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While America Watched: The Bosnia Tragedy View other pieces in "ABC"
By Mark Danner and David Gelber, for "Peter Jennings Reporting" March 30, 1994
Tags: Bosnia Print

ANNOUNCER This is ABC News special.

PETER JENNINGS, ABC NEWS American fighter planes in the skies over Sarajevo. To the survivors in the ruined city below, the planes are a familiar sight. For more Than a year, while the Bosnian war raged on, the American warplanes have swooped and dived and stunted in the skies overhead, rattling the windows of exhausted Sarajevans. Until three weeks ago, the West was reluctant to do more than demonstrate its military potential while hundreds of thousands of Bosnians were dying in the most brutal war Europe has seen in half a century. Only a short while ago, these war planes stood as the symbols of a new world peace.

PRES GEORGE BUSH A new world order can emerge, a new era, freer from the threat of terror.

PETER JENNINGS (VO) And stronger in the pursuit of justice, the president said, this president who would, a few months later, lead American and allied forces to victory over Saddam Hussein in the Persian Gulf. Scarcely had American troops returned home from Kuwait than America's historic rival, the Soviet Union, collapsed. Suddenly, the United States stood unrivaled on the world stage. George Bush's vision of peace and justice seemed within reach. That singular moment was only two and a half years ago. Since then, America has not prevailed. We have seen the body of a US soldier dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, seen a mob in Haiti drive a US warship away. Most of all, at the height of America's powers, we have seen the United States stand by and watch the slaughter in the former Yugoslavia. As the war grew in ferocity, as the images on our television screens grew more horrible, they began to remind us of the last war to ravage Europe. And yet, until very recently, until 68 people were blown apart within easy range of television cameras - 68 added to the 200,000 that have already died - until then, the United States had not felt compelled to act. How did America's leaders decide to stand by for so long while scenes of mass murder and genocide were once again enacted on European soil? How did the US move so quickly from the role of single predominant superpower to that of the reluctant one, unsure of its place in the world and its obligations to it? That is the story we will tell in this broadcast tonight. (Commercial break)

ANNOUNCER This ABC News special, While America Watched: The Bosnia Tragedy, continues. Reporting from Washington, Peter Jennings.

PETER JENNINGS Faces from a small town- hundreds of faces in hundreds of photographs. They all lived in the town of Ejszyski in Lithuania until 1941, when virtually every one of these people and thousands of others whose faces we don't see, whole families large and small, men and women and children, were dragged from their homes, kept in the local synagogue for two days without food or water, and then taken to the local cemetery in groups and shot. They didn't die for anything they had done, but for who they were, and that made it a singular kind of crime. We call it genocide. The Holocaust for which this museum in Washington is named was one instance of genocide, by far the most notorious in human history. But to commit genocide, you needn't kill six million Jews and five million other people. As the international treaty prohibiting it defines genocide, you need only commit acts with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group. The Turks did it to the Armenians early in the century. Less than two decades ago, the Khmer Rouge did it to their own people, the Cambodians. For genocide to happen, you need only killers and victims- and those who stand by and let it happen. We take you now to Bosnia. It is the spring of 1992.

(VO) This is Prijedor in northwestern Bosnia. Jadranka Cigelj lived on Marshall Tito Boulevard, Prijedor's main street. Early one Sunday morning late in May, 1992, she looked out her window.

JADRANKA CIJELJ (through interpreter) A long line of Muslim people were passing under my kitchen window. They were being pushed along by Serbian soldiers. It reminded me of a bad dream. The soldiers were bearded and dirty. They were using guns and machine guns to force old men, women and children down the street. It was a horrible sight.

PETER JENNINGS (VO) The night before, she'd heard gunfire and screams. Jadranka Cigelj says that in a single night, May the 30th, the Serbs killed more than 1,000 Muslims and Croats who lived in Prijedor.

JADRANKA CIJELJ (through interpreter) These people were being killed simply because they were not Serbs. That was their only sin.

PETER JENNINGS (VO) It wasn't long before reports of what the Serbs regarded as 'ethnic cleansing' - they gave it the name - reached the desk of John Western, a State Department analyst who concentrated on the former Yugoslavia.

JOHN WESTERN To me, this meets the definition of genocide because in village after village, people were being systematically killed in order to move the rest of the population out of the villages.

