The arrest of Ratko Mladic a few days ago reminded me with a start that it is almost 20 years since I met the man. It was 8th February 1992 at a meeting in southern Croatia between Mladic and a delegation from the European Community Monitoring Mission in Jugoslavia, headed by an Ambassador from the current EC Presidency ( at the time the HOM was from Portugal).  Mladic was at that time the commander of the Ninth Corps of the Jugoslav National Army (the JNA). The horrors of the Sarajevo siege and the Srebenice massacre lay in the future, though he was already acquiring a reputation.

His advance had been rapid as Jugoslavia disintegrated. From being a Colonel in Kosovo he had graduated to organising the activities of the JNA in Knin, part of the Serb controlled area in western and southern Croatia known as the Krajina. A further promotion to Major General followed when an older general was kicked upstairs to command forces in Banja Luka in Northern Bosnia. Was this a move by Milosevic and the generals to ensure that their most capable and committed military commander was well positioned and at hand should the Bosnian balloon go up? Perhaps the trial will reveal more.

The meeting took place during that peculiar period of phony peace in the run up to the war in Bosnia. It was however, entirely Croatia related.  European community recognition of Croatian and Slovenian independence had become effective in mid-January, a ceasefire between the JNA and Croatian forces was holding and the arrival of a UN peacekeeping force was imminent. Attention was now beginning to focus on Bosnia, where no ethnic group had a majority, with Serbs having declined to around 31 % of the population, still much more than in Croatia where they had fought a bloody war and still controlled one third of the country. Given the belligerent and intransigent remarks being made by all three factions in Bosnia, the outlook was sombre, but nobody could have foreseen the slaughter to come.

We met in an old farmhouse in the Krajina which our interpreter informed us had been where the Italians had surrendered to Partisan forces during World War Two. From the Monitors point of view the purpose of the meeting, one of an on-going series, was to seek to cement and stabilise the ceasefire with the Croatians (in accordance with the Mission’s mandate), build confidence and ensure freedom of access and guarantees of safety for the Monitors to those areas controlled by Serb militias.

Mladic’s presentation on the ceasefire was a heightened reprise of what we were hearing elsewhere at the time. These were to the effect that any and all incidents and ceasefire violations could be laid at the Croatians door, directly or indirectly. The EU, which had “done a lot for Croatia” he told us, should teach the Croatians how to observe a ceasefire. It was doublethink and speak of the type ratcheted to higher indices in Bosnia in the years that followed by both him and Karadic. His suggestions on access and safe conduct were classic. Why not make direct contact with those locals in charge in the areas of the Krajina, an unsubtle attempt to equate militia leaders with the government in Zagreb.

Mladic has entered public consciousness since as the bête noire of the war in Bosnia. The best description of him at this meeting, before it all began, is that he was an example of “What you see is what you get”. He was blunt, forceful, bombastic and unyielding, pounding the table several times during a three hour meeting. There was little of the courtesy paid to the EC
Mission by other Serb generals. He took particular umbrage to what he suggested was a translator’s mistake – a reference to “former Jugoslavia”; he hadn’t signed off yet on leaving Jugoslavia!

He spoke forcefully and with passion regarding Jugoslavia and the position of the Serbs. The country had been created and forged in blood, including that of his father, killed by Croatians fighting with the Nazis in 1945, as well as over a million others. It was wrong and unjust that Croatia had been recognised within its administrative boundaries (a line pushed consistently at the time by Belgrade). The Serbs did not want to be a national minority and would not accept it. His remarks were regarding Croatia, but there was a grisly foretaste here of the attitude struck by the Bosnian Serbs which informed and inspired their conduct over the terrible years that followed,  years in which Ratko Mladic was a major player.

June 2011




There was a sequel to ”My Christmas 1991.” It had no happy ending.

Serbia is one of the countries which celebrates the Orthodox Christmas on January 7. An event on January 7 1992 marked a significant development  in the evolution of the Common Foreign and Security Policy of the European Community as it then was, by putting into sharp focus the reality and limitation of that policy in practice.

