In line with the Dayton Peace Accord, it fell to a company of the Fusiliers to oversee the return of 58,000 Bosnian Serbs to ravaged Mrkonjic Grad, a town with unco-operative leaders and no infrastructure.
Here's one for all service-oriented managers. A customer phones in to say that he's found a dead cow in his living room. Do you (a) dispatch your best cow-removal squad sharpish?, (b) say you'll get back to him while you ponder the place of deceased ruminants in your corporate culture?, (c) explain that you're terribly sorry but cow disposal, while it might just fall within your remit, encourages a culture of dependency? By now, most business people are probably thinking, 'What an absurd question.
My company offers a diversified range of financial services and I'll have nothing to do with bovine corpses.' Nevertheless the dead cow represents a real live management problem. This particular conundrum comes from an army operation in central Bosnia. And by the way the correct answer was (c). The man was neither wounded nor starving: it was up to him and his neighbours to dispose of the unfortunate steer.
On 3 February this year, in line with the Dayton Peace Accord, the Bosnian Croat army withdrew from an area of central Bosnia known as The Anvil, paving the way for the region's population, some 58,000 Bosnian Serbs, to return from Banja Luka, 30 miles to the north. They would be returning to a mess. Although the departing army may not quite have razed the buildings and ploughed the earth with salt, they had done a pretty thorough job of looting the place. Not just the familiar VCR and stereo kind either: they'd taken plumbing, electricity transformers and telephone exchanges.
In the main town, Mrkonjic Grad, 70% of the houses may have been deemed habitable but the definition was somewhat loose: in this context, habitable meant with walls and roof. Windows and doors are not, after all, strictly necessary. Moreover, the area, which had once been in the front line, was littered with unexploded ordnance above ground and landmines below.
The First Battalion of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers' Y Company, some 140 men, had monitored the Croatian withdrawal and remained in Mrkonjic Grad to oversee the return of the civilian population. Given the state of the town, the army had planned a phased return. First in would be the enablers, the government in exile, engineers, electricians and the like.
They would repair the infrastructure as best they could. Next would be those such as bakers, who would ensure that the essentials were available. Finally, 45 days later, the population was to return in an orderly and staggered fashion.
The flaw in this strategy soon revealed itself. Homeowners not in the A or B list of returnees realised that, were someone ahead of them to take a fancy to their house in the 45 days before their own return, there would be precious little they could do about it. To shift squatters - hard enough in the UK - would be nigh impossible in an anarchic country, especially one where assault rifles are two a penny.
So although the Fusiliers were using radio broadcasts to paint a dismal picture of the town, its former citizens came swarming back. This left the army, three days in, facing over 2,000 people when they were prepared for only 400, in a town lacking, among other things, electricity, water and telephones. Says Paul Manson, the liaison officer who was the main point of contact between the army and the aid agencies, 'They were coming back to a vacuum; there was no infrastructure at all'.
One of the army's first jobs was to provide a bewildered civilian population with information. Company commander Major Phillip Macey explains: 'We set up an information centre in the old Croat army HQ (one of the few buildings with doors and windows) and advertised its presence widely.
The centre provided a focus for military work and aid agencies as well as diverting refugees from the army's base.' But while the centre addressed some of the organisational problems, there was little it could do about the impending food crisis: a week's rations for 400 don't go very far with thousands, and, though the UNHCR in Banja Luka knew of the problem, food aid cannot be delivered on demand. The local aid minister wasn't much help either. Three days after the Bosnian Serbs had begun their return, he decided to open the food warehouse to the townsfolk, who promptly stripped it bare. The first the army knew of this was when people were spotted running in the street laden down with food.
The anarchy and misery it produced, especially for the elderly whom soldiers kept finding robbed and abandoned, prompted action. At this point, says Macey, 'We took the town over'. While the local oligarchy wrung its collective hands, the Fusiliers set about managing things. Here they were gambling - and fortunately they were right - on the locals having some respect for the military, which had in reality little power to enforce orders.
By the fifth day some food had arrived from Banja Luka, and was stored in the now well-guarded warehouse. The people were then told to 'come and get it'. This gave the army an idea of who constituted the town's population. Soldiers were relieved to learn there were very few small children, given their vulnerability to disease and famine.