PETER JENNINGS (VO) In April, 1992, shortly after the United States and Western Europe recognized the independence of Bosnia Herzegovina, Serb forces had invaded Bosnia, a place where Serbs, Muslims and Croats had, for the most part, co existed peacefully. Since then, in a brutal war that has dragged on for almost two years, Serb forces have killed 200,000 civilians and driven more than a million into exile. In the Bosnian city of Banja Luka, Muslim and Croat community leaders told correspondent Roy Gutman of Newsday they had seen railway cars packed with civilians.

ROY GUTMAN And they saw people's faces and hands reaching out from within the slats of the cattle cars. They weren't given water. They weren't given food. There was no toilets. And, in some cases, they would be traveling for three or four days in the hot summer sun.

PETER JENNINGS (VO) Gutman went to the Serb authorities in Banja Luka.

ROY GUTMAN And I asked them if this was true. They confirmed it. The police chief did.

PETER JENNINGS The Serbian police chief.

ROY GUTMAN The Serbian police chief.

PETER JENNINGS Confirmed that they had deported these people.

ROY GUTMAN In cattle cars. And I asked- we asked the obvious question, why cattle cars? Why this treatment? And he had some very facetious answer- 'They didn't ask for first class passenger cars,' or something like that.

PETER JENNINGS So it was very reminiscent of the deportation of the Jews and others during World War II.

ROY GUTMAN It was a- it was a staggering parallel.

PETER JENNINGS (VO) Several thousand of those being deported came from the Bosnian Muslim town of Kozarac. In June of '92, Serbian forces destroyed nearly everything in Kozarac- the houses, the mosques, the barns, the silos. The displaced residents, packed in cattle cars, passed through Banja Luka at night. Many have never been accounted for. Others were taken to a place called Omarska. There many of the prisoners were tortured, the women were raped. One of the women was Jadranka Cigelj.

JADRANKA CIJELJ (through interpreter) The guards were calling the names. At 12:30 that night, the electricity went off and somebody grabbed me and took me out of the room. I recognized the man grabbing me and I didn't resist I knew it would have been absurd to resist The man was 16 years younger than me. After it was over, he asked me if he had broken me. I was humiliated. I was offended. I was frightened. But in spite of everything, I responded that he hadn't. I was not broken.

PETER JENNINGS (VO) In July, 1992, the world at large knew nothing about Omarska or any of the other Serbian run death camps.

ROY GUTMAN From the moment I heard about Omarska, I did everything I could to ring the alarm bell. I called the White House. I called the House Foreign Affairs Committee- seven or eight or maybe ten different efforts to alert the US government to the fact that there was possibly a death camp, that they should look into it and that somebody should come up with the truth of it. And nothing happened. Absolutely nothing happened.

PETER JENNINGS (VO) In fact, several former State Department officials, including John Fox, told us the US government already knew what Gutman was trying to tell them. Fox was then the East European specialist on the State Department's policy planning staff.

JOHN FOX The US government had in its possession credible and verified reports of the existence of the camps, Serbian run camps in Bosnia and elsewhere, as of June, certainly July, 1992, well ahead of the media revelations.

PETER JENNINGS His point, if I recall correctly, there was no indication to the public or, for that matter, to Congress that you were aware of this. Am I right?

JOHN FOX I think that's correct. There had been no public statements to this effect.

PETER JENNINGS There had been no public statement because behind the scenes here at the State Department, there was a very intense debate going on over what the United States should do about Bosnia. Many of those who dealt with the region on s point, if I recall correctly, there was no indication to the public or, for that matter, to Congress that you were aware of this. Am I right?

JOHN FOX I think that's correct. There had been no public statements to this effect.

PETER JENNINGS There had been no public statement because behind the scenes here at the State Department, there was a very intense debate going on over what the United States should do about Bosnia. Many of those who dealt with the region on a daily basis were profoundly disturbed by what the Serbs were doing, but they couldn't get their bosses to take any action.

(VO) George Kenney worked on the Yugoslav desk.

GEORGE KENNEY We had a major crisis on our hands. You can't have concentration camps in this day and age and not have a public outcry about it. I thought we should be doing something, but even if you didn't agree that we should be doing something, still we had to respond. We had to say what we thought. Instead, the State Department position was, 'Let's pretend it isn't happening. Let's- let's try to push it out of our consciousness.'

PETER JENNINGS (VO) For John Fox, who dealt with reports from Bosnia every day, the sense of not being able to do anything was hard to bear.

