Milos Stankovic is speaking about Trusted Mole: A Soldier’s Journey into Bosnia’s Heart of Darkness – his account of his spell as the longest serving British Soldier at the UN Protection Force in Bosnia and Herzegovina, during the 3 year war there. As translator and fixer, according to General Mike Jackson, he ‘played an absolute blinder’, helping, among other things, to negotiate the freeing of 50 Canadian hostages and rescuing a wounded Muslim woman under fire. Described by UN Commander ‘brave and enduring…calm and thoughtful under pressure’ by General Rupert Smith, one of the UN commanders he served under, and received an MBE for his work out there.
But returning to Britain, it all fell apart. On the tip-off of an unnamed source, Stankovic was out of the blue accused by the Ministry of Defence of passing information to the Serbs, and promptly arrested. His house was searched, his private possessions (including his diary) snatched away from him, and for three years his life remained on hold. It wasn’t until 2007, 10 years later, that the affair came to what Stankovic describes as a ‘positive’ ending. Following his resignation from the army, Stankovic sued the Ministry of Defence, finally getting from the judge a ‘clean bill of health’: ‘Looked at objectively,’ said the judge’s summing-up, ‘there is no doubt that what happened to the Claimant has been unfair and the consequences serious….He proved himself to be courageous and resourceful in Bosnia and suffered the effects of his time there more than most.”
The one thing they hadn’t been able to stop him doing in the meantime was writing his book, and in April 2000 it came out to almost universal acclaim. The book was spoken of in the same breath as Catch 22, Heart of Darkness and Sir Fitzroy Maclean’s Eastern Approaches, and the comparisons seemed apt. ‘By far the best book to have come out of the Balkan Wars’, said Peter Miller in the Sunday Times; ‘…an amazing book which from the outset speaks plainly and directly of great events and intimate experiences’ wrote the Ulster News Letter. The war-correspondent Martin Bell, who covered Bosnia for 3 years and knew what he was talking about, went even further: agreeing with Peter Miller, he added: ‘It is more than that. It is the most extraordinary soldier’s story I have ever read.’
It’s a big book, in all senses, and as much a guide to the soul of the author as to the Bosnian War. In it we run between two time frames: the present, where Stankovic pours out his experience to an army psychiatrist, trying under extreme stress to make sense of the accusations he’s facing, and his time in Bosnia, which spares him nothing. Stankovic is vivid on the details of war – the chaos of an airlift, the terror of coming under shell attack (the story almost starts, quite literally, with an earth-shattering bang), the madness of it all and the black comedy – what one reviewer described as the ‘Joseph Heller’ aspect of the story. ‘Can you believe it?’ Stankovic at one points writes. ‘You go from sitting exams in Split, to being trapped in Tešanj, to that mad heli op in Tuzla, to the party-from-hell, into the hands of a soothsayer and then you end up taking a dog to the vet….,’ later adding, ‘The job out there went from the sublime to the ridiculous.’
On the sublime side are the relationships he forms with locals, the hostages he manages to save, and the hush-hush ‘Schindler’s List’ programme he takes part in, to spirit imperilled locals out of the city to comparative safety. But there’s a lot of ridiculous as well – often tragically ridiculous: the shellings of Muslims which may (or may not) be coming from their enemies, the trafficked women, the dodgy business interests under UN cover, the point-counterpoint of lies, rumour Byzantine conspiracy and ‘mind games’: one that follows Stankovic home as he becomes embroiled in more local paranoias. It’s as if the Balkan War, with all its murk and shadows, will not release its grip on him and, indeed, has a lesson in store: ‘They’ll stitch you up like a kipper, and you won’t even see them doing it,’ Stankovic writes at one point. The irony is that he’s speaking of the Bosnian Serbs, not his own side.
The book is always urgent, almost furious with analysis and self-questioning, rarely sentimental but unafraid too of emotion: it’s significant that nearly all the memorable friendships Stankovic has in the book are with women, among them that brigade of local UN employees who, he says, are ‘the unsung heroines of the Bosnian War’. It’s clear that Sarajevo in the early 90s was, apart from anything else, about human relationships, often complicated but acutely valuable nonetheless, and the book is strong on the pendulum-swing between connection and otherness that are a part of all travel – ‘…there is nothing that happens in war,’ he writes, ‘other than legitimised killing, which does not happen to all people in their everyday lives’, but ‘the extreme nature of violent human conflict heightens our level of awareness and diminishes the level of control we have over our emotions and the ability to conceal our true nature.’
With the relevatory powers of ‘violent human conflict’ we get accordingly colourful vignettes of characters like Mladić and Karadžić, and the dialogue never puts a foot wrong. Karadžić is shown as alternately ponderously convivial and thumping the table with rage, near-admitting to Stankovic, in a moment of pathos towards the end, how lamentably the Bosnian Serbs have played the PR-war. General Michael Rose, for a period Stankovic’s boss, is in turn both bracingly no-nonsense and at others hair-raisingly reckless and cavalier. And of course there’s Mladić, so-called Butcher of Srebrenica, who swaggers ebulliently through the narrative, getting all the best lines and scenes. Stankovic is good at the telling detail: the coldness of Mladić’s eyes, his ‘childlike…braggadocio’, the way he crunches through an entire plate of raw chilli peppers to demonstrate his Alpha-ness or – bored in a meeting – whips out a vanity mirror and, in front of the assembled company and to their considerable disgust, squeezes a pustule to explosion. So lively are the moments when Mladić strides on you have to remind yourself of the man’s alleged but almost certain guilt for the death of 8,000 innocents in a few days – that charisma is not one of the cardinal virtues, nor does it guarantee them.
There are several books on the Bosnian war that dwell on the minutiae of such characters. One of the things that lifts Trusted Mole above them though is the strand of mysticism that runs through it – one very unEnglish, and surely very unBritish Army: it’s a book that accepts and even celebrates the notion of fate, of coincidences that are not quite coincidences, of clairvoyance too. Some of the most memorable scenes are of Minka, one of the Little People Stankovic slowly starts to care for – and who becomes, by default, his ‘Bosnian mother’ – reading the coffee grounds for him with heart-stopping accuracy, able to predict the MBE he will receive for his work out there and to warn him that he’s being plotted against and should be on his guard (advice all too prescient over time). One can imagine what the reaction to such things would have been in the average British Army Mess Hall (‘Mumbo-jumbo… witch doctor… poppycock…’) yet these scenes are some of the most convincing and resonant in the book, and arguably what gives it its real depth, its cosmic quality: while on the ground there’s frantic activity and a whole riot of human folly on display – enough for several lifetimes – undercurrents of the unseen are moving much more slowly, much more inexorably, in scenes where Stankovic takes time out to give us a window into a much deeper world – perhaps the real one – underneath. When he quotes, at length, from an Indian poem about the circularity of life, there’s something satisfying about it, some moment of true arrival before the next shell blast or mass-murder sets the wheel spinning again, and sends the author off on another unsignposted journey. Superstition, we sense, may be simply an acceptance of life’s mysteries, of human helplessness, in a war that was no slouch at throwing up either. It’s a point Tolstoy made – in a War and Peace of his own – and once again, Stankovic finds himself in respectable company.
Milos Stankovic’s Trusted Mole: A Soldier’s Journey into Bosnia’s Heart of Darkness, is available from Amazon at £9.99.