Real Stories from a UN Peacekeeper Sent to Bosnia During the Bosnian War


The Bosnian War


In 1991 the Soviet Union was inevitably collapsing, but the USSR was not the only communist state that was experiencing dismantlement in this era. Yugoslavia, a once prosperous and united powerhouse within the Balkans was also experiencing ruin due to economic factors and leadership which stirred up tensions between different ethnicities and religious groups within the state.

After the death of President Tito, life in Yugoslavia became very unstable and dangerous as the nation started to drift apart. Slovenia, Macedonia and Croatia had established their independence soon after, however Croatia and Slovenia had to fight wars to gain their independence, while Macedonia was allowed to leave freely. The states of Serbia and Montenegro desperately wanted to keep parts of Yugoslavia together and fought hard to keep as much land as they could because they wanted to retain their power in this area.

With all this happening, there is one Yugoslav territory that had not been unaccounted for: the Socialist Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Complications came with the partition of this state because about 17% of Bosnia’s diverse population at the time, was consisted of Croats who wanted to be part of Croatia. Initially negotiations were tough, and the Bosnians refused to recognize Croatia as an independent state.

However later down the line after a few armed conflicts, due to some other events, Bosnia and Herzegovina was also drawn to opening a vote to the Bosniaks on whether they wanted to stay as a part of Yugoslavia or become independent. An overwhelming majority of 99% voted to become independent. The inflated number is because Bosnia’s population was partly also made up of Bosnian Serbs who boycotted the vote out of anger at the possibility of becoming a new minority in the region of a country that was once united. This made many go against the idea of being part of a new independent Bosnia. In response to this they created their own unofficial state within Bosnia, named Republika Srpska which wasn’t recognized anywhere as sovereign.

This twisted timeline of events was further shaken when Serbia and Montenegro were appointed their new leader, Slobodan Milosevic, who officially recognized the unofficial Repulika Srpska. This marked the start of the Bosnian War.

Milosevic sent the Yugoslavian army to Bosnia to cement the independence of Rupublika Srpska, and due to Serbia’s previous powerful position in Yugoslavia, a large portion of the Yugoslavian army was Serbian. This also meant that there was a much bigger military budget in Serbia for this war, allowing them to carry out costly and deadly military operations.

The Serbs quickly surrounded Bosnia’s capital city, Sarajevo and started shooting into the city from the mountain tops surrounding it, effectively letting no one leave the city and blocking supply routes. Many innocent Bosnian, Croat and Bosno-Serbian civilians were killed or died from hunger in this ruthless siege as the city was finally pummelled.

The international community was very divided on what to do and feared the consequences that would follow if they took action. The UN negotiated an agreement with Milosevic that made Serbian forces withdraw from Sarajevo and forced Milosevic give up control of 100,000 Serbian troops who mostly just continued to fight for him anyways. However, when the Serbian forces were retreating from Sarajevo, they were attacked by Bosnian troops resulting in an unknown number of deaths on the Serb’s side after these events. Later on, Bosnian generals leading these attacks were faced charges of war crimes. This was around the time when the Serbs started to systematically pick out Bosnian homes and burning them along with their villages, killing the men and sending women to prison camps along with their children where they faced unimaginable suffering.

The UN didn’t know how to get involved in this now that a genocide had started. All they could do was send food, medicine, and peacekeeping troops to Bosnia. Anything else required an incredible amount of bureaucracy.

This leads to conflict once again between the Croats and the Bosnians, who up until then have upheld an alliance against Serbia. They start fighting each other and now the Bosnians were fighting a war with two enemies instead of one. Croats became more and more aggressive and involved in the genocide, killing Bosnian Muslims, bombing their mosques, and raiding cities such as Mostar, that they had once defended together with the Bosnians in 1992 against the Serbs.

As a result of worsening conditions in Bosnia, the UN decided to bring NATO forces into Bosnia, giving them the right to utilize the necessary amount of force needed to deescalate the conflict. Safe zones were established for civilians (especially those feeling ethnic cleansing) by the UN, however Serb and Croat forces regularly attacked them, so there was no safe place anywhere in the country for the average citizen.

Over the years the conflict continued, and all sides committed horrible atrocities including the Serbs, many Bosnians, the Croats, and the Serbian Bosnians. Many attempts at peace were made by the UN, NATO and even the United States of America, however all parties could not agree on a solution, and this just made everyone angrier.

