The Frozen Furnace: Life as a Bangladeshi UN Peacekeeper – Part II

I’d like to take you back one year if I may. In February 2012 I took on the task of putting into writing the fascinating experiences of Retired Major Ezaz Afzal’s time as a Bangladeshi UN Peacekeeper in Rwanda, a country that at the time (1994) was practically staring into the abyss. Here is that blog for anyone who missed it the first time around.

An Eyewitness to Genocide: Life as a Bangladeshi UN Peacekeeper

In Rwanda - shortly before the start of the genocide

Having spent a year in Rwanda myself, speaking to Major Ezaz was all the more significant, and a few weeks after our first meeting he very kindly allowed me to take up some more of his time to discuss his second UN mission. He swapped a tiny, war-torn country in East Africa for a bitterly divided corner of Eastern Europe, and as our discussion commenced his first words were telling;

“To tell you the truth I felt like I was taken from a hot frying pan and placed directly into the fire.”

Retd. Maj. Ezaz Afzal

He now found himself in Bosnia and part of yet another controversial UN peacekeeping mission. The recording of our meeting has been sat idly on my laptop for almost a year now, so I thought it would be fitting, twelve months on from my first blog about Major Ezaz, to produce the long overdue second installment.

It’s a trickier task this time as my knowledge of the war in the former Yugoslavia is not nearly as in depth as my knowledge of the Rwandan genocide. However, my willing interviewee once again offered a fascinating insight into his experiences, and that’s what I’d like to present.

Major Ezaz was deployed to Bosnia in July 1994, merely two months after returning to Bangladesh from Rwanda (via Kenya). I was somewhat shocked to discover he experienced such a swift transition between missions, particularly given the nature of the conflict he not only left behind in Africa, but the one he was about to enter.

He didn’t head to Bosnia directly, or alone though. The regiment was composed of fellow Bangladeshi soldiers, many of whom had served together in Rwanda and who now became members of UNPROFOR (The UN Protection Force) in the Balkans. Their voyage from South East Asia took a slight detour due to a month of cold weather training and acclimatization in Germany and Slovakia, which would prove crucial.

This was followed by an overland journey all the way from Hungary to Zagreb (Croatia) and finally into Bosnia. According to Major Ezaz this was a wonderful experience as they witnessed some beautiful European sights en route. I imagine that is one of the positive aspects of being a peacekeeper, the opportunity to visit and pass through places you may not normally find yourself.

The final destination for the Major and his men was Bihać, a small city in the very north west of Bosnia, which sits almost right on the border with Croatia. Crucially the city itself had been designated a ‘UN Safe Area’ and thus a humanitarian corridor. In effect it should therefore have been a demilitarized zone, protected from outside attacks.

However, if I tell you that Srebrenica was also one of the six UN ‘safe areas’ during the conflict, this will no doubt provide you with some indication of their success. In July 1995 over 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were massacred in Srebrenica by Serbian soldiers and paramilitary groups, led of course by Ratko Mladić. Dutch UN peacekeepers were present in the town at the time. It was essentially genocide. Far from ‘safe’.

By the time the Bangladeshi regiment had arrived in Bihać in the middle of 1994, the city and its residents (mainly Bosnian Muslims) had already been under siege for two years, completely surrounded by a joint force of Croatian Serbs and Bosnian Serbs. I asked Major Ezaz what he expected from the mission as he arrived in Bosnia. His response was suitably to the point; “In the army we don’t expect, we just hear the orders. The worst expectation is death.”

The mandate for the UN mission was frustratingly similar to the one encountered in Rwanda. In most cases there was no authorization for direct engagement, aside from a fire when fired upon policy. Yet, in the Major’s eyes this became frustratingly vague and once again, as had been the case in Rwanda, it often left UN troops feeling powerless and forlorn.

He exclaimed, “We were not weak, however the problem was we began to feel weak once we could not save lives.” He continued by stating that at times he and his troops were left a little bewildered by the whole sorry situation.

“For three months I was asking myself, what is this? Why is this happening?
Why is no one helping? Who are the criminals? Who are the good guys? Who are we?”

Retd. Maj. Ezaz Afzal

It’s a candid and frank revelation, which demonstrates the issues peacekeepers must often grapple with when stepping into a mission. Of course the Balkans is steeped in great history, and is a melting pot for a wide range of cultures. Therefore the exact dynamic of the conflict that engulfed the region is intricate and far from straightforward.