As Jugoslavia moved towards disintegration in the summer of 1991, the European Community decided to get involved. A better description might be that the EC decided to fool in. This was, of course, a period of euphoria in western Europe. The collapse of communism in 1989 had led to the formation of nascent democracies in central Europe and to the reunification of Germany in 1990. The Soviet Union appeared to be in its death throes. The USA was preoccupied with the aftermath of the first Gulf War.

A complicated situation obtained in Jugoslavia, where pressure was building  up within the Federal Republic, with Slovenia and Croatia, on one side of the western/orthodox fault line which ran through the country, ultimately seeking independence from Belgrade. Jugoslavia and its republics had strong economic and historical ties with the bigger EC states so it was to be expected that the EC would take an interest in what was happening in its back yard. Since the revolutions had been peaceful elsewhere  in Central Europe, with the exception of Romania, the assumption was that there would be peaceful change also in Jugoslavia, a country where  several millions of western Europeans holidayed.

As events moved towards open warfare, an accord was signed at Brioni in Croatia on July 7, brokered by the EC, between representatives of Slovenia, Croatia,  the Federal Republic of Jugoslavia, and the European Troika of three Foreign Ministers. Entering the negotiations Luxembourg Foreign Minister Poos declared “The Hour of Europe has dawned.” Arising out of the Brioni Accord a European Community Monitor Mission (ECMM) to Jugoslavia was established.

The monitors, who came from most of the EC member states, Canada, Sweden and (then) Czechoslovakia, were a mixture of military, diplomats and bureaucrats, all unarmed and identifiable only by their white clothing. There was no armed back-up. In two MOUs, in July and September, the host parties guaranteed “the Monitor Mission” and its personnel , “ vehicles, vessels, aircraft and equipment”  full protection and unrestricted freedom of movement within the Mission area. Despite these assurances monitors were involved in several near misses and the Mission’s helicopters were grounded after being shot at.

As full scale war developed that summer between Croatia and Serbia, wearing the thin disguise of the Federal Republic and its army, the JNA,  the role of the European monitors became the thankless one of seeking to monitor numerous ceasefire agreements, some general, some local. A suggestion now current is that Croatia, under its leader, Tudjman, used the tactic of repeated ceasefires, factoring in the ECMM as pawns, to gain time while Croatia, massively outgunned, and with only one diplomatic champion, admittedly the heavy hitter, Germany, sought arms and international support. Media coverage of events helped with the second, Croatia being cast as victim. A UN arms embargo inhibited the first; Serbia was already heavily armed, Croatia was not, relying for the most part on smuggled weaponry and what could be seized from JNA barracks in Croatia.

What became clear very rapidly was that the EC had bitten off considerably more than it could chew.  The role of an international policeman presupposes military clout, and, ultimately, the political will to use it. The EC had neither. Faced with the passions on both sides, ethnic cleansing (the phrase had not yet been coined), massacres and heavy shelling of civilian population centres, carried out overwhelmingly by the Serbs, it became obvious that the boy-scout style mission of the ECMM was not going to solve anything.

In retrospect, and as more evidence becomes available, it appears that  the essential  shape of what was to come was established from early autumn 1991. The failed coup in Moscow and its aftermath  removed the Soviet Union as a factor. Slovenia was free to go its own way and Serb war aims in Croatia had crystallised into occupying, protecting  and cleansing areas with significant Serb populations, i.e. the Krajina (around 30% of Croatian territory). Hence Vukovar, hence Osijek and other Croatian outposts, the fate of Vukovar a small grim foretaste of what was to come in Sarajevo and Srebenice. Croatian independence  was not seriously in doubt provided some issues could be resolved, most importantly the evacuation of Serb men, weapons and armour from locations in Croatia.

But Europe wanted out and both sides realised that the EC had neither the political will nor the military means to impose a solution. The only alternative was the UN, which again, would not enforce a peace but only administer one with a peacekeeping force. This took some arranging. A deal was brokered by the UN in late November under which the EC monitors would play another and important role of facilitating UN intervention through safely evacuating Serb forces from within Croatia; this to be completed by Christmas Day. A general binding and comprehensive ceasefire would follow and bed in, after which a UN force, designated UNPROFOR, would be introduced.

