Bangladesh UN Contingent Peacekeeping Mission in Bosnia- Herzegovina
HISTORICAL BACKGROUND OF THE CONFLICT
Bosnia-Herzegovina (BH) was part of the former Balkan state of Yugoslavia. After the Allied victory in World War II, Yugoslavia was set up as a federation of six republics with borders drawn along ethnic and historical lines demarcating republics of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Slovenia and Serbia.
The country had three large ethnic communities: (1) Bosnians- Muslims; (2) Croats- Catholic Christians; and, (3) Serbs-Orthodox Christians. Bosnia, being part of the old Ottoman empire, had a Muslim majority population. After the death of President Josip Broz Titoin 1980, internal political turmoil fueled by the fall of the other communist regimes in Eastern Europe, the state of Yugoslavia started to break up into smaller independent states. Map below shows the breakup and formation of the new republics.
FORMER YUGOSLAV REPUBLICS
Green - Slovenia
Pink - Croatia
Purple - Serb Republic in Croatia
Grey - Bosnia Herzegovina at the time of declaration of independence
Red - Serbia
In a 1991 census, population of Bosnia (Grey Portion) of some 4 million comprised of 44 percent Bosnians, 31 percent Serbs, and 17 percent Croats. In April 1992, Bosnia-Herzegovina (Muslims) declared its independence from Yugoslavia and this started off what we know as the Bosnia war. Over the next several years, Bosnian Serb forces, with the backing of the Serb-dominated Yugoslav army, targeted both Bosnian Muslims and Croatian Catholic Christiansresulting in the deaths of some 100,000 people by Dec 1995, when the war ended under 'Dayton Peace Accord'. It was the worst act of genocide in Europe since the Nazi regime's killing of some 6 million European Jews during World War II.
With both the European union and UN efforts failing to stop the killing and the ethnic cleansing, the international community agreed to deploy UN Peacekeepers.What most people do not know even today is that, the UN Peace Keeping mission was launched in Bosnia without UN Security Council Peacekeeping mandate simply because the big powers could not agree on a common agenda. As I understand, the OIC had played an active diplomatic role for making the Europeans accept UN Peacekeepers from non-European nations, especially from the Muslim countries. In addition to a unit from Kenya, non-European countries that contributed peacekeepers were Bangladesh, Malaysia and Pakistan.
The Bangladesh contingent was assigned to an area, called Bihac, on the north-east tip of Drvar, east of Banja Luka, a small Muslim enclave surrounded by Serbs on all sides. The French battalion that had been for some two years in Bihac, did not wish to continue any longer. In 1993, I led a team of officers for the reconnaissance mission to assess the situation and the logistic needs for placement of a contingent of Bangladesh peacekeepers and its sustenance.
Bosnia is known for its freezing and wet winters which appeared to me as a big challenge as none of our soldiers had any experience of living under snow conditions, apart from the fact that Bangladesh army was not equipped for operating in freezing winter conditions, which demand special clothing, special equipment and winter- survival knowledge. On our return, a report was submitted with a long list of specialized equipment for such situations, including winter clothing. Much of these are now on the standard list of Bangladesh UN equipment.
Deployment of peacekeeping units from Muslim countries was put on hold in 1993, as many European nations objected to their deployment in Bosnia- Herzegovina, and later struggled to find locations where these incoming units could be placed. I state this very sensitive aspect of the conflict only after having seen such documents and having come across such comments personally. In Bangladesh, the infantry battalion that was mobilized for Bosnia was later sent for Kuwait mission and I opted not to go for the Kuwait mission to continue my teaching assignment at the Staff College Mirpur.
The situation on the ground was getting worse that demanded additional troops, which NATO countries were unable to commit. As such, I believe, under the OIC initiative, the 1994 decision to insert peacekeepers from outside Europe including the Muslim nations was cleared.
