stankovic had shown NATO military plans to the Serb army. (His job, in part, had been as a liaison officer between the UN and the Serbs, and in the course of many negotiations, he presumably passed along numerous documents, as requested by his superior officers.)

In 2000, as he was cleared of all formal charges, his book Trusted Mole: A Soldier’s Journey into Bosnia’s Heart of Darkness was published, and he sued the Ministry of Defence Police for illegal arrest (although he had no recourse against it for having destroyed his military career).

The suit languished in the courts for seven years, and in the end the judge rendered a split decision, concluding that the ministry had sufficient grounds to arrest him (although not to search his house and seize his belongings), but that in the end the judge said Stankovic had faithfully done his duty.

Leaving the court (with all his legal bills in hand), Stankovic did not quote the words of Colonel Alfred Dreyfus—who endured similar false charges in the French army (allegedly for spying for Austria) but was vindicated twelve years after he was charged—but he could have. Dreyfus said: “My life belongs to my country; my honor does not.”

Next installment: Leaving Bosnia and looking back at the Balkans today.

Earlier pieces in this series can be read here.

Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent books are Biking with Bismarck and Our Man in Iran. Out now: Donald Trump’s Circus Maximus and Joe Biden’s Excellent Adventure, about the 2016 and 2020 elections.