Serbia had already acquired about 70% of Bosnia’s land and on July 11th of 1995, a UN safe zone containing over 10,000 refugees was stormed by the Serbian armed forces. The UN soldiers decided to keep their neutrality and instead of protecting the refugees themselves, they protected the food and other supplies they had brought for them, abiding to the rules of engagement of the UN. These were mostly Dutch UN peacekeepers who were severely outnumbered and some even captured.

The 2,000 Serbian troops rounded up over 8,000 Bosnian men and boys and systematically executed them. This is when the USA got more involved and made multiple treaties that would allow them to better aid the Bosnians in getting their land back and sending their government weapons to fight.

Later in 1995, a way to peace was forged with an agreement that the Bosnians and the Bosnian Croats would control 51% of their land while Repulika Srpska would become a semi-independent state with its own judiciary and political system but remain within the country of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Around 100,000 people died during this violence and many more millions were forced to flee from their homes, the majority of which were Bosnian Muslims. A United Nations criminal tribunal eventually tried 161 people for various war crimes committed during this war. Slobodan Milosevic went to jail for the rest of his life because of his crimes against humanity, his war crimes and genocide. He died before the end of his trial.

The war reshaped this country, solidifying the ethnic divides that had been at the root of the conflict. Today, Bosnians, Serbs and Croats live in relative peace, though the country faces new threats to that peace, threats that are facing many of parts of the world including rising nationalism,  a reverence for former Serb war criminals and more calls for Serb independence.

The memory of the atrocities committed during this conflict still haunts beautiful Bosnia, both in the physical scars on the land, but most powerfully in the bodies and minds of its people.


The UN, NATO and the Royal Engineers: Philip Stanton’s story in Bosnia


              Philip Stanton, now a teacher in Sussex at Lingfeild College, was a captain in the Royal Engineers Corps and was sent to Bosnia as part of the Rapid Reaction Corps to aid the end of the Bosnian war and help the country recover. There he was promoted to the rank of major, which for his age at the time was indeed remarkable.

              His responsibilities consisted of planning their movements, rebuilding bridges, reinstalling important infrastructure, creating mobility, demining areas and providing important resources (food, water, power) in bigger headquarters.

              “We (NATO) went in there with a big stick to beat the waring factions into submission if they ever went out of line, which they had done previously with the United Nations. And then it was a matter of getting life back to normality.” He stated when discussing his role.

              When asked about the short relationships that he developed with people in Bosnia on his journey and whether they trusted him enough to help them or not, he replied: “To trust is very difficult. Under the blue hat, the UN soldiers had witnessed atrocities and hadn’t stepped in, hadn’t stopped these awful things from happening, so it was very difficult for the locals then to start trusting us just because we changed our hats. But eventually they understood that we were just there to help, especially now that we had different rules of engagement that allowed us to use appropriate military force to restore peace and stop the murder. Then the trust came quite quickly as they realized peace was coming, and we actually built really great relationships with them.”

              At one point Stanton found himself in the middle of Sarajevo during its siege by the Serbians when he was still working for the UN. “The Serbs we did not get along with very well because they had the Bosnians in Sarajevo surrounded and obtained the military high ground. They would throw grenades to the ground from above and a lot of snipping was also happening.” However soon, the French soldiers in Sarajevo were sent out by higher commands to snipe the Serbians around the city’s borders to stop this madness. Eventually the Serbians began retreating and the sipping stopped. “Overnight, their snipers took out some Serbians, who were allowed to kill the Bosnians, and this sent the message out there that this is not going to be tolerated. With this the snipping stopped. The message had gotten through as they realized they were going to be fighting fire with fire. It changed overnight.”

              When questioned about the difference between working for the UN and working for NATO, Stanton explained, “I remember before NATO went in there, I had real trouble moving through the countryside as well as in and out of Sarajevo, and after NATO got involved I had freedom of movement!” With this newfound freedom of movement through the threat of military action, Stanton was able to cross more territory and rebuild more roads, bridges and other important mobility infrastructure to get life in Bosnia back to normal.

              He claimed that this work actually helped him get through his time serving in Bosnia and find deeper meaning in what he was doing. “It was liberating for me, especially when I had seen pretty horrendous things happen that we wouldn’t necessarily think of finding in Europe. We always read about them in the news: murder, torture, and suffering. However, we never expect it to be so close to home. It was quite liberating to be able to step in and do something about it.”

