The Trees in Bosnia

 

In 2003, the war in Bosnia had been over for six years, and the main dangers to peacekeepers were land mines, crazy and drunk drivers, and horrible road conditions.

Driving through Bosnia, I saw the saddening sights I had anticipated: rocket holes in the minaret of the mosque in Prijedor, collapsed bullet riddled houses, and large cemeteries full of white, recently placed headstones.

However, I didn’t expect how the countryside always looked deceptively festive—as though all the trees along the rivers bore colourful streamers. In reality, the low water levels exposed shredded plastic shopping bags used for garbage caught in the branches. These surprising views of pervasive poor sanitation emphasized the state of the country to me, and the need for us to provide a secure environment for peaceful institutions to become effective.

In my role as a strategic planner, I had joined a group of British soldiers to observe how they patrolled their area of responsibility. We travelled from a central base to Gornji Ribnik, a village in “The Anvil”, an area that had seen heavy fighting, and remained a source of ethnic tensions.

Photographs of hard-faced young Serb fighters killed in the war hung in the police station—not a good testament for the neutrality of the police, known country wide to be susceptible to corruption. In a conference room, the Royal Scots Corporal leading our team asked the chief about events in his district since their last visit.

Through our interpreter, a Corporal from the Parachute Regiment, he proudly spoke of catching a poacher the week before, who had cut trees from the land of a local Croatian farmer. People had often sought money this way due to the high unemployment and ubiquitous organized crime. Spotting a pile of freshly sawn logs from the window, I wondered why they hadn't been directly returned to the farmer.

I wanted to leave the interview to the soldiers, so through body language I tried to encourage them to look out the window. Perhaps nervous with a Canadian Major observing, they focused on the conversation and missed my darting eyes and slow head tilts. I began to feel that the interview was a pantomime carried out between players who didn’t know or trust each other.

At the end of the interview, I stepped out of my observer role and asked if the trees outside were the ones stolen. The chief sheepishly replied, “Yes, we haven’t returned them yet.” I asked him to give the name and address of the farmer to the soldiers, as we wanted to visit him on our next patrol to learn more about the poaching problem.

After we left, the soldiers told me that if they lived in the town instead of visiting once every few weeks, details like this would not escape them. Under the circumstances, I didn’t fault them for not noticing the trees for the forest.

This was a good case for a new approach—towns and villages with resident peacekeepers building relationships by getting to know the local authorities, people and problems, and able to call in assistance when needed.

Soon, this new method became the way NATO maintained the peace in small communities across the country.

 

By: Nicholas Curcumelli-Rodostamo, Lieutenant Colonel (Retired)

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