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Upon finishing this book, the conclusion about Milos Stankovic (pronounced Milosh Stankovich) is that, rather irritatingly, he is one of those funny and clever blokes who could probably write an entire volume about something really mundane, like different species of cabbage and make it sound interesting. Luckily, the subject of his book is much more meaningful; here he writes about his experience as a British soldier working for the UN in Bosnia during the war in the 90’s. If the subject immediately puts you off because you’re not that interested in the Yugoslav wars of the 90’s, please just read the rest of this paragraph before navigating away. This book is written with so much flare and humour that even a reader not in the least bit interested or knowledgeable about Yugoslav wars of the ’90’s is quite likely to find it fascinating just because it’s so engaging and well written. It’s a bit like one of those documentaries you stumble upon whilst flicking channels… about different species of cabbage, and end up soaking it all up purely because the presenter is so engaging. And despite the morbid subject matter, he masterfully weaves in that famous British sarcastic and dark humour.
About the author
The author’s history is too colourful to sum up in one paragraph (there’s info about him on the net), but for the purpose of this review: although born British, he’s of Serbian descent whose father was also a soldier in the old country and a Serbian royalist but not a Chetnik (Chetniks were probably the most infamous royalists / anti-communists from that region during WW2; they wore funny hats and big beards, collaborated with the Nazis, and committed atrocities against commies and non Serbs across Yugoslavia, but when the commies took over they were promptly dispatched. More recently in the Yugoslav wars of the ’90’s, Chetniks reappeared, this time as ultra nationalist Serbs, wore funny hats and big beards, and committed atrocities against non Serbs across Yugoslavia. If you really want to know more about Chetniks, see this wiki article). Therefore when the commies (winners in WW2) went after the anti-commies (losers in WW2), Mr Stankovic Snr made a quick exit, ending up in Southern Rhodesia which is where the author was born.
Fast forward a few years, and Stankovic Jnr joins the British Army, rising to the rank of Major. He serves in Bosnia with the UN as interpreter; whilst in Sarajevo, then under siege by the Bosnian Serbs, he smuggles non combatant muslim, Croat and Serbian families, referred to as “the little people” out of Sarajevo. Upon the end of his tour of Bosnia and return to the UK, he ends up being arrested by the MoD for being a spy for the Bosnian Serbs.
Whilst the arrest hangs heavily over the content of the book, this is actually about his experience as a British soldier with the UN in Bosnia. It’s kind of written in a style of a transcript from the author’s conversation with a shrink “Ian” who he saw after being released from jail to attempt to piece his life back together.
Politically, Stankovic and me are on the opposite ends of the scale. His family background is royalist, anti-Tito, and anti-commie; I was brought up on a political diet of Tito’s utopian socialism, brotherhood & unity (ha!), lots of red flag waving on Labour Day, and other manifestations of love for our leader and country. Therefore, although I may appear to think that the sun shines out of Stankovic’s ass, I’m unimpressed on his views on Tito (if you don’t know who Tito is, check this out).
A perfect nuthouse…
… is the author’s conclusion, upon arrival in Bosnia and after being briefed on the situation on the ground, i.e. Serbs vs Croats on one front; Serbs & Croats vs Bosniaks (Bosnian muslims) on another; two Bosniak factions against each other on another; Croats and Bosniaks vs Serbs on another; plus the many non-combat non-ex-Yugoslav organisations with their own agendas and command structures. The conclusion is spot on. If you do therefore read this book, you won’t be expected to understand the situation either.
His job, since he can speak Serbo-Croat, is to act as a go between the UN and the Bosnian Serbs. He builds a good relationship with the Bosnian Serbs partially earning their trust, and thereby being able to pull all kinds of strings to get hostages released, and generally get things done. Inbetween, he risks his life smuggling innocent civilians caught in the middle out of Sarajevo.
Very skilfully, he takes the reader along the peaks and troughs through a really stupid war. Shortly after arrival, he is given a quick lesson in “neo-Croatian” by another British soldier with Serbian background (the Croats desperately wanted to distance themselves from anything Serbian thereby inventing a whole dictionary of neo-Croatian words so silly, that they wouldn’t sound too out of place in a Balkan version of a Monty Python movie). But despite his ethnicity, he is not swayed towards the Serbs, referring to the Serbian occupied territories as “The Dark Side.”
