REMEMBERING BOSNIA: An Interview with Martin Bell OBE, Foreign Correspondent – Part Two, by Robin Ashenden


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Martin Bell OBE, BBC Foreign Affairs Correspondent 1962-1997

RA: You’ve spoken about the dangers of rolling news for the business of penetrative reporting. Would you say why?

MB: You become a dish-monkey. It was starting when I was in Bosnia, this fashion for the two-way interview. If you’ve done your report of the day, okay, let’s now say it again without pictures. You have to meet certain deadlines, they can come to you at all hours of the day or night. But how much do you know? Because you’re not able to go out anywhere and find stuff out.

RA: You’ve spoken out against what you call the ‘Murdochisation’ of news. What do you mean by this?

MB: I mean politicisation. I think his Sky is a perfectly fair and decent channel – I believe he calls it ‘BBC Light’. But I don’t like news which has a political agenda and I feel that Fox News does. As all his newspapers do. At the time of the Iraq war, I think he owned 165 newspaper round the world and all the editors agreed with remarkable unanimity that the invasion of Iraq was a good idea. Well, nobody believes that now. Even Tony Blair’s started to be a little bit penitent. So no, I don’t think it’s a healthy trend what he did.

RA: Throughout the book there seems to be this constant struggle against getting too involved, against becoming angry or in your own words ‘campaigning’. Why?

MB: Well, for the reason that it then acquires a political edge. But I think if feelings arise out of circumstances, I think that’s okay. I believe I was attacked not by name, but we knew who he was talking about… in a notorious speech at the Traveller’s Club in the middle of the war, Douglas Hurd attacked the power of television, and what he called the ‘Something-must-be-done-Club’. But without the television pictures, we’d never have even got our troops into… And then there’s was the question of the mandate. And we now know it could have been ended much sooner. I quote that guy at the end.

RA: That’s the end of the book, isn’t it.

MB: That’s the end of the book. He was Mike Rose’s [i] right-hand man, a very good man called Simon Shadbolt. I think the politicians were under the influence of the military historians who talked about 14 German divisions being tied down by the partisans during the Second World War. Well, it was only elements of 14 divisions, and they were not very good elements either. And actually the Bosnian Serbs, although they were strong in weaponry, they were very weak in manpower. They had no reserves. So if one of their front lines was over-run, as started to happen, by the Croats,….then they had nowhere to go to.

RA: They had no second line of defence?

MB: Then of course the villages would empty out and the men would go back and they’d improvise one further in. So in the end they succumbed because of military weakness. Though the deal they got was actually what they wanted, and I quote Herb Okun, Vance’s [ii] deputy, who said they’d been bombed into accepting their own peace-plan. You got to Republika Srpska now, they’ve got their own security forces, they’ve got their own mini-state. They go through the motions of being part of a shared republic, but for all practical purposes, they got what they wanted. And 49% of the territory – of course, they say it’s the rocks and the rattlesnakes, but it’s still 49% of the territory.

RA: You say of the Serbs that they felt at their best when shining against dark backgrounds, and would if necessary create the darkness to shine against. What do you mean by that?

MB: Well, they were responsible for some really horrific crimes. They were not uniquely responsible, there was no monopoly of evil, no monopoly of suffering, but obviously Srebrenica was the worst war-crime in Europe since 1945. And that was theirs. And there were others. But I now occasionally lead tours round the war-zones of interested Brits. We go in a coach… Vukovar, Sarajevo, Mostar, Dubrownik, and it’s a Croatian enterprise. So of course you go to Vukovar, and you see the site of the mass-murder [iii]. But I could as well have taken them to Kuprez, where Serb civilians were murdered by Croat, just at the start of the war. Or to Ahmići, where Moslems were murdered by Croats. Or to villages near Srebrenica, where Serbs were murdered by Moslems. It’s just the most notorious… You can’t really calibrate these things… Is it the worst just because of the numbers? I think also because it was clearly premeditated.

RA: And there are those ghoulish shots of General Mladić walking around patting little boys’ faces, just before Srebrenica…

MB: Yeah, absolutely. And it was all deniable. In fact, I think I put it in the new version of the book, that it was deniable till the tour video shot by the Scorpions[iv], of some paramilitary unit from somewhere in Serbia, you know… the video starts with the Bishop giving them a blessing and off they go. And then you see them in action doing whatever they’re doing, and it ends up with these unfortunate young men being herded off a truck. It hasn’t been seen. It hasn’t been seen anywhere, except in the Hague. It was introduced as evidence in the Hague. No, even I don’t think you can show that. Or you could maybe show it and then freeze-frame. But I know it exists.

RA: You speak about paramilitaries. What are your memories of Arkan?


