By Mark Danner
December 18, 1997
Books discussed in this article:
SREBRENICA: RECORD OF A WAR CRIME
by Jan Willem Honeg and Norbert Both
204 pages, $11.95 (paperback)
published by Penguin Books
ENDGAME: THE BETRAYAL AND FALL OF SREBRENICA
Europe's Worst Massacre Since World War II
by David Rohde
440 pages, $24.00 (hardcover)
published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
LATE-BREAKING FOREIGN POLICY: THE NEWS MEDIA'S INFLUENCE ON PEACE OPERATIONS
by Warren P. Strobel
275 pages, $29.95 (hardcover), $14.95 (paperback)
published by United States Institute of Peace
BLOOD AND VENGEANCE: ONE FAMILY'S STORY OF THE WAR IN BOSNIA
by Chuck Sudetic
published by Norton
THE RELUCTANT SUPERPOWER: UNITED STATES POLICY IN BOSNIA, 1991-1995
by Wayne Bert
296 pages, $35.00 (hardcover)
published by St. Martin's
TRIUMPH OF THE LACK OF WILL: INTERNATIONAL DIPLOMACY AND THE YUGOSLAV
by James Gow
343 pages, $29.50 (hardcover)
published by Columbia University Press
Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West
by David Rieff
274 pages, $12.00 (paperback)
published by Touchstone
In the bitter wind and cold of late December 1995,
shortly before the coming of Orthodox Christmas, the Serb fathers of Sarajevo
began trudging toward the graveyards. Passing through the gates, they
traced their way slowly through the uneven rows of white wooden crosses
and the mounds of black earth bordering the open graves until at last
they halted, stared downward for a moment, and dropped to their knees,
falling forward to kiss the white crosses that bore their sons' names.
They lit yellow candles and
opened bottles of plum brandy, pouring libations to the dead. When several
burly men approached with picks and shovels the fathers tore off hunks
of bread and all downed shots of brandy. Then a gravedigger planted his
feet and swung his pick, anchoring the point in the frozen soil; the others
pried free the rock-solid clods. They fought their way into the earth,
until they felt steel scrape on wood. As they wrestled free the coffins,
nails pulled free and planks gave way, and through the earth-smeared wooden
splinters a leg or hand or perhaps a discolored, still-familiar face confronted
once more his father's eyes.
A father unrolled the dark wool blanket and tucked it gently about his
son. He took up hammer and nails and mended as best he could the splintered
wood, unrolled the plastic sheeting, wrapped it about the dirty box, and
nailed it firm. All now hoisted to their shoulders the fallen son and
bore him slowly through the rows of crosses to the cemetery gates.
Scores were already there, hard at work, sliding earth-caked caskets into
the backs of vans or pickup trucks, lashing them to the roofs of cars,
or to the narrow beds of donkey carts. The fallen sons were going home,
to houses and apartments in Vogosca or Illijas or Hadzici or Ilidza or
Grbavica, Sarajevo neighborhoods Serbs had dominated for centuries—and
had held during almost three years of war, protected by the artillery
implanted on the mountains behind and by the snipers hidden in the apartments
above. But they would not stay long; for now, as many Serbs had bitterly
predicted, it was the politicians who had lost these lands. The sons would
leave with their families, who would not risk the indignities the Muslim
enemy might wreak upon heroic dead.
Arriving home the fathers found wives and daughters and young sons working
with hammers and chisels and crowbars: ripping from walls sinks and bathtubs
and stoves; punching holes in plaster to extract pipe and insulation and
wire; tearing away door and window frames, pulling down lengths of wooden
molding. All this they dragged outside and loaded into car trunks or heaved
into truck beds or lashed to a car's already overburdened roof. What they
could not carry they smashed or burned, lest it fall into the hands of
he Serbs were readying themselves for another
great trek. Seven months before, in May 1995, Croat soldiers and tanks had
seized western Slavonia and sent thousands of Serbs fleeing. In early August,
the Croats had stormed into the Krajina, which the Serbs had wrested from
Croatia in 1991, and in a few days reconquered every square mile—and
expelled half a million Serbs. Four centuries ago, at the invitation of
the Habsburgs, the ancestors of these Serbs had occupied this "border
territory," serving as proud guards of the empire; now in a great tide
of slow-moving cars and tractors and carts they fled their homes, condemned
to endure the twilight life of powerless refugees in unwelcoming Serbia.
Five months later—and only weeks after Presidents Milosevic and Tudjman
and Izetbegovic initialed an agreement at Wright-Patterson military base
in Dayton, Ohio—the Muslim government began taking power in the Serb
neighborhoods, reuniting Sarajevo for the first time since the spring of
1992. Under the Dayton agreement, Izetbegovic's government had pledged to
treat all citizens with equal justice and respect, even those Serbs who
for two and a half years had shelled and sniped at their new rulers, killing
more than ten thousand civilians, including a thousand children. The Serbs'
"freedom will be respected," as Richard Holbrooke, assistant secretary
of state and primary negotiator of the accord, declared on February 18.
"They do not need to leave Sarajevo."
Bosnian government spokesmen, however, had been mostly silent. During the
years of shelling and sniping—which lasted until a few months earlier—the
Serbs had interfered with supplies of food, blocked water mains, crippled
electrical power; Serb gunners had targeted the National Museum and the
National Library, and set off great conflagrations in which "over a
million books, more than a hundred thousand manuscripts and rare books,
and centuries of historical records of Bosnia-Herzegovina went up in flames."
During the first months of siege, meantime,
Muslim underworld gangs, having come together as paramilitary units to reinforce
a desperately held front line, had assassinated many Serbs who remained
on the government side, often torturing them before flinging their corpses
into an eighty-foot-deep crevasse known as the "Kazani pit."
Holbrooke's confidence that Sarajevo's peoples could be reconciled, that
Serbs could place their fate in the hands of "the federation"
of Muslims and Croats who now ruled, was thus not widely shared. Not until
two days after the American diplomat made his appeal did Muslim officials
for the first time offer a grudging echo of reassurance: "Don't abandon
your homes," a Sarajevo television announcer told Serbs. "The
federation will guarantee your safety."
y this time the great Serb exodus already
covered miles and miles of snowy mountain roads above Sarajevo: cars bearing
tables and chairs and bathtubs lashed to their roofs and hoods, with battered
coffins protruding from their trunks; trucks filled with firewood and
doors and windows; tractors pulling carts loaded with sinks and wire and
lengths of pipe; old women pushing sleds with bundles of clothing and
rolled-up rugs and small kitchen stoves lashed to the slats. And interspersed
with this crawling, skidding, sliding procession, amid the wildly honking
cars and trucks and tractors, thousands of men and women trudged slowly
forward, bearing on their backs great sacks and bundles and herding before
them scores of goats and cows and pigs, who mooed and squealed in dumb
When it moved at all this chaotic caravan moved yard by yard and many
turned to gaze back at their city and its great pall of black smoke—not
the accustomed grey fog of smoke from shelling that for so long had formed
a canopy over Muslim Sarajevo but greasy gasoline-fired smoke rising from
their own homes. Young Muslim toughs prowled about with guns and knives
and grenades, looting Serb houses and apartments, shopping for suitable
new lodgings. Bearded Serb paramilitaries in camouflage uniforms, bandoliers
across their chests and heavy military knives at their hips, toting AK-47s
and cans of gasoline, darted through back streets, edging their way behind
sniper shields and through apartment complexes, setting fires where they
pleased. The Serbs of Sarajevo had smashed doors and windows into useless
splinters, had shredded old sheets and towels and pounded into rubble
furniture and appliances they could not carry—had destroyed their
houses so no Muslim could benefit from what they had been forced to abandon,
and these bearded men were determined to burn what remained.
Serbs too old or too sick to flee Sarajevo shivered from cold and fear
behind their locked doors; in the streets outside, Serb thugs prepared
to burn them out. From their mountain capital in Pale, Serb leaders—so
the rumor went—had handed down an order: in Muslim-ruled Sarajevo,
no Serb, no matter how old or infirm, would remain. The troops who had
come to enforce Dayton did little. When Italian soldiers arrested arsonists
and (as Dayton prescribed) handed them over to the few Serb policemen
left in the city, the men were instantly released. Serb firemen had long
since fled, and French soldiers failed to persuade those on the Muslim
side even to enter Serb neighborhoods; Serb paramilitaries had thrown
grenades at their trucks. Officers of IFOR—the "Implementing
Force" of the Dayton agreement, which was under the command of an
American, Admiral Leighton Smith—might have ordered troops to guard
the firemen, or even to fight the fires themselves; they might, in a show
of strength, have sent their troops in force to seize control of the streets
and arrest and jail arsonists. Such vigorous action, however, risked "exceeding
the mandate" of the mission; and this mandate, the officers now showed,
they intended to treat very narrowly indeed. Thus sixty thousand heavily
armed foreign troops—of whom no fewer than twenty thousand were American,
dispatched by the father of Dayton, President Bill Clinton, and a very
reluctant US Congress—managed in their first days "in-country"
to do little more than look on as parts of Sarajevo burned.
On the roads above the city the Serbs pushed slowly on. In the cold clear
air over Sarajevo, black smoke formed plumes and orange flames rose and
shimmered. Peace had come to Bosnia.
Three years before, during the summer of 1992, Arkansas Governor and Democratic
candidate Bill Clinton was barnstorming the country and denouncing President
Bush for failing to stop the horror in Bosnia. Late that July Clinton
demanded the United Nations tighten economic sanctions on "the renegade
regime of Slobodan Milosevic," grant European and American warships
the power to search vessels that might be carrying contraband to Serbia,
and authorize Western warplanes to strike "against those who are
attacking the relief effort." A week later, after the networks had
broadcast pictures of emaciated Muslims and Croats imprisoned in Serb
concentration camps, Clinton declared that the United Nations, supported
by the United States, must do "whatever it takes to stop the slaughter
of civilians and we may have to use military force. I would begin with
air power against the Serbs."
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater countered with condescension: Clinton's
was "the kind of reckless approach that indicates he better do more
homework on foreign policy," said Fitzwater. "It's clear he's
unaware of the political complications in Yugoslavia."
It was equally clear that Clinton was
aware of the political implications in America. The Arkansas governor
had found the perfect opening to attack the "foreign policy president"
for inaction in the face of a moral drama that voters saw enacted each
evening on their television screens. Americans may not have wanted their
leaders to send troops to stop the killing but they wanted them to do
. Not only did Bush officials stand defiantly aloof, they
defended their inaction in the harshest terms. "I have said this
38,000 times," said Acting Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger,
"and I have to say this to the people of this country as well."
