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[International Affairs - Vol.74 No.1 - January 1998]

Bosnia: the crime of appeasement by ED VULLIAMY

August 1992

Marshalled by guards brandishing their machine guns, our ramshackle convoy of 1,600 Muslim deportees lurched forwards, only to be stopped yet again, while the police picked another young woman from the car at the back, helping themselves roughly to her money, what might be left of her jewellery - and sometimes to her as well. At a village called Vitovlje, Serbian women and children had come streaming towards us across fields that flanked the ragged road, screaming 'Zaklacemo vas! Zaklacemo vas!' - slaughter them! - using a Serbo-Croat verb applied to animals, not humans. Sunset turned into a heavy twilight - fighting time. Men were moving across the fields; we were close to the front lines now, and shots were echoing through the dusk. Some were fired just a little over our heads. We still had no idea where we were, what our destination was, or whether it was intended for us to see either liberty or indeed tomorrow morning when we got there.

Before long, they had taken all of the cars, trucks and buses that had brought these people and what few belongings they could muster from their homes that morning and sent us out on foot across a perilous no-man's-land, above which a perfect arc of tracer fire briefly illuminated the landscape. An hour later, our comfortless procession was clambering over a pile of rocks across the road, which marked the 'border', around which was a carpet of mines. We heaved them over - the very young, the very old, their wheelchairs, crutches, babies and teddy bears - and carried on. One old man tried to shuffle the remaining miles in his slippers - all he had had time to put on when the thugs came for him that very morning. I learned later that he had died on the mountain path, 'of exhaustion and a broken heart'. We were certainly not the first along this wretched road. The tarmac was sticky in places, and there were human remains scattered here and there along the lane. At one point I stepped on a severed hand. By now, the shooting around us was heavier and a village in the valley below was coming under shellfire. A man emerged from the darkness and mustered us into single file, to limit the damage if a mortar hit us, and told us to be quiet if we valued our lives. We moved on, under the moon, like some phantom parade. Even the little children were dumb with fear and resolve.

These people, the 'ethnically cleansed', were the lucky ones - deportees spewed out by the Serbian pogrom and headed for the crammed floors of Travnik, where they would find a bit of space to make their homes, under artillery bombardment. Far worse was to be left behind in the place where I had been only ten days previously - in the camps.

Nothing could have prepared us for the sight that met us as we entered through the back gates of the former iron ore mine at Omarska; it belonged to some other time. A column of men emerged from a door in the side of a vast rusty-red hangar, blinking into the sunlight. They were drilled across the yard in single file towards the 'canteen', by the barked commands of uniformed guards and under the watchful eye of a beefy guard in reflective sunglasses atop a machine-gun post. As they came closer, we could see their condition: some of them skeletal, their heads newly shaved.

They devoured their watery bean stew like famished dogs, clutching their spoons in rangy fists. They were horribly thin, raw-boned, some of them cadaverous - the bones of their pencil-thin elbows and wrists protruded like pieces of jagged stone through parchment skin. Their complexions had been corroded; they were alive, but decomposed, debased, degraded and subservient. They fixed their huge, hollow eyes on us with stares that cut like the blades of knives. There is nothing so haunting as the glare of a prisoner who yearns to tell some terrible truth, but dare not, with the guards swinging their machine guns, strutting to and fro, but listening carefully.

We had seen little, but enough, and when we tried to see more we were ignominiously bundled out of the camp and moved on to another vile place: Trnopolje, and the famous figure of the emaciated Fikret Alic behind barbed wire - just arrived from another camp, Kereterm, where, he told us, he had witnessed the murder of 200 men in one night. We knew that we had stumbled upon something diabolical that day, but only gradually did the full horror behind what we had seen come to light, with the testimony of survivors across a by then wretched diaspora.

Fragments of that diaspora gathered for breakfast at a hotel beside a Dutch ring road in summer 1996, in order to testify at The Hague against one of the sadists who had roamed Omarska, torturing, mutilating and killing: Dusko Tadic. These people had not seen each other since the day after we discovered Omarska and the camp closed down, its inmates herded on to buses and dispersed, before the prying eyes of the world and the media circus could focus on its horrors. Now the conversation returned to the place they all knew.

Omaska had been a place where a prisoner was forced to bite the testicles off a fellow inmate who, as he died of pain, had a live pigeon stuffed into his mouth to stifle his screams. The guards responsible for this barbarism were described by one witness as 'like a crowd at a sporting match'. Another man was forced to bark like a dog and lick at motor oil on the ground while a guard jumped up and down on his back until it snapped. Prisoners, who survived by drinking their own and each other's urine, were constantly being called out of their cramped quarters, by name. Some would return caked in blood, bruised black-and-blue or slashed with knives; others would never be seen alive again. Special squads of inmates were ordered to load their corpses on to trucks.