The confusion and blurred definition of identity encountered by Major Ezaz and his comrades was intensified by the often unpredictable nature of threats. As it had been in Rwanda, a very real danger came from the disorganized nature of the fighting. He explained;

“In both Rwanda and Bosnia many ‘fighters’ were not trained soldiers, so there was always the fear of unpredictability, which comes from maniacs and mad people having arms. The paramilitaries are one of the biggest problems – young boys with little maturity, who don’t care who they hit, and where a sense of responsibility is completely missing. Once they have a weapon in their hand they feel they have to fire at something, they are not answerable to anyone.”

Retd. Maj. Ezaz Afzal

Major Ezaz and fellow Bangladeshi soldiers

Whilst explaining that the unpredictability of the violence was similar to Rwanda, the threat posed was intensified in Bosnia due to the weapons and armory at the disposal of the forces they faced. I got the impression the ferocity of the fighting was unlike anything Major Ezaz had faced before.

“In Rwanda it was mainly small arms, where I could duck down and save myself, but in Bosnia it was big shells, and it was too difficult to know where they were coming from. You just hear a whistling sound, but you have no idea where it is coming from. After 4 or 5 days we all came to understand that if you are hearing the shell you are safe…if you don’t hear the sound it means the shell is on you.”

It also became apparent from our conversation that peacekeepers were viewed rather differently in Bosnia than in Rwanda. For the most part in Rwanda peacekeepers were not widely targeted by the opposition forces. Of course it’s important to remember that 10 Belgians were brutally killed by Rwandan Hutu fighters in the initial days of the conflict (as I mentioned in my Rwanda blog), but after this very few peacekeepers were directly targeted.

Yet, in Bosnia the picture was somewhat different according to the Major. “In Rwanda people weren’t generally aiming or firing on peacekeepers, but in Bosnia this was more common.” He told me about the men from the Yugoslav Olympic shooting team who became snipers.

“Killing a man was a game for them. Peacekeepers were well protected with armor, so it was much more difficult to kill them.”

He pointed to his neck to show where snipers aimed their shots. He also heard there was gambling and bets placed on the sniping and killing of UN soldiers. “If someone was successful he might get a case of beer. The peacekeepers were fun for all of them, and they were quite sure nothing would happen.”

This caused me some confusion. The question that immediately entered my head and which I directly posed being; if it was obvious the UN troops were deliberately targeted, why did they not respond in kind, as the mandate permitted? Major Ezaz explained that in his view the UN were too fearful of the risks and implications direct retaliation would bring.

“If WE start engaging THEM it instantly creates an even bigger conflict. However, now it’s just an ‘isolated incident’ and the UN were not ready to fight Yugoslavia, so it was safer not to retaliate to these incidents.”

Clearly this must have been incredibly frustrating for peacekeepers. Major Ezaz recalled one occasion when he and his troops were driven to demanding action.

“One of our own Bangladeshi APCs (Armored Personal Carrier) was hit by a missile. There was no way this was a mistake as it had clearly been a guided missile. One soldier was killed and seven were injured. We were so angry and frustrated that we threatened to defy orders and retaliate. Eventually NATO responded with airstrikes.”

All of the anecdotes provided emphasized what an intricate process it must be for the UN in carrying out a peacekeeping mission. A diplomatic minefield played out in extremely hostile conditions, where split second judgments have the potential to significantly change the fragile state of affairs.

“Into the fire” – that’s how my interviewee alluded to the metaphoric heat of the conflict at the beginning of our discussion, but he was quick to emphasize that one of the toughest parts of the mission was the freezing temperatures his regiment faced in the icy winter months. One of the greatest problems came from trying to administer the successful transit of supplies into Bihać. Being surrounded by Serb forces often meant that all avenues were shut, even to the UN.

“The siege of Bihać left us without supplies for 100 days, and we didn’t have basic food for 42 of those. We lived on MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) during that time. There was a fuel shortage for 3 months and we had to burn everything, including the furniture, and all soldiers huddled in one room to keep warm. We were completely unaccustomed to the freezing -14 degree temperatures, and it really was a very tough time.”

I couldn’t help but wonder, if the regiment had been for example, British, or American, or French, and not Bangladeshi, whether troops would’ve been left so isolated and under-supplied with essential provisions?

I asked the now retired Major to provide the worst memory from his time in Bosnia, and he recalled two, both of which have stuck in his mind ever since. The first was a precarious situation that arose during the transit of supplies at a Croatian Serb checkpoint.

On this particular day the Croats were in an uncooperative mood. In allowing the peacekeepers safe passage, they demanded two guns in return. This was of course out of the question, but in no time at all the situation deteriorated and before anyone could react, the Bangladeshi Commander in charge had been grabbed by the collar, thrown to the ground, and a gun pointed at his head. Major Ezaz described what happened next.

