THE INDEPENDENT (UK)
27 January 2001
The story Nato’s newspaper does not want to tell
In Foreign Parts: Sarajevo
By Robert Fisk
Wars are won or lost but the follies go on for ever. In Bosnia,
the Serbs lost, which – given their militias’ propensity to
massacre tens of thousands of Muslims – seems only fair.
And Bosnia at peace under Nato is better than Bosnia at the
mercy of its own home-grown murderers. I far prefer driving
past a British, German or Swedish tank on the road from
Sarajevo to Banja Luka than the drunken rapists of Arkan’s
White Eagles whom I used to come across six years ago.
Plastic cups were a must in my car – to avoid drinking directly
from the bottle of plum brandy that these odious men would
thrust angrily towards my lips. But that was then.
So why, I ask myself, do the follies go on? In Vietnam, they had
the five o’clock follies (the daily news briefings). During the
Kosovo war, Nato’s follies started in Brussels at midafternoon.
In Bosnia, the S-For follies – and those of the Organisation for
Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and the UN –
continue still. They start twice a week at 11.30am.
And The Independent can today print the entire transcript of what S-For
had to tell the press in Sarajevo at their first meeting this
week. “S-For has no statement today,” Captain Susan Gray
told us. And that was that.
No mention of depleted uranium, no reference to the surge in
cancers among Serbian civilians close to Nato’s 1995
bombings, no suggestion that S-For might have some interest
in researching the cancer and leukaemia outbreak – if only for
the safety of its own soldiers. No, S-For has no statement.
It’s a bit like reading the Nato-led army’s house newspaper,
the unhappily named S-For Informer. You’d think that any
military-oriented journal would carry an article or two about the
subject preoccupying Nato governments and Western armies:
DU. Yet those letters do not sully the pages of the S-For
There are stories aplenty about S-For’s Christmas
goodwill towards the children of Bosnia, about Lord
Robertson of Port Ellen’s visit to Bosnia and Franco-Canadian
military co-operation; there’s even a brief reference to the
discovery of a cache of arms belong-ing to “anti-Dayton
elements”. Three-quarters of the back page is devoted to
S-For soldiers’ opinions on the Bosnian winter. “It’s a bit like
autumn, only colder,” says Flight Lieutenant Jo Goodwin of the
RAF. So you can forget DU.
True, there were statements at the S-For follies from the
OSCE and UN and the High (sic) Representative about
compensation payments, local election results, the first
collective Bosnian UN observer team to start duties abroad
and the implementation of property laws.
Only when I asked why the assembled officials didn’t seek a World Health
Organisation (WHO) investigation of DU and the health of the
civilian population here – as Bernard Kouchner has done in
Kosovo – did the UN’s man tell us that S-For had been asked
for a list of “contaminated [sic] sites” and that a UN team may
soon start research on this very subject in Bosnia. How soon
“soon” was, no one knew.
It’s a very odd situation. Question any Nato officer at S-For
headquarters why they aren’t themselves looking at the cancer
data available in local hospitals and you’d think you’d just
asked a question about their sex lives. “Your articles are
emotional and are stirring up civilian fears,” I was gravely
informed – as if suffering and dying of unexplained cancers
wouldn’t worry a soul.
Last week, too, S-For announced that after examination by its
German contingent at Hadjici, DU rounds found there “pose
no significant health hazard to the local population or S-For
troops”. The “local population” at Hadjici is now Muslim. But
S-For did not investigate the health of the population who were
at Hadjici at the time of the bombings – who were
Serbs.”S-For is not Nato,” I was also admonished – and I can
see why some non-Nato S-For troops would like the
dissociation. But Nato’s star logo adorns S-For statements, it
appears above the heads of its briefers at their follies and
S-For statements often direct readers to Nato websites. When
there are statements, that is.
Yes, Bosnia at peace under Nato is certainly better than the
atrocity-filled war I experienced here more than five years ago.
And that was one argument privately used on me after the
S-For follies to deflect questions about DU. But here the logic
goes grey. Ending mass murder does not, surely, entitle us to
contaminate the land of the survivors.
To be fair, there are Nato men who understand all too well the
implications of the DU debate. “It would be the job of the BiH
(Bosnia-Herzegovina) government to initiate the research you
are talking about,” another officer remarked to me. Then he
added, quietly: “How can we get the BiH government to start
an inquiry?” But of course, there is no way. The Bosnian
authorities are beholden to Nato. They think it’s Nato’s job to
investigate DU. They won’t rock the boat.
So there you have it. Officially and on the record, it can safely
be said that S-For has no statement today.