A survivor called Rezak Hukanovic described the arrival of new prisoners: 'There was a truly horrible sound - a skull being smashed, the bones splitting and breaking...intermingled with shouts and screams'. He describes the slashing with knives of a man who refused to strip: 'The poor man stood up a little, or tried to...He was covered with blood. One guard took a water hose from a nearby hydrant and directed a strong jet. A mixture of blood and water flowed...his cries were of someone driven to insanity by pain. And then everyone...saw quite clearly what had happened: the guards had cut off the man's sexual organs and half of his behind'. And all of this a couple of hundred miles down the road from Venice, in August 1992.


The camps were just the beginning of what came to be called the 'civil war' in Bosnia. The flavour of the persecution described above changed little between August 1992 and the debacle at Srebrenica in May 1995, when some 8000 men were taken from a UN-declared 'safe haven' - which had surrendered its weapons to the United Nations in return for its protection - and were shot, butchered, buried alive or crammed into factories or farm buildings and blown up. 'Scenes from hell', said Judge Riyad from the bench of the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague, referring to an old man being forced to eat the corpse of his infant grandson, 'written on the darkest pages of history'. But, disastrously, that was not how the Western diplomatic community saw these terrible things.

'Appeasement' is a pejorative and historically tendentious term but it seems a good enough word to describe three years of diplomat-to-diplomat barter between the leaders of the democratic West and Radovan Karadzic - now a fugitive wanted for genocide - beneath the chandeliers of London, Geneva and New York; or the matey soldier-to-soldier dinners of lamb and suckling pig shared by successive United Nations generals with their opposite number, General Ratko Mladic - likewise now fugitive and wanted - whose death squads perpetrated the Srebrenica massacre, on his personal orders and in his presence. After so much handshaking and negotiation while these two men were very publicly engaged in their foul pogrom, it is curious to see the international establishment baying for their capture, now that it is too late and their work is done.

If the term 'appeasement' offends, then 'toleration' and even 'reward' can hardly be contested. The Bosnian Serbs do, after all, have the 'Muslimfrei' state which they set out to secure, but which the West assured them they would never win through violence: 'The Bosnian Serbs need to realise that they are not going to gain what they have grabbed by force', promised Douglas Hurd, then British Foreign Secretary. But if the Bosnian Serbs did not gain what they grabbed through force, then how did they gain it? And what are the implications of the fact that they have gained it?

The Serbs gained what they grabbed through a happy convergence of interests between their force and a school of diplomacy with illustrious traditions, the diplomacy of neutrality. The quintessence of neutrality during a hurricane of violence such as that which blew across Bosnia in 1992 is obfuscation - the political complication of things that are ethically simple.

There were a few genuine complications, to be sure. There was a second, spin-off persecution by Croats of Muslims in Herzegovina and central Bosnia. This brought about one of the most horrible massacres of the war, at Ahmici, where Croat gunmen locked Muslim families in their cellars and incinerated them; and also the most unrelenting siege of the war, of the Muslim pocket in East Mostar by Croatian guns. Then there was the expulsion from their ancestral home in the Croatian Krajina of tens of thousands of Serbs, most of whom are now wretched refugees in Belgrade. Also, the government army - which was ethnically mixed at the start of the war but almost exclusively Muslim by its end - did manage to turn itself from a small, sneaker-wearing 'Home Guard' with neither guns nor ammunition into a battered guerrilla force; and this body did commit a small number of atrocities, against both Croats and Serbs. The most appalling of those atrocities is just now coming to light, in Sarajevo: a mass grave of possibly hundreds of Serbian civilians murdered by the soldiers of a Muslim warlord called 'Caco', who was finally executed by the government authorities on his own 'side' for committing such acts (in contrast to the Serbs sponsorship and reward of their equivalent, the infamous 'Arkan'). Appalling things were done to Serbian prisoners at a Bosnian government camp at Celibici in central Bosnia, the managers of which are currently on trial at The Hague.

But these were counter-currents against the otherwise uncomplicated under-tow of a Serbian pogrom. And yet these apparently 'complicating' episodes - and others like them - are relished by adherents of the diplomatic and geopolitical view which has dominated and still dominates the international response. To construct an argument for neutrality, one has to equate the perpetrator and the victim of violence, thus removing any ethical imperative. It is important that neutrality talks not about 'genocide' but about 'warring factions' - even if those on one side, in this case the Muslims, are assaulted out of the blue, have barely any weapons for two years and are nearly obliterated. The triumph of neutrality has institutionalised the lie of equivalence between perpetrator and victim in a defiled but 'official' history of the Bosnian war and in doing so it has sabotaged the prospect of lasting peace. For in its wake, there can be no reckoning, no counting of the cost, no staring history in the face; and without reckoning, there can be no peace.


