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Westlake Books; ISBN 978-1-54084-935-9

 

For his 17th book Ewen Southby-Tailyour  has dug deep into his past to produce a novel based on his experiences in 1993-94 as a monitor with the European Community Monitoring Mission (ECMM) in the Former Republic of Yugoslavia and specifically in the so-called Republic of Serbian Krajina. He resigned in 1994 after being asked by his superiors to falsify daily reports concerning the breaking of a U.N. arms embargo then in force.

 

The book, says Ewen, is “90% true” and is based on contemporary characters, events and conversations. As the racy plot unfolds – a mixture of espionage, double-dealing and a love story – the difficulty for the reader is knowing where the author’s imagination has kicked in.

 

On the face of it, Ewen, always outspoken in real life, makes a series of controversial, headline-grabbing claims. The United States, Germany, France and Ukraine, he writes, set out to covertly aid and abet Croatian attempts to break the arms embargo and ethnically-cleanse Krajina of its 200,000 Serb inhabitants who had lived in the 6,500-square mile region for 500 years.

 

The core American aim, he asserts, was “the subjugation of the Serbs” and he charges President Bill Clinton with personally colluding with the Croatian President Franjo Tudman  ahead of the Croat Army invasion of Krajina.

 

The allegedly neutral ECMM monitors, for their part, were mostly biased and in the pay of EU intelligence agencies (he admits at the start of the book that he informally briefed MI6 in the UK while in Krajina). Many of the monitors were also corrupt or compromised by illicit liaisons with local girls. Out-of-control local Croat commanders were not above trying to kill ECMM members and their translators if they proved too nosey. And nearby Italy was in cahoots with the Serbs in Krajina as part of a desperate initiative to regain territory in the northern Adriatic region lost to Yugoslavia after World War 11.

 

This mixture of brutal realpolitik from a generation ago and an ongoing love story between the damaged British hero (a widower, ex-RN) of the book and his Croatian interpreter is an uneasy combination. It ensures that there are many diversions from the underlying plot to fill in blanks and explain the intricacies of Balkan history and politics. By the end, most of the bad guys have met a grisly fate – only for Ewen to complete the book with some Author’s Notes which underline how many of the key players in the rape of Krajina escaped justice at subsequent war crimes tribunals or in investigations.

 

To this reader, who covered the Balkan wars in the early 1990s as a foreign correspondent for an American newsmagazine and whose first involvement in the vicious ethnic conflict was to witness tens of thousands of Croats fleeing the old town of Vukovar in 1991 and seeing first-hand the dreadful trail of mindless destruction of property and crops that followed the Serbs territorial rampage across much of the Former Yugoslavia, Ewen’s perspective in this book of the Serbs as victims is, at times, challenging. As he also writes at one point, “there are no good guys out there.”

 

That said, the book is fluently written, with conviction, and is far more believable than Ewen’s one previous attempt at novel-writing. Whether it will appeal to a wide audience today remains to be seen; the Balkan wars and their ethnic cleansing have already been forgotten like a bad dream in the west of Europe. This reviewer hopes that conflict will not recur but this is a part of the world with very long living memories, often going back to the 14th century or earlier.

 

Ewen Southby-Tailyour has made a valiant effort to ensure that the European Union, at least, learns from its flaccid, often duplicitous, role in the Balkans in the 1990s. Writing a novel has allowed him to vent his frustrations in a way that a purely factual account of the ECMM operations in Former Yugoslavia might have inhibited. Still, that is a book that needs to be written.

 

by ROBIN KNIGHT