23 July 2005

The policeman's tale

By Marguerite Finn

If Chaucer had met Inspector Robert George on one of his pilgrimages, he would surely have immortalised his tale after hearing how this Norfolk policeman became embroiled in the terrible problems the world was unable to prevent happening in Bosnia. On 11 July 1995, Bosnian Serb troops systematically slaughtered some 8000 unarmed Muslims who had taken refuge in the UN-designated 'safe area' of Srebrenica. This month, a decade on from the massacres, thousands converged on a muddy field in a remote corner of Bosnia to bury the dead and mark the 10th anniversary of Europe's worst post-second world war atrocity.

Leading up to the slaughter there had been a legacy of five centuries of Turkish oppression, of royal dictatorship, of fascist annexation by Italy and Germany, and of the civil war that went on at the same time as the communist partisans were fighting the Nazis. All this ensured that the cauldron of Yugoslavia, over which Tito came to preside, would contain a very potent brew. When Tito died, both cauldron and brew together melted down into mayhem.

Robert George recently retired from 37 years policing in London and Norfolk, and decided to tell the story of what became for him a life-affirming experience during a short spell in Bosnia near the end of his career. In November 1995, the "Dayton Accords" ended hostilities and a UN Mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina was established to assist and restructure the local police and monitor the performance of all those involved in the maintenance of law and order.

Inspector Robert George joined the International Police Task Force (IPTF), which was one of the main components of the mission. Forty-six nations provided police officers for the IPTF, whose total strength was around 1600. Britain contributed 80 officers and their average tour of duty lasted one year. Before arriving in Bosnia no one knew where they would be posted to, or what jobs they would be expected to undertake. He was posted to Mostar, a divided town with a definitive border between the two ethnic populations - Bosnian Croat (Christian) and Bosniak (Muslim).

Not a single pre-war building was undamaged. A number were derelict or totally gutted.

Yet renovation continued quietly, every day bringing a little change for the better - a new roof completed or a shop re-opening.

One of Robert's first jobs was helping people recover their homes, which had been confiscated during the war. Returnees were not always welcome. In the town of Stolac, which had changed majority ethnicity from Bosniak to Bosnian Croat, a returning family whose house had been rebuilt with international aid might find that the day before they were due to move in, the house would be blown up.

Mostar had been split into six police administrations, each using separate channels - with the result that the three administrations on the east side did not communicate with the three administrations on the west side. Robert's team introduced a single working channel, which greatly improved communication and interaction between the different ethnic police forces and the communities they served. An even more delicate task was auditing and investigating police performance on human rights, which was central to the UN Mandate.

Recent events in London have heightened the sense of a widening gap and lack of mutual understanding and trust between Islamic and Western societies - an environment that can be exploited and a situation that can be exacerbated by extremists on both sides. This is why UN Secretary General Kofi Annan announced an initiative this month to help bridge this gap. He called it an "Alliance of Civilizations" and it is intended "to respond to the need for a committed effort by the international community - both at institutional and civil society levels - to bridge divides and overcome prejudice, misperceptions and polarization which potentially threaten world peace."

Initiated by Spanish Prime Minister Zapatero and co-sponsored by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan, the Alliance aims to advance mutual respect for religious beliefs and traditions and be a positive reaffirmation of humankind's increasing interdependence in all areas from the environment to health, from economic and social development to security. Inspector George and his multi-ethnic team can testify to the benefits of such an approach. The year's secondment enriched his life far more than he had imagined it would. He came to love the country and its people. He made some very special friends both within the local community and the UN International Police Task Force. Above all, although he could not undo the carnage and misery that had gone before, he felt that he, and the officers he worked with, had been involved in the implementation of significant and positive change.

My sincere thanks to Inspector Robert George for his help and inspiration for this column.