This tragedy is not something that can be settled from outside
and it's about damn well time that everybody understood that. Until the
Bosnians, Serbs and Croats decide to stop killing each other, there is
nothing the outside world can do about it.
The secretary spoke seven weeks after reporters filmed concentration camp
prisoners. During the six months since the war began, the Serbs had seized
nearly three quarters of Bosnia's territory and "cleansed" tens
of thousands of Muslim civilians (murdering, during the first month alone,
more than twenty thousand, according to a detailed Senate investigation).
To describe the war, in the fall of 1992, as "Bosnians, Serbs and Croats...killing
each other" was almost criminally inaccurate, as Eagleburger had to
If George Bush and his top officials had favored standing back from the
conflict—and waiting for it, as one younger aide put it, "to burn
itself out"—a public sporadically outraged by bloody images had
from time to time forced them to take some action, producing a tangle of
contradictory policies. In May 1992, after the Serbs launched a mortar shell
into a group of Sarajevans waiting for bread and other supplies, Americans'
disgust at the scenes of dead and wounded civilians led Bush to support
imposing economic sanctions. The United Nations resolution, however, included
no provision to board and inspect ships.
In September 1991, as the war raged in Croatia, Bush supported imposing
a United Nations arms embargo on the former Yugoslavia, which—because
the Yugoslav National Army disposed of immense stocks of tanks, artillery
pieces, and warplanes, and controlled an advanced weapons industry—overwhelmingly
favored the Serbs. After the Europeans and Americans recognized Bosnia in
April 1992, they stipulated that the embargo would apply to the new state.
"The intent was not to try to keep the Bosnian Muslims from winning
their war," Secretary Eagleburger explained. "It was, in fact,
to try to keep anybody from putting more weapons into the place...than were
Yet the embargo's most important, and
quite foreseeable, effect was to cripple the Bosnians, who had many men
willing to fight but few weapons, in their effort to defend themselves against
the heavily armed Serbs.
By the time Governor Clinton began denouncing these policies many mid-level
and junior officials had already turned against them. "He was stealing
our lines," said John Fox, a regional official in the State Department's
Policy Planning Office.
We'd been writing this for months to our superiors: allow the
Bosnians to defend themselves, take out the Serbs' heavy weapons shelling
civilians in Sarajevo and other Bosnian communities, use force to get
the humanitarian assistance convoys through. [Clinton's words] were raising
hopes within the department that perhaps there would be sufficient pressure
to bring about a change, if not before the election then after.
The rhetoric already represented a change: unlike Bush officials with their
fatuously "evenhanded" descriptions, candidate Bill Clinton took
obvious satisfaction in denouncing "the renegade regime of Slobodan
Milosevic." Members of Clinton's campaign made plain that their sympathies
were with the Bosnian Muslims, and even before the inauguration Al Gore
and other key officials had begun meeting with Bosnian representatives.
When President-elect Clinton declared, in an echo of the defeated George
Bush's vow to Saddam Hussein, that "the legitimacy of ethnic cleansing
cannot stand," it seemed a clear pledge that President Clinton would
bring the great power of the United States to bear on the task of achieving
justice in the Balkans.
"Justice," of course, was the crucial word, for it had long since
become clear that in Bosnia—already littered with tens of thousands
of corpses, and with three quarters of its territory in the hands of the
Bosnian Serbs—"justice" now stood precisely opposite to another
crucial word: "peace." The banker and writer Jean E. Manas puts
the problem bluntly:
Although many outside intervenors (or would-be intervenors)
pursued both peace and justice in the former Yugoslavia, they rarely faced
up to the fact that, at any level of specificity, the two ideals are in
tension: the pursuit of justice entails the prolongation of hostilities,
whereas the pursuit of peace requires resigning oneself to some injustices.
resident Clinton had taken on this dilemma:
he desired to stand for justice; he had pledged to do so. But he would find,
before very long, that acting to achieve it would entail grave sacrifice.
Had he wanted to, George Bush might conceivably have prevented, or at least
severely circumscribed, the wars in the former Yugoslavia by applying a
reasoned mixture of diplomacy and at least the sincere threat of force.
But much had happened during the years
of terrible war. To restore justice to Bosnia—to restore Muslim land
and homes to those who rightly owned them, so that ethnic cleansing "could
not stand"—Bill Clinton would have to be willing to undertake
a vigorous diplomatic intervention, and dispatch at least some troops, and
this would require that he deploy all his great political skills to persuade
Americans to support him.
He had no stomach for it; it was not, in the end, his war. If Bosnia had
been a useful bloody flag to wave at George Bush, what use was such a conflict
to Clinton? If it had represented to candidate Clinton an opportunity, to
President Clinton it had become only a risk—and it was that risk that
Clinton's political advisers now emphasized. "Noninvolvement in Bosnia,"
writes Dick Morris, "had been a central element in my advice."
"You don't want to be Lyndon Johnson," I had said
early on, "sacrificing your potential for doing good on the domestic
front by a destructive, never-ending foreign involvement. It's the Democrats'
disease to take the same compassion that motivates their domestic policies
and let it lure them into heroic but ill-considered foreign wars."
This was reasoning Bill Clinton could understand, particularly since, as
Morris says, the new president "had no special vision of his foreign
policy. He reacted, more or less reluctantly, to global concerns when they
intruded so deeply into America's politics that he had to do something."
He had made promises, of course, courted the members of a constituency,
and this part of foreign affairs he well understood. In the weeks to come
Clinton would set out to placate them. When the latest attempt to achieve
"peace"—as opposed to delivering justice—was set before
the new administration in the form of the Vance-Owen plan, an intricate
and ingenious proposal to divide Bosnia into ten ethnically controlled "cantons"
(three each for the Serbs, Croats, and Muslims, with Sarajevo shared as
capital), Clinton officials did not squarely refute the plan but spoke of
it with an offhanded contempt that left no doubt of their belief they could
fashion something better. Cyrus Vance, the former secretary of state, and
David Owen, the former British foreign secretary, arrived in Washington
on February 1, 1993, to brief Warren Christopher, and it soon became "painfully
apparent," Owen recalls, "that the Secretary of State knew very
little about the detail of our plan."
Particularly surprising, in view of the administration's public
criticism, was that he had not been briefed on all the human rights provisions
and safeguards that we had built in with the express purpose of reversing
ethnic cleansing.... Warren Christopher appeared as if he had not had
time to read even a short factual information sheet on what was the essence
of our plan. I was baffled as to how Christopher could come so badly briefed
to meet his old boss, Cy, who was under virulent public attack over a
plan his critics claimed favoured ethnic cleansing.
Under the headline "US Declines to Back Peace Plan as Balkan Talks
Shift to UN," next day's New York Times
that Christopher was "setting the stage for a possible confrontation
between the mediators and the Clinton Administration," noting that
at a lunch with Boutros Boutros-Ghali Christopher had expressed his "ambivalence"
about the plan.
It was the first dramatic example of what James Gow, in his fine study Triumph
of the Lack of Will
, describes as the Clinton administration's tendency
on Bosnia "to pronounce on principle, prevaricate in practice and preempt
the policies and plans of others."
aving done so much to preempt Vance-Owen,
on February 10 Warren Christopher went up to Capitol Hill and pronounced
on principle. "This conflict may be far from our shores," he said,
"but it is certainly not distant from our concerns. We cannot afford
to ignore it."
The events in the former Yugoslavia raise the question whether
a state may address the rights of its minorities by eradicating them to
achieve ethnic purity. Bold tyrants and fearful minorities are watching
to see whether ethnic cleansing is a policy the world will tolerate. If
we hope to promote the spread of freedom, if we hope to encourage the
emergence of peaceful ethnic democracies, our answer must be a resounding
No American official, and certainly none so powerful, had stated the moral
questions raised by Bosnia so bluntly and answered them so eloquently. Clinton's
secretary of state did not stop there, however, but went on to assert that
the United States had "direct strategic concerns" in Bosnia as
The continuing destruction of a new United Nations member challenges
the principle that internationally recognized borders should not be altered
by force. In addition, this conflict itself has no natural borders. It
threatens to spill over into new regions, such as Kosovo and Macedonia.
It could then become a greater Balkan war like those that preceded World
War I. Broader hostilities could touch additional nations such as Greece
and Turkey and Albania....
Coming directly from the secretary of state, this was a declaration of fundamental
American interest and one would be justified in expecting strong and dynamic
action to follow. Behind the words, however, something different was going
on among the newly installed officials of the Clinton administration. John
Fox, who had stayed on in the State Department, watched his new bosses undertake
to study the Bosnia problem and place alternatives before the President.
This was February '93: After an extensive policy review, in
which a lot of very good middle force options were raised—options
between a Vietnam scenario and a wring-your-hands scenario—the middle
options were cut out, and cabinet-level officials came forward, and gave
very tough rhetoric. Essentially, the people who wanted to do something
got the rhetoric, but the people who didn't want to do anything got the
So after declaring that what's going on in Bosnia is a vital
interest of the United States they then lay out options that everybody
knows aren't going to work. Very early on, a number of us saw pretty clearly
that there would be little if anything done to follow through on the campaign
But Bill Clinton was no longer making campaign promises. As his administration
lurched from crisis to crisis, stumbling into a fiasco involving homosexuals
in the military that set Clinton officials against Chairman of the Joint
Chiefs General Colin Powell—a contest they very quickly lost—it
became clear that Bosnia was the least of the President's concerns. According
to Dick Morris,
The incessant TV coverage of scenes of depravity in Bosnia prompted
him to remark, "They keep trying to force me to get America into
"They" were the reporters, the columnists, the
television journalists. But Clinton was president now and beyond the appearances
there lay a real world he had to confront. And in this terrible winter
of February 1993 the Bosnian Serbs, unimpressed with the new President's
preferences for domestic policy, readied their artillery and their tanks
and began a vicious attack on the captive towns of eastern Bosnia.
Srebrenica had been the richest inland city in the Balkans, a cosmopolitan
mining town—its very name meant "silver" (the Romans had
known it as Argentaria)—bustling with German engineers and Ragusan
metal traders and Franciscan friars; but by early 1993, when Serb gunners
in the hills above began to rain down shells with great intensity, Srebrenica
had become a vast refugee camp swarming with starving people and stinking
of human excrement.
