British troops who paid the price of peace

Christopher Bellamy, in the `new' Bosnia, sees the Army honour its dead
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The Independent Online
Gorazde - From the forested crags that surround Gorazde you can see Montenegro, 12 miles away. During the war, the British UN observation posts, placed between the Bosnian Serb and Muslim armies, whose front lines were at most a few hundred metres apart, often woke to see the valleys below engulfed in mist, as if from an atoll in an ocean of cloud.

The pattern was the same as in Sarajevo. A Muslim-controlled town - there are 30,000 people in Gorazde - along a river running east-west, with mountains rising north and south. From the mountains the Serbs fired into the city, having sealed both ends of the valley. But Gorazde was more isolated than Sarajevo, although some supplies filtered in along tracks, and it was near the border with rump Yugoslavia.

Its survival under Serb siege from summer 1992 until early 1996 is almost incredible. Only the steepness of the mine-strewn slopes made it impossible for the Serbs to capture it. Gorazde nearly met the fate of the other two eastern enclaves, Srebrenica and Zepa, which were overrun and whose men folk were massacred. And in the middle were the British peace-keepers. They were strictly neutral, and therefore attacked by both sides, performing a delicate military and diplomatic balancing act.

The natural approach to Gorazde is from the east. On the map, the former pocket has been linked by a corridor to Muslim territory to the west, but it is a crazy way to approach it. Engineers from I-For, the peace- implementation force, and the Bosnian government army are blasting a road to link Gorazde with the Muslim-Croat federation without traversing Bosnian Serb territory.

Until it is finished, the only way in is a roundabout route through Serb land. It is still a barrier to local people, who fear arrest. Buses to Gorazde have been stoned at Rogatica, the Serb town which controls access. "I still get a knot in my stomach passing here," said Major Ian Harris, who commanded 130 men in Gorazde from August 1994 to March 1995, as we approached the former Serb checkpoint by the Rogatica factory. He and about 30 soldiers were going back, now everything had changed, to honour their dead. The four, Phillip Armstrong, Martin Dowdell, Ben Hinton and Chris Turner, all from the Royal Gloucestershire, Berkshire and Wiltshire Regiment, died in September 1994 when their Saxon troop carriers tumbled off the roads which snaked up the cliff-faces on the edge of Gorazde.

The returning soldiers also honoured Shaun Taylor, of the Duke of Wellington's, the first British regiment in Gorazde, and Fergus Rennie, whose trackside memorial bears no regiment: he was SAS, killed by a sniper as the Serbs pushed south into the pocket.

There were no Bosnian Serb soldiers at Rogatica now. Vehicles used to be stopped and searched and held for ages - the record was 20 days. The UN, unlike I-For, had to operate within the "consent" of local parties. And this local party could be very awkward. In the background was the sawmill where, it was said, Muslims had been sawn up, alive. It was still not a place you wanted to hang around.

The road we now took followed the Serb push westwards, which had driven fleeing Muslims along the Drina valley and into the town. We passed the house of the the Serb brigade commander with whom Maj Harris had negotiated. Over time, they came to trust each other. "We achieved an amazing amount - a complex network of human relationships. They really respected us, and we did some of them, sometimes."

The observation posts were difficult to get to, up the steep tracks which claimed four lives. The Serbs let the British take in their weapons, but restricted fuel. The British had to use men and mules to supply the OPs. The soldiers stopped at OP number nine, where Ben Hinton had enjoyed working. Now a slab of Montenegrin marble records his death on 9 September 1994. The Last Post echoed round the valleys. The second memorial lay on the other side of town, where the three others had tumbled 1,000ft to their deaths three days later.

The soldiers sought out an old friend, Osman, a local entrepreneur who helped hold Gorazde together during the siege. A millionaire, with a business in Germany, he had smuggled his classic American car out of Gorazde before the siege, and then returned to drive an old van round the town, collecting the dead and taking the wounded to hospital. Fergus Rennie, the SAS man, had lunch with Osman just before he died. He had sat where we now sat, in the garden, by the well which Osman used to cool the beer. Osman was proud of that.

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