Diary

Owen Bennett-Jones

People who work at night are obsessed by their inability to sleep in the day. Night-shifts are incomplete without a desultory conversation about the best way to order one’s hours. ‘Desultory’ because the conversation has taken place countless times before. Should you stay up for a couple of hours alter the night shift so as to achieve near-terminal exhaustion before sleeping? Or maybe it’s best to sleep immediately for two hours, go for a swim and then sleep again for the rest of the day. Then again, you could go to the Bush House dormitory for an hour or two in the night and try to sleep amid the snores and coughs of, among others, Bulgar, Burmese and Bangladeshi colleagues. The permutations are endless but as we all know, the net results are the same: people who regularly work nights are pale, bad-tempered and die of coronaries in their fifties.

Bush House, home of the BBC World Service, is full of thirty and forty-year-olds doing night-shifts. Mine is aimed at producing a programme called Newshour which is broadcast live at five in the morning. The preparations for the programme begin at nine the previous evening. To be more precise, they begin the moment one of the programme’s three producers sets eyes on you. ‘Great, you’re early, look, I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve got a minister in the Liberian Government on the phone, he says he’ll do an interview but it has to be straight away because he wants to go to bed.’ (Don’t we all.) I never like interviewing people about Liberia. Liberian politics are waist-deep in blood. A London cab-driver recently tried to sell me a video which, he claimed, showed the former dictator Samuel Doe being tortured and then shot by his captors. The first political snuff movie. The interview gets underway and the Liberian minister, in time-honoured fashion, accuses his opponents of wrong-doing and himself admits no fault. I sometimes wonder why British politicians spend so much money being trained in how to handle the media. Politicians from developing countries don’t have the benefits of expensive advice from media experts in West London but they are just as capable of avoiding answering questions.

Once the Liberian minister is dealt with and on his way to bed, we return to our computers to see what’s new in the world. The news according to Reuters, the Associated Press and the other major news organisations is always dreadful: dispossessed refugees with nowhere to go; political killings which will remain unpunished; reports from Africa where the ghastly mix of war and famine daily claims more victims. It’s a minute-by-minute stream of blood-stained information on starvation, suffering and injustice.

The good news, though, is even worse: silly little articles about rediscovered family heirlooms, a recurrent story (it comes up about once a year) about a pike in a Russian river that supposedly ate a labrador (the dog’s owner saw the incident, caught the pike and cut it open to find the dog inside and still alive) – according to Tass the story is a myth. The news agencies are also given to running features about Russian fishermen gorging themselves on caviar. These attempts to lighten the tone of the world news invariably fail.

People working nights eat breakfast three times a day. I never feel up to a proper meal; and the problem is compounded by the offerings of the newly-privatised Bush House canteen. Full of enthusiasm for their new contract, the caterers have taken to producing anomalous dishes like Afghan Pork Goulash. It will be Hindu Beef Curry next. There are compensations, however. All the bosses are safely tucked up at home and consequently unable to hold meetings that require one’s attendance. Better still, when the British Lions are playing the All Blacks you don’t have to get up at four o’clock to watch the game – you’re up already. And you can also watch bizarre things like the satellite feeds of hazy infra-red pictures of Mogadishu being bombed by the Americans.

The Pentagon briefings about that operation explained that the UN forces in Somalia were trying to arrest and try General Aideed. Under whose jurisdiction was utterly unclear Happily, it’s unlikely to be a problem because the UN is too inefficient to catch him. One afternoon recently an ITN crew contacted General Aideed and interviewed him. That same evening the UN troops, wanting to find the General, launched a full-blown military assault. He slipped the net. If an ITN reporter can locate the General with a couple of phone calls ...

More important, why shouldn’t the UN be talking to General Aideed rather than trying to detain him? After all, they talked to the Khmer Rouge. And they’ve been talking to Radavan Karadzic and his Croatian equivalent Mate Boban. What’s so different about General Aideed? With the recent bombings in Mogadishu the UN has managed both to kill an unspecified number of innocent civilians and to turn the people of Mogadishu against them. All this in a failed attempt to detain a man who they should be negotiating with.

