Return to the land he never really left

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The Independent Online
DAY ONE, Sarajevo: In polo shirt and loafers, Colonel Bob Stewart, former land commander of the 1st battalion of the Cheshire Regiment, arrives back in the country he left six years ago. Then, he was a colonel aboard a Warrior armoured vehicle. Today, an unarmed civilian, he looks a little nervous and vulnerable. This extroverted bear of a man was outspoken as commander of the first British battalion to move into Bosnia; he made many friends and enemies and has just given evidence to the war crimes tribunal at the Hague. He reminds me that "there are at least two psychopaths here who want to kill me".

His first impression of Sarajevo, made from the air, is of a city half rebuilt. The Olympic stadium is open again. The Holiday Inn is repaired and painted a sickly yellow and ghastly brown. But other buildings seem to stay up by will power alone.

A young woman says that, despite the street cafes and restaurants, for most people there is no work and no hope of a normal life. Some of those who survived the longest siege in modern history are now taking their own lives.

DAY TWO, AHMICI: Col Stewart stood beside the doorway where he discovered the twisted remains of a family six years before. He is back in the small central town of Ahmici, the scene of a massacre that reduced him and his soldiers to tears. Today he is thanked by survivors. His loud words and extrovert manner mask his emotions.

Now he has a name for the charred remains he found inside this doorway: Dzehmal Ahmic. He admits ghosts are being laid to rest. His soldiers buried 103 people here.

A Dutch army unit, part of the Nato stabilisation force, arrived in Ahmici as we did. Officially, they came to patrol the village; unofficially, to see us. There is respect from many who serve here now for the man who fought his way into and out of many dangerous positions, a man who bent orders to defend aid convoys. It is admiration and respect not always echoed at the Ministry of Defence or the Foreign Office.

DAY THREE, THE GENERAL: We meet a man he respects and admires, Brigadier General Dzemal Merdan, who led the Bosnian Muslim forces in the area Col Stewart commanded. After persuasion from his British counterpart, the general gave evidence to the war-crimes tribunal. "He was and is an honourable man," the colonel says. There is a camaraderie of old soldiers between the two.

"Have you come for your holiday?" asks the Brigadier General. No, his trip is to raise awareness of war crimes and of how few people have been punished. After all the atrocities in the former Yugoslavia, only 90 people have been charged with crimes by the tribunal. More than 60 of those are still free.

DAY FOUR, THE PRESIDENT: We sit outside the presidential building, beneath a shrapnel-scarred tree. We are here to meet one of the three joint-presidents of Bosnia, Alija Izetbegovic, now a frail, elderly man. The two have never met, but Mr Izetbegovic has passed messages of thanks to the colonel. Now they speak of the evidence he has given in one war-crimes trial and of appearances to come in others.

Col Stewart began by doing what he believed was the job of an officer in the British army, to protect civilians and prevent war crimes. Then, he did all he could to draw attention to the atrocities and to those who have not yet stood trial. Now, he is demanding action to find and bring to justice those responsible for atrocities.

"Only six people have been arrested for what happened in Ahmici," he says. "At least 70 took part." The President promises more work against war criminals, but it is unlikely to happen. The head of the United Nations in Bosnia, Jaques Paul Klein, says the number of people accused of war crimes who are still free is an embarrassment.

DAY FIVE, HOME: While we drive to the airport Col Stewart works on his new book, which he calls Both Feet In It. His first memoirs were a great success. At home, his wife, Claire, is expecting their third child. She was a Red Cross worker in his area.

Until our trip, he has never been back to Bosnia, but in truth he never really left.


Colonel Stewart returned to Bosnia with BBC Breakfast News; its coverage begins today.