The word 'genocide' was first used in the Yugoslav context by the Serbs, as it happens, in connection with the assignment by Tito of partial autonomy to the Kosovo province of Yugoslavia. This reform, and the small movement of Serbs back to Serbia that followed it, was described by the Belgrade media as 'genocide' against the Serbs in the late 1980s, as President Milosevic resurrected the persecution complex and the 'Cult of Death', betrayal and revenge that is the hallmark of Serbian history. The first task facing any group intending to inflict genocide on someone else is to convince its own people that they are about to be the victims of genocide themselves - in this case at the hands of Albania.

In their survey of the 'pyromaniac intelligentsia' of Belgrade and the documentary origins of the doctrine of ethnic cleansing, Grmek, Gjidara and Simac conclude that 'ethnic cleansing is only "abnormal" or even "sorrowful" in Serbia when it is directed against the Serbs'. Very oddly, this language was echoed by people outside Yugoslavia who sought to equate what the Serbs did to others in Bosnia with what was done to the Serbs - the foundation stone in the establishment of neutrality. Thus, for instance, the horrible Bosnian camp at Celibici is equated with and compared to the Serbian gulag of concentration camps which stretched right across northern Bosnia and down the Drina valley. This is at best absurd and at worst very nasty indeed: the scale and nature of the violence, as everyone knows, are incomparable. Similarly, the vile ethnic cleansing of Serbs from the Croatian Krajina is likened to the violence that ravaged north-western Bosnia and the Drina valley in 1992. Again, the scale, extent and ferocity of the killing are incomparable - but the comparison is essential, indeed fundamental, to the grotesque and disastrous way in which the West responded to the Serbian pogrom and has rewritten its history.


Let us return to, and be clear about, the simple origins of this war. They have been articulated across hundreds of thousands of words, but nowhere more simply than by Vladimir Srebov and the Serbian Democratic Party: 'The plan was for a division of Bosnia into two spheres of influence, leading to a Greater Serbia and a Greater Croatia. The Muslims were to be subjected to a final solution - more than half were killed, a smaller segment converted to Orthodoxy while a smaller segment still, those with riches, could buy their lives and leave. The goal was to cleanse Bosnia-Herzegovina completely of the Muslim people'.

The pogrom was explicable in familiar social, rather than ethnic, terms. There was a sizeable Muslim peasant class in the Drina valley, and a Muslim industrial working class in central Bosnia. But all over the country, and especially in the Bosanska Krajina region where Omarska and the other big camps were established, the Muslims were over-represented in the bourgeoisie. In most of the towns and villages, the architect, headmaster, doctor or small businessman was more often than not a Muslim, and more often than not quietly resented or even loathed by the Serbian proletariat or peasantry. Comparisons with the Jews of central Europe or the Asians of Idi Amin's Uganda are irresistible. The explanation for this is simple enough: the Muslims had been the governing class under the Ottoman empire and had been dispossessed of much of their land by 'reforms' under the Yugoslav monarchy during the 1930s. Accordingly, they urbanised, taking high standards of education and experience of travel to Cairo or Istanbul into the urban centres of Banja Luka, Sarajevo, Travnik and Mostar. The Muslims became the backbone of an ethnically tolerant urban society which took advantage of what economic freedom was afforded by Tito's Yugoslavia. But during the 1950s there followed another wave of urbanisation, into new tower blocks around these urban centres - this time involving the movement of Serbian peasants into Banja Luka and Sarajevo and of Herzegovinian Croats into Mostar, bringing with them old rural ways of separateness and ethnic pride. They thought differently from the established, secularised and more tolerant Muslims.

Society came to be divided along hidden fault-lines between what Bosnians call raja in the cities, and papak from the fields. Most, though not all, raja were Muslims: most, though not all, papak were Serbs or Croats. Radovan Karadzic, very much a papak, felt rejected in the cosmopolitan Sarajevo to which he moved from Montenegro. He urged his compatriot Serbs to join him in laying siege to the city in April 1992. But of the 150,000 Sarajevan Serbs, some 60,000 remained - mainly those who had lived in the city before the 1950s influx and who considered themselves raja. Many were ready to fight, and did so bravely, alongside the Muslims against the barbarians in the hills, whatever their race. This would change in time, but it remained hard to explain to outsiders how it could be that the second-in-command of what they insisted was the 'Muslim' army, General Jovan Divijak, was a Sarajevan Serb. In the eyes of the nationalists, however, Divijak was a race-traitor.