Points along these lines were made to me recently by a man who frequently telephones the Newshour office in the middle of the night. We call him the ‘Toronto Somali’. Generally speaking, no one congenial rings you at work at three in the morning. The worst calls come from the spouses of errant colleagues. In my time I have had to deal with two such calls. On both occasions the suspicious party came right to the point, ‘Is such and such a person working with you tonight?’ ‘No,’ I had to reply each time, ‘not tonight.’ At this point you can expect a long pause followed by a sad and ominous: ‘thank you very much, that’s all I wanted to know.’ Happily, the Toronto Somali isn’t trying to find out where his wife is spending the night: he is upset about our coverage of Somalia. Normally telephone calls from fanatics are quite good fun. There is nothing like a furious Croat from Chicago to keep one alert. Their arguments are normally paper-thin, but not always. I now barely pick up the phone for fear of finding the Toronto Somali on the other end. He records every edition of Newshour and, what’s worse, has the tapes at the ready. So when I confidently assure him that ‘none of my colleagues would have broadcast that,’ he can – and does – there and then play a tape to prove me wrong.

And he’s right about the fact that the events in Somalia over the last year have exposed the UN’s inability to organise a military campaign. Of course it’s difficult to co-ordinate troops from different countries with different levels of training. And yes, the problem is compounded by the UN’s sinecure-ridden bureaucracy. A Security Council ambassador said recently that setting up a permanent UN command structure would turn out to be five Fijian generals sitting in a New York office watching CNN all afternoon. However that may be, if he’s not prepared to stick his neck out and press for a UN standing army, Boutros Ghali should at least attempt to sort out his military command. If he doesn’t do it, there will only be more unnecessary conflicts.

The UN launched its recent attack on Mogadishu in response to the killing of 23 Pakistani troops by General Aideed. That itself was a response to the Pakistani killing of over twenty Aideed supporters. The initial killings occurred when the Pakistanis had been patrolling a district of Mogadishu controlled by Aideed. They went into a radio station loyal to the General and a crowd gathered outside The atmosphere became increasingly tense and the Pakistanis decided they needed help. This was between 10.30 and 11 in the morning. They issued a Mayday call over their radios asking for back-up from the Italian contingent in town. The Italians bowled up at five in the afternoon, by which time more than fifty people were dead. I can get quite worked up as I brood on these matters through the night with nothing to distract me and often develop the urge to give a thorough-going verbal bashing to the incompetent UN officials. Happily I often have the chance to do just that. It’s extraordinary who you can reach on the phone with a bit of persistence.

Boutros Ghali recently made a trip to the Far East: his schedule showed him to be in Vietnam. One of the Newshour producers made a call on spec to the only decent hotel in Hanoi and in as imperious a voice as he could muster, asked for the Secretary-General. Poor old Boutros Ghali was asleep in bed. In the circumstance he acted with remarkably good grace: he agreed to an interview there and then. I asked him about the UN operation in Cambodia, which at the time appeared to be in all sorts of trouble. UN peacekeepers were being shot and held hostage and the Khmer Rouge wouldn’t have anything to do with the peace process. As it happened all these obstacles were overcome. In fact, the inadequacies of UN policy towards Somalia are all the more apparent in the light of the success in Cambodia.

The UN should know by now the elements involved in restoring at least some civil order to a country. After all, if they can pull it off in Cambodia, they can pull it off anywhere. At least 90 per cent of the Cambodian population turned out to vote. The Khmer Rouge, which threatened to disrupt the election, failed to do so. The UN’s decision to keep them involved in the negotiating process for as long as possible was fiercely criticised by John Pilger and others, but in the event the strategy was vindicated. For the time being anyway, Pol Pot has been denied a decisive role in Cambodian politics. These are great (and unforeseen) achievements. And they rest on a solid basis of diplomatic and military effort. First, far from trying to detain Cambodia’s leaders, the UN gathered them together to sign the Paris Peace Accord of October 1991. This gave the UN legitimacy. And then the international community came together to back the UN effort. The transition process in Cambodia has involved the deployment of 22,000 troops and cost $2 billion. That military presence in the country gave the UN the authority it required.

