Trout & Grayling Report
by Oliver Burch
There was not so much fishing to write about this last month. As we all know, grayling don't mind cold weather once they have a little time to get used to it, so I would have been happy enough with frost or even snow, provided the rivers remained in condition. However, it turned out to be very different and the flood levels during this winter have made river fishing pretty well impossible for long periods. Some of the tributaries were briefly available for a few days. On the other hand the main Wye below Builth has been frustratingly out of action for three solid months now. My own angling activities this winter have mainly been confined to fishing for rainbow trout from clear spring-fed pools; the other stream-fed forest lakes, including our syndicate water, were frozen for more than 10 days before Christmas and later still full of muddy water. Once we had reached the solstice, 8 hours of light to 16 hours of depressing darkness, open air life was in any case somewhat restricted. I often wonder how my brother-in-law's family in Sweden manages to get through the dark months.
A few hours angling on commercial fisheries for twitchy catch and release rainbows does not exactly constitute engagement with nature in the wild, but lake fishing can be interesting at times and certainly better than sitting indoors. I spent some time at Woolaston with a five weight rod, floating line and a very long leader on which was mounted a size 18 Black Speck Nymph, casting into a low winter sun and letting the tiny fly sink deep before the leader would slide away. The fish were too nervous to take any larger fly, but it was amazing how the small hook would hold under pressure while yet another muscular rainbow would dash off dragging a drowned fly line behind it. The water temperature was around 4 degrees, so the trout were definitely by now in winter mode and at times a small Bloodworm would also work. It was mainly a matter of locating where the shoal was and letting the little red fly flutter down towards the bottom amongst them without retrieving at all. There are many ways of fishing lakes in winter. On another occasion with a cold wind blowing I even had a fish come up under a ripple and hit a little Snipe and Purple spider pulling round just under the surface.
After the New Year holidays I made a trip to the Glyncorrwg Ponds fishery in the hills behind Port Talbot, in order to plan a training day there next month. This was the day of Storm Eleanor and a major hazard driving down on the M4 had consisted of broken branches blown horizontally by the wind. "Why not have a fish in the pool while you are here?" the management kindly invited me. Thus I found myself standing on the dam throwing a very long line far out over the waves, which wasn't so difficult with the gale directly behind me. Despite the wind, it was not cold and every so often I could see the impressive black outline of a big trout very slowly head and tailing through the disturbed surface. Fishing was difficult using sunken flies, but eventually I got three from the top, all of them blue trout and the first fish of my year. One took a tiny Black Speck nymph fished round just below the surface, one on Bob Wyatt's Hare's Ear Emerger and one more on Bob Carnill's Shuttlecock Buzzer. On such a dark day, the small dry flies were quite invisible to me in that confusion of water, but if a rise showed as a patch of smooth water in about the right place I lifted the rod and a fish was there. I really hadn't expected to start January off using dry flies. Broadstone Fishery at Staunton near Monmouth also fished quite well with rainbows showing on the surface.
