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David Owen
Balkan Odyssey


Balkan Odyssey

In his new book, David Owen tells us that he was driven into fury against the Serbs by a report carried in the Guardian. The story might have been very different if the Guardian man had happened to be on the west bank of the Drina river during the same period, the summer of 1992. There, in the towns and villages where the Muslims were a majority, it was the Serbs who were being driven out and, in many cases, slaughtered. Autopsies and identification dossiers on the killings and the killers are voluminous and incontestable.

Owen wrote to the Prime Minister demanding that the Serbs be bombed. He was then appointed, with full German approval, as EC spokesman. From September 1992 to June 1995, he was in virtually perpetual motion, dashing from one capital to another at dizzying speed. (Three years later, another image-induced decision in favour of bombing the Serbs was taken, this time by Admiral Leighton-Smith, Commandor of Nato's southern flanks. The Admiral happened to switch on CNN and, according to the Washington Post, was horrified and outraged by the sight of alleged Serb killings and promptly initiated Nato air strikes.)

The very word "Balkan" has come to fill Owen with disgust. He discovered that the leaders of all the communities lied and tricked - no one seems to have told him that psychological warfare is essential in modern conflicts and was a form in which Britain excelled during the last world war. Yet, though Owen tells us that falsehoods were told by all the Balkan leaders, and that members of all the communities perpetrated war crimes, he sticks to his first, anti-Serb premiss. There was, he says, a "quantum difference between the parties" (his use of the English language is always slack).

Owen claims objectivity and, indeed, does not withhold accounts of the trouble he had with the Muslim and Croat leaders as well as the Serbs. He shows how the Muslims constantly prevaricated in the hope of showing themselves martyrs and so shaming the Americans into intervening to deliver the whole of Bosnia into Muslim control. Nor does Owen gloss over the fact that President Tudjman of Croatia has relied on the support of the Ustasha, the group guilty of wartime genocide. He notes the collusion between Tudjman and the Hercegovina Croats, who have virtually annexed part of the internationally recognized state of Bosnia. Owen also gives a fair hearing to Mladic's often repeated view that, in the Sarajevo region, the Bosnian Serbs need superiority in artillery in order to compensate for their inferiority in numbers. This, as Owen concedes, would expose the Serb distsicts to the risk of being overrun by armed Muslims.

Balkan Odyssey is remarkably personal. Owen claims that he managed, by self-discipline, to conceal his disdain for the president of the Bosnian Serbs, Radovan Karadzic. In this he is mistaken: not only Karadzic, but all the Bosnian Serb leaders found Owen disdainful and implacably hostile. The Americans ranked next to the Bosnian Serbs in arousing Owen's disdain. He had two grievances against them: first, for their refusal to send ground troops into Bosnia, and second for their unwillingness to play what he supposed was a "sophisticated" game in backing the Serb president, Slobodan Milosevic, against Karadzic. Owen complains that Americans found him condescending and cheeky. But of them he says: "We had now [February 1993] to rely on the innate decency which characterizes most American attitudes, albeit sometimes overladen by vulgarity and loudness which do not truly reffect the inner voice of a fine democracy."

Responsibility for the failure of his 1993 peace plan is attributed solely to American unwillingness to engage its own troops. Owen favoured international intervention to compel the warring groups to pull back behind lines which he and his colleagues had traced for them. Twice he claims that his medical training made him particularly hostile to war, yet he is totally, unflinchingly committed to the imposition of a settlement by the use - or threats of use - of superior military force.

On this point, all senior UNPROFOR officers disagree, favouring instead direct negotiation between local leaders. As General Lewis Mackenzie, the first UN Commander-in-Chief in Sarajevo, testified, all the Bosnian communities believe they have to fight to protect the physical survival of their own people: all need to be reassured. For Owen, Karadzic's cockiness "has to be knocked out of him".

After Bosnia was internationally recognized, tension between the Muslims and Croats frequently erupted. But, according to UN officers, it was the Owen peace plan which was responsible for the all-out 1993-4 war. While any outside settlement is being worked out, Owen admits, the combatants rush to grab as much land as they can. This conflict, as he writes, was fought more bitterly and caused more casualties than the fighting between either side and the Serbs. He fails to draw the obvious conclusion that outsiders should stay outside.

The weirdest feature of Balkan Odyssey lies in the cheerful ending. Owen retired at a time of generalized calamity, when the Ustasha forces were destroying Krajina. As he says, "the loss of life and casualties from the fighting were accompanied by appalling atrocities and ethnic cleansing by all the parties on a scale that had not been seen before in such a concentrated period of time". If he remains happy, it is because he believes that the US negotiator, Richard Holbrooke, is taking over his own major commitments: first, a forcibly imposed solution, and second, the demolition of Karadzic. Holbrooke, asked by the New Yorker whether the Americans were not risking another Vietnam, said that the Bosnian Serbs, unlike the Vietnamese, "were not ideologues but murderous assholes".

Lord Carrington has recently written that, after what has happened in the past few years, anyone still believing that Bosnia can survive as a single entity governed from Sarajevo "is living in the realm of fantasy". The Owen-Holbrooke fantasy has cost, and is still costing, immense human suffering and many deaths.


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