A Peacekeeping General Recalls Sarajevo

By Susan McClelland (interviewer) | 1998-11-01 12:00:00

SUSAN MCCLELLAND: In the former Yugoslavia, the United Nations was confronted with many ideological questions including looking at its original mandate of not interfering in civil war. Do you think this will spawn a review of the U.N.'s original mandate?

LEWIS MACKENZIE: The United Nations looks at its mandate every time a civil conflict occurs. Yet the unchanging structure in the Security Council usually dictates that, no, they won't get involved. For example, in spite of anarchy in Somalia, this alone wasn't justification for the U.N. to go in. The justification was the movement of refugees, which was viewed as a threat to international peace and security. The U.N. has been extremely hesitant to impose a solution on an internal problem. We will never see a peacekeeping mission in the home turf of a permanent five member. Only in Russia, and they invited the U.N into Georgia. But what would they do if the Catholics called for intervention in Northern Ireland? If the French Canadians cried out for help, would the Security Council send in an intervention force? I think not. As for Bosnia, some said, "Put a fence around the country. Give the warring parties all the weapons they want and go in, two years later, with a plan to rebuild." The U.N. ethically cannot accept this as a solution and therefore they did what they could within their own rules. To change the rules could set a dangerous precedent.

MCCLELLAND: You supported the United States's delayed involvement in the war. Can you explain why?

MACKENZIE: The Duke of Wellington said that big countries don't fight small wars. They would risk their credibility. Right now the United States needs to be available for the "biggies" if they get out of hand - like North Korea, Russia, China, and Iraq, for example. The U.S. risks their credibility in getting involved in small wars, just like what happened in Vietnam. Besides, the former Yugoslavia was in the European theater and for the Europeans to say, "We can't put 40,000 troops into Bosnia unless the Americans come along," I say, what a condemnation of NATO! What have we been doing for the last 40 years if all these countries, less America, can't go into Bosnia and sort this thing out? It was very much the Europeans not wanting America to leave NATO. This was the bigger issue. And that is the trouble when you get into the Security Council. There is always a bigger issue, that being the national self interests of the Permanent Five members, which rarely coincide. And, in this case, the bigger issue - even the early recognition of Croatia and Slovenia by Germany and the E.C. which started this thing - was driven by the Maastricht Treaty, which was being debated at the time. As usual, the former Yugoslavia became the pawn. Nobody anticipated that the situation would turn out the way it did.

Right from the beginning, with the Bosnian president Izetbegovic, I was adamant that the reason his forces were screwing up the cease-fires and becoming as much a thorn in my side as the Bosnian Serbs was that they expected the U.S. cavalry to come over the hill and save them. And the United States was not going to come because it was not in their self interest to do so. Nonetheless, Izetbegovic's forces played the game very well. It was expensive for them in life and limb. But they knew that ultimately, with the proper public relations representation, the Americans would be forced to come. And sure enough they did. So to go back to the original question, the potential of U.S. involvement was the carrot that kept this thing going.

MCCLELLAND: There are some who maintain that the situation in the former Yugoslavia, and as seen in Kosovo today, has the potential to move down into Albania, Macedonia, Greece and Turkey. What is your opinion on this?

MACKENZIE: Certainly the potential was there. Over the last month, however, there has been no impact whatsoever into the surrounding areas, outside of Kosovo. I spent a fair time with the president of Macedonia, who was even surer that his population would be seriously affected. He spent a great deal of money on his internal police force in preparation. But nothing has happened outside the region. That is encouraging.

It is important to note that the focus initially in Kosovo was on Milosovic. He is still thought of by many as "the Butcher of the Balkans." Well, one has to remember that Milosovic was a contender for the Nobel Peace Prize after Dayton. What is being done in Kosovo is a result of a liberation group, the Kosova Liberation Army, who are defined as terrorists in CIA files. This liberation group decided to internationalize themselves and their struggle, and they knew from recent history in the Balkans that if they started to kill some Serb policemen, the Serbs would do what they normally do - over-react and try and sort out the problem by using heavy weapons like artillery on civilian targets. This gets a lot of attention from the international community but when people sat back and looked at this thing in the cold hard light of day, they saw that this was an internal problem and the people causing the problem are not all that nice either. So no, I don't see the conflict in Kosovo spreading. I don't know if I would have had the same answer a couple of months ago.

