Brigadier Ben Barry: I saw disturbing evidence of dark crimes all around me

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Over Christmas 1995, Second Battalion, The Light Infantry, deployed into western Bosnia, territory that had spent most of the war under Bosnian Serb control. All over our area we saw shocking evidence of ethnic cleansing that had taken place in 1992 as hardliners and paramilitaries worked their evil trade. We lost count of the number of houses, villages and even whole towns that had been destroyed. Houses were burnt out or blown up, with gaunt timbers poking at the sky. Most of this ethnic cleansing seemed to have been directed by Bosnian Serbs against Muslims and Croats.

Shocking as these sights were, we could not allow them to divert us from implementing the Dayton Agreement. At the time the Nato force was concentrating on its military tasks, and was mandated neither to conduct investigations into war crimes nor hunt for war criminals.

Throughout that dark winter we saw more disturbing evidence of war crimes. Many of the faction forces considered all men of military age to be legitimate targets. There was clear evidence that some commanders and paramilitary groups, including Arkan's notorious "Tigers", executed and tortured prisoners. Although many media reports proclaimed the Bosnian Serbs to be the sole perpetrators of these crimes, we heard and saw credible evidence of Muslim and Croat atrocities. There was no monopoly of evil.

With the melting of snows in the spring we discovered many bodies, some in mass graves, others in caves. Most of the corpses were wearing civilian clothes. We regularly visited the sites, aiming to deter attempts to interfere with the evidence.

We saw some hardline extremists demobilise from the armies and move into civil appointments, for example as mayors and police officers. A number of individuals suspected of war crimes became a malign influence, obstructing progress and making a bad situation worse.

After the battalion had left Bosnia, Britain and Nato decided to arrest indictees. The first such operation was mounted by British troops, and in the ensuing firefight one of the suspects was killed – a hardline paramilitary well known to us who had become a senior Bosnian Serb police officer.

Subsequent operations by British and Nato troops successfully detained other indicted war criminals from both Bosnian entities. Although a number of suspects were captured in this way, as time went on, the remaining fugitives became increasingly difficult to find. And Nato had no writ in Serbia. By the time I returned to Bosnia in 2003 I suspected that that the remaining fugitives were by this time in "deep cover", if they were in Bosnia at all, a suspicion reinforced by the 2005 arrest of Ante Gotovina, a Croat military commander, in Tenerife. So political pressure on Croatian and Serbian authorities became ever more important.

Sixteen years after British troops first deployed to Bosnia, and saw for themselves some of the appalling crimes committed in that terrible civil war, I am quietly satisfied that Radovan Karadzic will join those indicted war criminals fromall the parties to the conflict in facing justice at the International Tribunal.

Having seen for myself the terrible realities of ethnic cleansing and the way that war criminals acted as a malign blight on progress, this arrest should help to achieve closure on the region's decades of conflict, and the progress so necessary for Bosnia, Serbia and the region.

Brigadier Ben Barry is the author of A Cold War; Front-Line Operations in Bosnia 1995-96

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