Encircled by an iron band of Serb artillery
and armor, overrun by refugees from surrounding towns that the Serbs had
lately "cleansed," Srebrenica held many times the number of
people it had before the war; tens of thousands of men, women, and children,
many of them living in the streets, found themselves prisoners, with no
access to the fields and markets that might have begun to feed the town.
The result, as United Nations officials put it bluntly in a February report,
was "there is no food such as we know it."
They have not had real food for months. They are surviving on
the chaff from wheat and roots from trees. Every day people are dying
of hunger and exhaustion.
In the garbage-strewn, shell-pocked streets of Srebrenica, gaunt, bleak-eyed
men and women gathered daily, poking and prodding impatiently at masses
of sickly green grass plastered together with wheat chaff that were burning
and sizzling fitfully on the fires. "It was a horrific place,"
said Louis Gentile, a United Nations relief worker who during the Serb offensive
went in search of refugees from the besieged villages around the city.
I drove south and the people walking along the road in the snow
were completely emaciated. I particularly recall one woman who was walking
with two children, and they looked like living skeletons; and when we
stopped to talk to them, they couldn't respond because they were so hungry
their minds had stopped working.
We gave them some biscuits and said, "Wait for us right
here, by the side of the road." And we drove further south and we
encountered fighting and other [refugees] walking along in similar circumstances.
When we came back to pick up the woman and her children we found only
footprints leading off in the snow. They'd immediately gone off to eat
the biscuits, and they'd just disappeared. To this day I can't forget
those people, the faces of those kids.
And yet the starving and shelling marked Srebrenica's triumph, for while
other towns had fallen to the Serb onslaught the men of Srebrenica had fought
back and for their heroism had won for their city a grim siege. Ten months
before, on March 27, 1992—three weeks after President Izetbegovic had
declared Bosnia a sovereign state—the so-called Bosnian Serb Army had
launched a carefully planned campaign of conquest. Within six weeks the
Serbs had occupied 60 percent of Bosnia's territory, and by the end of the
year Serb soldiers and paramilitaries, through mass murder, gang rape, and
other acts of terror, had succeeded in "cleansing" some two million
people, or nearly half of Bosnia's population, from "Serb land."
In April 1992, the Serbs had turned to Srebrenica, not only an immensely
rich prize, with its bauxite mines and tourist industry and factories, but
a strategic necessity, for it stood squarely in the Drina Valley bordering
Serbia. Though three in four of Srebrenica's citizens were Muslims, to establish
a contiguous and workable "Greater Serbia" the Serbs believed
they had to conquer and cleanse the town.
s far back as early 1991, Serbs and Muslims
in Srebrenica had begun to arm themselves. The unceasing propaganda from
Belgrade, particularly during the war in Croatia in 1991, when the Croats
were painted as a reborn Ustase bent on slaughtering all Serbs and the Muslims
as their "Turk" allies, proved highly effective in instilling
fear and paranoia. In Srebrenica, Muslims and Serbs grew suspicious, fearful,
and embittered. Chuck Sudetic, in his brilliant Blood and Vengeance
a reconstruction told partly through the experience of his Serb in-laws,
which will be published next year, shows in rich detail how the forces of
historical memory, propaganda, and suspicion produced a bloody rhythm of
attack and retribution in Srebrenica and its surrounding villages.
In August 1991, while the war raged in Croatia, the Srebrenica region had
its first armed confrontation when Serb soldiers came to take possession
of local draft records. Local Muslim officials refused to give them up;
Serb nationalists demanded they comply.
Muslim police officers sided with the Muslim mob; Serb police
officers sided with the Serb mob; and the Yugoslav army rushed in reinforcements.
The two mobs exchanged curses and threats. They pointed guns at one another
and fired into the air. The army commanders backed down before a riot
From that day on, Muslim and Serb peasants began standing guard
around Kravica and the other villages near Srebrenica.... Men from both
communities left their jobs in Sarajevo, Serbia, and abroad to return
home to take up arms and defend their families and protect their homes.
Serbs were afraid to drive their cars through Muslim villages.
Four days after the confrontation over the draft records, four Muslims drove
through the predominantly Serb town of Kravica waving an Islamic green flag;
the car was sprayed with bullets and two of the passengers were killed.
From his headquarters in Pale, Radovan Karadzic, leader of the Bosnian Serbs,
declared that no Muslim police would be allowed into Kravica to investigate.
fter the Serb military campaign began late
in March 1992, Srebrenica residents quickly heard of the killings and rapes
that were taking place; in nearby Zvornik the main Serb paramilitaries,
Arkan's Tigers and Seslj's Chetniks, had been particularly brutal, murdering
hundreds of people. Within a week, as Sudetic tells it, Serb army tanks
were rumbling through Srebrenica and the nearby town of Bratunac, and members
of Arkan's gang had begun abducting and killing local Muslims suspected
of organizing their own militia.
One day a pharmacist disappeared. The next day, a police detective.
Then a factory foreman. The former police chief.... The Serbian Democratic
Party's leaders had set up a drumhead court in the school....The pharmacist
was found to have sent bandages and other medical supplies to Muslims
in the hills; he was sentenced to death. The police chief and factory
foreman had shown up on a video taken of the mob outside the town hall
when the army came looking for the draft records; they were sentenced
On April 17, the local judge and Serb leader Goran Zekic demanded that Srebrenica's
Muslims turn in all their weapons by the following morning. The Muslims
knew well the meaning of such an ultimatum—they had seen it handed
down in Bijeljina, in Zvornik, in Visegrad, and in all these places it had
been followed by terror. Instead of waiting for the Serb paramilitaries
to seize control and commit the tortures, rapes, and murders deemed necessary
to "cleanse" Srebrenica in its turn, thousands of Muslims packed
their cars or boarded buses, and fled their homes.
The exodus meant that the Serbs could seize
their prize without a fight. In fact, however, not every Muslim had fled
Srebrenica; several hundred Muslim men had taken what guns they had and
hidden in the woods. From there they watched as the notorious Zeljko Rasnatovic—the
secret policeman, government-employed assassin, celebrated bank robber,
and prison escape artist better known as Arkan—and his heavily armed
paramilitary Tigers swaggered into Srebrenica and, together with the local
Serbs, looted Muslim houses and shops.
For the Serbs, Srebrenica had gone well: Arkan's carefully cultivated
reputation for unlimited cruelty had led the Muslims of Srebrenica to
"cleanse" themselves. Or so it seemed. In fact, the Muslims
in their forest hiding place were debating strategy. Months ago, their
leader had been ordered by the Muslim officials in Sarajevo to prepare
for just this moment. Short, powerfully built, with closely cropped dark
hair and beard, Naser Oric was a twenty-five-year-old body builder, former
bar bouncer, and member of the Yugoslav special military police; indeed,
Oric's martial skills were such that, though he was a Bosnian Muslim—his
grandfather had been a member of the hated Ustase—he had been assigned
to serve in Kosovo and then appointed a bodyguard to Milosevic himself.
In his plans to defend Srebrenica, Oric proved cunning and ruthless, and
two days after the Serbs had seized the town he and his poorly armed Muslims
swept down from the forest and stunned the Serbs with a full-bore attack
that left many wounded and several dead.
Through early May Oric led his Muslims on a series of audacious raids
against Zekic's local Serb militiamen, who were backed by paramilitaries
and by the devastating shelling of the Bosnian Serb Army gunners positioned
on the hills above the city. On May 8, a Muslim college student in Srebrenica
managed to shoot Zekic as the Serb leader drove by in his car. (Though
he had hit Zekic in the head, the young killer attempted to toss a grenade
through the window for good measure, and blew himself up.) For Srebrenica's
Serbs, the brazen assassination of their leader proved too much; they
murdered all the Muslim men they could find, then broke and fled, leaving
the town under Oric's control.
The next day Serbs took revenge. Red Beret police troops poured across
the bridge from Serbia and burned nearby Muslim villages, executing any
man they found. In Bratunac, a few miles from Srebrenica, soldiers patrolled
streets with megaphones, ordering Muslims from their homes. Thousands
were herded into a soccer stadium. Women and children were loaded aboard
buses and trucks and expelled. Seven hundred and fifty men were marched
down Bratunac's main street and packed into a school gymnasium. Serb soldiers
called the hodza, or Muslim holy man, to the front of the gymnasium;
there they forced him to shimmy up a climbing rope, poured beer over his
head, and then beat him with clubs and iron bars, demanding he make the
sign of the Orthodox cross. After beating him nearly to death, the Serbs
stabbed him in the back of the neck and shot him in the head. Then they
began to beat the Muslim men; in three days they killed more than three
hundred and fifty, and dumped the bodies in the Drina.
What Sudetic calls the cycle of "blood and vengeance"—kad
tad, goes the saying, "sooner or later"—was well advanced
after this great killing. Muslim and Serb knew they could expect no mercy
from the other. In seizing control of Srebrenica, Naser Oric and his ragtag
Muslim fighters achieved a great triumph. From the hills above, however,
and from every side Serb guns stared down. Before long Srebrenica's triumphant
people began to starve.
Throughout the late spring and summer Naser Oric and his commanders methodically
built up their forces, launching raids to seize weapons and ammunition,
which enabled them to recruit and train more soldiers and carry out more
ambitious attacks. Indeed, as Jan Willem Honig and Norbert Both point
out in their Srebrenica: Record of a War Crime, this was "just
about the only case in Bosnia where the much-vaunted Yugoslav territorial
defence system was successfully applied by the Bosnians"; Oric's
forces put into effect Tito's plan to resist invasion, relying not only
on classic techniques of guerrilla warfare (lightning-fast small group
attacks, sabotage, assassination) but also on the belief that all men,
uniformed or not, are real or potential fighters.
During the summer and fall Oric's men attacked and ambushed without warning,
taking, as Sudetic says, "only a handful of prisoners and rarely
[making] any distinction between combatants and civilians." By fall,
they had killed several hundred Serb soldiers and civilians and had vastly
increased the size of the Srebrenica pocket. Oric's forces had now swelled
with bitter refugees from Bratunac and other towns, and all knew well
that, if defeated, the best they could expect was a quick death. And the
Muslim commander, as Sudetic writes, had discovered his greatest weapon:
Oric could now count on a force that struck the fear of God
into the Serb peasants...: a horde of Muslim refugees, men and women,
young and old, who were driven by hunger...and, in many cases, a thirst
for revenge. Thousands strong, these people would lurk behind the first
wave of attacking soldiers and run amok when the defenses around
Serb villages collapsed. Some...used pistols to do the killing;
others used knives, bats and hatchets. But most...had nothing but their
bare hands and the empty rucksacks and suitcases they strapped onto their
backs. They came to be known as torbari, the bag people. And they
were beyond Oric's control.