Why can’t the UN now draw the appropriate lessons and apply them elsewhere? Two factors were crucial: the political groundwork and the military commitment. Earlier this year the UN came tantalisingly close to establishing peace in Angola. Intense diplomatic pressure had eventually persuaded the MPLA Government and the Unita rebels to lay their weapons aside and take their differences to the ballot box. International observers declared the elections free and fair – the MPLA won a narrow victory. But the process then unravelled, Unita refused to accept defeat and the war is once more in full swing. Of course, Unita should take most of the blame but the UN also failed. It failed to establish itself as a military force to be reckoned with and consequently it failed to carry out its objective of disarming the rival armies before the elections took place. It will be decades before Angola has as good an opportunity to end its civil war.

In Bosnia some of the political groundwork has been done by Lord Owen and Cyrus Vance. But it’s been futile without military commitment. Since the Bosnian Serbs and Croats view the UN forces in Bosnia with contempt, they have felt no need to make any serious political commitments or compromises. Western policy not only lacks commitment, it is also dishonest. The West has decided to let the local forces in Bosnia fight it out. But Western leaders are not prepared to admit this. The result is that the Bosnian Muslims are resisting a political settlement. As long as the Muslims have any hope of Western action, they will not settle. President Clinton talks vaguely about lifting the arms embargo and British ministers from time to time issue portentous statements declaring that aggression won’t pay. Western leaders should either back up their assertions with troops on the ground or admit that the Muslims have been abandoned. That at least would enable serious negotiations to get underway.

After the Gulf War John Major pushed the Americans, the French and the Turks to join him in establishing a safe haven for the Kurds in Northern Iraq. And unlike its pathetic counterparts in Bosnia, it is a safe haven. While Saddam Hussein’s forces continually probe and even break into the protected area, in general terms it has held. This is surely a splendid way to make use of the West’s overweight military capacity in the post-Cold War era. From the start of the Bosnian war John Major should have insisted on safe havens for threatened communities on all three sides.

The full extent of the UN’s failure over Bosnia was brought home to me recently by an interview I did with Andre Erdos, Hungary’s UN Ambassador who sits on the Security Council. He was talking shortly after voting in favour of the Security Council resolution on the establishment of a war-crimes tribunal for former Yugoslavia. This, he said, amounted to a strong political message which would tame the forces of violence in Bosnia. Did he know how the war criminals were to be identified? He did not. Did the UN agree with the US Administration in describing President Milosevic as a war criminal? He wasn’t sure. Would President Milosevic be arrested next time he attended international negotiations? Mr Erdos rather doubted it. So does the UN have the faintest idea as to the implications of the resolution it passed? ‘That’s putting it rather bluntly,’ Mr Erdos averred, ‘but no, not the faintest idea.’

One of the problems of working for BBC World Service programmes like Newshour is that no one in Britain listens to them. That’s not strictly true. If you broadcast at night you discover that there are a surprisingly large number of insomniacs around with their radios on throughout the night. Nevertheless, if, for example, a Security Council ambassador self-destructs on Radio 4 or on television something of a fuss ensues. Bosses congratulate you on the interview; friends and colleagues mention that they heard it. Other media outlets carry the story. On the World Service you are broadcasting in a vacuum. Newshour’s audience is huge – something like twenty million – but we’d never know it. Interviews are broadcast and, bar the Toronto Somali and his like, that’s the last you hear of them. It’s probably no bad thing. The media are famously self-obsessed and there are noticeably fewer prima donnas in Bush House than in other parts of the business. The most famous praise for the World Service in recent times came from Mikhail Gorbachev at the time of the failed coup and from the Beirut hostages on their release. This all went down very well in Bush House with staff talking of how the battles with their bio-rhythms were at last receiving public acknowledgment. But even then there was a nagging doubt. After all, neither Gorbachev nor the hostages were in much of a position to choose what they listened to. Could it be that people have to be chained to a wall before acknowledging the World Service?