The timetable for evacuation was met and a general ceasefire came into operation on 3 January 1992. The deal signalled the independence of unoccupied Croatia, since UN intervention tends to solidify ceasefire lines. Separately, under strong pressure from Germany, the EC, with some reluctance, had agreed to recognise Croatian independence just before Christmas, to take effect on 15 January. Not only was a major German policy objective realised but Germany appears  to have grasped, earlier than other member states, that  the logic of events for several months had been that Croatian independence was not only inevitable but would not be opposed by Belgrade or the JNA once their tactical aims had been achieved.

There remained only the crossing of t’s and the dotting of I’s.  One such was to get the ECMM helicopters flying again. Despite the assurances and guarantees in the MOUs they had been shot at in September, and grounded thereafter. Since then any flying applications made had been turned down by the Jugoslav Federal Air Traffic Control Authority(FATCA), which had banned flights over Croatia and Slovenia and which still clung to the fiction of a single federal Jugoslav state. With the ceasefire the situation changed. The helicopters flew, authorised by the JNA.

Then, disaster. At 14.09 hrs. on 7 January, the Serbian Orthodox Christmas, two ECMM helicopters, flying from Belgrade to Zagreb, were attacked by a JNA MiG in Northern Croatia; one was shot down, killing the five monitors on board. Compared to the thousands of war victims this was minor. But it was traumatic. These were the first European Community casualties, anywhere, volunteers, unarmed and on a peaceful mission on behalf the EC; the brave new world of the “Hour of Europe” got a reality check.

The subsequent enquiries served only to underline the obvious, that, at a time of a total ceasefire, which specifically covered and mentioned cessation of all hostilities in the air, a JNA MiG, flying at 900km per hour, had shot down a clearly identifiable (painted white  with ECMM markings) unarmed ECMM helicopter travelling at 150km, killing those on board. The JNA knew about the flight; it even had the flight plans.

There was another ECMM aircraft in the air at the time of the shooting down, a fixed wing with eight on board. They included two Ambassadors, the ECMM Head of Mission and his predecessor, as well as the deputy Head of Mission and his predecessor, both Generals; and me. Originally scheduled to fly from Belgrade to Sarajevo, the flight was aborted as Sarajevo was closed by snow. Instead a flight plan was filed for a journey back to Graz in Austria, and the plane duly took off at 13.24 hrs. The flight followed the route of the helicopters into Hungary towards Kaposvar , shadowed by a MiG for a while before we turned north west for Graz at about where the helicopters would have turned south west for the Croatian border at Varazdin . The HOM was informed by phone of the helicopter’s fate during the final descent into Graz at 14.15 hrs.

The JNA  denied emphatically any suggestion that the wrong aircraft had been targeted and claimed human error and faulty procedures over flight clearance. The basic issue of an unprovoked attack in breach of an otherwise fully observed ceasefire was never addressed . The MiG pilot was eventually apprehended, tried and jailed by the Italians, whose men had been killed.  Yet air force majors don’t shoot to cause an international incident during a ceasefire. Someone more senior to him issued the instruction to open fire.



It began on Christmas Eve.

We had started with a particularly hair-raising mission, to supervise the de-mining of the runways at Zagreb Airport. The attempt to remove the minefields around the airport had been abandoned some days previously  following an explosion which had killed or wounded half the Serb de-mining unit. A mine had exploded where none should have been. The conclusion was that over the years the position of the mines in the ground  had shifted slightly, probably due to decades of harsh winters, and the maps of the minefields were no longer reliable. The task would await the spring thaw.

The runways were different, and had to be cleared and the JNA planes flown out before Christmas to hand the airport over  to the Croatians on schedule.  Narrow tunnels beneath the main runways and slip ways had been  packed with explosives in black salami-like rolls several metres long. As they were pulled out, they appeared to be sweating and received careful and prudent handling from the Serb detail involved as we looked on. The soldiers were commanded by a very young and very emotional Serb captain. He had been present when the mine had killed his comrades. He described himself as devastated by the war. His marriage to a Croatian girl was breaking up, with her family vowing to have nothing to do with him or other Serbs. He cried as he talked with us.