JOHN FOX The images just kept mounting. The images came- they never stopped. And that's what got to people. Every now and then, even though you'd have to steel yourself to those images just to get through your day, even though you wanted to do something about it, you know, there'd be one that you just couldn't- you couldn't ignore. The one- the one that hit me, actually, the hardest was right around the time of the camp revelations, a busload of school children had been sent out of Sarajevo under a humanitarian protection and the same Serbian guns that had been raining down terror on Sarajevo for months hit this bus. There's a young girl's face staring out from behind that splintered glass in the bus and she's crying and- that particular girl had a- had a face that just happened to look exactly like my daughter's face, and the same age.

PETER JENNINGS (VO) But it was the faces of men staring out from behind barbed wire that finally seized the world's attention. On the 2nd of August, Roy Gutman, writing in Newsday, told the world about the camps. The next day, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher publicly confirmed their existence.

RICHARD BOUCHER Serbian forces are maintaining what they call detention centers for Croatians and Muslims and we do have our own reports, similar to the reports that you've seen in the press, that there have been abuses and torture and killings taking place in those areas.

PETER JENNINGS (VO) Yet the day after Mr Boucher confirmed that the Serbs were operating death camps, Assistant Secretary of State Tom Niles went to Congress and took it back.

TOM NILES We don't have, thus far, substantiated information that would confirm the existence of these camps.

REP TOM LANTOS, (D), CALIFORNIA This drama is unfolding on the world stage and what we get is diplomatic double talk. You cannot confirm a single atrocity. Is that really what you are saying, Mr Secretary?

TOM NILES What I said and what I would repeat to you, Congressman, is that we do not have confirming information that the reports of systematic or non systematic deaths in these detention facilities are true. We cannot confirm that.

REP TOM LANTOS Now, Mr Boucher, your spokesman - your spokesman, not mine "“ says there have been abuses, torture and killings taking place in those areas. Now, either Mr Boucher is lying or you are lying.

PETER JENNINGS When the Niles testimony- when Tom Niles gave his testimony on Capitol Hill- could he have known that it was misleading?

JOHN FOX He had to know. Certainly, his office knew. They had prepared the Monday press guidance that confirmed the existence of the camps.

PETER JENNINGS Were you ever told by anyone in the department to deliberately not tell the truth?

JOHN FOX Yes.

PETER JENNINGS By whom and on what subject?

JOHN FOX Well, it was on this subject. I was- I was told that we couldn't afford to- to continue to confirm the existence of these camps.

PETER JENNINGS 'We could not afford to continue confirming the existence' of the concentration camps?

JOHN FOX That's right.

PETER JENNINGS And who told you that?

JOHN FOX I was told that by a senior official on- on the 7th floor of the State Department when I tried to get this language changed.

PETER JENNINGS Is it the secretary of state or the acting secretary of state you have in mind?

JOHN FOX It's the- it's the top of the building I have in mind.

PETER JENNINGS (VO) That would have been the office of the then secretary of state, Larry Eagleburger.

LAWRENCE EAGLEBURGER, FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE That, as far as I can recall, is - since we're on television -baloney.

PETER JENNINGS And if we weren't on television?

LAWRENCE EAGLEBURGER I would use stronger words. As far as I can recall, I never told anybody they were supposed to keep something like that under wraps. That's nonsense.

PETER JENNINGS (VO) Warren Zimmerman had served as George Bush's ambassador to Belgrade.

WARREN ZIMMERMAN, FORMER AMBASSADOR TO YUGOSLAVIA I think it- it was an- an amazing and unfortunate mistake that there was an effort to downplay the importance of these camps.

PETER JENNINGS Why do you think it was downplayed?

WARREN ZIMMERMAN I assume that the reason had to do with a desire not to create a situation where we would have to respond.

PETER JENNINGS (VO) Several days later, as television images of the first concentration camps in Europe in 50 years reached every corner of the globe, President Bush vowed to take action.

PRES GEORGE BUSH And now we will not rest until the international community has gained access to any and all detention camps.

PETER JENNINGS (VO) Under pressure, the Serbian forces did open some of the camps. They did not, however, halt their offensive against Bosnia.

JOHN FOX What got to many of us, over time, was to wake up day after day with those images coming out, and thinking and hoping, and just maybe expecting a little bit, that the president would have ordered the necessary one or two days of air strikes to take out at least those heavy weapons- you know, at least those instruments of terror that were afflicting entire civilian populations throughout Bosnia. And of course it never happened.

PETER JENNINGS (VO) It never happened. We'll find out why when we come back.

ANNOUNCER This ABC News special, Peter Jennings Reporting- While America Watched: The Bosnia Tragedy, will continue. (Commercial break)

ANNOUNCER Peter Jennings Reporting- While America Watched: The Bosnia Tragedy, continues.

