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One-on-one interview with DCOMSFOR
Maj. Gen. Roger Duburg

By 2nd Lt. Alexandre Barb
First published in
SFOR Informer#115, June 13, 2001

As hes about to leave the theatre after more than a one-year tour, Maj. Gen. Roger Duburg, DCOMSFOR, gave an exclusive interview to the SFOR Informer. He mentioned the political and military situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina, as well as the future he foresees for the country.

SFOR Informer Sir, you now reach the end of your one-year tour in Bosnia and Herzegovina. As DCOMSFOR, what is your global estimation of the progress made since you took that position?

Maj. Gen. Duburg, DCOMSFOR That question would lead me to think that theres a link from cause to effect between my appointment and the progresses made; fortunately, it is not. So, I think that its a very difficult question to answer. Progress has been achieved, for sure, but not always as fast as we had hoped. Our global feeling wavers between satisfaction regarding true success and frustration in front of slow progress in certain fields.

In concrete terms, what is the progress?

I cant directly answer your question, because we are still influenced by last springs events that clearly showed that not everybody is ready for reconciliation. The events in Herzegovina first, but also more recently in Trebinje and Banja Luka, do show that belonging to an ethnic group is one of the first criteria that determines the behaviour of many people here.

Did you anticipate such violence?

No. The demonstrations didnt surprise us, but we were amazed by the quick mobilisation of the demonstrators in Mostar during the first operation toward the bank (the Hercegovacka Banka), as well as in other places. We didnt foresee the scale of such reaction, because we thought that, six years after the peace agreement, things had cooled down.

What role can SFOR play in resolving such a crisis?

When I arrived here, all the international organisations thought that the presence of SFOR was still essential, but I wasnt sure of it at all. Today, I am, unfortunately, convinced of it. The situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina is stable, but far from being stabilised. Our presence, and sometimes our action, is essential to the continuation of the work of international organisations in charge of the civilian aspects of the peace agreement.

The downsizing of many contingents, American, Russian or German, has been the main topic of recent discussions. Is SFOR still able to fulfil its mission efficiently?

Yes is the answer, with a doubt, as the downsizing is not the result of coincidences but of well thought-out and long-planned measures. In todays situation, you only know too late when youve been too far. But, if I can put your mind at ease, SFOR can efficiently fulfil its mission after that downsizing. These reductions are firstly adjustments of units, materials or heavy equipment that are no longer needed here.

Do these adjustments mean that other troop reductions are conceivable?

Is another downsizing possible today? No, since we couldnt reduce more. But it would be desirable. At the end, SFOR must completely leave the country. The question is when, and at what rate? Thats a problem that was issued during the recurring six-month review, by the NATO hierarchy and, as a final decision, by the North Atlantic Council (NAC) and its ministers.

If a new crisis arose in the Balkans, for example in Macedonia, what would be the strategic choices?

Thats first of all a political matter. More and more we notice that the latest events in Macedonia are followed with attention by the international community, NATO and the European Union. The numerous visits that Lord Robertson (NATO secretary general) and Javier Solana (in charge of the Foreign and Common Security Policy of Europe) paid to Skopje, do show that we dont feel unconcerned.

To show a general overview, are you optimistic for the future of Bosnia and Herzegovina and, in general, for the future of south-eastern Europe?

I spent three years in the former Yugoslavia, and I always try carefully not to be optimistic or pessimistic, or to bear a judgement about people. One can be frustrated, unhappy, impatient or sometimes, on the contrary, enthusiastic. These are emotional reactions that dont help to solve the problems. I also think that we sometimes forget too quickly that the citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina got through a dreadful war, during which about five percent of the population physically disappeared.

A high percentage of that population left the country, maybe never to return, and half of the people are displaced persons. They are persons whom we cant blame (for trying) to forget all what they lived through. I would say that the way they survive now is the consequence of these years of drama. The only acknowledgement that we can make is that, our involvement, the involvement of the international community in the civilian aspect of the peace agreement, is still essential.

For you personally, sir, what is the best memory of your tour?

I dont have any particular memory during this year; but the most impressive thing that I have seen during this tour is the camaraderie that links SFOR soldiers within the headquarters, and the meetings that we have with each other in the field, either with members of SFOR, international organisations or citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina. I also had some sad moments when I went to see exhumation sites or visit displaced persons that try to set up again and live in wretched poverty. In these moments you ask yourself questions about our role and about the relative success of our mission.