Bangladesh was asked to confirm readiness to insert a mechanized infantry battalion within 45 days and, not surprisingly, Bangladesh agreed. In mid 1994, I was a Colonel and officiating commander of an infantry brigade in the north. I was called and asked to take charge and start the mobilizing and training effort in order to be able to send the contingent immediately. I took charge of the battalion in Savar and started the work of reorganizing, re-equipping and training. BTRs (APC), which is in such abundance now in the army, was not to be found in 1994. Hence, arrangements were made with UN to provide specialized equipment including APCs, and organize training of the APC crews. Solution came with UN retrieving of surplus equipment, stores and winter uniforms of the East German Army from the stock warehouses of a very large training facility of the old Soviet Union in Slovakia. We assembled the training team of about 100 plus people who were sent about a month ahead to Slovakia to train and take over the equipment. Since I had already arrived with an advanced team in Zagreb, Croatia, I along with a Danish Army officer drove via Hungary to Slovakia. The Danish officer found it hard to understand why Col. Salim, his companion, with a blue beret and UN ID had to undergo visa processes while entering Hungary and again at the Slovakia borders. Since I was carrying a non-European passport, I could well understand the issue! I shared some of that long drives and the experience of driving across the borders, and specially going through Budapest was nice and enjoyable.
Training camp in Slovakia was impressive and gave me a picture of how much the old Soviet Union had stocked and prepared for a war with NATO that never came. We ended up using part of that equipment. By August 1994, the battalion arrived and camped at Zagreb, Croatia. We stayed about a month at camp Pleso in Zagreb, sharing facilities with soldiers mostly from NATO countries. The time was used for training, sorting out logistics with the UN and obtaining driving licenses. The training team from Slovakia along with BTR-70s, generators and a host of other equipment arrived in Zagreb by train. Unloading the trains was an experience. Unlike the practice of unloading through ramps in Bangladesh, the APCs and ARVs simply turned and drove onto the station platform and drove out of the station. I spent the day shuttling between the station and the camp. The unloading job continued for the whole day . We received two trainloads of something like 68 APCs (BTR70s), few tracked ARVs, a large number of trailer-mounted generators and other equipment. Arrival of equipment from Bangladesh got delayed as a result of transshipment at port of Alexandria, Egypt, where they could not find ship in time for Croatia.
Operations in Bosnia were primarily a NATO-run operations, which later came under the flag of UN Peacekeepers, but in reality what I witnessed was: NATO continued its firm hold with the French and the British playing the lead role in all decision making. Interestingly, Americans were kept out of all operational decision-making process. Towards the end of 1994, when situation was getting bad and plans were being discussed to extract UN Peacekeepers, US Navy Adriatic Fleet was given the responsibility to extract BANBAT in case of need. Though the US Naval officers discussed events with me on telephone, they were not allowed to attend to my briefing.
UN operations planned for the Bangladesh battalion to replace the French battalion in the Muslim enclave of Bihac, because the French had given a deadline for their pull-out date, which forced the UN operations to push in the Bangladesh battalion without waiting for the ship-load of equipment to arrive, which was being delayed due to transshipment at Alexandria, Egypt.
The Bangladesh contingent that I was given to command consisted of one infantry battalion, workshop detachment, medical detachment including dental, signals detachment and logistic support elements. As a contingent commander my big concern was adequate driving skills of APC drivers and the ability of all our drivers to drive, including soft vehicles, under snow condition to start with. In Bosnia, a large number of fatalities came from vehicle accidents during the winter months, the dreaded 'black-ice' on mountain roads.
Sometime in early Sep. 1994, the first convoy comprising of APCs and trucks with soldiers left for Bihac' under UN MP escort (Danish MP unit). As the convoy was driving through the city roads within the first few kilometers, one of our APC crushed a civilian car under its belly. Fortunately, the car driver survived and UN took care of the incident. Our convoy moved on, and finally reached the destination doing about 100 km in about 12 hours. BANBAT insertion was complete with four convoys on follow-up dates with some of the weapons being airlifted on MI-26 helicopters. With the arrival of BANBAT, the French battalion withdrew around mid-Sept., handing over the operational responsibility to BANBAT.
By 3rd week of Sept., 1994 when Bosnian forces around Sarajevo and central Bosnia were under intense attack by Serb forces, the Bosnian Army 5 Corp Commander in Bihać decided to attack the Serb forces around Bihac' to relieve pressure from central Bosnia. This break out by Bosnian forces from Bihać resulted in significant defeat of Serb forces and substantial loss of Serb territory. Bosnian forces from Bihać not only captured a huge ares of land, but also captured a lot of equipment from the retreating Serb forces, including tanks and artillery guns. Success of the Bosnian forces from Bihać caused the Serb forces to link the change in the battle field scenario to arrival of BANBAT in the area. We even experienced UN Observers from the West looking upon BANBAT with suspicious eyes. With this came the total blockade by the Serbs on all supply convoys destined for BANBAT, including total restrictions on helicopter lifts. About Nov – Dec 1994, BANBAT experienced some 10 weeks of total blockade including food supplies. Fortunately for BANBAT, the French battalion which was oversupplied, had left behind many containers of combo food packs, warehouse of other tinned food items and water packs, which came to good use. However, some of these food packs had pork content which caused some discontent among our soldiers. Under severe food crisis BANBAT learnt to adapt with whatever was available. BANBAT had carried a small quantity of rice, dal and few other dry item; it was under these circumstances I learned that food habit can seriously affect morale. Under the self-imposed rationing, I allowed rice, 'dal'(lentil-soup) and 'aloo bhorta'(mashed potatoes)once a week on Sundays. And with such a meal, which had much less calorie value than the combo pack, people were all in smiles and high morale.