              When questioned about his collaborations with the American forces that later came into Bosnia, he replied: “This is my impression… I’m not sure that at a soldier level, they understood why they were there. They didn’t seem to be informed very much. And taking into consideration the fact that elections in the US were coming up and President Clinton had ordered the troops not to take casualties, the soldier couldn’t do much since they had to be risk adverse. So they were not the most effective force there, but their size was good intimidation. The European forces were willing to do much more though.”

              When asked about the other battalions he had encountered when working for the UN and their intentions, Stanton declared, “When you think of NATO and their military, you expect a professionalism. However, for the UN, when you get battalions from let say Africa or the Middle East with potentially different outlooks you cannot expect that. In the more westernized battalions, you had people come in with higher levels of education and strong leadership, and I am not sure that that was the case for all of them. Some battalions that were there were only there to collect their UN pay. They weren’t out on the ground, and even though the UN’s rules put them under harsh limitations, these battalions had less of a presence than for example the Canadians or the French.”

              Stanton was also highly involved in moving many refugees to the north of Bosnia during this crisis and this led to him having many interactions with the Bosnian Serbs and the Bosnians. “I interacted with them a lot and they were lovely! I would go drinking with them this quite lethal plum brandy because for them it was their custom at the time. However, many that I met were not necessarily soldiers of war-fighting age. They were young people, elderly, girls left at home, the ones whose husbands have went off to war. They were just people who wanted to get on with their lives.” When asked about any negative interactions that he might have had on his journey in Bosnia he stated: “Initially my interactions with the Croatian men, one of the parties involved in ethnic cleansing, wasn’t on the same footing. That was because they were allowed to kill, and torture and ethnically cleanse so the relationships were not quite the same. Some were still alright and chatty, but it just wasn’t the same because after we would leave, we knew they would be killing the people we left behind. It was not easy.”

              According to Stanton the war was brewing for a while and was mainly a product of hate and refusal of acceptance. “Each party treated their opposition very inhumanely and the hatred built up between these people was almost barbaric. For people to forgive that, they must have a big heart. Because some have had their children murdered in front of them, others had their parents stolen from them.”

              Philip Stanton claimed that he never actually saw the Serbians ethnically cleansing the Bosnians, but rather the Croatians. “I had seen the Serbians on television and heard from a friend that had seen it all happen first hand at the United Nations, however I had only ever personally seen the Croatians do it.”

              According to Stanton he did not get a choice about going to Bosnia, and he was involved in many other international conflicts as well, such as the Gulf Wars. So what makes a man who has been through all this and experienced so much action want to become a teacher in a private college in Sussex, England? “As a young officer you join the military to help the world. I am anything but a warmonger and being involved in any war is not fun, however sometimes you cannot volunteer to go to some places, you are just told to do so. As in becoming a teacher, there are two reasons, the first is that I had a young family and didn’t want to go to some of these places anymore. The older you get, the more you realise you are not indestructible. The second reason is that I think the military is a young person’s game. Being wet, cold, miserable, and hungry; the older you get the more comfort you search for. And lastly, I became a teacher because I enjoyed people and teaching is a great way to influence and shape the next generation into one that is hopefully better than the last.”

              When asked about how the military could be used to maintain peace, he responded, “It must be used very carefully and must be thought through. At the end of the day, we are only the pawns of the politicians, and it is them on who we rely on as a society to bring peaceful solutions to our world, and many times they let us down. Back about 30 years ago, politicians actually had military experience and knew what it was like. Too many politicians nowadays think that the military is a magic wand that can solve all their problems, and I think that there is a naivety in our politicians in doing so… Talking is the best possible solution however I think that our world has proven time and time again, especially now, how this has failed. So it’s a loaded question that doesn’t really have one concrete answer.”

              “The pen is better than war and I feel that most military people who have been there and seen it would agree with me. However, I will also say, at the cost of the nations of the west, if we don’t keep our military up as a deferent, then they serve very little purpose.”

              Overall, the conflict in Bosnia was complex, hellish, and inhumane, however it is now the time for the younger generation to step up and try to fix what our predecessors have left for us. With the efforts of courageous and kind individuals like Philip Stanton, maybe one day the pen will finally overrule the sword and a safer world will be created for all.