January on flowing water continued to be difficult. However, by the 7th the Irfon had come down to 0.70 metres on the Cilmery gauge. This is really still too high, but Lyn Davies, Rob Evans and I, all of us now badly affected by mid-winter cabin fever, felt we just had to get out and give it a go. It was a cold day, but the sun was bright and the river ran high and clear. It was hard fishing, but with the other two bugging while I wielded a trotting rod, occasionally resorting to a wee bit of Tenkara fishing, we managed to put a reasonable catch of grayling together. Unfortunately leaking waders and a wet leg had me gasping with cold on this occasion. High pressure and dry weather stayed with us for another week and while we were still waiting for the main Wye levels to fall, opportunities for grayling started to present themselves on the head waters and tributaries: the upper Wye above Builth, the Irfon, Ithon, Llynfi and the Monnow system. The Lugg and the Arrow were unfortunately still very high; once these springs are charged it takes many weeks for the levels to fall off again. Not wishing to waste any chances, I managed trips to the Monnow and the Ithon during this brief period. The lads and I also met to fish the upper Wye at Craig Llyn, where the water was running preternaturally clear as it sometimes does in winter after floods have cleaned out every last bit of silt or slime. Fishing on this day turned out to be difficult. We experimented with various nymphing ideas, but the best couple of grayling, curiously enough, were accounted for by the now extremely dated idea of using a floating line with a team of grayling fancy wet flies - Red Tag, Yellow Bumble and Grayling Steel Blue - all weighted with lead under the dressing. A few other regular anglers were now coming out to join us on the rivers and AS of Newent had 8 grayling from Cefnllysgwynne on the 13th. CP from Clevedon had 5 from the same fishery on the 14th . Everything changed again on the morning of the 15th, when some concentrated rain sent the water gauges shooting back up to flood levels very quickly. PB of Cheltenham nevertheless managed to extract 4 from Lyepole that day, including a cormorant-damaged fish taken on a Pink Shrimp. The Byton gauge on the Lugg was showing a good 1ft 10 inches at the time, so this cannot have been easy. On the 17th LJ from Machen took 5 from Cefnllysgwynne using the trotting rod, still in high water. Before we knew it, rivers had reached the serious levels of flood which moves gravel around in the pools and have us worrying about trout and salmon redds. The Wye at Erwood briefly shot up to 3 metres on the NRW gauge, close to the recent record. Warm gales continued from the west with band after band of rain. There followed a long period of no reported fishing which was broken by a call from Lyn and Rob on the 27th to explain that they had managed to catch half a dozen grayling, one of them a decent fish, from the Cammarch Hotel's lower beat on the Irfon. This was managed with difficulty while the level was showing 0.80 at Cilmery, and they were forced to abandon fishing early in the afternoon as the level started to rise again. To summarise it all, January opportunities for river angling were few. Bravo to all those who tried!
Mid-winter, while fishing opportunities are limited by weather, is inevitably a time for reflecting on the year just gone. Apart from the poor sewin run, the season of 2017 was really not a bad one to look back on and I can certainly remember some good days. In early spring the Usk fished well for trout, as it often does from the very beginning of the season. March browns and dark olives played their part. We are blessed in our region with some excellent mayfly fishing and the smaller streams of the Welsh borderlands did not disappoint during May and June. Moving on, there was also some excellent autumn grayling fishing until floods closed it all down by December. Salmon numbers for 2017 were slightly down, but not enough to dent the overall trend too much and the Wye still seems to be producing better results than other rivers. I recall that bright silver springer which came off after five minutes play in the Quarry Pool at Aramstone during March, the pleasure of taking a grilse on a little Black Pennell from the Chapel Catch gutter of the upper river during low water in summer, and a surprisingly excellent autumn day at Goodrich Court with the river running hard. All of these are reasons to be thankful that we have access to such interesting and varied fishing. I would appreciate some more grayling fishing now rather than to be confined at home tying flies, but I will also make an effort to be content and see what the rest of the winter brings.
My mid-winter reflections included more than angling. You may or may not accept the premise that in The Compleat Angler Isaak Walton was, among his other purposes, slyly, surreptitiously, raising a voice in dissent against the political policies of his time. Cromwell's Protectorate, puritanism and prescriptions against simple pleasures such as Christmas mince pies, music and maypole dancing may seem very distant to us today, but on reflection some of the social policies of the modern Taliban or Islamic State are quite similar. In his book Ike Walton had plenty of comments to make about life in his time and the universe beyond the business immediately at hand, that of fishing. Personally, I have never found it possible to keep my own interest in the sport of angling totally insulated from the outside world. Even if we wanted to, we can't live our lives in a dream, although the delightful process of angling can make it seem so for a few brief hours. Harsh reality breaks in. During the more routine parts of the operation, the mind wanders from the actual act of fishing and the problems of the world do intrude at times. It may be Catalonia, the Middle East, North Korea, US presidential politics or Brexit. Some may say: "I go fishing to get away from all that." In practice I can't quite, not for ever. Another inevitable truth is that a retired man who spends much time fishing alone, is going to be looking back in his thoughts rather than forward. I listen to the radio a lot while coming and going from fishing. And somebody caught my attention with an interesting statement on the radio the other day: "The further away the past gets from us, the sharper it becomes in its focus." That is strangely true. Looking back to the years of international work and our "nation-building" attempts, I confess that most of it now looks like failure.
