Colm Doyle: an Ir­ish peace­keeper in Bos­nia

Colonel Colm Doyle played a sig­nif­i­cant role in bro­ker­ing peace in the former Yu­goslavia in the 1990s and has now pub­lished an ac­count of those bru­tal times. He tells DE­CLAN POWER about his ex­tra­or­di­nary ca­reer

Irish Independent - Weekend Review - - ON THE ROAD -

‘As I sat there, I silently cursed, sud­denly un­der­stand­ing what was caus­ing the ag­i­ta­tion among the sol­diers around me. At that mo­ment, Gagovic looked at me and drew his pis­tol… my mouth was sud­denly very dry.”

This was Colm Doyle’s re­ac­tion when faced with what ap­peared to be a break­down in a deal he had ne­go­ti­ated be­tween Mus­lim and Serb forces in Bos­nia’s bloody war in the 1990s.

This was a war of un­her­alded fe­roc­ity that oc­curred with the break-up of Yu­goslavia into Croa­tia, Ser­bia and Bos­nia-Herze­gov­ina. If the eth­nic dif­fer­ences weren’t bad enough, the re­li­gious ones were to add fuel to the sec­tar­ian fire.

Catholics, Rus­sian-Ortho­dox and Mus­lims all fought for dom­i­nance in their re­gions and all com­mit­ted atroc­i­ties in vary­ing forms.

It’s not ev­ery Ir­ish sol­dier who has gone head to head with pres­i­dents, war­lords and war crim­i­nals in the pur­suit of peace, but Doyle is no or­di­nary Ir­ish sol­dier.

In the early 90s, while still only an of­fi­cer of com­man­dant rank (ma­jor equiv­a­lent) in the Ir­ish De­fence Forces, he had found him­self in charge of the Euro­pean Com­mu­nity Mon­i­tor­ing Mis­sion (ECMM) to the former Yu­goslavia, just be­fore it de­scended into the chaos of in­ter-eth­nic slaugh­ter.

This led to his be­com­ing what the famed BBC war re­porter Martin Bell was to later call “the prime wit­ness” into how the war in the Balkans be­gun and de­vel­oped. It was this knowl­edge that led Doyle to be­ing se­lected to be­come the spe­cial en­voy of Lord (Peter) Car­ring­ton, the former Bri­tish for­eign sec­re­tary who had been ap­pointed by the then EC to chair a peace con­fer­ence and me­di­ate be­tween the war­ring par­ties in the now bro­ken up Yu­goslavia.

To have any hope of mak­ing this work, Lord Car­ring­ton de­cided he needed some­one with a thor­ough knowl­edge of what was hap­pen­ing on the ground, par­tic­u­larly in Bos­nia where the city of Sarajevo was to cap­ture the world’s at­ten­tion.

He ad­dresses this in his re­cently pub­lished and long over­due book, Wit­ness to War Crimes, on his time in the Balkans and later tes­ti­fy­ing at the War Crimes Tri­bunal in the Hague.

The other qual­i­ties that Car­ring­ton de­cided that Doyle could bring to the ta­ble were im­pec­ca­ble cre­den­tials in me­di­a­tion, ne­go­ti­a­tion and im­par­tial­ity. While th­ese qual­i­ties had been ex­hib­ited with the ECMM, they had been fash­ioned and honed on peace­keep­ing mis­sions in Le­banon and Cyprus, as well as myr­iad of roles Doyle held in the Ir­ish Army.

Th­ese qual­i­ties and skills, cou­pled with an abil­ity to speak rea­son to chaos were what saved Doyle’s life when he found him­self fac­ing down the bar­rel of the pis­tol of Colonel Gagovic, an of­fi­cer of the Serb-dom­i­nated Yu­goslav Na­tional Army (JNA).

As was typ­i­cal dur­ing the Balkan wars, bloodshed was of­ten caused by mis­in­for­ma­tion which led to emo­tional over­re­ac­tions. In this case, Doyle had bro­kered a deal to al­low the safe tran­sit of JNA troops through Mus­lim-held lines.

