"The Goražde mission is by far the hardest I have ever done..."
On the 8th of May 2017 (Norwegian Veterans’ Day) 11 personnel from the NORMEDUNIT in Gorazde 1995 were awarded the Norwegian Armed Forces’ Medal for Defence Service Abroad.
A British Battalion Commander's perspective on what happened in Goražde in the spring of 1995.
Name: Jonathon Riley (40 years old in 1995)
Position: Force commander for the British 1st battalion The Royal Welch Fusiliers, part of the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1995.
Serviced in Goražde from March to August 1995.
Had a Norwegian medical and surgical unit under his command.
On 1 March 1995, 1st battalion The Royal Welch Fusiliers takes over UN responsibility for the Bosnian town Goražde. At this time, the town has around 20,000 inhabitants, mostly Bosnian Muslims. There is a Bosnian-Muslim army inside Goražde, while Bosnian-Serbian forces surround the town. Some years earlier, the Muslims and the Serbs had lived peacefully side-by-side, now they are bitter enemies, shooting at each other.
The British Battalion is there to observe and to assure that the Serbian troops stay loyal to the fragile agreement of not attacking Goražde. The battalion has 500 soldiers and is supported by a Norwegian medical and surgical unit of eleven people. The Norwegians are fully integrated and under the command of lieutenant colonel Jonathon Riley, an experienced officer in the British armed forces. He is a tough, firm and unconventional officer, and these qualities will prove useful in the time to come.
"The first weeks were relatively calm. It was cold and a lot of snow in the area, which resulted in less combat action", Riley says.
Indications of an attack
But throughout spring, the situation becomes more and more intense. The Serbs have already taken hostages in the capital Sarajevo, and they increase pressure on other Bosnian-Muslim enclaves in the country. Goražde is one of these enclaves, and the Bosnian-Serbian troops around the town are heavily armed, but also marked by heavy drinking and poor training and leadership.
"There was more and more shooting towards the town, and we had indications that the Serbs eventually would attack Goražde", Riley says.
The British UN battalion and the Bosnian army inside the town prepare and strengthen the defence line around Goražde. Then, on 25 May, the Serbs attack observation posts by the town and manage to take some British soldiers as hostages. But the UN force and the Bosnian army are prepared.
"The Serbian attack was poorly coordinated, so we succeeded in preventing the Serbs from getting into town. We also bought the Bosnian army in Goražde enough time to strike back and stop the Serbian attack. The British hostages were also released not long after", he says.
But the danger is far from over. During the next weeks, shots and grenades rain in over the town, practically trapping the inhabitants and the UN personnel. The British commander faces the most challenging and toughest situation of his entire career.
"It was an unreal situation to be in, and Goražde was perhaps the most unsafe place in the world at this time. All day long, there was shooting at the town, and at night there could not be any visible lights, because then the Serbs would shoot directly at it", Riley says.
"We were on our own, and it was a very lonely and wearing feeling. It was as if a dark and heavy mist had come down on the town. Everyone felt it, both us and the civilians."
Prevented a massacre
The UN personnel need to be constantly updated on the current situation, and Riley has daily contact with liaison officers from both the Bosnian and Serbian army.
"I stayed in camp outside the town every day and went into town in the dark every night to talk to people."
Riley works almost every night and sleeps during daytime. The fear that the Serbs will manage to take the town lies as a constant threat to Riley and the others.
"If the Serbs had succeed in doing so, they would have done the same as they did in Srebrenica: Killed the men and the boys, and forced the women out of town", he says.
As neutral observers, the UN personnel could have done little if the Serbs had taken Goražde. But the stubborn Lieutenant Colonel keeps his head cold and pushes the UNPROFOR leadership to make them realise the seriousness in the situation. Eventually, the leadership have had enough of the "annoying" force commander and send a British SAS Special Force to Goražde to assess Riley. However, the SAS force quickly concludes that the commander knows what he is doing.
And Riley continues to break all custom, and he contacts politicians and decision-makers directly. Then one day he gets a telephone call. At the other end of the line is the British Prime Minister John Major. The prime minister wants a situation report from Goražde. Where many other officers would use vague, diplomatic courtesy phrases, Riley does not hesitate and tells the prime minister exactly how critical the situation is. The tactic is successful.
"It led to the United Kingdom sending a mobile brigade to southern Croatia and a British artillery company towards Sarajevo," says Riley.
The British offensive puts pressure on the Serbs, and at the beginning of July, the UN succeeds in negotiating a safe transport route out of Goražde. The people in Goražde are no longer trapped in the town. Throughout the summer, the situation calms down, and at the end of August, Jonathon Riley leaves the town, as one of the last UN personnel.
"It was a liberating feeling to be able to leave. And at that time I was not afraid of what would happen to Goražde, because I knew the situation had reversed. NATO would have attacked if the Serbs had challenged the town", he said.
During the dark weeks, none of the UN personnel were seriously injured – which Riley calls a "miracle". The efforts of the Norwegian medical unit were crucial.
"The Norwegian unit was fully integrated into our battalion, and they were part of the family. They were also important for our morale, because our soldiers knew they would get a good treatment from well-trained personnel if they were injured. The medical unit also treated two soldiers who had entered a mine field, and treated the soldiers so they did not have to amputate", says Riley, now a highly decorated Major General.
The unconventional officer thinks it is high time that the Norwegian personnel from Goražde receive recognition at home in Norway.
"Your country should be proud of them. Goražde was a terrible place. I have later served in Iraq and Afghanistan, but the Goražde mission was by far the hardest I have ever done. People who weren’t there, can never understand how bad it was", says Riley.
The British Major General will be taking part in the medal ceremony in Oslo on 8 May.
"I'm looking forward to seeing them again, and I think it will be a very emotional day", he says.
Article by Anders Fjellestad
Photo: Olav Standal Tangen www.forsvaret.no
Copyright © 2008 Jonathon Riley