Monday, September 28, 2009

"In Harm's Way" by Martin Bell [3]

Chapter 2: Peacekeeper's Accomplices

And then we're in Bosnia...

The chapter starts early in the war, as Bell and his colleagues witness the human cost of the early days of ethnic cleansing in the Drina valley. Bell is painfully aware that the presence of Western journalists like him gives people false hope--he knows far better than they that he can do nothing. He makes this tragically accurate observation:

"We were the first indication they had received that the world beyond their valleys either knew of their plight or cared. What they did not know--and neither at the time did we, though we were both to find out later--was that there would be a world of difference between knowing and caring, and indeed between caring and acting."

Whatever else Bell did in Bosnia or says in this book, he deserves credit for that bald statement.

We have already established that Bell is a likable character, and the first few pages of this chapter demonstrate that he knew what was going on in numerous small towns and villages and the countryside outside of Sarajevo. So Bell has a reservoir of good will, one which he begins to test when one encounters this passage:

"Both sides were set on a collision course at a terrible cost to their people, and the war had already taken on such a momentum that the most gifted of mediators would have been powerless to prevent it. But that did not mean that they should stop trying, or that we as journalists stood neutrally between those who wished to intensify the conflict and those who wished to end it. There were two chief peacemakers in the field and both became friends and allies. One was Colm Doyle for the European Community, the other was Lew MacKenzie for the United Nations."

There is a world of potential trouble in that paragraph. To begin; this statement reveals that Bell had already internalized the idea that this was a war between people and "their" leaders from the outset. The fact that one of those leaders was actually the elected President of the entire country, versus strongmen and warlords in service to an illegal breakaway entity, does not figure in this statement, even though Bell has just demonstrated that he was aware of ethnic cleansing and furthermore was aware of who was behind it.

Secondly, I do not believe that it is noble or honorable for mediators and peacekeepers to keep trying to make an impossible peace. If traditional mediation cannot work, then the international community needs to try something else.

Thirdly, it seems that Bell draws a rather hasty conclusion, proposing a dichotomy by which one either wanted to stop the conflict cold, or intensify it. This simplistic view only makes sense if one ignores the very different war aims of the different actors. The unspoken implication--and perhaps Bell did not intend it--is that ethnic cleansing and widespread civilian suffering were the only possible results of any military success by either side. This was in April of 1992, it should be noted, long before the war and the neglect of the West pushed the government forces to a more nationalist and overtly Muslim-survival strategy.

The above were all, to varying degrees, common misconceptions and often unexamined and unconscious biases of Western observers and participants throughout the war; what is more exceptional is his frank statement that he became friends and allies with both Doyle and future Srebrenica-denier/Serb nationalist paid spokesperson MacKenzie.

This dynamic is what is most of interest here. I will continue with the second half of this chapter in the next post.


Anonymous said...

This is interesting, Kirk, as I presume it's the intro to Martin Bell talking about the development of engaged journalism in Bosnia.

Bell is a very honest and decent man, but he keeps very mixed company - on the one hand his very brave (and sometimes completely fate-tempting) journalist colleague John Sweeney, who revealed some of the worst atrocities in Kosovo/a, but on the other MacKenzie's fellow enthusiast for Bosnian Serb military discipline, General Michael Rose.

sarah said...

It's the tendency to view the agents of the United nations (and of the European Union) as the good guys...

... the good guys provide basic humanitarian assistance, but refuse to provide the military assistance that they should have if they cared at least a little bit about the basic principles on the UN charter, namely the article 51.