If I spend some of my time alone and happy with a fishing rod these days, it is not that I hate social interaction. I like the charm of many small things and much to the fore in those would be a glass of wine with partner or friends. What should we talk about, fishing aside? Now Greeks and Italians, for example, just love to discuss politics. What do you think all those old men in the cafes are talking about while sitting for hours over a single coffee? But there is a polite British tradition of avoiding discussion of politics, national or international, as much as possible. Somebody might be upset, so let's rather discuss trivia. Thus were born our chattering classes, capable of making much noise with squeals of laughter, but saying little. My wife when first in this country asked why it is that Englishwomen, when they meet, do all this air- kissing of cheeks and high-pitched squeaking. I admit that sounds rather jaded and cynical, but I think this was a serious question from a genuinely bemused foreigner. Blessed if I can explain why. For myself, I rather tire of being British and polite all the time, but I will emphasise that the following thoughts and memories are mine alone and nothing to do with the WUF.
One late evening in the summer of 2016 I came back to the car in warm darkness after fishing Talybont Reservoir, feeling very relaxed and happy about a couple of nice brown trout I had caught. The world seemed pretty good at that moment. I put the tackle away, shrugged out of my waders, drank a coffee from the flask, started the car engine and switched on the radio as I began to drive. Immediately I learned that a military coup was apparently under way in Turkey. All the way home I listened to a dramatic live commentary as events unfolded. It is true there is a history of military coups in modern Turkey, which has been described as an army looking for a country. The Army certainly used to regard itself as the guardian of the modern Turkish republic's founding principles as defined by Mustafa Kemal. Even today the Turkish Army is the second largest in NATO. It consists of a professional corps of officers and NCOs with a very large number of conscripts doing their 12 months national service. I thought of Turkish officers I had known, in North Cyprus, and in eastern Anatolia where they were posted to deal with a Kurdish insurrection, a brutal conflict which was about as popular with individuals in the Turkish military as Northern Ireland used to be with the British Army. In Bosnia after the Dayton Agreement, a Turkish brigade in the south of my AOR had done excellent peace-keeping work and exceeded expectations by winning the respect of Serbs as well as Muslims. (The brigade also had quite a good military band, which everybody else in SFOR borrowed for parties). Most of the officers I had met had been reasonable, professional people, competent in their work. The soldiers were mostly cheerful teenagers, every one of them knowing exactly how many days they had left to serve. And I wondered what was happening to those individuals now.
By the next morning I was becoming unsure in my own mind that there even had been a real coup attempt. If there was, it was a terrible mistake. Erdogan certainly had his arrest lists all ready and waiting. The purge of Turkish society has continued ever since, so that more than 150,000 people have now been detained or fired from their positions in something like a reign of terror. Meanwhile Erdogan has been voted unprecedented powers. The state of emergency has just been extended for the sixth time. I used to like the old secular, Kemalist Turkey, which was more than anxious to befriend Europe, although elements within the EU persistently kept it at arm's length. The key to understanding Turkey is to appreciate that, with the Turks, national pride is always more important than money. They share that characteristic with Russians and Serbs. Rebuffed again and again on the West European side, they will now look East and North. I hardly recognise what Turkey has now become.
At the staff college last year I bumped into an old friend from the UN who served with me in Bosnia and Croatia. Once a British soldier, he lives now in Germany with his German wife. I told him over dinner that I had once imagined we had seen the last of fascism in Europe with the ending of the Franco and Salazar dictatorships. Certainly we never thought to see the politics of the 1930s and 40s again. But instead fascism - I don't use the word lightly - turned out to be alive and well and living in south-eastern Europe. "That's the point," said my friend. "It never really went away, did it?" During and after the years of war in Yugoslavia we had both of us seen more than enough of that notorious "Roman salute" and accompanying shouts of "Ready for the Fatherland, Commander!" Most countries have lunatic fringes on the far right and far left. But such a chanting demonstration is illegal today in Germany or in Italy. Those are nations which have confronted the past and atoned for it. In my book, they are square with the house and have been for a long time. But further east, among other former allies of the Axis Powers, the chant with its accompanying extended arm salute is being heard more and more, at rock concerts, at football matches and in church. There is a strong modern nationalist movement to reinstate the memory of fascist leaders from the 1940s, masses are said for them, even streets renamed after them. Russia is the one nation which has taken note and objected to this revisionism; Foreign Minister Lavrov mentioned it in a recent speech to the UN General Assembly. It is surprising how many of the more senior individuals in the resurrected right wing nationalist parties of the Balkans were once officials in the Communist party in the old days. The point is that these are people who have learned to work a system, any system, to their own advantage. A very clever Columbian I worked for in UNHCR had an expression from his homeland to describe this phenomenon: "Same pigs; different ribbons."