The climactic battle in Oric's campaign came on January 7, 1993, Orthodox
Christmas, when Oric's fighters swept down on the Serb town of Kravica.
Serb women had worked for days preparing suckling pigs, fresh bread, pickled
tomatoes and peppers—an intoxicating feast to the starving torbari
of Srebrenica. And Oric had also been working for days, preparing the attack:
After dark on Christmas Eve, some three thousand Muslim troops
assembled on the slushy hilltops around Kravica. Behind them lurked a
host of torbari who lit campfires to warm themselves. At dawn they
started clattering pots and pans. "Allahu ekber! God is great!"
the men shouted. The women shrieked. Shooting began. The Serb men in Kravica
scrambled into their trenches....
The Serbs were vastly outnumbered; the Muslims, many in white uniforms that
blended with the snow, seemed to come from every direction. By mid-afternoon,
thirty Serbs had died and the front line had collapsed. Serbs ran into the
town center, screaming for everyone to flee.
In his account of a battle three months before in the village of Podravanja,
Sudetic tells of a similar torbari
The Serb fighters left behind men and women who had been wounded
and killed....Then the torbari rushed in. Muslim men shot the wounded.
They fired their guns into the bodies of the Serb dead, plunged knives
into their stomachs and chests. They smashed their heads with axes and
clubs, and they burned the bodies inside buildings. Oric's men grabbed
half a dozen prisoners; one, a fighter from Serbia who had relatives in
Podravanja, was beaten to death, and the others emerged bruised and battered
when they were exchanged a month later.
In Kravica that Christmas Day in January the starving torbari
a paradise to plunder:
The first of the torbari to arrive in Kravica found entire
Christmas dinners that had been waiting to be eaten by Serb men who had
gone off to fight that morning thinking they would be back by noon. Three
Muslim soldiers barged into one home and stood there as if paralyzed at
the sight of the pastries and the jelly, the bottles of brandy and the
roast pork on the stove. They laughed and shouted and plunged into a cake.
The ashes of burning houses...fell like snow on the hillside. The pigs
ran wild. Sheep were butchered and roasted on the spit or herded back
to Srebrenica with the cows and oxen. The dead lay unburied, and within
days the pigs, dogs and wild animals had begun to tear away at the bodies.
hat day, though he didn't know it, Naser Oric
had reached the summit of his power. He had broadened the area of Muslim
control to three hundred and fifty square miles around Srebrenica. Within
the town, he had declared martial law and stood as all-powerful commander.
(Another Muslim militia leader who tried to supplant him was arrested and
A week after his Christmas victory at Kravica, Oric and his fighters attacked
Skelani and tried to seize and destroy its steel-girdered bridge over the
Drina. One of his men machine-gunned women and children as they fled in
panic toward the Serbian side.
Throughout Serbia, people were outraged by the Muslim leader's brazen attack.
Immediately General Ratko Mladic sent his tanks and artillery over the bridge
and drove Oric's men back. They would retreat for ten days. Before they
were able to stop and hold their ground, they were within ten miles of Srebrenica.
And Mladic's real offensive had yet In the White House, President Clinton
followed General Mladic's grim and steady progress in his morning briefings,
watching as the Serb tanks and artillery pushed the lightly armed Muslims
closer and closer to Srebrenica, seizing village after village until the
Serbs stood on the outskirts of the city, and began to rain down shells.
Mladic's technique, as David Rieff describes it in Slaughterhouse
"combined the standard Yugoslav National Army (and Warsaw Pact) military
doctrine—which can be summarized as never sending a man where a bullet
can go first—with the Bosnian Serb predilection for targeting hospitals,
water treatment plants, and refugee centers in order to produce the maximum
amount of terror in the population."
To produce such terror was not difficult; without shelter or defense, the
refugees who had fled the surrounding towns and now slept in Srebrenica's
streets were easy targets. During one horrible hour late in the siege, Serb
shells killed sixty-four people and wounded more than a hundred. Many were
children, as Louis Gentile, the UN official, cabled his head office:
Fourteen dead bodies were found in the school yard. Body parts
and human flesh clung to the schoolyard fence. The ground was literally
soaked with blood. One child, about six years of age, had been decapitated.
I saw two ox-carts covered with bodies.... I will never be able to convey
Only weeks before the Serb offensive began, Bill Clinton had declared in
his inaugural address that he would use military force if "the will
and conscience of the international community is defied." That defiance
now confronted him daily, particularly after Tony Birtley, a reporter working
for ABC News, slipped into Srebrenica aboard a Bosnian helicopter with a
small video camera. Birtley's smuggled reports, as Warren P. Strobel says
in Late-Breaking Foreign Policy
, showed the world "the medieval
conditions in the city itself—people dressed in rags and living in
the streets, children drinking sewer water."
Srebrenica brought Clinton face to face with the contradiction between his
idealistic rhetoric supporting the Bosnians and his pragmatic reluctance
to commit his new administration to a complicated war. The horrible images
of suffering, together with his own rhetoric, pushed him to take action.
Finally, the Bosnians forced his hand: on February 12, officials in Sarajevo
announced they would refuse any further shipments of aid to Sarajevo while
aid to Srebrenica was cut off by the Serbs. The intent of this seemingly
perverse decision was to force the Western nations, and particularly the
as yet untried Clinton—on whom the Bosnians had placed much hope for
intervention—finally to take strong action against the Serbs.
n fact, the Bosnians' announcement represented
only their latest attempt to make use of the only lever they had that might
force the West to act. In delivering food to Bosnia, starting in June 1992,
the Western countries intended to reduce the political pressures to do something
to stop the slaughter—which meant, in effect, intervening militarily
against the Serbs. The Bosnians now hoped to turn that strategy on its head.
By showing the world that the food was not getting through, and that the
result was "ethnic cleansing by starvation," they sought to force
the Western nations to take stronger action, and preferably to use military
force. In Srebrenica: Record of a War Crime
, Jan Willem Honig and
Norbert Both quote an unnamed United Nations official explaining to David
Owen (for whom Both worked as a research assistant) how the Sarajevo government
attempted to make use of Srebrenica and the other enclaves "as pressure
points on the international community for firmer action."
The longer that aid convoys were unable to reach them, the greater
the pressureon the [UN] mandate. When convoys did succeed, calls for firmer
action were unwarranted.
When aid convoys were blocked, however, the Western powers were placed in
the position of watching as Bosnians starved. The United Nations official
went further, according to Honig and Both, arguing that the Bosnians actually
timed their military offensives to coincide with successful aid deliveries.
For example, he says, in November 1992,
Two weeks after the first successful delivery, Muslims launched
an offensive toward Bratunac. Thus the integrity of [the UN] was undermined,
further convoys were impossible, and the pressure for firmer action [by
the US and other nations] resumed.
In other words, the Sarajevo leaders sought to give the impression that
UN aid helped their commanders carry out attacks. When Muslim military offensives
followed closely after food shipments, this not only cast doubt on the UN's
cherished "impartiality," weakening the organization's legitimacy
as the principal Western instrument to deal with the Bosnian war. It also
led Serbs to block future shipments, thereby causing more starvation and
misery and once again increasing the pressure on the West to intervene.
ric's campaigns had clear military objectives,
of course, as Honig and Both are careful to point out. After the first months
of the war, when their main goal had been to build up their forces by capturing
weapons and to sack villagers' crops, Oric and his officers fought for two
strategic objectives. First, they sought to conquer and cleanse territory
that would join together the isolated eastern enclaves—especially Zepa
and Cerska—and form one larger, more powerful Muslim stronghold; this
Oric's men achieved, battling through to Zepa in September 1992 and reaching
Cerska after the Christmas victory at Kravica on January 7, 1993. They would
hold this vast tract of territory for barely a month, however, before Mladic's
armored forces sent Oric's infantry reeling back.
Oric's second objective was to force Mladic to thin his forces on other
fronts, leaving the Serbs, who were well armed but undermanned (laboring
under precisely the opposite disadvantage of the numerous but poorly equipped
Muslims), vulnerable to large Bosnian government attacks elsewhere in the
country. Oric's campaigns of December and January, for example, helped draw
Serb troops away from a major Muslim offensive that briefly succeeded in
cutting the critical "Posavina corridor," which linked Serbia
itself with Serb conquests in western Bosnia and the Serb-occupied Krajina.
Whatever the military rationales for Oric's operations, however, it is incontestable—and
this would become more tragically apparent later in the war, especially
at Srebrenica itself—that the Bosnians were struggling to make use
of the misery of the enclaves to force action by the United Nations and
Western countries. Those working to deliver aid—and especially the
officers and soldiers from France, Britain, and a number of other countries
who formed part of the United Nations Protection Force (known as UNPROFOR)
charged with protecting them—tended to see these Bosnian efforts as
Machiavellian, or evil. The Bosnians, however, were simply trying to make
use of the only weapon the peculiar and hypocritical international involvement
in their country seemed to offer them. For though many of the individual
aid workers performed great acts of heroism in Bosnia, at the heart of the
mission itself lay a fatal contradiction: "The crux of the matter,"
as Wayne Bert writes in The Reluctant Superpower
, "was that
the UN's primary mission was to get peace, making concerns with justice
his of course was Clinton's dilemma: he had
promised justice, but fulfilling that promise meant that he must commit
major diplomatic attention and, most likely, some military force, make speeches,
and spend political capital—and thereby risk, as his political advisers
warned him, the domestic reforms he had come to Washington to make.
A strong effort in Bosnia would also force Clinton to confront and lead
both the United Nations and two major allies, the British and the French—who
had officers and soldiers on the ground and had thereby committed themselves
to "the UN's primary mission" of "getting peace." This
"mission" in fact belonged to France and Britain and the other
Western allies; they had shaped it, designed it, and they carried it out;
but the dirty little secret was that the mission was animated by the determination
to avoid increased involvement in Bosnia, especially any military intervention.
It "was disingenuous of United Nations officials," writes David
Rieff in Slaughterhouse
, "to pretend that they were the only
disinterested parties in the Bosnian tragedy."