One enlightening revelation for me was about one Bosnian politician called Haris Silajdzic… who, after intervening in a hostage situation with the local mafia, Stankovic describes as “a true Sarajevan whose family lived in the city for 400 years; that’s why he did what he did.” (this chap Silajdzic used to make my blood boil whenever he appeared on TV… although, back then they all did).
NATO and the UN
Stankovic is scathing of the international community and its impotence. About the Srebrenica massacre he concludes: “Serbs were trigger pullers, but the international community loaded their magazines for them. Moral and physical cowardice equals death”. He makes a profound point about the hypocrisy of the international community: “how can you have a battalion of Turkish peacekeepers wearing blue berets sitting in Bosnia and representing the ideals of the UN while at the same time the Turkish Army is shelling the shit out of the Kurds and being roundly condemned for it by the UN.”
One particular part highlighting the kind of sleaze which went on, relates to a Norwegian officer, Oivind Moldestad, who reports strange aircraft activity at a Bosnian airport (believed to be NATO’s covert supplying of arms to the Bosnian muslims during a ceasefire; don’t forget there was an arms embargo against all sides during the war). In the end, to hush it all up, NATO and the Americans engineered a campaign to make Moldestad a liar, and upon returning to Norway, Moldestad received no support from his own country (shamefully scared of the Americans). His career left in tatters, he resigns. What no one gave him credit for however, is that, with Stankovic’s assistance as a translator, he managed to get flight clearance from the angry Serbs surrounding Srebrenica (angry because of the air strikes against them) to airlift a very ill six year old girl on her deathbed (Fauda Sukic). Having saved lives then also getting stitched up, this obviously resonates strongly with Stankovic, and he goes on to say: “Oivind was the UN and the UN was Oivind. On that day alone, for Fauda Sukic and for Oivind Moldestad, the UN mission was a success.”
A Balkan viscous circle
Stankovic correctly concludes why the Balkans will never remain peaceful when he describes a scene where a Bosnian soldier with a pregnant wife is killed by the Bosnian Croats: “I knew then that there was no hope. The baby, born out of grief would be tainted forever, would grow up being told that its father had been killed by the “filthy Ustasa” in the war – the next generation perfectly prepared, twisted and bitter, primed for the next bloodletting. There has been a war in the Balkans once every generation for the past fifty generations and I understood exactly why. They are doomed for eternity”. (The “Ustase” by the way, are the Croatian version of the Serbian Chetniks but perhaps a little more hardcore; they are proper fascists who didn’t wear funny hats or long beards in WW2, still don’t in their current reincarnation, and remain hardcore fascists. See the wiki page for more information).
Sir General Michael Rose
The author’s writing absolutely shines when General Michael Rose joins the fray, and between the serious parts, he goes on to describe Rose’s character in graphic detail with sublime humour. Think of Lt. Colonel Kilgore in Apocalypse Now, but much more refined, much more British, and with a higher IQ… but that’s where the differences end.
Whereas Kilgore was a keen surfer, Rose is a keen skier, dragging his men to the unpisted and landmined Mt Bijelasnica for a ski trip, and what ensued on the mountain had me howling in laughter. Rose is also a keen fisherman, so Stankovic, in his words, spends hours interrogating the locals for “trout intelligence”, plotting all the trout fishing spots carefully on a map. When a fishing opportunity arises, Stankovic produces the map with the “hard earned trout intelligence”, but Rose ignores it, jabbing his finger on a ribbon of blue right on the Serbian – Bosniak front line. “That’s where we’re going! Looks like a good stretch for trout!”
There are other hilarious stories, but I’m not giving any more away – get the book.
(By the way, Sir General Michael Rose also wrote a very good book on Bosnia “Fighting for Peace”, which I read in ’99 but can’t remember much of now… will have to dig that one out again).
Sadly though, General Rose was vilified by the Bosnian muslims for not doing enough, but by all accounts the UN had strict protocols on engagement… or lack of it, which is why the Srebrenica massacre happened.
Stankovic doesn’t divulge any details of who might have stitched him up as a spy. He does, however, mention an incident which hints that the second book, about the details of his arrest and the consequent court case against the MoD, might be on the cards. I really do hope that this is the case; given the author’s experiences (and stunning use of English language) it would be a great shame if it doesn’t materialise.
Other then that, I can safely say that this is the best book I have read about the war in Bosnia. It had me welling up in tears and it had me in stitches, but most importantly, it will give the uninformed reader an insight into the brutal destruction of a once beautiful and respected country.
Trusted Mole can be found on amazon.co.uk.