For a week at the end of November, my wife stayed with her mother in Mostar. The old lady is feeling her age these days. The usual winter trip to visit us in the UK, preceded by the necessary journeys to the British Embassy in Sarajevo for visa applications, is now getting beyond her. Our friend Mustafa heard Nerma was coming and put in a request for her to bring some fly-fishing bits and pieces - you can't get Gink and Zink in Mostar, or so it seems. My wife has known Mustafa and his family for a very long time. 25 years ago I had something of a professional relationship with Mustafa when he was an intelligence officer in the Bosnian Army in East Mostar. Even then, once we discovered each other's mutual sporting interest, conversations we were necessarily having about conditions in military prisons tended to end in fishing reminiscences. A fundamentally decent man, he was responsible for the release, may have saved the lives even, of two young Croats who were being tortured.
Early on the morning of 29th November, towards the end of her stay, I had a text from Nerma. It seems there had been one of the "hot" nights in Croatian controlled West Mostar where her mother still lives, last Muslim in the block. All the churches had been open as all-night vigils were held and the Franciscans offered prayers for six convicted war criminals, who had already been given sentences ranging from 10-25 years for organising the murder of civilians and ethnic cleansing during the past conflict. In the morning they were due to hear the results of their appeal after final consideration of their cases by the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia at the Hague. Having worked since 1993, this was to be the ICTY's last task before the institution's closure. In West Mostar that night the cafes were full and drunken anger became palpable as the old fascist songs rang out. Well before midnight tracer was flying up into the sky and windows vibrated as magazines were emptied defiantly at the stars. Nothing seems to change; so much for all those disarmament programmes we ran post-war. The few remaining Muslims and Serbs kept close to their apartments with locked doors.
Next morning the Hague tribunal issued their judgment. The original verdicts and sentences were confirmed. The judgment also made it clear that, had he not died some years before, Croatia's former president and HDZ party leader Franjo Tudjman, would have been indicted on the same charges. The original 1940s project to create an enlarged Croatian state, ethnically pure, white and ultra-Catholic, including the whole Bosnian city of Mostar and surrounding areas of Herzegovina, had as much support during the 1990s from the Croatian capital Zagreb as from West Herzegovina. As an eye witness, I can confirm that tanks, artillery and special forces from Croatia proper took part in the operation. With the television cameras running, Slobodan Praljak, wartime leader of the Croatian Defence Force in Mostar, stood up in court to hear his sentence reconfirmed, shouted in defiance and committed suicide by drinking poison. How could he have obtained it in a supposedly secure UN facility? Interestingly enough, as he had been detained since 2003, he would only have had a few months left to serve. He probably thought - and I guess he was right - that martyrdom was by that time the best contribution he could make to the continuing cause of a Greater Croatia.
And today? Nerma came home in stages as usual, first by car with cousin Enver to Split and then in short air hops to Heathrow via Zagreb and Vienna. Waiting in the lounge of the Franjo Tudjman Airport in Zagreb, she saw on the television that the Sabor, the Croatian parliament, were standing heads bowed holding a minute of silence in homage for the soul of Slobodan Praljak. Prayers were being offered in Zagreb churches too. It's a curious thing, you might think, for an EU national parliament to be standing in hushed respect for a convicted war criminal who engaged in genocide, treating him as a patriotic hero. But that's the way things are in those parts of Europe. I wonder if Brussels will ever sit up and take notice. For that matter, I wonder if Rome will.