“We had no idea how to react. They were pointing a gun at my colleague’s head and all I could think was what can we do? So I got close to the soldiers and I offered whatever they wanted and pleaded with them not to hurt my colleague. I was practically begging them. In the end we negotiated and offered other items, anything they wanted, anything but guns. After almost two hours of negotiations we gave them a huge amount of cigarettes, special food, and beers.”

It’s remarkable how the power of negotiation can be such a crucial survival tool. I recall Major Ezaz citing its necessity in Rwanda also. I asked how important it is for a peacekeeper and he laughed, exclaiming, “I’m very good at it! I need to get my job done. If I need to beg, I’m ready to beg. If I need to be harsh I’ll be harsh, but my one aim is to get my job done.” Upon meeting Major Ezaz it’s easy to see why he’s a successful negotiator.

The second memory was one I found particularly poignant, tragic, and reflective of how war inevitably claims innocent victims. He was watching a horse one afternoon. It was stood alone in a nearby field, and as he told the story it is clear the image and memory remains extremely vivid in his mind. The scene he described seemed so peaceful, and the tone of his voice dropped and was melancholy as he described what happened next.

“I was just watching the horse, admiring it. It was so beautiful and such a strong animal, full of energy. Suddenly I heard the whistle of an incoming shell and I ducked. After the explosion I stood up and I found there was no horse…it vanished. I walked towards the site and after about fifty yards I found only small pieces of the animal.”

The sadness in his eyes was obvious and symbolic of a conflict that claimed thousands of innocent lives and how peace can be destroyed so abruptly. He summed this up calmly a few moments later when he remarked, “Bosnia is a place of beautiful people…but many beautiful people died.” This story and the manner in which Major Ezaz delivered it was probably the most striking moment of our conversation.

There were some incidents of redemption however, amidst the chaos and heartache of the conflict. Major Ezaz and his colleagues often experienced very positive relations with local civilians. He and his colleagues would buy chocolates from Zagreb and bring them back to Bihać to give to local children. He showed me a video of a group of kids gathered around the entrance to the UN camp and a number of soldiers dishing out the treats.

Sometimes people would bring food for the peacekeepers. He recalled one such moment when a small girl came to the fence around their base and presented him with a piece of bread. She had been sent by her mother who knew the soldiers had been struggling due to the severe shortage of supplies. As Ezaz told this story his face gleamed with a real fondness. He also spoke of the times he was invited for meals in local homes.

From our two conversations I have sensed a sincere feeling of responsibility he clearly felt towards the people he had been sent to help. In both Rwanda and Bosnia it became apparent that he made a real effort to get to know the local people as much as possible and to understand their struggles and their innocence in the war zones he entered.

Through the medium of Facebook he has even been able to reconnect with Bosnian friends he made during his time there. However, one of the most heartbreaking consequences of the conflicts, which became visible to him, was the breakdown of relationships.

“It was so sad – friends became enemies, families were torn apart, people were divorcing because of simple differences. I couldn’t understand why.”

Handing out gifts to local children in Bihac

I concluded by asking Major Ezaz what he considered to be the chief similarity between the situations he encountered in Rwanda and Bosnia. He replied without any hesitation;

“Ignorance. The leaders misled the masses and tricked them into believing they could wipe out a people. They tried to convince the masses they could remove and erase a whole people from society by killing. This is absolutely impossible – you cannot kill every member of one group. There will always be one voice left to stop it.” 

It is of course debatable whether the UN is that voice. On too many occasions their silence as an organisation has spoken volumes. However, I have come to learn from my conversations with Major Ezaz that despite what I may think of the UN as a collective decision-making entity, there is no doubt that it is often represented on the ground by a fearless and committed group of individuals of all nationalities, and it was a privilege to meet and speak with one of these individuals in Chittagong, Bangladesh.

I thanked the peacekeeper turned Director of Security for his time once again and for another fascinating insight into the experiences that come from wearing the famous blue beret of the UN.

Major Ezaz finally left Bosnia in November 1995, after one year and four months. He admitted to feeling a little let down by the mission and has since questioned its motives. In his mind the Bosnian Muslims had been left to fight and save themselves, in what was often an unequal contest. He exclaimed quite frankly,

“The people of Bosnia eventually accepted that Europe was not going to help them.”

In the end Bihać was effectively liberated by the joint effort of Croat and Bosnian Muslim forces in the summer of 1995. Today it is a growing tourist destination due to its location on the River Una, and peace has gradually been restored.

Once again I’d like to express my since thanks and gratitude to Retired Major Ezaz Afzal for taking the time to speak to me and also allowing me to use some of his personal photos. I hope I have done your story justice and represented it accurately.