We always try at the SFOR Informer to be as close as possible to the soldiers in the field. Did you not feel, here in Butmir, cut off from the troops?

No I dont have that feeling, because, not only me of course, but also COMSFOR and his main deputies, we often travel, we meet a lot of soldiers and we have permanent and direct links with the divisions. So no, I dont have that feeling, but you should ask the soldiers on the ground.

The General Framework Agreement for Peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina (GFAP) states that one of the tasks of SFOR is to negotiate with the Armed Forces in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Hasnt it been particularly difficult in these latest months?

Yes indeed. But it has been a full success: all the efforts of the international community, and those of SFOR in particular, prevented the Croat military component of the Federation Army (VF-H) to intervene in that eminently political issue. It was nothing else but an attempt of secession or divorce within the Federation. We managed to convince the Bosnian-Croat military that they should stay out of that question. Since the very first day, we gave our support to the legitimate government of the Federation, issued after the elections of Nov. 11, 2000. This country is actually living in the first democratic transition of its recent history. We must support that evolution and support those who occupy, at the moment, the key positions; otherwise the nationalist parties will come back, with all the drifting off and the dramatic consequences.

The professionalisation is one among the qualities that you expect from the armed forces. What do you mean by this word?

We can hope the soldiers should be less sensitive to emotions and nationalist passions, and I also mean the important downsizing of troops. Firstly, because Bosnia and Herzegovina is at peace, then because the country doesnt face any military threat to its borders. Finally, because it doesnt have the financial resources to support a military instrument both too numerous and of which the usefulness remains to be defined.

General, you have often been seen in the field with many representatives of international organisations, recently in Bijeljina; how is SFOR working with the international community?

The mission of SFOR is to further the action of civilian organisations in civilian aspects. So co-ordination is the first virtue to be cultivated in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Especially with the multiplication of organisations whose mandates and missions often tie up. The more we meet each other, the more we are co-ordinated, the more we develop our mutual links, and the results for the local population will be better.

Carla Del Ponte, International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY) prosecutor, regularly criticises SFOR for its lack of eagerness to arrest the Persons Indicted For War Crimes (PIFWCs); she even wants to set up a special team of policemen. What would your answer be to her about that?

Please let me make three comments about this: firstly, it belongs to the authorities of this country to arrest the indicted persons. Ive noticed the total lack of co-operation of these authorities, as the total lack of success in their mission. If there are people to be criticised, there are first of all those who are in charge of that mission. Secondly, SFOR is the only organisation that really made any arrests. Thirdly, I would simply say that they are people who know the problems and shut up for understandable reasons of security and mission efficiency, and those who are not aware at all and try to maintain wrong debates.

As for SFOR, isnt the short length of a tour (four or six months) a heavy handicap in that field as in others? Cant we imagine, on an assumption that SFOR will remain here for many years, longer appointments?

As for the units in the field, I think that everyone agrees to say that four or six months is a good period. We mustnt forget that these soldiers live in operational conditions in sometimes relative comfort, and in dangerous conditions, now softened. On the other hand, some key positions require knowledge, relationships and trust in the representatives of the international organisations, or the authorities of the country. As for the headquarters officers, I think that they should stay longer. I think that one year is a good period. Personally, I didnt see many changes through the year. At the same time, one must turn over. Otherwise the routine sets in, and with it weariness and cynicism.

Tomorrow, sir, you will definitely leave the theatre. What would be your last message to the men and women of SFOR?

There will be two, if you agree. The first one is that you have to be convinced that our presence is not only useful but also essential. That usefulness is not necessarily immediately perceptible; but the spring events did show once more that the presence of an international force to the service of law was still, unfortunately, essential in this part of the world.

My second message is to be careful not to judge. The people of Bosnia and Herzegovina have just lived through a horrible war. Five years after, the fighting has stopped, but the war goals of some and of others were not necessarily achieved. The nationalist leaders are still active. We must give our simple help to reconciliation I dont mean to forget, but to reconcile in order that Bosnia and Herzegovina, as a state, lives in peace.

Related links: Commanders of SFOR, SFOR at Work