In reality, UN peacekeepers had been carrying out a very specific
and well-thought-out political agenda from the beginning. Its premise
was simple. The United Nations saw not just full-scale intervention in
support of the Bosnians but any increased military activity, whether it
was NATO air strikes or lifting the one-sided arms embargo against the
Bosnian government, as putting at risk everything it had been trying to
And just what were United Nations officials, and, behind them, the Western
nations, trying to accomplish? Rieff observes that the criterion of success
was neither moral—"UN officials felt they had no business judging
the rights and wrongs of the conflict"—nor political. "Although
the Bosnian government was an internationally recognized state and the Bosnian
Serb 'republic' an illegitimate rebellion, the United Nations felt compelled
to deal with them equally, as 'the parties,' or 'the warring factions.'"
Rather, the UN wanted to get the aid through and facilitate
a peace.... The terms of the peace were, from the standpoint of UNPROFOR,
almost irrelevant. It did not have to be a just peace, or even a peace
that could be maintained. All that the United Nations required was that
"the parties" agree to it.
If "peace" is the single goal, and its terms "almost irrelevant,"
we have in fact moved as far away from "justice" as we are likely
to get, and the peculiar result is that the United Nations, for all its
pretensions to "impartiality" between "the parties,"
has forced itself by its own interests to favor one side—the side that
happens to be winning. Rieff sketches out this logic in a brilliant and
If the purpose of a mission is to stop a war, and one side,
having won, appears ready to settle, while the other side, feeling its
cause to be just but having turned out to be the loser, is determined
to fight on, then those running this mission are likely to find that most
of the time their interests coincide with those of the victors. They and
the victors want peace. The vanquished, possessed of the notion that they
have right on their side, refuse to accept their defeat. Given these convergences,
it is only a small step to the victors and the international organization
understanding that, when all is said and done, they share the same goal.
That goal, of course, was forcing a Muslim surrender and a settlement on
Serb terms—for what else could a settlement be if it was "negotiated"
while the Serbs held more than seventy percent of Bosnian territory? "It
might not be an ideal outcome," writes Rieff, "but at least people
would stop getting killed." Such was the institutional interest of
the United Nations, and such as well were the interests of the British and
the French who stood behind it.
ow, however, a new and powerful player had
entered the game. That the Bosnians entertained high hopes for Bill Clinton,
that they drew encouragement from his rhetoric—though he may have been
offering only words—itself had a powerful effect. Why accept the ethnic
partitions set out in the Vance-Owen plan while the leader of the Free World
was declaring that "ethnic cleansing cannot stand"? Among the
bitter words one finds in David Owen's memoirs, none is more bitter than
those directed at Clinton officials for their "encouragement"
of the Bosnians. In December 1992, even before the new administration took
office, as Clinton "transition" officials let their muted criticisms
and unattributed "ambivalences" about Vance-Owen seep into the
press, Lord Owen landed in Sarajevo and amid the forest of microphones on
the tarmac warned Bosnians, "Don't, don't, don't live under this dream
that the West is going to come in and sort this problem out. Don't dream
UN officials could be even more explicit. "If anything emboldens the
Muslim government to fight on, it's things like this," said Yasushi
Akashi, the UN secretary general's special representative, after senior
United States officials opened a new embassy in Sarajevo in spring 1994.
"They can point to that and say, 'See, the Americans are with us.'
We can only hope that the failure of NATO to come to their aid around Gorazde
will convince them the US cavalry isn't around the corner."
Clinton's rhetoric did have serious effects in Bosnia; insofar as he used
it as a substitute for meaningful action the policy of his administration
was not only more duplicitous but in many ways more damaging than Bush's
had been. Bush had had a chance to prevent or at least limit the war when
it might have been done at minimal cost and despite his protestations of
vision in conducting America's policy he was too timid and shortsighted
to take it; but Bush had never promised the US cavalry might be on the way.
Clinton had promised strong action—had vowed America would help—and
when confronted with the need to supply it, he had offered words; those
words did more than disappoint—they instilled hope which the Bosnians
paid for with blood.
By mid-February 1993 General Ratko Mladic's offensive had left the isolated
eastern towns of Srebrenica and Cserska jammed with refugees; and those
emaciated people, when they weren't dying from Mladic's shellfire, had begun
to starve. Mladic had blocked the aid convoys (which in any event had never
succeeded in feeding the city). Clinton, who declared "ethnic cleansing
cannot stand"—but who was loathe to consider the sort of forceful
commitment the statement implied—was about to witness with the rest
of the television-watching world the cleansing-by-hunger of tens of thousands
Clinton finally responded, in late February, with a novel solution: American
Hercules transport planes would drop food and medical supplies into Bosnia
by air. The flights were carried out under the United Nations humanitarian
mandate, having been conceived, as James Gow bluntly puts it, "by the
US in place of preparedness to make a stronger commitment by involving the
deployment of its own troops."
This was, of course, the fundamental contradiction: Bill Clinton wanted
"stronger action" but (like George Bush) had decided early on
that he would not deploy American combat troops. In late March, only weeks
after his secretary of state delivered to Congress his eloquent affirmation
of the moral and strategic importance of Bosnia, Clinton took a leaf from
Lawrence Eagleburger's book:
The hatred between all three groups...is almost unbelievable.
It's almost terrifying, and it's centuries old. That really is a problem
from hell. And I think the United States is doing all we can to try to
deal with that problem.
Finally, in a chilling echo of Neville Chamberlain's description of
the dispute over the soon-to-be dismembered Czechoslovakia as "a
quarrel in a foreign country between people of whom we know nothing,"
Christopher in May described the war in Bosnia as "a humanitarian
crisis a long way from home, in the middle of another continent."
Clinton had begun to "climb down." His administration now
flirted with the hitherto despised Vance-Owen plan to divide Bosnia
into nine ethnically-based provinces—and indeed, as Sudetic makes
clear, Mladic was doubtless now attacking vigorously in the east of
Bosnia partly because Vance-Owen envisaged granting this territory to
the Muslims, and the Serb general was determined to preempt any such
a move by creating an irreversible "fact on the ground." In
February 1993, the only obstacle lying between him and creating that
fact was the presence of tens of thousands of starving people and a
force of lightly armed Muslims.
On February 28, four C-130 "Hercules" transport planes lumbered
off the runway at a military airbase at Frankfurt and turned their noses
south; a short while later, in the sky 10,000 feet above Cerska, about
thirteen miles northwest of Srebrenica, American airmen pushed out heavily
loaded pallets, and watched white parachutes flutter down against the
black sky and disappear among the snow-covered mountains. The Americans
executed the operation perfectly; the pallets plummeted into the snow
precisely on target. Their good work, however, meant nothing; for by
the time the food and medicine crashed through the leafless branches,
the Serbs had overrun Cerska and were hard at work dispatching wounded
Muslims, and looting and burning houses. Those Muslims who were not
now lying dead in the snow had long since fled.
Even as the Serbs took what they could find and burned what was left,
Bosnians were trudging through the bitter cold night, a great wave of
refugees perhaps ten thousand strong, bundled in blankets and rags,
grimly shuffling south toward Konjevic Polje, a hamlet that lay about
ten miles north of Srebrenica. Many of these dull-eyed people had made
such a grim trek before; ten months earlier they had been "cleansed"
during the Serbs' brutal occupation of Zvornik, some twenty-five miles
from Srebrenica. They were the lucky ones; in Zvornik, Arkan's Tigers
and Seslj's Chetniks and the Red Berets of Serbia's Interior Ministry
had murdered as many as two thousand people. The rest, some 47,000 men,
women and children, had been summarily expelled. Now the cleansed people of Zvornik
were fleeing once again, in a stream of hollow-eyed refugees flooding
the Srebrenica "pocket."
From Srebrenica and other villages and towns, the ham radio operators
who provided the eastern enclaves' only link to the outside world were
filling the airwaves with detailed reports of mass killings, of Serb
soldiers cutting the throats of women and children. Sadako Ogata, the
UN High Commissioner for Refugees, sent a summary of these accounts
in an urgent letter to Secretary General Boutros-Ghali. "If only
ten percent of the information is true," wrote Ogata, "we
are witnessing a massacre in the enclaves without being able to do anything
about it." Ogata then made a startling proposal: the United Nations
must move to evacuate the Muslims from the Srebrenica enclave. In the
past the UN had always opposed such evacuations. Now, although she did
not say so, Ogata's proposal would put the UN in the position of helping
the Serbs cleanse the area of Muslims.
In New York, members of the Security Council ordered Boutros-Ghali to
"take immediate steps to increase UNPROFOR's presence in Eastern
Bosnia." General Philippe Morillon, the white-haired, charismatic
French officer who commanded UN forces in Bosnia, traveled to Konjevic
Polje on March 5, then to Cerska itself to investigate the reports of
atrocities. Reporters spoke to him as he climbed into his helicopter
at Tuzla. "As a soldier, I, unfortunately, have the knack of smelling
death," Morillon said dramatically. "I didn't smell it."
The United Nations, he announced, would not evacuate the Srebrenica
pocket after all. At the last moment, the Serbs had refused to permit
any Muslims to leave unless the United Nations would replace them with
ten thousand Serb civilians from towns under Bosnian control. And it
was not only the Serbs who had prevented the desperate Muslims from
leaving. Sudetic writes,
The Muslim commanders had also blocked the planned exodus, arguing
that it would "undermine the morale" of Srebrenica's defenders
and lead to the town's surrender; in other words, Naser Oric did not want
to be deprived of the torbari who had once been his sword and were
now his shield, and Alija Izetbegovic did not want to have the UN helping
the Serbs remove the Muslim majority population from territory that the
UN's own...Vance-Owen peace plan had earmarked to remain predominantly
To the reporters assembled at the Tuzla airfield, General Morillon urged
a sober, skeptical attitude. "I did not see any trace of massacres,"
said the General. "That's very important because we have to calm the
fears there.... Srebrenica is in no danger."
Within a few hours, however, reporters would have something more credible
to rely on than General Morillon's nose. Simon Mardel, a doctor working
for the World Health Organization, had left Morillon's party at Konjivec
Polje and hiked to Srebrenica. By ham radio, he reported that between twenty
and thirty refugees were dying every day from pneumonia and other illnesses.
For months, he said, Muslim doctors had been operating without anesthetics.