1ST VUKOVAR RESIDENT Some- some strange things start happening, you know. Suddenly, you hear the shots in the night. Suddenly, you hear that some people who were going for work are attacked somewhere on the road.

PETER JENNINGS (VO) This is Europe in the 1990s. This was not supposed to happen again. For nearly half a century, the United States had committed so much to keep the peace, and then European cities were devastated by war again. This time, the United States stood by.

2ND VUKOVAR RESIDENT They were shelling all night long.

3RD VUKOVAR RESIDENT Nobody could sleep because you never know what's going to hit you.

PETER JENNINGS (VO) This is Vukovar, on the Danube River. It used to be one of Croatia's most beautiful cities. But in September of 1991, two months after Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia, the Serbs attacked. Serb gunboats bombarded the city from the river. Serb war planes bombed it from the air. Serb tanks and artillery shelled its streets day and night. The residents of Vukovar huddled in the basements of buildings while the siege went on and on. The world was able to watch.

REPORTER This city on the Danube used to be home to 40,000, both Croats and Serbs. But three months after Serbian forces began their siege, hardly anything is left.

PETER JENNINGS The Serbs had destroyed virtually every building- every home, every office, every church. And thought many of Vukovar's inhabitants had managed to flee, tens of thousands died in the siege. Others - no one knows how many - were murdered after the city fell. At the same time, in the Croatian city of Dubrovnik, on the Adriatic, the Serb navy was bombarding the city, severely damaging one of Europe's architectural wonders. Croatia's president appealed to the United States for help. JOHN FOX The president of Croatia asked that the 6th Fleet do a pass by Dubrovnik, a simple pass by, and that was rejected.

PETER JENNINGS Did you think it was a good idea?

JOHN FOX Yes. Yes, I did. It's, I think, since come to be seen as a watershed when we could have taken action very- very easily.

PETER JENNINGS (VO) At the time, Colonel Karl Lowe was a planning officer in the Pentagon. He thought a US show of force would be effect

DNM: The president of Croatia asked that the 6th Fleet do a pass by Dubrovnik, a simple pass by, and that was rejected.

PETER JENNINGS Did you think it was a good idea?

JOHN FOX Yes. Yes, I did. It's, I think, since come to be seen as a watershed when we could have taken action very- very easily.

PETER JENNINGS (VO) At the time, Colonel Karl Lowe was a planning officer in the Pentagon. He thought a US show of force would be effective.

COL KARL LOWE Remember, this was three months after Desert Storm. Everybody in the world looks at Desert Storm and says, 'This is a miracle.' One of the largest armies in the world has suddenly been destroyed in the course of not more than 90 days. And in a 100 hour ground war, it was all over.

PETER JENNINGS (VO) Once again, the former secretary of state, Larry Eagleburger. (interviewing) We've heard from various parties that at the time, for example, of the fighting in Vukovar or the shelling of Dubrovnik, that had the United States made some kind of a gesture, even a sail by in the Adriatic, it was once said to me, that the Serbs might have got the message that the US thought this was unacceptable behavior. Any validity to that, seen from that point of view?

LAWRENCE EAGLEBURGER You've used the right word. They 'might' have gotten the message. They might also not have gotten the message and then we would be faced with the question of what do you do next.

PETER JENNINGS (VO) General John Galvin, who was then Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, was in daily discussion with the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Colin Powell. Galvin remembers bringing up the subject of sending the 6th Fleet into the Adriatic, but Washington was worried.

GEN JOHN GALVIN The consequences would have been that we would have become combatants, first of all.

PETER JENNINGS Just by showing up?

GEN JOHN GALVIN Well, not by showing up, but you wouldn't want to show up and threaten to do something and then not do it. A show of force in which we did nothing would really make us look impotent.

PETER JENNINGS (VO) Despite the triumph of Desert Storm six months before, America's policy makers, and especially its senior military officers, were still inhibited by their experience in Vietnam. The so called 'Vietnam syndrome' of not trying hard enough to win had given way to its mirror image, the idea that one should consider military intervention only if one could see at the beginning precisely how the conflict would end. This was sometimes called the 'Powell doctrine' and it came to be interpreted as 'massive force or nothing.'

WARREN ZIMMERMAN But I never thought Colin Powell's view was correct because it was simply, it seems to me, a total misreading of the Vietnam lesson. It's a kind of an assumption that if you get involved just a little bit, with air strikes or whatever, you're going to end up with 500,000 troops on the ground. And that's- that's a logical fallacy, as far as I'm concerned. It doesn't follow.