Western European politicians can be remarkably naive and the full consequences of a rapid expansion of the EU into Eastern Europe with all its corruptions, tensions and prejudices have yet to be felt. Until the next military round - of which I am quite certain - ethnic engineering continues in ways which are strategic and reprehensible, but difficult to challenge as they are perfectly legal. Croatian families will pay three times the market price for Muslim-owned property in Mostar just as Israeli Jewish families pay over the odds to buy out Arab owners in East Jerusalem. There are many ways to gain and hold control of territory. Meanwhile that chant continues, even in schools: "Za Dom, spremni! For the Fatherland, we are ready!"
Nerma is more than relieved to be home. My wife still tries to think of herself as a South Slav and would prefer that nobody cares about the ethnicity or the religion. For her, there has never been an East or West Mostar. Her family lived as long as anybody can remember in the city the Ottoman Turks built by Stari Most, the Old One, as everybody calls Hairudin's 16th century bridge over the Neretva. The city adorned with its mosques and churches, both Orthodox and Catholic, was named for the bridge and its people have always been called "Bridgers," or Mostari. The city's famous and very oriental love song, Emina, which begins "In the garden of the old Imam," was written during the 19th century by a Mostar Serb, Aleksa Santic. Later the Turkish bridge came to be seen as a visible symbol of Yugoslavia, linking religions and communities: as such it was on the jacket of Rebecca West's renowned book about pre-war Yugoslavia: Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. But in 1993 the Croatian authorities who had taken over West Mostar forced her along with other Muslims to identify themselves by wearing a white arm band at all times while Muslim men of military age were interned under brutal conditions. A year before, her father and his team had scrambled overnight to protect the Old One from shells and snipers with tyres and a roof of boiler plating. In the end, the protection proved to be futile; a Croatian tank parked on a bluff worked for two days to destroy it. Muslim and Croat forces fought themselves to a standstill in the city over 10 months while Serb forces on the eastern hills lobbed shells onto both sides as the whim took them - or according to payments received.
The aspect of a city which has experienced an internal war is always striking, stone and concrete eaten away by small arms fire and shells. Afterwards, visitors shown the Boulevarde and Santic Street, where the front lines had been, invariably came up with the word "Stalingrad." Elsewhere, newcomers would remark the sniper screens to protect pedestrians, made from rows of school lockers filled with bricks, every shady pavement tree cut down for firewood, every little city park full of fresh graves. "I hate this place," Nerma had written to me in her November text from her once beloved and beautiful home town. "I'm so ashamed of my people." Most of her old school friends left long ago, and are now making new lives for their families all over the world: in the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand or Western Europe.
During December the Welsh Marches were gripped in ice with a bitter wind blowing fallen snow into drifts. In some areas the temperatures were as low as minus 12 degrees and rural roads were closed. With the rivers high, I hadn't even thought about fishing for a few days. Our daughter was due back with her battalion in North Shropshire early the following morning, but the train had been cancelled due to tree falls on the Shrewsbury line. Rather than have her try the roads in her little 2 wheel drive, I fired up the old Landrover and we headed across the snow-bound forest and then north for Hereford and the A49. Despite the cold, the winter scenery in bright sunlight was enchanting. In succession the Wye, Lugg, Teme, Onny and finally upper Severn flowed sullenly black between white banks. We chugged along slowly on icy roads with an arctic wind blowing snow across the fields. Reaching Ternhill just after midday, I dropped Medina off with her bag at the guardhouse to drink coffee with her Ranger mates, before heading for home.