The airport hangers held a number of JNA MiGs, mostly M21s, and one very surprising addition,  a pristine looking MiG 29, bearing the markings of the Iraqi Air Force. It was less than a year since Desert Storm, the war to liberate Kuwait, and Saddam Hussein, in a prescient  attempt to preserve what he could of his air force from annihilation, sent the cream of his fighters abroad as the conflict loomed. Some had obviously been  sent to Jugoslavia, which had been a major supplier of armour to Iraq during the 1980s. All the planes were gone when we attended the handover on Christmas morning.

Dinner that evening was  a merry affair. Most of the Monitors had returned home for the holiday and those of us left were treated to wine a plenty, compliments of the HOM  and his brigadier. During the meal the HOM addressed us and asked for volunteers for the next day’s mission, to complete the evacuation of Serb forces from the airport and escort them through the front lines to the Krajina.  There would be no tasking; it would be volunteers only, as the risk in crossing No Man’s Land was felt to be higher than usual. This convoy would be the last and would complete the evacuation of Serb forces from unoccupied Croatia. The way would then be clear for introduction of a UN peacekeeping force.

However, even if the Serbs knew the writing was on the wall with the arrival of the UN, which would cement the existing front line for who knew how long, they  were still seething at the EC decision only days before to  recognize Croatian independence and were believed to be planning something to mark their displeasure. The Croatians were also thought to be holding off more serious fighting until the Serbs were got out. The last convoy would be symbolic; it would pass through all right but the   return for the  Monitors might be more problematic. Despite the added risk there were plenty of volunteers.

Midnight Mass in Zagreb Cathedral was brought forward  to 9.00 p.m. on foot of rumours of  an air strike on the Cathedral. The Cardinal officiated, the Cathedral was packed to overflowing  and the solemn sung high mass moving. The attendance included the Croatian president Franjo Tudman, who was mobbed by Mass-goers. The memory of ordinary Croatians surging forward trying just to touch (!) him is not easily forgotten. The scenes afterwards on a cold clear night outside the Cathedral were ones of extraordinary emotion with many people openly in tears. We were thanked and congratulated frequently,  though hectored on occasion about the arms embargo which in practice bore most heavily on the Croatian side.  Evident everywhere, however, was the new sense of confidence and relief that the worst was now over, and freedom assured, which EC recognition had brought.

We started early on Christmas morning. Overnight snow lent a frigid white aspect to  everything and a thin but persistent chill mist halved normal visibility. We seemed to be the only vehicles on the road but had only gone a short distance when  our normally reliable Japanese land cruiser developed a fault. Attempts to repair it failed and we had to change vehicles . Waiting, shivering, for the replacement to arrive I remember thinking that this was not a good omen. Then on to the airport and to the adjacent barracks. The Serb soldiers were already packed up and ready to leave, most in high good humour and loaded into an assortment of military vehicles, several Ladas, and three buses. We were invited, with raucous shouts and laughter, to inspect the barrack buildings they had left. Most were scarcely fit for human habitation at the best of times but, as we soon saw, were not improved by the soldiers accepting their officers invitation  to use them as toilets, which they did in copious quantities.

I was hailed, by a Serb sergeant  with good English, to board a bus. The emotions on board were mixed, for included in the passengers was one of the bomb disposal survivors, just released from hospital, young and now blind, sedated and with his face covered by hospital gauze. Also on the bus was a very young and tearful  Croatian private, a conscript, standing in his socks. “We’re letting him go Europe, but we’re keeping his boots”, laughed the sergeant.  He bummed  from me a packet of cigarettes, the staple currency and luxury alike in that war. I helped the boy off the bus. His relief was palpable, but, just as I had seen elsewhere with other Croatian conscripts caught on the wrong side, there was little animosity towards him from the soldiers. The horrors of Bosnia were in the future, unimagined. The fact that  this was the regular JNA and not  irregular militia probably helped.