Word came through on the JNA ra­dios that the deal had been bro­ken and JNA sol­diers were be­ing stripped, tor­tured and shot. An en­raged Colonel Gagovic held Doyle re­spon­si­ble for the sup­posed death of his men.


Doyle, how­ever, was re­ceiv­ing re­ports from his ECMM mon­i­tors es­cort­ing the JNA troops that while the troops had their weapons con­fis­cated, there were no deaths or atroc­i­ties.

Thus Doyle’s pow­ers of per­sua­sion were put to the ul­ti­mate test. His life and a ten­u­ous cease­fire were the prize. As he says: “I had of­ten won­dered how I might re­act as a sol­dier if faced with some­thing like this.”

True to his train­ing and in­stinct, Doyle stood his ground and con­vinced the pis­tol-wield­ing Gagovic that his in­for­ma­tion was in­ac­cu­rate and that he was the one with the up-to-date in­for­ma­tion.

Then, rather than plead or back down, the im­pla­ca­ble and un­armed Doyle ad­mon­ished the colonel. “My voice was trem­bling but I con­tin­ued stat­ing that if he con­tin­ued to point his pis­tol at me, I would have him ar­rested for threat­en­ing the life of Lord Car­ring­ton’s per­sonal rep­re­sen­ta­tive. He hes­i­tated, then slowly put his pis­tol back into its hol­ster and led me back in­side.”

This was all a far cry from 1963, when the then 17-year-old Colm Doyle was trav­el­ling with his fa­ther Frank to their home in Drogheda. Frank asked his son what he wanted to do when he left school.

Doyle elected to stay quiet, un­char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally so, as many of us who knew him later in his ca­reer might think. “I hadn’t a clue what to say,” Doyle re­calls as he chats to me on a sunny day at his brother Noel’s com­fort­able house in leafy Rath­gar… a mil­lion miles away philo­soph­i­cally from the tur­moil he was later to

see in his ca­reer. Third in a fam­ily of five boys and one girl, Colm Doyle was a twin to his re­cently de­ceased brother Frank. There was one girl, Mary, also a twin to his brother Michael. Trag­i­cally, Mary died young, leav­ing a house full of hurl­ing-mad boys.

Doyle’s fa­ther, be­ing the prag­matic pro­fes­sional civil ser­vant he was, sug­gested bank­ing and in­sur­ance as pos­si­ble ca­reer paths to his son. But they cut no ice with the young, emerg­ing sports en­thu­si­ast and out­doors­man that was later to be known to his troops as ‘The Doyler’.

“The Army was the one thing he men­tioned that caught my in­ter­est,” re­calls Doyle of that fate­ful con­ver­sa­tion with his fa­ther. As a re­sult, he quickly en­listed in the FCA, the then re­serve De­fence Force. Af­ter learn­ing the art of square-bash­ing, bull-shin­ing boots and heft­ing a ri­fle to his shoul­der, Doyle went on to win a place with the 39th Cadet Class at the De­fence Force Mil­i­tary Col­lege in the Cur­ragh.

“We were timetabled to the last minute of ev­ery day, told what to do and how to do it. This in­cluded train­ing men in weapons han­dling, shoot­ing, march­ing, plan­ning and the prin­ci­ples of lead­er­ship.”

Af­ter two years of be­ing packed with knowl­edge, the real mil­i­tary ed­u­ca­tion of Doyle be­gan un­der the stew­ard­ship of the ex­pe­ri­enced sergeants and cor­po­rals of the 12th In­fantry Bat­tal­ion in Clon­mel.

“I was lucky, th­ese men were solid, good NCOs (non-com­mis­sioned of­fi­cers), they taught me a lot about how to han­dle men and how to lead,” he re­calls.

By the time he was 21, Doyle was a pla­toon com­man­der, lead­ing 32 men on peace­keep­ing op­er­a­tions with the UN in Cyprus. At that stage, the con­flict had largely set­tled and for a young of­fi­cer, it was an ideal place to learn his trade. “It was per­fect for me re­ally, as we were over­seas, we had full man­power and equip­ment and were ei­ther train­ing or de­ployed on pa­trols and other op­er­a­tions. I learned a lot.”