It's a long way back without any company, so I switched on the radio, which is a battered old set and now only gets long-wave BBC Radio 4 and a few French stations. Radio 4 gives an excellent service discussing mostly serious issues between 7 and 9, and again in the evening, but I find the middle of the day can be drearily anglo- centric: Woman's Hour, You and Yours, Gardeners' Question Time, Money Box, Just a Minute. There seem to be endless programmes about the National Health Service. When it comes to The Archers, I just have to switch off. Maybe I should get a new radio for the old car? Maybe I should get a new car? If these are some of your favourite programmes I can only apologise for my growing intolerance, which may very well be a sign of increasing senility. At this time of year, with no fishing to keep me happy, I'm starting to sound as grouchy as Jack Dee on a bad night. But if I was at home tucked up on the sofa, I would probably have been be flicking through the satellite news channels - Sky, BBC News 24, Euro-News, Russia Today, CNN, France Vingt-Quatre, Al-Jazeera - in hope of finding something interesting or significant. News channel hopping can become almost as obsessive as continual river gauge watching. I might even have tried to do the Trout and Salmon crossword while waiting for Have I got News for You? Instead, here I was crossing the desolate snows of Shropshire accompanied by the favourite radio channel of the English middle classes. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised and perked up in my seat. An international reporter was presenting a piece about the Yazidis of northern Iraq and particularly the Yazidi women.
Another conversation at the staff college, this time a few years back. On this exercise I was sitting next to a colleague seconded from the Foreign Office, what we call a STABAD or stabilisation advisor. As it happened, we had both spent time working for the reconstruction of Iraq and of course we discussed the whole situation. A favourite subject between us was speculation on just when would the Iraqi Kurds go for full independence and would they get the oil field of Kirkuk to finance it? These are still matters of interest - the Kurds tried it disastrously last year and they failed to hold Kirkuk. But that particular morning the news came online of a new force emerging in the turmoil of the Sunni Arab areas of central Iraq. This was something called Islamic State, an extremist group which was proclaiming a new caliphate and actually controlling territory. I was taken aback, quite appalled. My colleague, no fool by any means, was taking the optimistic view which our government was then promoting. "It's ephemeral," he said. "Nothing to worry about. The Iraqi National Army will take that back in a few days." "My God!" I told him. "I do hope you are right about that."
Of course he wasn't right. I only wish he had been. At one point IS managed to control 1/3 of Iraq. I was always more or less a pessimist about the Iraq reconstruction project and found it hard to see how modern Iraq could remain a unified state in the long term. Three times during the period of our military presence I gave evidence to a parliamentary select committee on the subject and told them each time that the situation was becoming worse and the problem wasn't money, but resentment of Coalition forces and a lack of security for the domestic population. MPs would ask whether more development money devoted to this sector or that sector would help; my advice was always that the problem for our Iraqi partners was not a lack of money, but a need for security so that they could work. Other humanitarians delivered the same message. Back in in 2005, Andy Bearpark and I were invited to a Panorama debate on the status of Iraq reconstruction (Michael Gove, of all people, was leading an argument that the project was succeeding). Andy's view was even more pessimistic than mine; he felt that the situation in Iraq was becoming worse by the day and that we should pull our troops out as soon as possible.
One thing I do recall from the Iraq years, was that for a short time, while the money lasted, I looked after a programme to benefit the Yazidi people in the Sinjar area of Northern Iraq. This was a mainly agricultural and community support programme implemented by a Kurdish partner. There is something very likable about the Yazidis of Ninevah, where they seem to have existed for 4,000 years. They are a minority without any strong aims to nationhood or independence, anti-militaristic by choice, mainly engaged in agriculture, and closely aligned to the natural world and their ancestral landscape which they regard as something mystical. Their religion is most unusual, combining elements of Islam, Judaism, Zoroastrianism and Christianity. They believe themselves to be children of Adam alone, but not Eve. They believe in seven angels, the most important of which is the so-called Peacock Angel, whose image adorns many of their shrines. Another of the angels, which they call Shaitan, has led to them to be inaccurately accused of devil worship. They also believe in elements of Sufism, the non-violent Islamic cult which can be found in Afghanistan and Central Asia.
Including the diaspora, there might be as many as one million Yazidis in the world. They have been described as a Kurdish minority following a particular sect, but although they speak the Kurdish language most Yazidis deny this and feel themselves to be a totally separate people. Nevertheless, despite very different philosophies, generally the relationship with the Kurds is good. No doubt there have been exceptions but Kurds I knew seemed to want to look after Yazidis as fondly as they would slightly eccentric and colourful cousins. Yazidis do not intermarry and do not look for converts. They have no ambitions beyond cultivating their traditional lands. In the region they had the reputation of being a threat to no-one.