PETER JENNINGS Explain why it's a logical fallacy, from your point of view.

WARREN ZIMMERMAN Because every escalation in manpower in Vietnam took a presidential decision. Why should a US president, with Vietnam there as a historical example, decide to put 500,000 troops in a place like Bosnia?

PETER JENNINGS (VO) By focusing on the worst case scenario, Washington committed itself to doing nothing. But doing nothing also had risks. That became clear when the Serbs, having seized almost a third of Croatia, turned on Bosnia. George Kenney, at the State Department, tracked their invasion.

GEORGE KENNEY Basically, they would go to small villages, surround them with artillery, blast the hell out of them, wait until the villagers left out of fear or were killed, and then they would take the villages over. The Serbs never engaged in regular infantry movements. For the most part, their troops were young kids, drunk, just bandits, thugs. And if they had faced people with weapons, they would have stopped.

WARREN ZIMMERMAN When the Serbian irregulars poured across the Drina River, the border between Serbia and Bosnia, in April of 1992, they were undoubtedly sent in order simply to take the ring of Muslim towns on the river. And that was the beginning of an aggression which was going to push as far as it could until there was some kind of pushing back and the West didn't push back, a major error, I think, that we made.

PETER JENNINGS Did you think there were other options, at the time?

WARREN ZIMMERMAN Yes, I did. I have always felt that the best option - it has to be tied to a limited objective - was air strikes. I would have started with air strikes against the gunners around Sarajevo because that was the primary target. And it was- Sarajevo was like Vukovar. It was shelling on a basically unarmed civilian population. I mean, a real war crime. If that didn't get their attention, I guess I would have been prepared to take it further, to the bridges on the Drina-

PETER JENNINGS Between Serbia and Bosnia.

WARREN ZIMMERMAN -between Serbia and Bosnia, and even to military targets in Serbia.

PETER JENNINGS (VO) Having resolved not to push back the Serbs militarily, the United States did some pretty puzzling things diplomatically. Though it had been obvious the Serbs were poised to invade Bosnia, the United States recognized Bosnia's independence, but then rejected appeals from the Bosnian government that American peace keepers be sent to deter the Serbs. The United States had also voted to impose an arms embargo on the former Yugoslavia, which left the Bosnians virtually defenseless against the well armed Serbs.

JOHN FOX When the attack on Bosnia came, in April of 1992, the Bosnians had no army. They had virtually no arms. Their towns and capital were almost totally undefended. They were reduced to taking old hunting rifles and kitchen knives out of a drawer and going out to mount an impromptu defense of their sovereign state.

PETER JENNINGS You knew, at the time, that there was a qualitative difference-

LAWRENCE EAGLEBURGER Yes.

PETER JENNINGS -and a quantitative difference, certainly, between the Serbs and the Bosnian government.

LAWRENCE EAGLEBURGER Yeah.

PETER JENNINGS So when you agreed that the arms embargo should remain on the Bosnian government, you clearly knew you were leaving them at a disadvantage.

LAWRENCE EAGLEBURGER All right, in the way in which you put it, I suppose it is true we were leaving them at a disadvantage, but I don't think the intent was to- the intent was not to try to keep the Bosnian Muslims from winning their war. It was, in fact, to try to keep anybody from putting more weapons into the place than was- than were already there.

PETER JENNINGS (VO) The Bosnian prime minister, Haris Silajdzic.

HARIS SILAJDZIC This is what we never expected. This is what we don't understand. This will be very hard to try and explain to the next generations, why the world sentenced Bosnia to death.

PETER JENNINGS (VO) In retrospect, it appears that American policy makers had concluded early on that the Serbs would win this war and that the United States should do what it could to get out of the way.

LAWRENCE EAGLEBURGER I do not believe, I did not believe that there was going to be any way to contain this, short of such massive military involvement on our part that the cost would become prohibitive. I still believe that.

REPORTER (May 27, 1992) Eyewitnesses say three mortar shells landed where people were lined up in the street to get bread. In addition to the dead, more than 100 were seriously injured, losing arms and legs in the explosion.

PETER JENNINGS (VO) In the face of these pictures from the bread line massacre in May of 1992, the United States was forced to do something. The Bush e days to push economic sanctions through the United Nations. A short while later, the US began providing humanitarian aid to Bosnia. But in August, when the pictures of Serb camps were seen on American television, the White House was put on the defensive again.

PRES GEORGE BUSH I don't care what the political pressures are. Before one soldier, or whatever it is, Marine, is committed to battle, I'm going to know how that person gets out of there. And we are not going to get down in- bogged down in some guerrilla warfare.