MCCLELLAND: There are many theories as to the spark that made conflict in the former Yugoslavia inevitable. What is your theory?

MACKENZIE: A lot of people will say the spark was early recognition by the E.C. led by Germany of Croatia. I think, however, that the spark could well have been just after recognition, in the Krajina, among all the sniping and ambushing. One incident involved a pizza salesman from Ottawa who was the Minister of National Defence for Tudjman and who allegedly led a patrol that killed several Serbians at a check point. He too knew that the Serbs, with their overwhelming superiority in weapons, would respond. So I would say that it is somewhere in the early tensions between Croatia and Serbia that the hostilities began. Croatia saw its new flag, for example, as being this wonderful historical and religious symbol. The Serbs saw the red and white checkerboard as a reminder of when the Croats were aligned to the Nazis during World War II. There is fantastic polarization in the Balkans. And that early period, while there was conflict in the Krajina, was when the real war began. People in the area around southern Croatia and the Krajina bore a lot of the responsibility for starting the war and Serbia must bear serious responsibility for expanding it to a horrific level.

MCCLELLAND: You mentioned in your book about a New York Times article that inaccurately portrayed the hostilities. Could you comment on the reporting that was done during the war.

MACKENZIE: This is probably the hottest topic of the conflict. But I don't hold the journalists responsible. Their reporting was driven by technology. Before the war in Bosnia and, dare I say the Gulf, a reporter would put something together, which would be sent back to an office in London, Atlanta, or wherever, and staff would take this reporting and mix it with that from other reporters, for there was no shortage of information coming out of the war. Then the story went out to the public and the public saw it in some context. In Bosnia, the reporting was live, and therefore without context.

Another problem involved the freelancers. In the beginning Martin Bell of the BBC brought all the journalists together and said, "The best way for us to keep from getting killed is to send out teams and pool our work." Then the freelancers moved in. They came in brash and as stupid as anything and they would go out and get right in the middle of a conflict and send these pictures back home. What happened is that the head offices phoned Martin and said, "You've got to get pictures like these." Christiane Amanpour from CNN was being told, "You've got to get out there. We are being wiped out by the other channels." It isn't that what was being shown were fabrications. It was the fact that only a tiny bit of the overall situation was being reported. Frequently I would be in the middle of a crisis situation where people were being killed and someone would be recording live. The footage was going up to a satellite and telecast directly onto someone's television screen. How do you put that into context? Talk about "Wag the Dog"! These reporters created tremendous emotions based on 1/1,000 of what was going on. There was stuff that was every bit as bad, if not worse, in the rest of the country. But the whole world was focused in on Sarajevo. Why? Because the media was living in the basement of the Sarajevo Holiday Inn. They were living on one side of the conflict so they naturally recorded the war from one side of the conflict. There should have been reporting from all sides. The reporting had a tremendous impact on national foreign policies around the world.

MCCLELLAND: You talked in your book about the market bombings. In light of some reports that question who was responsible for the massacres, have you changed your own opinion?

MACKENZIE: My response to this issue is part of the reason why I have been frequently accused of being pro-Serbian. My book says quite clearly that we will never know who did the breadline massacre. People say I am accusing the Bosnians of doing it to themselves. And I say, no, absolutely not! The people who had the most to gain from any number of atrocities in Sarajevo were the people who were selling eggs on the black market for five marks each. It was the criminal element that was interested in keeping the war going because they were getting really rich. So there was a tremendous amount of self interest for them to do this. Sure there was also self interest on the part of the Bosnian government to generate sympathy. It wouldn't have been the first time in history that events were staged to drive policy. But really, when I say it could have been the Bosnian side, that does not mean it was government policy; it could have been one of many criminal elements, a freelance unit or, equally, it could been the Bosnian Serb side.

MCCLELLAND: You mentioned being accused of being pro-Serbian. Would you like to address some of the allegations made against you?

MACKENZIE: It started after my appearance in front of the U.S. senate and congressional committees in Washington. Also, to a certain extent, in Sarajevo because I was seeing Karadzic on a daily basis. Izetbegovic was livid because he saw me representing the international community and he felt that I should be helping him because he represented a country that was a member of the U.N. On one occasion I said I wouldn't go and see Karadzic, even though my mandate from the Security Council was to maintain contact with both sides in the conflict and use my good offices to do what I could to reach some sort of accommodation. Izetbegovic responded by saying, "OK, you can go and see Karadzic," and he subsequently explained why to his people on TV. But nobody had television because the power was out and I was therefore condemned for dealing with "the aggressor."