However, the Yazidis suffered more than any group when Islamic State took over their villages. Many fled, and you will remember President Obama authorising air strikes to help Kurdish forces trying to rescue Yazidi civilians trapped without water on Mount Sinjar. In despair, they had seen the dry mountain as a holy place of sanctuary. While Islamic State was brutal enough towards Christians and Shia Muslims, they regarded the Yazidis as barely human due to the nature of their religious beliefs. Something over 5,000 Yazidi men were executed when they refused to convert to Islam. Their women became sex slaves, traded as "wives" around IS fighters in their barracks, and sold openly with their children in the markets of Mosul.
Today the tide of war has turned and Islamic State are on the back foot. As the BBC reporter described, escaped Yazidi women are being welcomed back into their community with something like a baptism or rebirth ceremony to wipe away the pain of their enslavement. Pacifism did not serve the Yazidis so well and many, including women, have joined the Kurdish Peshmerga to continue the fight against the remnants of IS. Today it is Mosul which looks like Stalingrad. As their territory collapses, the new humanitarian and security concern is what will happen now to the families of IS fighters and other civilians who supported Islamic State. Many of the surrendered seem to have disappeared without trace. This includes numbers of foreigners who were persuaded by the propaganda to join the movement. Families in Chechnya and other European countries, including Britain, are also without news of their children.
It's interesting how our society has changed in the way we view people who go off to fight in foreign wars. British "volunteers" fought on both sides in the Spanish Civil War, and were generally rather approved afterwards as having shown a spirit of adventure and commitment. No British law had been broken. The British socialist writer George Orwell came back and wrote Homage to Catalonia about his experiences. To have fought for the Spanish republic in the International Brigades was almost an essential qualification for a career in the British trade union movement during the 1950s. I had a great-uncle, a flyer named Peter Russell Burch, who in 1939 went with other British volunteers to fight for Finland against the invading Soviet Union, seen then as a David and Goliath conflict. These Winter War volunteers appear to have received a certain amount of unofficial Foreign Office approval. He never saw action, but eventually came back with others in a sealed train through German- occupied Europe, finally arriving home on a ship from neutral Portugal. According to family legend he turned up in Gloucestershire with a knapsack full of Portuguese oranges.
Later still, "volunteers" were more usually called "mercenaries" and were much less likely to be approved by the press or the public. Three Brits with military experience that I know of fought in the Mostar Brigade during the Muslim-Croat war. "Ron," a one-time apartment block janitor from North London, married a Bosnian wife and brought her out to Split in my car in 1994. "Scottie", believed to have been AWOL from the Scots Guards at the time, filmed the destruction of the Old Bridge and was killed the following month. "Norrie," formerly of Hereford, trained snipers for the Brigade and is doubtless still around somewhere, getting into trouble in bars. "Mercenary" was an inaccurate word to apply in these cases. As far as I could tell no money to speak of was involved, although there may have been something of a Walter Mitty element to their decision to serve. You might say the same about the humanitarian volunteers, except that we had not picked a side, or at least we tried not to.
After the Dayton Agreement, I came across several Russians who had fought in the Bosnian Serb forces, married locally and thus avoided the Agreement's clause defining that all foreign fighters should leave within a month. They were now living quietly in the Serb-controlled area of rural Eastern Bosnia and seemed pretty decent people. One of them was particularly helpful to displaced Bosnian Muslims returning to nearby destroyed property and ran power lines to help them while rebuilding. In their case, the dire state of the Russian economy at the time was definitely a factor in keeping them in Bosnia.