PETER JENNINGS And what was your reaction, at the time?

LAWRENCE EAGLEBURGER That it's terrible. It's awful. Now we get back to the question, what do you do about it, which has been the critical question all along. And short of a lot of public condemnation of it, which we engaged in, you are then back to the question of, 'Are you prepared to use force to bring it to an end?

PETER JENNINGS You realize, of course, that when you're talking about ethnic cleansing, as you are now, you sound pretty cold blooded.

LAWRENCE EAGLEBURGER I'm sorry. Yeah, it's a terrible thing. I will say all of the things you want me to say about how awful it is. I am then brought up again, however, with the question of what is it you do about it. And if what that means is substantial loss of American lives to bring it to an end, I'm not prepared to pay that price and I don't think the American peoplize, of course, that when you're talking about ethnic cleansing, as you are now, you sound pretty cold blooded.

LAWRENCE EAGLEBURGER I'm sorry. Yeah, it's a terrible thing. I will say all of the things you want me to say about how awful it is. I am then brought up again, however, with the question of what is it you do about it. And if what that means is substantial loss of American lives to bring it to an end, I'm not prepared to pay that price and I don't think the American people are.

PETER JENNINGS (VO) By the fall of 1992, other voices had joined the debate.

GOV. BILL CLINTON History has shown us that you can't allow the mass extermination of people and just sit by and watch it happen.

SEN AL GORE You know, the world stood by in silence once before when this happened. And we- the world should have learned a lesson from that.

PETER JENNINGS (VO) A few weeks after President Bush lost the election to Bill Clinton and Al Gore, Secretary of State Eagleburger publicly accused the Serb leaders of crimes against humanity. It was the toughest position the Bush administration had ever taken. George Bush would leave office. The legacy of Bosnia would be left to his successors.

JOHN FOX This is now becoming the basis for the formation of states in Europe, that you can kill as many people as you want to, you can throw them out of their homes, you can put them into concentration camps, you can shell their towns until their children die and they live like rats in the gutter. You can do all of that on international prime time and then, months later, you can be received in Geneva and have the world's finest diplomats only too ready to get you to sign an agreement to put the thing to rest until you choose to move on to another territory. That's what this is about.

ANNOUNCER This ABC News special will continue in a moment. (Commercial break)

ANNOUNCER Peter Jennings Reporting- While America Watched: The Bosnia Tragedy, continues.

PETER JENNINGS (VO) February the 5th, 1994: A few minutes of videotape and everything changes, or seems to. A single mortar shell falls on the open air market in Sarajevo. Sixty eight people are blown to pieces. (on camera) In Washington, President Clinton issues an ultimatum. Less than two weeks after that shell struck the marketplace - a single shell added to the hundreds of thousands that had already fallen on the city - the United States forced the heavy Serbian guns around Sarajevo to be silenced.

(VO) And, for the first time in almost two years, Sarajevans were able to walk in the streets instead of run, to linger in the sunshine instead of hiding in their basements. For a time, at least, shattered Sarajevo came to resemble what it once was, a vibrant European city. (on camera) Listening to candidate Bill Clinton in the summer of '92, you might have thought the relief would come much sooner.

GOV. BILL CLINTON (August 5, 1992) I think the United Nations, with the United States' support, needs to consider doing whatever it takes to stop the slaughter of civilians and we may have to use military force. I would begin with air power.

PETER JENNINGS (VO) Haris Silajdzic, then the Bosnian foreign minister, remembers the hope that Bosnians felt when they heard Governor Clinton.

HARIS SILAJDZIC I remember those words and that was an encouragement because in the midst of this tragedy in Bosnia, we needed someone by our side. It was a big encouragement, at the time.

PETER JENNINGS (VO) But in January, '93, as the Serbs launched a major offensive across eastern Bosnia, there was no sign of the promised air power from the new president. Town after town fell as the Serb forces advanced. Streams of Muslim refugees fled to the town of Srebrenica before it, too, was put under siege. Soon thousands of people were living on the streets, exposed to the Serb artillery. Food supplies ran out and people were reduced to eating leaves and grass. By the time a United Nations food convoy finally made it through Serb lines, people were frantic to escape.

UNITED NATIONS OFFICIAL We want to take everybody on the next plane. We want to take everybody, but we only can take some.

PETER JENNINGS (VO) Louis Gentile, a United Nations aid official, arrived with the convoy.