But it was to be Le­banon where Doyle would re­ally get to grips with keys skills that not ev­ery pro­fes­sional sol­dier has the ap­ti­tude for, the ar­cane arts of me­di­a­tion and ne­go­ti­a­tion.

He was one of the first Ir­ish sol­diers to en­ter Le­banon in 1978 as part of the Ir­ish bat­tal­ion that would keep the peace there for 25 years. Six years later he re­turned, this time as UN Mil­i­tary Ob­server (UNMO).

Th­ese of­fi­cers would pa­trol the cease­fire lines be­tween Syria, Le­banon and Is­rael. It was de­mand­ing work and it was in the heat of Le­banon’s fur­nace that Doyle’s me­di­a­tion skills were forged.

“We were ac­cepted by all sides as we were un­armed and trav­elled only in pairs in soft-skinned jeeps. One day my­self and my part­ner were tasked with at­tend­ing to a stand-off be­tween heav­ily armed Nor­we­gian UN forces and the South Le­banese Army SLA (this was a proxy force cre­ated by Is­rael to act as a se­cu­rity buf­fer. Lo­cal Le­banese re­garded them the same as Ir­ish peo­ple did the Black and Tans).

“Things were very tense when we ar­rived with both sides fac­ing off each other in fir­ing po­si­tions. Luck­ily, I recog­nised one of the SLA sol­diers and greeted him with the words ‘Salam kaifa haloka?’, mean­ing ‘hello, how are you?’ He jumped down off his ve­hi­cle to smile and em­brace me, then gave an or­der to his sub­or­di­nates and the ten­sion was eased.”

It wouldn’t al­ways be such a for­tu­nate end­ing for Doyle. Dur­ing his time in the Balkans, he was to see much of the hu­man mis­ery wrought by war. Even when he left the Balkans, the Balkans didn’t leave him.

He was called back to tes­tify on up to seven dif­fer­ent oc­ca­sions at the war crimes tri­bunal in the Hague.

Deal­ing with men like Slo­bo­dan Milo­se­vic, Radovan Karadzic and Gen­eral Ratko Mladic, whose names be­came by­words for sav­agery, was to leave its mark on Doyle. Fol­low­ing the fi­nal court­room ses­sion that led to the con­vic­tion of Karadzic for war crimes, Doyle re­counts: “At the ses­sion’s end, I felt bruised and em­bat­tled… back alone in the wit­ness wait­ing room I felt a huge wave of emo­tion hit me… sud­denly I was in floods of tears. I couldn’t ex­plain it… I thought back to my year in Bos­nia and with this came the re­al­i­sa­tion that, de­spite our best ef­forts, lit­tle had been ac­com­plished.”


How­ever, per­haps again, it is the word­smith Martin Bell who can bet­ter sum up Colm Doyle’s Balkan odyssey. “It’s not that Doyle al­ways suc­ceeded, it’s that he never stopped try­ing… and in do­ing so, un­doubt­edly saved lives.”

Doyle went on to re­tire as a full colonel. I and oth­ers had the hon­our of serv­ing un­der him in De­fence Head­quar­ters. He is too much the loyal and pro­fes­sional sol­dier to be drawn on the mat­ter, but for those of us who served with him, it is a ma­jor bone of con­tention that this man was de­nied the Dis­tin­guished Ser­vice Medal

It has been said by many, in other coun­tries, that his work in the Balkans would have earned him many ac­co­lades and dec­o­ra­tions. But for Doyle, the im­por­tant thing has al­ways been set­ting the record straight.

“In March 2016, Karadzic was found guilty… of geno­cide and crimes against hu­man­ity. He was sen­tenced to 40 years im­pris­on­ment and I hoped that it would give some small sense of jus­tice and clo­sure to his vic­tims.”

De­clan Power is a former sol­dier and UN ad­vi­sor who now writes and com­ments on se­cu­rity and de­fence af­fairs. He is the au­thor of Siege at Jadotville


Quick rise through the ranks: Colonel Colm Doyle

Prime wit­ness: Doyle was in charge of the Euro­pean Com­mu­nity Mon­i­tor­ing Mis­sion (ECMM) to the former Yu­goslavia

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