Ration cards were then printed, but as the army's presence was not intended to be a long-term one, food distribution was handed over to the local authorities as quickly as possible. Though this also fed an element of corruption, it was considered more important to let the Bosnian Serbs get on with it to avoid the danger of leaving behind a population unable to look after itself when the army left. A similar system was employed for the distribution of oil heaters, a matter of urgency given there was no electricity. Applicants had to register at the information centre, have the legitimacy of their need verified, then collect their heaters.
The emphasis, from the outset, was on providing assistance only where necessary. Says Major John Colicutt, the battalion's press officer, 'We could have helped on everything but we didn't want to create a dependent population.'
The Fusiliers feel that much of what needed to be done was hampered by local officials, who had interests of their own. Setting up baking facilities, for example, involved first bullying the mayor, then finding one baker and verbally browbeating him into action. But kickstarting a second bakery, with a capacity of 4,000 loaves per day rather than 500, created problems.
The local minister for food owned the first, and was not keen to see his monopoly broken.
To maintain the status quo, the minister's cronies had, it was claimed, leaned a little on the former manager of the larger bakery, with the result that he was too frightened to come forward. The army found itself obliged to recruit staff for the second bakery and set up in competition with the first to break its stranglehold.
The better to gauge the problems that needed attention, the army put its officers on the beat. In addition to meeting with various members of the town's leadership, they would walk around, noting what needed to be done. This first-hand information provided a handy check against the local leadership's requests for aid. Visiting aid agency representatives, upon meeting the local ministers, would typically find a hysterical man painting an inflated picture of what was required. Says Macey, 'If we knew aid agency representatives were in the area, we'd connect up with the minister for aid and the aid people would meet the minister with a liaison officer in the chair'.
Official intransigence and self-interest were to be recurring problems.
With the food supply more or less sorted out, attention turned to the local hospital. This was a more difficult but less pressing problem since the British army and Danish mobile hospital could between them provide clinics to treat diseases such as diabetes. But the local hospital had nothing. And when a hospital-bound consignment of drugs eventually arrived, the hospital director - and the drugs - skipped town for Belgrade. 'We went to the town hall to get very angry,' recalls Macey. 'Work gangs were needed and there were plenty of idle able-bodied men. We said to the mayor "You've got to sort this out", hoping he still had the respect of his citizens. Miraculously he did.'
With the mayor on board, matters improved markedly: doctors and nurses were identified and work gangs set about clearing the hospital, with army engineers providing expertise where necessary. When a delivery of drugs came from Banja Luka, the hospital could set up casualty areas and start work, ending the army's need to provide all emergency cover.
Beside being prone to corruption and a certain work shyness, local bureaucrats were also real sticklers for the rules. A highly distressing by-product of the conflict was that there were a large number of bodies to be buried. Local protocol dictated that the police chief had to investigate and that death certificates had to be obtained from Banja Luka. 'Our reaction was,' says Macey, 'that's nice in peacetime but not practical in war. We just had to say: "Let's get a priest and bury them".'
By the beginning of March, when the Warwickshire and Sherwood Foresters replaced the Fusiliers, things in Mrkonjic Grad had improved significantly.
Supply chains for food were functioning and plans had been made to rebuild civic amenities such as schools. The main problem, that of an organisational vacuum, had been solved, more or less. A reluctant civilian management had been kickstarted and made to realise that if it wasn't going to take responsibility for the town, no one else would. Mrkonjic Grad, four months after the departure of the majority of army personnel, still has a small military presence, though its role is more one of keeping an eye on local government than of providing security. Local farms have begun growing food, the water supply and some electricity have been restored. The town's economy is up and running, albeit along lines which have more in common with feudal commerce than a modern country. Little trade takes place beyond the locality although there is a fair amount to be bought on the black market.
With the 20:20 hindsight, Macey addresses the question of whether things could have been done better. He thinks the answer is probably positive, on two counts at least. First, given the local government's sloth-like responses, he believes the army could have been more proactive at the outset, instead of waiting for local action. Then, after experience of the administration's modus operandi, Macey believes he and his colleagues should have been far more alert to corruption and nest-feathering.
It is, of course, also worth asking whether, had the British military not been there, the Bosnian Serbs might not have muddled through to restore a semblance of normality. Macey accepts that this would probably have happened, but has one important caveat. 'Though the fundamentals were there,' he says, 'there was a clear lack of any leadership and co-ordination. They'd have got there in the end but it would have taken a lot longer. A lot of people would have died.'.