LOUIS GENTILE And as soon as the trucks were unloaded, the people were so desperate at that time, they would do anything to get on the trucks and we couldn't stop them. People literally threw their children and small babies over the heads of the crowd in order to get them onto the trucks, knowing they would probably never see that baby again, but thinking to themselves that was their only hope to get out of there. We were standing on the back of the truck, wondering if we were going to be crushed to death ourselves in the surge to get on the trucks.

PETER JENNINGS (VO) At the end of February, President Clinton ordered the American Air Force to take action- not to strike at the Serb guns, but to drop food into the besieged hamlets.

LOUIS GENTILE People were very, very grateful, particularly initially. They'd go around and they'd say, 'Oh, Clinton number one, Clinton food,' because it symbolized something they thought was the first step towards their protection or their being saved by the international community and particularly the United States of America.

PETER JENNINGS (VO) But the United States of America was hesitating.

WARREN CHRISTOPHER, SECRETARY OF STATE Our options are less good than they were at the time the president spoke. The United States is not the world's policeman. We cannot interpose our forces to stop every armed conflict in the world.

PETER JENNINGS (VO) Having promised action, the president now began to back away. He had talked about air strikes, but he was opposed by the Europeans and the Canadians, who had troops on the ground and were worried that the Serbs would take reprisals against them. In April, President Clinton seemed to be aware of the dangers of inaction when he spoke at the Holocaust Museum in Washington.

PRES BILL CLINTON For those of us here today, representing the nations of the West, we must live forever with this knowledge. Even as our fragmentary awareness of crimes grew into indisputable facts, far too little was done.

PETER JENNINGS (VO) For Haris Silajdzic, the Holocaust Museum had an eerie resonance.

HARIS SILAJDZIC It is much better to walk through a museum than through a concentration camp, where live people live. That is in Bosnia now. We have concentration camps. That should be museum history once and for all, but the world is not listening. So the question is, do we learn from history or do we pretend to learn from history?

PETER JENNINGS (VO) President Clinton seemed to have the lessons of history in mind when he spoke the day after the museum opening.

PRES BILL CLINTON I think we should act. We should lead. The United States should lead. We have led for the last three months. But I do not think we should act alone, unilaterally, nor do I think we will have to.

PETER JENNINGS (VO) The administration proposed to lift the arms embargo which affected the Bosnian government so and to support them with air strikes against Serbs. Everything depended on convincing the May, Secretary Christopher set off for Europe. Willie Claes, the Belgian foreign minister, met with Secretary Christopher in Brussels. (interviewing) Were you convinced by his presentation?

WILLIE CLAES No. At that moment, no. Not at all. Because we feared, at that moment, that the lifting up of the arms embargo would provocate the internationalization of the crisis and I had the feeling, when he came in

Brussels, that he had felt very clearly that there was not possibility to convince the Europeans.

PETER JENNINGS (VO) When pressed to explain why he was retreating from an activist policy, the president's frustration began to show.

PRES BILL CLINTON (June 15, 1993) Let me tell you something about Bosnia. On Bosnia, I made a decision. The United Nations controls what happens in Bosnia. I cannot unilaterally lift the arms embargo. I didn't change my mind. Our allies decided that they weren't prepared to go that far, at this time. They asked me to wait and they said they would not support it. I didn't change my mind.

PETER JENNINGS Looking back, do you regret at all that you weren't more vigorous, as a leader, with the Western allies? President Bush prevailed when he tried to put the alliance together at the time of the Gulf War.

PRES BILL CLINTON He prevailed because the United States provided the lion's share of the troops on the ground and the planes in the air and asked others to come in and support us. I think if I had said to the French and the Europeans and the Canadians, 'You can withdraw all your troops from Bosnia and I'll send ours in,' they would have done anything I wanted to do. And I didn't feel that I was in a position to, nor did I think I should commit American ground forces to be in Bosnia while the war was going on. And I think that limited the leverage I had. Do I regret I couldn't change their course sooner? You beanes in the air and asked others to come in and support us. I think if I had said to the French and the Europeans and the Canadians, 'You can withdraw all your troops from Bosnia and I'll send ours in,' they would have done anything I wanted to do. And I didn't feel that I was in a position to, nor did I think I should commit American ground forces to be in Bosnia while the war was going on. And I think that limited the leverage I had. Do I regret I couldn't change their course sooner? You bet I do.

LAWRENCE EAGLEBURGER The Clinton people, during the campaign, beat us around the head and ears about Bosnia and not having done anything and I think fairly effectively made their case. They come into office. They thump their chest any number of times. I have to believe that they went through the same process we did, which is, as you begin to look at the alternatives to dealing with this crisis, you come to the conclusion that the potential military costs are pretty high.