Refugees were sleeping everywhere on Srebrenica's slushy streets and subsisting
on roots and grass and buds. As for the airdropped supplies, the strongest
people—officers, soldiers, members of work brigades responsible for
digging trenches—took what they wanted, pilfering sacks of flour and
grain and hiding them for their families. The weakest—the sick, the
wounded, the homeless refugees—got nothing.
Eventually, Sudetic writes, Naser Oric abandoned any effort to organize
distribution of the food and simply declared that it would be "everyone
The mountainsides above Srebrenica now flickered with the flames
of a legion of torches each night as desperate people streamed through
the forest to the drop areas. Few of the newly arriving refugees..., many
of them widows with children,... had the energy to make the journey and
fight for food.... Men were killing one another in the forests to get
at the flour. Falling pallets, which were as big as refrigerators and
smashed into the ground at about eighty-five miles an hour, had crushed
to death people who risked waiting inside the landing zones to improve
their chances.... The Americans responded to the chaos by...dropping tens
of thousands of individual meals in brown plastic wrappers that fell to
the earth like vacuum-packed manna from heaven.
By now Mladic's troops were furiously shelling Konjevic
Polje, vastly broadening the stream of refugees flooding Srebrenica. General
Morillon began to fear that Mladic would seize the entire enclave, which
would not only create an enormous humanitarian disaster but would likely
scuttle the Vance-Owen peace talks, which at that point, despite the ambivalence
of the United States, were still "the only game in town."
On March 11, after consulting with his government in Paris and receiving
permission from the Serbs to cross their lines, General Philippe Morillon
set out for Srebrenica.
In the White House, members of Clinton's foreign policy "Principals
Committee" debated what policy the Adminitration should adopt toward
Bosnia. Progress was slow. Among key members of the administration strong
differences existed, and in such a situation the President must listen
carefully and make a clear and forceful decision, or the conflicting interests
of the various departments, and the government's natural inertia, will
frustrate any desire he might have to act.
Clinton, though, possessed both the vague impulse to do good and a strong
fear that, if he actually did anything to achieve it, he might fall into
a trap from which he might be unable to extricate himself. Had not Johnson,
the master politician, been destroyed by a trivial, useless war? That
Clinton's advisers were strongly divided did not help. "The divisions
within the foreign policy group," observes Elizabeth Drew, "contributed
to a division in the mind of a President who had few strong instincts
The "Principals" increasingly left specific proposals behind,
and launched into abstract debates over America's role in the world. General
Colin Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the sole holdover from
the Bush Administration, remarked in his memoirs that "it wasn't policy-making.
It was group therapy—an existential debate over what is the role of
America, etc." With all the disdain of a hardened professional forced
to endure the pretensions of a group of amateurs, General Powell traces
the poverty of the discussion directly to a political source:
...the discussions [meandered] like a graduate student bull
sessions or the think-tank seminars in which many of my new colleagues
had spent the last twelve years while their party was out of power.
Powell himself did an eloquent job confirming and reinforcing the President's
doubts. The spectre of Vietnam haunted him more than it did Clinton, for
he had been there, and he had derived from his command a grim determination
to fight what he saw as the frivolity and irresponsibility of men like the
young President who now sat across from him: "Those of us who were
captains and majors in Vietnam," the General had written, "will
never let the politicians do this to us again." During the last months
of George Bush's presidency, when pictures of Serb concentration camps brought
public pressure for action to a climax, the General had spoken out clearly
and publicly against military intervention. Personally, he shared Lawrence
Eagleburger's "pox on all their houses" attitude. (As he would
put it in an interview after he retired, "When the fighting broke out,
should the West have intervened militarily as one of the belligerents to
put down all other belligerents?"). For those who favor military intervention
for strongly idealistic reasons, and whom he clearly believes remain willfully
ignorant of the burdens and responsibilities with which military professionals
must contend, Powell reserves a withering contempt:
The debate exploded at one session when Madeleine Albright...
asked me in frustration, "What's the point of having this superb
military that you're always talking about if we can't use it?" I
thought I would have an aneurysm. American GIs were not toy soldiers to
be moved around on some sort of global game board.
Powell stood out as an immensely popular, uniquely independent figure. To
overrule him on a matter of military judgment would have been politically
perilous for any president. To a president who had never served in the military;
who had sidestepped military service during the Vietnam war and was regarded
by significant numbers of Americans as a draft dodger; who had been publicly
humiliated in an early, controversial struggle with the Chairman of the
Joint Chiefs over the so-called "gays in the military" issue—to
President Bill Clinton General Powell represented a powerful force that
he was loath to challenge.
hile Clinton and his advisers met and talked,
and met and talked, officials in Christopher's State Department had been
working away at their Bosnia "policy review" and hints began to
appear in the press of a new, tougher plan, called "lift and strike,"
according to which the United Nations would lift the arms embargo on the
Bosnians, allowing them to acquire heavy weapons, and NATO would strike
at the Serbs with its warplanes to protect the Bosnians while, freshly armed,
they learned the skills to "defend themselves." The plan had many
virtues, although the most striking of these were designed to placate political
constituencies at home rather than alter the military situation in Bosnia.
Lifting the arms embargo, for example, had become a popular idea, particularly
among congressmen, and for good reason: of all the West's perverse and repugnant
policies on Bosnia the arms embargo had come to seem the most blatantly
and incomprehensibly unfair. Under what rationale could the international
community prevent a member state of the United Nations from defending itself—which
was, after all, its explicit right under Article 51 of the UN Charter? To
even the least informed voter, this seemed clearly wrong, and giving Bosnians
"the means to defend themselves" not only seemed clearly right,
it had a reassuringly American, pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps sound
to it. As for the "strike," protecting Bosnians with NATO fighters
and bombers until they could absorb their new weapons and use them to fight
for themselves sounded like the sort of low-cost, middle-of-the-road help
Americans should be willing to supply. Air power, after all, had not only
proved spectacularly potent during the Gulf War, it had seemed hygienic,
"surgical," and, even for the dashing Americans in the cockpits,
If "lift and strike" had political virtues, however, its value
as a practical policy was doubtful. As John Fox, the State Department official
said, during the "policy review...a lot of very good middle force options
were raised," but then "these were cut out"; Christopher
and other officials came forward with strong rhetoric; and, "after
declaring that what's going on in Bosnia is a vital interest..., they then
lay out options that everybody knows aren't going to work." For insofar
as the purpose was to turn the tide of the war without deploying troops,
"lift and strike" was based on logistical and geographic ignorance.
As David Rieff writes,
To the question of how the weapons were going to be gotten into
Sarajevo or Tuzla, supporters of this approach at best tended to respond
vaguely. When pressed, they would concede that some outside force would
have to bring in the arms the Bosnians needed. And yet, if one took them
at their word, what they were calling for was military intervention in
the strictest sense.
Officers and Pentagon officials helpfully bolstered this point by providing
estimates of the number of troops necessary to open a "land corridor"
from Split to Sarajevo at more than one hundred thousand. "Lift and
strikes'" main appeal—that it could be labeled an intervention
to help the Bosnians without requiring a real intervention—evaporated.
That, however, turned out to be its strength. For "lift and strike"
shimmered like a mirage just long enough for Warren Christopher to gather
it up, place it in his briefcase, and take it to Europe with him, where
he traveled from capital to capital trying to "persuade" Europeans
to sign on and support it. Europeans, however, had an obvious problem with
"lift and strike," which Christopher and other Clinton officials
well understood: they had—the words would soon become a veritable mantra—"troops
on the ground." What would happen to their officers and soldiers now
delivering food and medicine if the United Nations were to relinquish its
"impartiality" and support not only
lifting the arms embargo—but,
in effect, air strikes on Serb artillery and armor?
Of course, the Europeans' argument would have been more effective. If more
aid were getting through—especially to, say, Srebrenica, which since
the war began had received a single convoy. For their part, the Bosnians
repeatedly declared that they would prefer that the humanitarian troops
leave their country if this was deemed necessary for them to receive the
benefits of "lift and strike," but it was a sad fact that the
Bosnians opinion in such matters did not by any means come first.
hristopher's trip to Europe was not successful—at
least not in persuading the Europeans to accept the American policy. In
another sense, though, it was a brilliant achievement, for it provided President
Clinton with an effective alibi for his own inaction. If the President had
not moved to lift the arms embargo against the Bosnians or to ready airstrikes
against the Serbs, this was because the Europeans had troops on the ground,
and, try as he might, he could not bring them around to accept his proposals.
For their part, the Europeans, on matters of great importance to their senior
ally, were not accustomed to this sort of "honest consultation."
They expected the Americans, in matters of true import, to lead, not to
For this and other reasons, his European hosts did not find the Secretary's
presentation persuasive: "I had the feeling, when he came to Brussels,"
said Willy Claes, at the time the Belgian Foreign Minister, "that he
had felt very clearly that there was not a possibility to convince the Europeans."
On his return, Christopher himself would be heard to remark on "what
a loser this policy is."
Given the choice of whether to back "lift and strike" or not,
the Europeans would rather not. Real problems confronted them, of course:
they feared shipping in more arms would inflame the war (which was, of course,
the point of the policy); they feared that Milosevic, seeing his proxy's
gains ready to evaporate, might bring his army to intervene; they feared
that, having advanced so close to "peace"—on the Serbs' terms,
yes, but that was a sad fact of life—arming the Bosnians would propel
the war in precisely the opposite direction. In the end, however, it was
British and French and Spanish troops that were on the ground and if the
Americans weren't willing to insist—in effect, threaten to breach NATO
itself—the Europeans certainly could not take the proposal seriously.
y the time Christopher had returned from his
disastrous May tour, Clinton's own doubts had grown. It was then that there
emerged this curious fact: "lift and strike" was more effective
as a dead policy than a live one. Clinton desired to act in Bosnia but the
Europeans would not cooperate; thus the President was stymied. During the
continuing diplomatic squabbling over the Vance-Owen plan, the imposition
of a no-fly zone, the tightening of sanctions, "lift and strike"
would stand forth as the single grand idea that Bill Clinton would put forward
to fulfill his promise to save Bosnia—if only the Europeans, who, of
course, had troops on the ground, would let him. Indeed, as James Gow points
out in Triumph of the Lack of Will
No sooner had the UK and France implicitly acknowledged that
US pressure would be irresistible and that 'lift and strike,' along with
the withdrawal of UNPROFOR, would be inevitable, then the US in September
placed a six-month moratorium on its call to lift the embargo.