Then accusations started to come out that my wife is a Serb - she is a McKinnon, of Scottish descent. My men were also being threatened with death because they worked for me, which is one of the reasons I left. But when I came home, appeared in front of the U.S. Senate and said, "America, don't get involved," that's when the allegations started, big time.

The major allegation, fortunately, has been exposed by a German reporter as part of the Herak fabrication. Herak was a Bosnian Serb soldier who had been captured by the Bosnian government. He said in an interview with John Burns, a Canadian Pulitzer Prize winner with The New York Times, that General MacKenzie would come over to Sonya's Cafe in northern Sarajevo and pick up Muslim girls, who would subsequently be found dead with their throats cut. Burns asked him how he knew it was me. And he responded by saying he recognized me from television. Herak said I was wearing three gold stars and Burns knew that we don't wear stars in Canada. Herak also said the incident took place around the middle of August and Burns knew I had left on the first of August.

Burns, however, turns to the government representative there at the time and says, this is obviously not true and don't let the MacKenzie aspect of the story get out for if it does it will ruin the credibility of the rest of the story I am writing about Herak.

The story about me broke about 48 hours later when the Bosnia judiciary said they were assigning a lawyer and charging me with war crimes. At that time, Burns was back in the U.K. and called me. He said that he was absolutely horrified that this story would get out because it would erode the credibility of the article he was writing. Burns later won a Pulitzer prize for his article on Herak.

The Canadian government, myself, and the military decided to take a low profile on the allegations because the North American media refused to carry the story. But the story broke on the day of the Islamic conference in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia when Izetbegovic arrived there.

Sonya's Cafe is where the Serbians were allegedly keeping prisoners of war. During my time there, which was at the height of the war in the early days, we couldn't even get to that part of town. Not only that, we were alleged to have shown up in jeeps. The U.N. didn't have jeeps.Yet the real convincing piece of evidence for the people of Sarajevo was a photograph taken on my last day there, which was July 31. Four secretaries from my headquarters came in to see me. I had gotten them out when the war started - one of them had a child - so they were grateful because I had overruled a civilian U.N. guy who said they couldn't leave Sarajevo. They returned shortly after the U.N. came back to Sarajevo. They asked if they could have their picture taken with me. I put my arms around the four of them. They were all crying.

I guess it was about two months later, a Canadian doctor came back from Sarajevo. He told me that a picture was being circulated around Sarajevo of four crying girls with me in the middle. People are saying that these are the girls I raped and murdered on my last day there. When I went back to do the documentary, three of the same girls met me when I arrived at Sarajevo airport.

Nevertheless, these allegations are still brought up in international conferences - particularly German or Islamic ones. I went to my lawyer and asked how I could deal with this. If I am a war criminal than let's get this out. Let me go to The Hague and testify. The bit that really bothers me is that Canada - such a generous nation and considering all the money we have given for reconstruction in Bosnia - to the best of knowledge the Canadian ambassador in Sarajevo has never protested or asked for a withdrawal of the charges.

Subsequently, the entire Herak thing, including my alleged role, was revealed as a fabrication. It was a little show put on to elicit sympathy. The four people I allegedly killed have all been found alive. If any of this was true - even one percent - it would have been on television. I had 32 of the top journalists living in my headquarters in Sarajevo. I went nowhere without a television camera in tow. So if I had gone to Sonya's Cafe or anywhere else, ten television journalists would have come with me.

I inadvertently gave my accusers more fuel for the fire a few months after my return from Sarejevo. I was responsible for speaking engagements - sometimes three a day.

I spoke to the Heritage Foundation in Washington and a few weeks later, I was informed that the event was partially subsidized by a Serbian lobby group. I had no idea at the time the contract was signed so I gave the money, $15,000, to AIDS research. Needless to say, my critics took this as confirmation of my alleged pro-Serbian stance.

MCCLELLAND: The majority of Canadians don't like to admit the parallels between the former Yugoslav a and things that have and are happening in Canada. On the political side, do you see parallels between, say, Canada taking the issue of secession to the Supreme Court and lessons we have learned from Yugoslavia?