PETER JENNINGS (VO) That summer, the Serbs tightened their siege of Sarajevo. The president, together with the permanent members of the Security Council, declared Sarajevo and five other Bosnian towns 'safe' areas. Mr Clinton pledged to protect the United Nations troops with air power if they were attacked. In late July, French soldiers came under Serb fire, but the American pilots flying over the shattered city simply continued on their patrols. And then the shell fell on the market. (February 5, 1994) (interviewing) This is a market that everybody thought was protected.

FRED CUNY, RELIEF OFFICIAL Yeah. Not anymore. What I want to point out, though- there were two A 6s flying over when this happened. They were stunting up here, just flying around in circles and playing when this thing landed right in the middle.

PETER JENNINGS Two American fighter planes, you mean.

FRED CUNY American airplanes off an aircraft carrier sitting in the Adriatic. They could have done something.

PETER JENNINGS Maybe half an hour after this attack occurred in the marketplace, more than 30 people have been admitted to the Kosovo hospital who are actually wounded. That doesn't include the dead. That would make it among the worst attacks since this war began. (VO) President Clinton's first reaction was dismissive.

PRES BILL CLINTON (February 7, 1994) Until those folks get tired of killing each other over there, bad things will continue to happen.

PETER JENNINGS (VO) But the extent of the carnage was too great. Four days after the shell struck the market, President Clinton announced the Western alliances ultimatum, that unless the Bosnian Serbs pulled back their heavy weapons from around the city, NATO planes would attack them. And the Serbs began to move some of their guns. The shelling stopped. The ultimatum had been enough to make the Serbian forces withdraw. Eight days later, NATO planes showed their new resolve and shot down four Serb aircraft. The international community was weighing in, but they were doing it late in the game. Sarajevo remains surrounded and 70 percent of what had been Bosnia Herzegovina is now in the hands of the Serbs. In Banja Luka, capital of the self proclaimed 'Serb Republic of Bosnia,' there is no siege and no shelling. Until January, Louis Gentile headed up the United Nations aid agency there.

LOUIS GENTILE If you go there, and this is one of the most eerie things about the place, you will feel that you are in a nice little European town where everything is peaceful, everything is working relatively well and people seem to get along, until you realize that something is going on there, which is absolutely mind boggling, abhorrent and offensive to everything you ever believed in. They would be willing, I think, to kill every single minority person. They don't want to do that unless they have to. They're very content to kill one or two in each neighborhood, fire them all from their jobs, evict them all from their flats, steal everything they have, rape one or two women in each neighborhood. They're persecuted because- simply because they have different last names.

LAWRENCE EAGLEBURGER If the Soviet Union still existed and this mess had begun to develop in Yugoslavia, I would have told you we should have been in there with both feet. In a world in which we are no longer at swords' points with the Soviet Union, the decisions the US has to make with regard to when it will intervene and when it will not and in what context, UN or otherwise, are much more difficult to make and always- I don't know how else to say this - always will also depend on our judgment of what the American people are prepared to tolerate. In that sense, Vietnam never goes away.

ANNOUNCER This ABC News special will continue in a moment. (Commercial break)

ANNOUNCER Peter Jennings Reporting- While America Watched: The Bosnia Tragedy continues.

PETER JENNINGS We began our broadcast at the Holocaust Museum. We end here, with the legacy of Vietnam. The story of the Bosnian tragedy suggests that as America seeks to redefine its place in a world without a Soviet Union, the fear of appeasement has given way to the fear of quagmire. Can a world power build its foreign policy on such a fear? In Bosnia, two presidents have tried. George Bush decided that America must stay aloof and the war would be left to burn itself out and Bill Clinton came to pretty much the same conclusion. But the war didn't burn itself out and the public outrage that followed the more shocking scenes of massacre put great pressure on the White House to do something. By the time Bill Clinton was finally forced to act, the Bosnian tragedy had become infinitely more complicated and bloody. Though we talk a lot about it, defining leadership is surprisingly hard. Perhaps we might make a start by saying that a leader shapes public opinion, as Harry Truman did after World War II and George Bush before the Gulf war. A leader makes a judgment about what is in the country's interest and then persuades the country it is right. When they looked at Bosnia, our leaders seemed to see only the risks of action. They ignored the risks of doing nothing. And while America watched, hundreds of thousands of people died in a particularly evil kind of war. The Bosnians paid a very high price, but so did those who stood by. I'm Peter Jennings.

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© 2017 Mark Danner