Željko Ražnatović (Arkan), leader of the Serb Volunteer Guard. He was indicted for war-crimes in 1999, and later assassinated. Image by Mikhail Evstafiev

MB: I liked Arkan…. He actually controlled a lot of the villages round Vukovar. And he was also the guy who took Zvornik in April 92. And he was then in the defence of some of the towns further south. But he gave me access. And he spoke very good English. But I used to interview him in his ice-cream parlour by the Red Star Football Club. And.. it’s very difficult… this guy’s eating his ice-cream, and you have to portray him as the arch murderer…But it was a complex relationship he had, he couldn’t stand the communists or the JNA – he actually had a captured JNA tank, which they kept trying to get back. But he gave me access. The Zvornik stuff, where he took Zvornik, that was shot by a mate of mine, who was a Serb, and I had to backtrack on my next report because Arkan objected to my casualty figures, which I think were right – I think about 300 Moslems were killed in Zvornik trying to defend the place. Years later, dear old Boris…Johnson… when he was still working for the Telegraph, came to Belgrade to do an interview with Arkan, and Arkan was wearing a totally white, glistening suit, and Boris asked him about this. ‘Oh, I took this from my friend Martin Bell.’ So then I had the Daily Mail on my case: ‘How could you be a friend with a trained killer? An assassin!’ I said, honestly if in a war zone you keep only the company of people you approve of, you’re not going to get very far.

RA: You call him ‘superficially charming’.

MB: Yes, he had good manners, he talked a lot about his wife, whom he later left. Lost his brother in one of the early battles. No, he was very… But you knew. There were always people alongside him who were rather less charming.

RA: You seem always able to separate people from the things they do. Even with people like Koljevic, you don’t seem to pass judgement on these people.

Nikola-Koljevic - Copy

Nikola Koljević – Shakespearean Scholar and Bosnian-Serb Vice-President. He committed suicide in January 1997.

MB: Koljević was a very interesting character. He could have been the president of the Bosnian Serbs, but he declined it. And of course the old bugger blew his brains out. But he was a very affable interlocutor. It was a bit bizarre, you know, the vice-president of this mini-state is a Shakespearean scholar. But when we had access, up to October 94, we used to go up there. We got turned back once and we ended up in their headquarters. I think we stayed there until about 3 in the morning, and the Ballantynes was flowing. And the maps came out.

RA: Ballantines was the currency of the war, was it?

MB: It was the drink of the war, yup. It was Ballantines whisky and Marlboro cigarettes.

RA:  This ability to separate, to speak reasonably about Koljevic, and evaluate him on his own terms. Has this changed your idea of good and evil, and what the two things actually are?

MB: Well I think we all have the capacity for evil in us. And in Koljević’s case, he was certainly very active in the early days of the war, or the time between the referendum which triggered the war and the outbreak of the war, he was active in trying to defuse crises. He would go round trying to reassure people in mixed villages. He was a bit of a peacemaker at that time, but I only realised how much when I started to read some of the documents in the Hague, ’cause I went there five times, and I had plenty of time to do the reading. I mean, Koljević was not a killer. The only man he ever killed was himself…. No, I think the nature of evil is very complex. And I probably have it in myself, if I’m frightened enough. And I think the tribe from the other side of the street is going to come after my tribe. You don’t know what you might do. I cannot imagine – even as a soldier, I didn’t think about it then – I can’t imagine killing anybody. But you might.

RA: It’s clear from a number of accounts that neither Tudjman nor Izetbegovic caught the imagination as much as the Bosnian Serb leaders. Why do you suppose this is?

Radovan Karadzic, Bosnian -Serb President 1992-1995, currently on trial for war crimes. Image by Mikhail Evstafiev

Radovan Karadžić, Bosnian -Serb President 1992-1995, currently on trial for war crimes. Image by Mikhail Evstafiev

MB: It wasn’t just that neither of them spoke usable English. Karadžić was fluent, and he had a certain charisma. And he was accessible. When we first got a satellite dish into Pale, I had to go and see him. This is before I summoned up the courage to drive across the airport runway. Because under international telecommunications law you had to have the permission of the de facto power. So I said ‘We need a signature, sir, from your minister of telecommunications.’ He said, ‘Well, we don’t have a Minister of Telecommunications. Will the President do?’ So from then to the end of the war that satellite dish operated under the signature of Karadžić.

RA: Did you ever feel sympathy for the Serbs?

MB: Oh yes. I still do. They were not willing to stand by and allow what happened to them in 40-45 to happen to them again. I understand their motives. I mean, some of the cruelty was absolutely appalling. But I understand their motives in seizing what only was theirs in terms of the demographics, but in the case of Zvornik, which was not theirs except that it was a vital connecting point to Serbia, so they had to own that bridge. In fact Karadžić made a speech to the assembly in the old tractor factory once in which he said, you know, that’s what we did. ‘Cause that was used in evidence. No, I do sympathise with the Serbs. I got a reputation for being more pro-Serb than the rest. A lot of journalists would come to Sarajevo and never talk to a Serb from start to finish. Our British battalion would meet the Serbs only at a crossing point, when ethnically cleansed bus-loads of Muslims and Croats came down. Bob Stewart [v] would go to no man’s land, shake hands with a Serb. And that was the only Serb he met.

RA: You say they live their history like nobody else.

MB: I think they do, yeah. When Milosević makes his big power-grab speech he does it in Kosovo field [vi]– he does it on the scene of the battle-field. This is 1389. We still bang on a bit about Agincourt and Crecy, but not to that extent.