Ironically, the Clinton Administration, having ebbed and flowed
in arguments with the Allies on the arms embargo question, pulled back
from the brink when finally forced to confront the real implications of
withdrawal, lift and strike....
Bill Clinton had thus managed to shape the perfect policy: a rhetorical
policy, one consisting solely of words. It brought moral credit; it carried
no risk. As the President remarked one day in April, "The US should
always seek an opportunity to stand up against—at least speak out against
inhumanity." These verbs—to stand up against and to speak out
against—Clinton blends together in a single sentence as if they were
one and the same, in fact they are very different. For Bill Clinton, as
the Bosnians were slowly discovering, speaking out against inhumanity often
seemed a means to avoid standing up against it.
Could he have stood up against it? After all, Colin Powell and his own military
opposed him, the Europeans were skeptical and reluctant, and, most important,
the problem had grown much more complicated since the first days of the
war during the Bush administration. And yet, despite the accepted mythology,
a majority of Americans tended to support taking strong action in Bosnia—if,
that is, it was coordinated with the United States' allies. As Wayne Bert
puts it in The Reluctant Superpower
The power of the President is considerable, and a determined
president who was willing to take responsibility for Bosnia policy might
well have forged a coalition that could have surmounted the many obstacles
and used force to get a satisfactory settlement. More than one European
agreed with a diplomat who said that the President "should stop asking
them their own opinion on what he plans to do and start telling them instead
what he plans to go ahead with, preferably with their support."
Such an approach was inconceivable for Clinton, for he
had no commitment to making the sacrifices it would have taken to stop
the war; rather, as Gow says, he took a "stand on principle against
'ethnic cleansing' without being prepared to do what was necessary to
As Owen points out, rhetoric creates illusions; it makes people "dream
dreams." And making people dream those dreams, and act on them, was
in retrospect Clinton's greatest failure. His rhetoric, however, would
soon be trumped by a supremely independent Algerian-born Frenchman who,
by the force of his own personality, would help impose on the Bosnians
the supreme rhetorical policy of the entire war.
On March 10, 1993, the Commander of the United Nations Protection Force
in Bosnia, General Philippe Morillon, climbed into his armored car at
Tuzla and set off for the imprisoned city of Srebrenica. Under his command
were a column of white United Nations trucks and jeeps, loaded with food
and medicines. Though he had received assurance from General Mladic personally
that his convoy would be permitted to enter the city, Serb commanders
halted the convoy: no food would be allowed into Srebrenica. After hours
of discussion Morillon finally decided to leave the convoy behind and
enter the city himself. Though he was permitted to proceed with two patrol
cars, an armored vehicle, and one truck loaded with medicine and sugar,
he was directed toward a treacherous mountain road that, as the Serbs
knew, had been mined. As the tiny caravan crossed the front line into
Muslim territory the truck hit a mine; it had to be left behind.
It was already dark when General Morillon drove slowly in his white car
through the Dantesque main street of Srebrenica. Refugees had continued
to flood the town. In the streets fires smoked and sputtered: the last
trees having long since been cut down, refugees burned plastic bottles
and garbage, filling the streets, already stinking of unwashed bodies
and urine and excrement, with noxious fumes. The next morning Morillon
rose and met with Naser Oric and his commanders, along with several civilian
leaders, to discuss the future of the enclave. Morillon urged the Muslims
to avoid provoking the Serb soldiers who surrounded them. He would try,
said the general, to negotiate a ceasefire, seek to arrange with the Serbs
to let some aid convoys into the town. And then he suggested a broader,
long-term strategy: Srebrenica, said the general, might become a demilitarized
Naser Oric and his commanders were not pleased with the suggestion, for
it seemed to raise more questions than it answered—most obviously,
who would protect the town from the Serbs if the Muslims gave up their
weapons? Could they really depend on the United Nations to protect them?
But the situation of Srebrenica had become too dire; when Oric's men radioed
political leaders in Sarajevo to ask them about Morillon's proposal, they
were told, according to a participant in the meeting quoted by Honig and
Both, "Sarajevo supported it because there was nothing else."
here was, however, General Morillon. Since
his arrival, Srebrenica had been quiet; the incessant shelling and firing
had stopped. Even as Morillon was discussing the town's future, a radio
operator in the Presidency Building was sending Oric a coded message from
Srebrenica's mayor, Murat Efendic, who was exiled in Sarajevo: "Whatever
happens, prevent Morillon from leaving Srebrenica until he provides security
for the people there," Efendic said. "Do it in a civilized way.
Use women and children."
Oric did precisely that. Women went house to house, bringing out into the
streets hundreds of mothers and children. They sat and put together crude
posters—"Don't Abandon Us!" "If You Leave, They Will
Kill Us!" "We Are Hungry! Give Us Bread!"—and by the
time General Morillon was about to climb into his car that afternoon it
was surrounded by a roiling ocean of shouting and crying women and children,
some of whom were sitting down in front of its wheels. Morillon stood on
the hood and addressed the women, assuring them that he would not abandon
their town. Though he was eloquent in his appeal, the woman refused to budge.
He asked Oric to help clear the way but the military leader sadly admitted
that confronted with such a problem he was powerless.
Finally Morillon went off to sleep and, at two o'clock in the morning, slipped
quietly out of town on foot, to wait in Potocari, two miles away, for his
driver to meet him. Unfortunately for him the women, who had deployed themselves
in eight-hour shifts, were watching, and they blocked his car once more;
indeed, when the General walked sheepishly back into town the crowd of women
and children had grown larger than before.
The General abruptly changed tactics. Soon the women and children filling
the square around his car would gaze up to see the handsome general with
the penetrating gaze standing at attention on the balcony of the Post Office,
brandishing in one hand the blue flag of the United Nations. He gazed down
at the women, the flag flapping in the wind. "You are now under the
protection of the UN forces," the General declared dramatically to
the people of Srebrenica. "I will never abandon you."
It was a startling and wholly unexpected turn of events and, for UN officials,
not a particularly agreeable one. Morillon had essentially made use of his
own captivity to place a United Nations shield over the town. And he had
done this wholly on his own authority, as an act of grandiloquent inspiration.
The next day, when Oric and the other commanders told Morillon he would
be permitted to leave, the General refused. Only working from within the
miserable, vulnerable pocket of Srebrenica, he now believed, would he be
able to negotiate the delivery of aid, the evacuation of refugees, and,
finally, a ceasefire and the demilitarization of the enclave.
The Serbs, outraged, declared that they would permit food convoys to enter
Srebrenica only after the General left the enclave—hardly a believable
promise since they had permitted only one convoy through during the entire
siege. Meantime the Serbs shelled and bombarded the villages around Srebrenica,
seizing one after another, making their way steadily closer to the town
itself. Naser Oric, seeing that Srebrenica must soon fall, approached Morillon
and asked if it could be made an "open town" and taken under the
protection of the UN forces. Morillon laid down his conditions, as quoted
by Honig and Both:
My intention is that except for some [civilian police]..., all
men who wish to stay here must give weapons to my command post here in
Srebrenica. Those who want to continue to fight must go to the hills....
nfortunately, the Serbs, unimpressed with
Morillon's proposal to disarm the Muslims and determined now to seize the
town, continued to advance. On March 19, the Serbs finally permitted an
aid convoy to enter Srebrenica. The trucks were mobbed by desperate people.
As soon as the food and medicine had been unloaded, seven hundred women
and children fought their way aboard. Although the temperature was far below
freezing, they waited all night aboard the trucks; several woman and children
suffocated; others froze to death. When they arrived in Tuzla, their condition
shocked the doctors waiting to receive them. According to Honig and Both,
The refugees were hungry, cold and dirty and were surrounded
by a sickening stench. Their wounds had been neglected and amputations
had to be performed immediately as gangrene was eating away at people's
On March 26, Morillon met with Milosevic and Mladic in Belgrade and obtained
a ceasefire along with the Serb general's pledge to allow food convoys into
Srebrenica and, for the first time, evacuate those who wished to leave.
Again, when the white trucks arrived desperate refugees virtually rioted
in their attempts to force their way on; on the first convoy, twenty-four
hundred people jammed into space meant to transport seven hundred.
Younger women fought and sometimes severely injured their elders; some women
threw their infants into the arms of anyone on the trucks willing to take
them in a desperate attempt to save their lives. Doctors in Tuzla found
the trucks covered with blood and vomit and after the refugees poured out,
invariably several corpses would be left behind, usually those of children.
It was clear to all, of course, that the United Nations was now doing General
Mladic's job. He expansively urged that three hundred trucks should be sent
in daily to empty the town more rapidly. By this point, however, "the
Bosnian government was getting worried and opposed further evacuations,"
as Honig and Both write.
It wanted Srebrenica to become a safe haven, protected by UN
forces. If the evacuations from Srebrenica continued at this rate, there
would soon be no substantial civilian population left. Without civilians
whose lives were directly under threat, the pressure on the United Nations
to deploy peacekeepers in Srebrenica would subside. [Emphasis added]
On March 26, Muslim soldiers in Tuzla blocked a convoy filled with Muslim
refugees, threatening to send the desperate people back to Srebrenica. "The
convoy is not allowed to come in," said one Muslim officer. "We
are ready to sacrifice these people." Although these people were eventually
allowed into Tuzla, the positions of the Serbs and the Muslims were now
completely reversed. The Serbs, who had blocked all access to Srebrenica,
now permitted the UN to evacuate as many people as it could. The Bosnians,
who had demanded that the way be opened to food convoys and the evacuation
of refugees, now blocked all efforts to evacuate their people from Srebrenica.
ealizing that the Bosnians were now preventing
the united Nations from, in effect, cleansing more muslims from Srebrenica,
General Mladic became determined to seize the city. His artillery and tanks
launched a vicious attack, capturing one by one the villages encircling
it and sending survivors scurrying for town. Deeply alarmed, General Morillon
set off once more for town—he had developed what his superiors and
some of his staff considered an unhealthy obsession with Srebrenica. But
the Serbs turned his convoy back; when Morillon tried to pass through Zvornik
with only two vehicles he found himself surrounded by a crowd of infuriated
Serb women. In a hellish echo of his experience in his beloved Srebrenica,
the women shrieked, beat on his vehicle, and scrawled "Morillon Hitler"
and other obscenities on his white United Nations car. To make Morillon's
humiliation complete, he had to be rescued from the mob of screaming women
by Mladic's chief of staff, who was flying in a helicopter that violated
the United Nations' own no-fly zone to reach him.