MACKENZIE: We are the world's industrial-strength standard of compassion, tolerance, and compromise, although we don't often give ourselves credit for this. Other countries give us the credit. I have said in many presentations that if we fail at this, if secession in this country degenerates into violence and civil conflict, you can imagine the message that it will send to the rest of the world. If Canada can't sort out this problem, then my God, what hope is there for the rest of the world?

MCCLELLAND: What lessons can the world learn from Yugoslavia?

MACKENZIE: As for actual peacekeeping operations in the Balkans, the American clandestine intervention which armed the Croats and trained them to achieve success on the ground in the Krajina and Bosnia stopped the war for now. The question is, for the long term will it be successful? I think a bad lesson that has been derived from that particular experience is that an awful lot of people look to air strikes to solve problems. In Yugoslavia, they gave the appearance of driving the people to Dayton, where in fact they didn't. It was the changing situation on the ground due to the Croatian offensive and Milosovic's lack of response that took the delegates to Dayton.

MCCLELLAND: One of the arguments you hear today as a result of the Balkan experience is whether military personnel make the best peacekeepers. Some question how a soldier, trained for war, can go into a country with a mandate to preserve peace. Some soldiers in the U.S. military say that peacekeeping is eroding and weakening the warrior ethic. What are your comments on this?

MACKENZIE: I get asked this question probably a dozen times a year by American audiences, especially military audi- ences. For many years I answered no. Peacekeeping does not erode the warrior ethic. Yet my answer these days is that there is a danger of just that. But it is not in the military. The danger is in the mind of the citizens of the country the military represents. How many times have you heard Canada described as a peacekeeping nation? We have probably killed more enemy per capita than any other country in the last century - in World War I, II, and Korea - yet we still see ourselves as a purely peacekeeping nation. Therefore, when it comes to dangerous peace operations, we do what we did in the Gulf War - we say to the U.N.,"We'll give you our sons and daughters but make sure nobody gets hurt." We kept our sailors out in the Persian Gulf, far away from the land theater. We sent F18s but we only had them fly into Iraq on very rare occasions. The rest of the time our planes just circled around our ships, which was the safest thing they could do. That was under our government's direction. So in the decision making of the government and the minds of the population, yes, peacekeeping missions erode the warrior ethic. As a result, our soldiers on the ground work very much handcuffed and their reputation with allies is suffering.

But as far as the soldiers themselves go, no, I don't believe they are weakened because of peacekeeping duty. Why? Because a peacekeeper may be stopping traffic on one day and on the next, fighting his or her way out of the situation. The escalation can be so dramatic and occur so rapidly that peacekeeping must be a soldier's responsibility. It is also important to note that peacekeeping is a bit of a macho game. If I am dealing with a soldier on the Serb, Muslim, or Croatian side there is a certain amount of respect between us for what we do. If all of sudden I showed up as a sort of constabulary conciliator from Canada, having just been issued a uniform and given a weapon, there is not the same rapport. Soldier peacekeepers can sit down with the Israelis, the Syrians, and the Iraqis and talk tactical professional arrangements for cease-fires.

MCCLELLAND: What do you think is the greatest threat to world security right now?

MACKENZIE: Civil war. Internal civil conflict. There are 43 to 44 civil conflicts going on as we speak and few of them cross recognized borders. A lot of those borders, particularly in Africa, were drawn by politicians after World War I and World War II. And a lot of those borders don't make sense today. I absolutely agree that the U.N. needs to look at its mandate as a result. Maybe there are other ways than U.N. intervention to deal with civil conflict. Maybe there are other ways to bring pressure on the belligerents. But first you have to recognize civil conflict. I drove Izetbegovic, the European community, and the U.N. mad for the first couple months of the war because they didn't want us talking to the Bosnian Serbs. I am a simple soldier saying "these guys are half or more of the problem." Michael Ignatieff said it best: At the end of the Cold War, the two teams representing the East-West conflict self-destructed. Those teams had client states, so everybody knew what side they were on. And when the Cold War pulled the Iron Curtain down, a lot of people, a lot of countries, needed a security blanket, be it color, religion, territory or a combination of these things. Everyone needs to feel part of a group. People are sorting out their groups now and they are doing it by way of conflict. That is the challenge the future faces.

Susan McClelland is an Ottawa journalist.

Peace Magazine Nov-Dec 1998

Peace Magazine Nov-Dec 1998, page 16. Some rights reserved.

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