RA: And we don’t make our speeches from the cliffs of Dover.

MB: We don’t make our speeches from the cliffs of Dover. But they also know their history. You could talk to any squaddie and he could tell you about Serbian history. Talk to a private soldier in the Royal Anglian Regiment and he won’t have a bloody clue.

RA: Isn’t that a mark of confidence though, that they wouldn’t have a clue? I notice this all over Eastern Europe, in countries like Romania and Hungary, because of border disputes people always have a history book inside their head and they can just open their mouths and produce it.

MB: And it’s not only border disputes, it’s the status of minorities within their borders. Yes, because we live in stable borders, we’ve got a bloody great moat round us.

RA: We don’t need to know.

MB: We don’t need to know. And we also reinvent our history to a remarkable extent. I was never taught about a battle the British lost. And you know, some of our great disasters – Gallipoli, Dieppe, Singapore – all on Winston Churchill’s watch. But he’s revered. But one of my causes in the House of Commons was the 7,000 still surviving former POWs of the Japanese. So they knew about losing battles. But even now our wars are expeditionary wars. They’re arguing in the House of Commons today about yet another expeditionary war. We don’t tend to fight on home soil, fortunately.

Evstafiev-ratko-mladic-1993-w (1)

Ratko Mladić, so-called ‘Butcher of Bosnia’, and former Chief of Staff of the Bosnian-Serb Army. Currently on trial for war crimes.

RA: What did you make of Mladić?

MB:  Mladić… You know, I only met him about once, because he was media-unfriendly. Christiane [Amanpour][vii] met him once when she was lucky enough to break down and he gallantly got her car out of the ice. I think he was a soldier’s soldier. He was popular with his troops – it wasn’t politic to say so, but he was popular with his troops. He put an end to all the Chetnik paraphernalia…because he was creating a proper army. The word they were fondest of was ‘correct’.

RA: What was that? A desire to be respectable in the eyes of Europe?

MB: Yes, and especially the British. Because of the ancient friendship between British and Serbs. And he would talk to Rose and to Smith [viii], soldier to soldier. I think Smith’s only mistake… it was very unfortunate that he happened to be on holiday in the middle of July 1995 [the month in which the Srebrenica massacre took place]. That was a mistake. But they must have seen it coming. The weakness in his book, the only weakness, is where he explains that they had no idea these 8,000 were going to be murdered. Well, if you’d known the history of that area, where there had been… Serbian villages, where people had been murdered by guys from Srebrenica. This was the revenge.

RA: I have one last question for you: what do you feel you personally achieved, and what do you feel the UN achieved?

MB: I think that we drew attention to the realities on the ground, and without that attention the war could have rumbled on even longer, and even more lives have been taken. I think we helped – whether deliberately or not – to create a climate in which some kind of armed intervention was necessary – which in the end happened. But it didn’t have to take three and a half years. But I didn’t go on a crusade to do this, but if you ask me what we achieved… and I think our reporting, although fragmentary, was on the whole correct and unbiased. When I came to reread what I’d written twenty years later, and I wrote the first edition entirely in the course of the war, I thought I’m going to have to change some of the judgements. But I didn’t. The only thing I had to change were casualty figures – some were too high, some were too low. For some reason we all believed that the total death toll was about 200,000, when it was actually 98,000 – much lower. Everybody quoted [200,000]. I think it’s the natural inflationary habit of journalists.


[i] General Sir Hugh Michael Rose, Commander United Nations Protection Force in Bosnia and Herzegovina, 24th January 1994 – 23rd January 1995.

[ii] Cyrus Vance, former US Secretary of State, and co-author of the Vance-Owen Peace Plan to restore peace in Bosnia, rejected by the Bosnian-Serbs in summer 1993.

[iii] Vukovar, a city besieged in 1991 by the Yugoslavian People’s Army during the Croatian War of Independence. At least 2000 defenders of the city and civilians were killed. In terms of architectural damage, Vukovar has been compared to Stalingrad.

[iv] The Scorpions, a Serbian-paramilitary force, some of whose members were found guilty of war-crimes at Srebrenica.

[v] Colonel Robert Alexander Stewart DSO, UNPROFOR Commander 1992-1993.

[vi]The Battle of Kosovo, 15th June 1389, at which the Serbs under Prince Lazar were defeated by the invading Ottoman Army. Having passed into Serbian national myth, the battle was invoked many times by the Bosnian Serbs during the war in the 1990s.

[vii] Christiane Amanpour, CNN Reporter during the Bosnian War.

[viii] General Sir Rupert Anthony Smith, UNPROFOR Commander from January 1995 to the end of the war.


Martin Bell’s In Harm’s Way: Bosnia: A War Reporter’s Story (1995, revised edn. 2012) is available from Amazon, priced £9.98 (£5.03 Kindle). His book of poetry For Whom the Bell Tolls: Light and Dark Verse (2011) contains many memories of his time in Bosnia and its leading players, and is available in hardback for £9.99.

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