The so-called Mujahadin Brigades based on Zenica during the war were another matter entirely. These included some of the scum of the Middle East, supposedly released from long jail terms or even death sentences on condition that they go to fight the jihad in Bosnia. Most of these left the country after Dayton along with the Iranians and other theoretically clandestine supporters of the Bosnian state, but a surprising number remained, again having married Bosnian wives. On my own patch I was left with a particularly problematic mujahadin community occupying the Serb village of Bocinja in Maglaj municipality. They had been deliberately placed there because of the village's strategic location on a river crossing; at the same time the displaced Serbs from Bocinja were my beneficiaries and they wanted their village back. It was difficult to identify just who they were, because they used pseudonyms (their leader styled himself Abu Hamza), but Arabic was their language and we were fairly sure the community included among others Yemenis, Tunisians, Egyptians and Saudis. We identified support from the Bosnian Government (President Izetbegovic's political advisor described to us having "... a moral dilemma about this as we owe a debt of gratitude to those people"), support from the Maglaj municipality which donated the rents from a market to the community, and also from the Saudi embassy which was supplying vehicles and food. When approached, the US embassy was surprisingly reluctant at first to use political leverage to move the mujahadin out of Bosnian Serb property. One American official asked with a smile if they had big beards and curly-toed shoes. This was, of course, before 9/11.
Meanwhile, local Bosnian people, Serbs, Croats and Muslims alike, were all absolutely terrified of the group, which had managed to create a dark cloud of fear around Bocinja. When I came to the area even most SFOR and international UN police units were avoiding the village. Everybody locally knew that the mujahidin had fought a truly horrific war by European or any other standards, avoiding taking prisoners but instead torturing and cutting heads. Rather than hide such war crimes, the mujahidin were now actively publicising them, taking care to circulate various notorious photographs of their fighters holding severed Serb heads. This is the first time I saw evidence of war crimes actually used by the perpetrators as psychological weapons. With a Polish SFOR major, I interviewed two Serbs who had ventured to look at their houses, but been captured and held 48 hours in Bocinja, undergoing several mock executions in which a running chain saw was passed over their outstretched necks. This happened more than two years after the Dayton Agreement. Although it took years, eventually the mujahidin were moved out of Bocinja to make way for those Serbs who had the courage to return, but not before another group of them had set off a car bomb outside a police station.
So now we have the collapse of Islamic State, which also used terror as a potent psychological weapon, and whoever controls Iraq and Syria will have to consider the future of those who joined the group. For our part we will have to consider not only the volunteers, including British, who gave IS their whole hearted support, but also their wives and their children. Will they come home and how? As our security services point out, people with that ideology and that training pose a most serious danger to our society. It's a far cry from George Orwell's return from Spain in 1937, is it not? Civil wars are dirty wars; only give stupid people power and a gun and finally everybody dishonours themselves. At the same time, they provide opportunities for extremists. Of the identified Al Qaeda 9/11 hi-jackers, it's not generally known that two of the Saudi-born were jihadist veterans from Bosnia. Khalid al-Mihdhar and Nawaf al-Hazmi were in the team which crashed Flight 77 into the Pentagon. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, widely seen as the main planner of 9/11 and currently held at Guantanamo Bay, took out a Bosnian passport in 1995. These depth of winter thoughts are leading into dark places, so forgive me.
Nerma came back from Mostar with a small box of Neretva fishing flies sent by Mustafa. I hadn't realised how the Herzegovina school of fly fishing has changed during the last years - they have caught up with the rest of Europe! Instead of nymphs pulled deep by heavy lead weights they are now using proper fly rods, casting lines and even dry flies on some of the tributaries. Here the patterns are. The nymphs and a couple of shrimp patterns are unweighted and rather remind me of the first nymphs developed by GEM Skues. In fact Skues actually fished in Western Bosnia, a rather unusual destination during the 1930s and well off the beaten track. The dry flies certainly look like the kind of patterns which would work on our rivers - I will let you know about that in the course of time. There are some obvious Black Gnats with hackle point wings, and a couple of dry flies with forward pointing wings made of something like mallard breast, rather like John Storey. Also brown flies, reminiscent of sedges, which apparently have eagle feathers involved in their construction - which is slightly worrying, if true. In fact, knowing the vagaries of the language, I suspect for eagle you might substitute griffon vulture, an equally rare bird which nevertheless can be seen haunting those limestone cliffs above the Neretva. Whatever I may feel about cormorants and goosanders, please don't imagine that I have no care for genuinely rare birds!
I promise to try to write something useful about fishing next month! Snow drops and the first lambs have already been seen, so spring and a new season are not far away now.
Oliver Burch www.wyevalleyflyfishing.com