What we found at Omarska and Trnopolje was in every way consonant with Vladimir Srebov's 'final solution'. The West professed outrage, for a few days - but the real response had been worked out long ago. Revelations from Omarska and Trnopolje came as no surprise along the corridors of power. In May 1992 a Bosnian government agency had provided the first accounts of 'detention centres' being established. José Maria Mendeluce of the UNHCR recalls that the first he knew of the camps came 'before the main flux of refugees, during late May¬∑We were saying, confidentially, that we were being told about concentration camps.' The International Red Cross - whose Yugoslav affiliate had given Omarska a clean bill of health - was informed. By June, the ICRC was briefing 'concerned diplomats', and a Mr Henry Kelly at the US Embassy in Belgrade was sending regular wires to the State Department about the camps. One of those receiving his cables called it 'a flood of information. It was clear that we were seeing only the tip of the iceberg.' The cables proliferated 'all round the building' at the State Department, but still no whistle was blown. On 19 July Roy Gutman published the first revelations about a camp at Manjaca, into which the International Red Cross was admitted. The article went around the State Department 'like Samizdat,' recalls one of those involved. On 2 August Gutman published more, now on the existence of Omarska. There was panic in Washington. The ICRC report that had been 'tossed over the fence' in mid-June was now put around the building by people determined to break the government's 'no confirmation, no information' public line. Nevertheless, Tom Niles, Assistant Secretary of State, went up to Capitol Hill and told the House Foreign Relations Committee - twice - that he had 'no information' about the camps. The next day, we went into Omarska.

All this time, the Americans had decided they were not going to do anything about what they knew. Late in July, a team from the Pentagon and the CIA briefed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the siege of Sarajevo, which was plunging into ferocious depths of violence against the innocent. The committee was shown aerial photographs of the dense forest which would hide artillery, and 'those present were told', recalls one of them, 'that air strikes against the Serbs would be impossible on such terrain'. It was a barefaced lie. A few weeks earlier, a satellite image analysis team from the National Security Agency and CIA had offered to give a briefing to anyone who would listen at the State Department, on what they had found in the hills around Sarajevo. One diplomat turned up. 'There were three or four of them,' he recalls, 'and one of me. They had done this in the Gulf war, the guys who tell the air force what can or cannot be done. They know what they're talking about.' They produced 'a pile' of photographs showing unprotected, uncamouflaged, unrevetted guns. 'I said, "Gosh, this stuff looks vulnerable,"' recalls the diplomat. 'It was sitting in fields or parked beside the road. They said yes, it sure did. And on the basis of their experience in the Gulf, 95 percent of it could be destroyed in one single day of air strikes.' The diplomat wrote up his briefing in a report to Tom Niles. There was no response.

The then ambassador to Sarajevo, Victor Jackovitch, recalls that by the time the camps were revealed, there was 'a head of steam' building up on the American side. But it blew into the unyielding and devilishly clever diplomacy of the one country that was consistently certain it would never do anything to help Bosnia - Britain.

As luck would have it, a conference was scheduled to meet in London soon after the discovery of Omarska. This is how Ambassador Jackovitch recalls the event: 'The temperature was rising, and we had difficulty finding out what London was trying to do. But when we got there, we realised what was happening:: a pressure valve. Allow the Serbs to make promises and accept them knowing that they had no intention of keeping them.' Radovan Karadzic promised he would withdraw and register his artillery from around Sarajevo, Bihac, Gorazde and Jajce. Pleased as Punch, Mr Major was 'confident' Karadzic would keep his word, and 'confident' that the camps would be closed 'unconditionally'. The promises were worthless. The slaughter continued.

This happened over and over and over and over again. The history of appeasement of the Serbs is the history of the entire war. There were countless moments when the Serbs were told not to cross a line, and that they faced dire consequences if they did; and every time the bluff was called, the West climbed down, and the handshakes resumed. Some of the Serbs' more infamous 'last chances' may be briefly recalled: the fall of Jajce in 1992; the revelations of systematic mass rape in December; successive water - and bread-queue massacres in Sarajevo; the shelling of orphanages and hospitals; the first débâcle at Srebrenica and the farcical establishment of the 'safe havens' that came out of it; the Serbs' pretence of accepting the Vance-Owen plan; two bloody crises in Bihac and two even bloodier ones in Gorazde.

What should the West have done? ...continued

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