On April 12 Serb gunners launched two artillery bombardments that killed
fifty-six people and wounded many more. During the next three days the Serb
attacks increased steadily in ferocity. One by one the Muslims ran out of
ammunition. Srebrenica, it was clear, had only hours left to live. Thinking
of Bratunac and Kravica and all the other massacres and counter-massacres,
killings, and revenge, the men of Srebrenica knew what fate to expect.
On April 16, as Russian and American envoys sat in Belgrade struggling to
convince Slobodan Milosevic to "use his influence" with General
Mladic and Dr. Karadzic to halt the Srebrenica offensive, United Nations
negotiator David Owen was having an ominous telephone conversation:
I had rarely heard Milosevic so exasperated, but also so worried:
he feared that if the Bosnian Serb troops entered Srebrenica there would
be a bloodbath because of the tremendous bad blood that existed between
the two armies. The Bosnian Serbs held the young Muslim commander in Srebrenica,
Naser Oric, responsible for a massacre near Bratunac in December 1992
in which many Serb civilians had been killed. Milosevic believed it would
be a great mistake for the Bosnian Serbs to take Srebrenica and promised
to tell Karadzic so.
Owen writes as if he took Milosevic's "worries" and "fears"
at face value; it is, as is often the case, hard to know what the former
foreign secretary really thinks. As for Milosevic, he is both a celebrated
liar and a leader who, certainly in the spring of 1993, retained very strong
influence over the Bosnian Serb Army—which until scarcely a year before,
after all, had been simply a part of the Yugoslav National Army. The idea
that Milosevic found himself "exasperated" by General Mladic's
launching an offensive a few miles from the border of Serbia itself is difficult
to believe. The words Dr. Owen so scrupulously records admit of another,
more plausible explanation: in case Mladic does take the enclave, and his
men go on to murder a great many people—for the very reasons Milosevic
suggests—the Serb President wants an alibi. He tried to stop it; he
did his best for the forces of good; Mladic proved uncontrollable.
As Milosevic chatted with Owen, General Mladic's men broke through the Muslim
lines and surged toward the town. An unnamed eyewitness, quoted by Honig
and Both, describes these last moments of the siege:
We were sitting in the basement and shells were exploding every
five seconds....I went on to the balcony but immediately a machine-gun
salvo hit the wall next to me. I went back to the basement. We could hear
the shooting come closer and we thought we were going to be killed. Then
suddenly I heard outgoing shells—a different sound. Either the Serbs
had entered, or it was us!
He goes upstairs, finds a window, and cautiously surveys the main street.
I saw more than a hundred men running up the hill towards the
Serbs and I heard shouts: "Naser! Naser!" Later I heard that
Naser Oric and two groups of 150 men had pushed back the Serbs 500 metres
that day....The artillery man who had fired the shells... told me they
had kept fifty shells for a critical moment.
But this was not all. In Belgrade the Russian and American envoys had been
hard at work. So had the diplomats in the United Nations Security Council
laboring in far-off New York.
Two hours after Naser pushed back the Serbs, there [came a radio]
announcement that Srebrenica had been declared a safe area. We all jumped
into the air and fell into each other's arms, crying and laughing at the
same time. We had been saved.
After so many months of siege they still had faith. Had they already forgotten
the words of General Morillon: "I will never abandon you."? True,
he had been gallant, Morillon, but he was soon gone. Now, from New York,
the diplomats and politicians of many nations gazed on Srebrenica, imagined
the horror that might come when the Serbs overran the town, and moved to
protect it—but only with words.
The French had concluded in their official estimate that forty thousand
troops would be required "to oppose any aggression" on the "safe"
areas. And yet few nations, after having uttered the words "safe areas"
and raised their hands proudly to vote, proved willing to risk their troops.
To "oppose any aggression" from the forces of General Ratko Mladic,
Srebrenica would be provided not with thousands of troops but was one hundred
forty lightly armed Canadians. A year later the Canadians were relieved
by five hundred seventy Dutchmen.
And just what were these "safe areas" that this handful of men
were meant to "guard"? A United Nations relief officer gave this
Violence, black-market activities, prostitution, theft are becoming
the only activities of the population. Tensions are mounting between the
majority refugee population and minority local population. As always the
women, children and elderly are most at risk. The enclave must now be
recognized for what it is, namely a closed refugee camp of 50,000 persons
without adequate facilities for more than about 15,000.
"Safe havens" consisted of little more than words on scraps of
official paper. Like the beautiful phrases of the Dayton Accord, which painted
a picture of a reunited Sarajevo and "guaranteed" that the Serbs
could live free and without fear in their old neighborhoods, Under Muslim
control, such words, if the powerful nations of the world were not prepared
to add flesh to them—to exercise their will and make them real—amounted
to little more than a cruel fiction. In the bloody summer of 1995, which
led to the fictions of the Dayton agreement, this would become terribly
This is the third in a continuing series of articles
 See Chris Hedges, "Serbs in Bosnia See No Peace for Their Dead...,"
The New York Times, January 18, 1996.
See "The US and the Yugoslav Catastrophe," The New York Review, November 20, 1997, and "America and the Bosnia Genocide," The New York Review, December 4, 1997, the
first two of the present series of articles.
 See Stephen Kinzer, "Muslims to Take
a Sarajevo Suburb Sooner Than Expected," The New York Times,
February 20, 1996.
 See Michael Sells, The Bridge Betrayed:
Religion and Genocide in Bosnia (University of California Press, 1996),
See Chris Hedges, "Postscript to Sarajevo's
Anguish: Muslim Killings of Serbs Detailed," The New York Times,
November 12, 1997.
See Stephen Kinzer, "As Leaders Urge
Them On, Serbs Clog Roads Out of Sarajevo," The New York Times,
February 22, 1996.
Demands for tightening of sanctions, etc.,
quoted in "People in Glass Houses: Bush Should be Careful Whose Foreign
Policy He Calls 'Reckless,'" Decision Brief (Center for Security
Policy, Washington), July 28, 1992, page 1. "Whatever it takes to stop
the slaughter of civilians" quoted in Mark Danner and David Gelber,
writers, Peter Jennings, correspondent, "While America Watched: The
Bosnia Tragedy," Peter Jennings Reporting, ABC News, ABC-51,
p. 9 (March 17, 1994).
in Glass Houses: Bush Should be Careful Whose Foreign Policy He Calls 'Reckless,'"
Decision Brief, p. 1.
 Quoted in "Method to the Madness,"
Decision Brief (Center for Security Policy, Washington), October
2, 1992, p. 3.
During spring and summer 1992, when the
Serbs were seizing huge chunks of Bosnia and "cleansing" it of
Muslims, State Department analysts were following events there closely,
compiling lists of atrocities and tracking deportation to concentration
camps weeks before press disclosures. See "America and the Bosnia Genocide,"
The New York Review, December 4, 1997, p. 59.
The Central Intelligence Agency later concluded, in a highly classified
report, that Serbs carried out 90 percent of all war crimes in former Yugoslavia
and that they were the only group to attempt systematically to "eliminate
all traces of other ethnic groups from their territory." See Roger
Cohen, "C.I.A. Report on Bosnia Blames Serbs for 90% of the War Crimes,"
The New York Times, March 9, 1995.
 See "While America Watched: The Bosnia Tragedy," p. 8.
Drawn from an unbroadcast section of an interview with ABC News, "While America Watched: The Bosnia Tragedy," January 1994.
See Jean E. Manas, "The Impossible
Trade-off: 'Peace' vs. 'Justice' in Settling Yugoslavia's Wars," in
Richard H. Ullman, editor, The World and Yugoslavia's Wars (Council
on Foreign Relations Press, 1996), p. 43.
 See "The
US and the Yugoslav Catastrophe," pp. 62-64.
 Dick Morris, Behind the Oval Office:
Winning the Presidency In The Nineties (Random House, 1997), pp. 245,
 See David Owen, Balkan Odyssey: An Uncompromising
Personal Account of the International Peace Efforts Following the Breakup
of the Former Yugoslavia (Harcourt Brace, 1995), pp. 106-107.
Delivered before the Senate Foreign Relations
Committee, February 10, 1993. Quoted in Roy Gutman, A Witness to Genocide
(Macmillan, 1993), pp. xli and xxxviii.
from an unbroadcast section of an interview with ABC News, "While America
Watched: The Bosnia Crisis," January 1994.
 See Morris, Behind the Oval Office,
 See Noel Malcolm, Bosnia: A Short History
(New York University Press, 1996), pp. 25, 249.
 From "Report of the United Nations
High Commission on Refugees, February 19, 1993"; cited in Honig and
Both, Srebrenica: Record of a War Crime, p. 82.
Drawn from another unbroadcast section
of an interview with ABC News, "While American Watched," February
"America and the Bosnia Genocide," for a more thorough description
of the Serbs' campaign of ethnic cleansing.
Since the publisher, W.W. Norton, with
the author's kind permission, agreed to make available Blood and Vengeance
as a work-in-progress in manuscript, all quotations must be considered subject
to change before the book's scheduled publication in June 1998. Though in
this review Ihave drawn only from the passages on the early years of the
war, Sudetic's narrative covers centuries in the history of the Srebrenica
Quoted in Laura Silber and Allan Little,
Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation (Penguin, 1997), pp. 269-270.
 Birtley, as Strobel describes, soon ran
out of food and his batteries ran low, and then, as he watched with UN peacekeepers
at an observation post, he was struck with shrapnel from a Serb mortar.
His leg was shattered in four places, and an emergency operation just managed
to save it (a colleague filmed the operation with Birtley's camera). Birtley
was finally smuggled out of Srebrenica on a UN helicopter.
 See "America and the Bosnian Genocide,"
The New York Review, December 4, 1997.
Quoted in Roy Gutman, Witness to Genocide,
pp. xli-xlii, and in Bert, The Reluctant Superpower, p. 105.
 See Elizabeth Drew, On the Edge: The
Clinton Presidency (Simon and Schuster, 19TK), p. 146.
 See Colin
Powell, My American Journey (Ballantine, 1995), pp. 560-561.
 For Claes, see ABC News, "While America
Watched," p. 11. For Christopher, see Elizabeth Drew, On the Edge, p. 159.
See Colin Powell, My American Journey, p. 561.
See David Owen, Balkan Odyssey, pp. 134-135.