Then it was on, to Karlovac and the front line at Turanj. forty miles south of Zagreb. The mist had thickened, with visibility down to less than 100 yards as we left the Croatian defences. There had been intermittent shooting and mortaring throughout the morning and we were advised, in the lead vehicle, to sound the horn continuously as we drove the half mile or so to the Serbian lines along a road lined on both sides by shelled and burnt out houses .

We eventually reached the Croatian mines, marking the designated front line. It had become customary for both sides to seed the roadway here and at other crossing points with pressure mines designed to explode if a vehicle ran over one. They were harmless to an individual stepping on one, requiring several hundred kilos of pressure to detonate, as I had had demonstrated to me by a French captain and a Canadian major (from the Quebec Vingt-Deux) who had literally jumped on them at the same place a month before. It had become routine, as the convoys were being evacuated, for both sides to allow the other to move the mines to one side without hindrance, to allow the convoy to proceed. (This was not altruism; the Serbs wanted their men, weapons and armour back, the Croatians wanted them gone – a meeting of minds without impediment had followed!)

Then a hitch. Some weeks before, someone – I don’t know from which side – had shot one of those removing the mines. Emotions ran high; convoys were suspended. The compromise involved the Monitors stepping forward – literally. It was agreed by both sides that, since the Monitors’ personal security was guaranteed, when faced with mines on the road, the Monitors would step out together, step over the mines,  link arms and form a human shield, behind which  combatants from both sides would move the mines, safe from enemy snipers,  the process to be repeated on the other side and performed in reverse when the convoy had passed through. No one was very happy with it, but it worked.

This time it was different. “Claymores. Nasty”, said Mike, a British para colonel and a fount of good humour and common sense. Claymores were anti-personnel mines, easily triggered and with an estimated 10% faulty among Warsaw Pact ordnance. Four of them rested on a plank with a rope attached amid the pressure mines. “Do exactly as I say – exactly! Proceed as normal. Step over the pressure mines as usual. Whatever you do don’t step too close to that plank.” He was singing our song. We gladly complied, linking arms as usual. “Now for the tricky bit”. This from Mike as a Croatian soldier approached and began to pull on the rope to move the plank. It moved. “It’s o.k. They’re probably screwed down. It would be too dangerous otherwise. But you never know”. Indeed! The three of us with Mike realised we had been holding our breaths for some time.

Then we were through. It was plain sailing on the Serb side where the troops in the convoy were greeted fulsomely  by their fellow soldiers. We were offered coffee then slivovica;  I was relieved of the rest of my cigarettes. There was good humour towards us generally, though nobody said thanks, and the fact that we were in a war situation was brought home to us when a tank clanked into view, passed us and waved its turret menacingly towards the Croatian lines. We could hear the crackle of small arms fire though not near to where we were. I risked taking some photos – always a bone of contention, with the Serbs in particular complaining that we were photographing their positions (true, if inadvertently) and that this would be of military value to the Croatians (doubtful). They had recently detained briefly an Italian fool who had taken out a video camera and begun filming Serb soldiers openly while the convoy he was with passed through.

Then it was time to head back, with the mist now substantially disappeared. As we drove, the sporadic firing increased and became intense. By the time we reached the Croatian lines a mini battle was in progress, fortunately none directed towards us. Then, before we left the front line, a final task which fell to me. My three colleagues, all British, represented three generations of attendance at a military staff college, and wanted a souvenir photo.  There was only one possible location, an old bullet-pocked  building on the main road some yards from a sandbagged position. As I lined them up, the firing not only intensified but began to come closer.

“Hurry it up”, called Mike. “Take it and be quick about it” from Terry. I did so, just as bullets began to whistle  directly over our heads.  We abandoned the photo-shoot and  took refuge underneath the jeep for several minutes before proceeding back to base for a belated Christmas dinner.  “The hostilities had EC Monitors diving for cover” was how the BBC World Service reported the incident later that evening – to date the only occasion on which I have made the BEEB.  Unheroic, yes, but as anyone who has been under fire will tell you, discretion becomes very much the better part of valour. I would like to report that the photo of my fellow Monitors was well received; in fact my copy arrived with a note suggesting I not give up the day job.