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The Kidnapped President: A Forgotten Drama Of Bosnia's War
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WATCH: The Kidnapped President: A Forgotten Drama Of Bosnia's War

Anthony Hopkins was menacing as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence Of The Lambs and war in Bosnia was just around the corner -- two things that Sarajevo taxi drivers knew better than most journalists in 1991.

In my case, the looming conflagration was easier to perceive from afar, with the benefit of greater detachment and distance.

I had spent the previous four years as the Middle East correspondent of the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje (Liberation), and though I was reporting on the Gulf War, I watched my own country's inexorable slide toward war: Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic's belligerent rhetoric, the violent redrawing of borders, fighting in Croatia, and tanks on the streets of the Slovenian capital, Ljubljana.

Bosnia-Herzegovina was surely next.

Up close it was easier to be seduced by the semblance of normalcy.

As the war in Croatia continued to rage next door, in Sarajevo we mostly carried on living and working as before. The war that had seemed obvious and inevitable in Cairo months before, seemed impossible or unimaginable amid old friends and colleagues at home. It was easy and perhaps necessary to believe that war was not coming to our backyards. Yugoslavia may have been tearing itself apart, but we were watching the domestic hit TV show Better Life.

My hopes that that we would be spared were boosted by the presence of European Community monitors in the city.

Unarmed, clad in white, and mingling with the summer crowds, they seemed like the very symbol of peace. Particularly reassuring with his calm demeanor was Irish Colonel Colm Doyle, the head of the Monitor Mission, whom I interviewed on several occasions.

When the first shots were fired in Sarajevo in April 1992, all of our lives were irreparably fractured.

I became a war reporter again, but this time the battlefield was my own city. There was no more peace to monitor for Doyle and his team, and our paths diverged.

Witness To War Crimes

Almost 30 years later Doyle -- retired and living in Dublin -- was compelled to revisit Sarajevo, figuratively, in his new book, Witness To War Crimes.

It details his experience on the ground in Bosnia as well as his role in the war crimes trials of Serbian political and military leaders at The Hague.

Much of the book was a revelation to me. I had known Colonel Doyle -- the peace observer -- and was not aware of the role he went on to play in some of the key events of the war.

The first indication that the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) wished to speak to Doyle came via a letter to the Irish Embassy in The Netherlands.

This request came because Doyle was considered to have unique insight into the situation in Bosnia in early 1992. Doyle, or as he was known at the time, Mr. Europe, would go on to appear as a witness at ICTY on seven occasions over the course of a decade, in cases against Milosevic and fellow war participants Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic.

In March 2016, Karadzic was found guilty on 10 of the 11 counts of genocide, war crimes, and other atrocities he had been charged with.

The following year he was sentenced to life in prison. Doyle was an important part of the case against the former Bosnian Serb leader.

In his book, Doyle says that what kept him going was the question: "How could this man justify what he had done, what he had allowed the military under his leadership to do, and yet still firmly believe that he is innocent of any crime?"

On his appearance as a witness at Karadzic's trial, Doyle was cross-examined by the accused, acting as his own attorney. It was less a Q&A and more a lengthy harangue by the shaggy-haired former strongman that left Doyle shaken and exhausted.

He was overwhelmed by emotion and immediately phoned his wife, Grainne. She was not surprised. In her calm voice she remarked that she had been waiting for such a reaction from him for nearly 20 years. It was catharsis, at last.

A Fateful Day In Sarajevo

After reading Doyle's book and speaking to him over the phone, I managed to persuade him to travel to Sarajevo for the first time since the war.

I could think of no better place for an interview to look back on those momentous days and months of 1992.

We found ourselves standing on the old Dobrovoljacka Street, now a modest spot in Sarajevo renamed Hamdije Kresevljakovica Street that is close to the hotel were Doyle and his wife were staying.

He told me about some of the most difficult moments in his life.

May 2, 1992, was one of those days, for Doyle and for Sarajevo.

Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic was taken prisoner by the Yugoslav People's Army (JNA) on his return from peace negotiations in Lisbon, the same day a JNA attack on the city center was repulsed in a tense battle. I was always puzzled why the UN forces never showed up with their APCs to escort the president into the city from the airport.

In fact, it was Doyle who fatefully canceled the UN escort after receiving a call informing him that the president wasn't returning from Portugal that day. The voice on the other end of the line was never identified.

Doyle's unwitting intervention unleashed a dramatic series of events that eventually played out on our TV screens. Izetbegovic was detained along with his daughter, aides, and bodyguards, unbeknownst to anyone but their captors.

But word of their abduction got out by pure chance and reached Sarajevo TV, whose evening news anchor was suddenly called upon to act as a hostage negotiator.

What we didn't know is that Doyle's life was also threatened. After a long night of negotiations, it was agreed that Izetbegovic and his daughter would be taken to the Lukavica barracks and exchanged for JNA General Milutin Kukanjac.

Doyle, together with the president's bodyguards, was left as a hostage to ensure that the agreement was kept. With a JNA soldier's gun trained on him, Doyle informed him that his career would be finished if he pulled the trigger on the representative of Lord Peter Carrington.

Doyle ends his book with the hope that Sarajevo will endure and that it has a bright future in Europe.

"The city has clearly moved on and returned to normal. But one didn't have to look far to see the legacy of war -- the extensive graveyards, in particular, are still a stark reminder of a bloody and brutal time. I pray that hearts will heal, that this wonderful city and its surrounding hills will blossom again; and above all I hope that Bosnian children, whatever their ethnic and national background, will grow up together never having to experience the scourge of war again."

I would also like to believe this.

I didn't know that my interview with Irish Colonel Colm Doyle would be the last one I would do in Sarajevo, just as I didn't know that this would be the last blog I would write.

Mind you I was wrong once before; I might be wrong again.

After decades working as a journalist, including eight years as the director of RFE/RL's Balkan Service, Gordana Knezevic is leaving the RFE/RL due to illness and relocating to Canada to be closer to her family. This is her 116th -- and hopefully not final -- Balkans Without Borders blog post. The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL

About This Blog

Balkans Without Borders offers personal commentary on contemporary Balkan politics and culture. It is written by Gordana Knezevic, senior journalist and former award-winning editor of the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje, as well as the director of RFE/RL’s Balkan Service between 2008 and 2016. The blog reflects on the myriad ways in which the absurdities of Balkan politics and the ongoing historical shifts and realignments affect the lives of people in the region.


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