BANBAT was positioned at three camps and a few forward OPs (observation posts). Camp accommodation was based on pre-fab containers, with each camp generating its own electric power for the heating, which was life's essential need. Camps and the OPs were subjected to frequent shooting and shelling and many of us, in vehicles or APCs, have experienced being hit. I can recall on one occasion when I was crossing Serb vs Bosnian confrontation line, my vehicle took about 6 hits from small arms. Sometime in Dec 1994, one of our APCs was hit twice by Serb-fired ATGM with the gun turret blowing away and Sainik Ismail was killed with few others injured. Once when the camp was still under fire, I was offered NATO air strike but instead of asking for the air strike, I asked for immediate ceasefire which allowed me to evacuate the wounded to US Army MASH in Zagreb. As I look back now, this decision may have saved many lives on that day by allowing the situation to calm down. If I had approved the NATO air strike on Serb positions at the time, that would have certainly caused the situation to flare up, denying chances for evacuation of wounded Bangladesh soldiers. I have to say that many of our young officers held their positions under intense fire beyond the call of duty. I can recall one occasion when a young captain with his APC team were manning a position that came under intense fire from the Serbs, as they were shelling the Bosnian positions nearby, but BANBAT team did not abandon its position and kept reporting on the situation which was the prime requirement for the peace keepers. I received numerous letters of appreciation from Force Commander, General Smith of UK, to a number of operational staffs from UNPROFOR headquarters, who were deeply appreciating the professionalism of Bangladesh soldiers.
During our mission we faced a very hostile Western media including CNN. In consequence, I had to go on a number of interviews with medias like BBC, SKY TV UK, Peter Jennings Show ABC TV USA and a number of papers like LA Times and Philadelphia Times as part of my struggle to fight the negative media campaign against BANBAT.
According to my judgement, the European nations were upset with BANBAT because hey came to believe wrongfully that the battlefield losses of the Serbs were somehow linked to the arrival of the BANBAT in the area, and this is not what the lead European nations wanted to see. War in Bosnia continued for five years or so, simply because two of the leading European nations had a clear political objective to let the war continue till Bosnia lives no longer as a Muslim majority country in the heart of Christian Europe. This was the prime reason for enforcing arms embargo on the Bosnians while the Serbs were getting free supply of weapons from elements of the Serbian army.
War in Bosnia ended with territories divided as shown on the map below which served well with the political objective of certain European nations: Fragmented Bosnia-Herzegovina. Bosnia-Herzegovina now consists of three political entities in clearly separated areas with their own governments. The Bosnians (Muslims) areas marked in light grey, Croat (Catholic Christians) areas marked in pink and Serbs (Orthodox Christians) areas marked in deep purple.
One may ask what did BANBAT achieve during its mission in Bosnia? BANBAT has kept the UN flag flying many times under some very adverse circumstances, while at the same time, under similar conditions, some European battalions, including one NATO battalion, gave away the area under them to the advancing Serbs. One may recall the massacre Serb forces carried out in enclaves of Zepa and Srebrenica after the UN battalion surrendered to the belligerents. Bangladesh battalion stood up against every odds with meagre supplies and soldiers who had never seen anything like a European winter. On the quiet, many NATO officers confided to me that most European battalions would have refused to continue under the atrocious conditions that BANBAT survived and held on to its positions. Credit goes to the absolute tenacity and courage of the Bangladesh soldiers and young officers who served under my leadership and delivered what I asked for under any condition.
To relieve the battlefield stress for Bangladesh Army, we were possibly the only battalion that arranged seven chartered flights for a one month vacation to Bangladesh for the soldiers and officers.
I salute all the young officers and soldiers who served under my command, gladly accepting tasks which often put their lives at risk.
The writer was Bosnia Mission Contingent Commander.