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January 1998

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

Bosnia: the crime of appeasement by ED VULLIAMY ...continued

What should the West have done?

The option of hitting Serbian artillery positions above what later became the five 'safe havens' was discussed early in the war. It was not a fringe option; it came to be vociferously shared by the then Secretary General of NATO, Manfred Worner, and the commander of NATO South, Admiral Jim Boorda. The two men tried their utmost to use air strikes as they believed these would stop the war. The former UN spokesman Michael Williams describes a dramatic moment during the Gorazde crisis of April 1994, when the sick Worner ordered what he argued should have been decisive air strikes, only to be foiled by the UN's special envoy, Yasushi Akashi. Admiral Boorda, based in Naples, became so frustrated by the UN's filibustering of any attempt at serious military action that he commandeered an F-16 himself, and demanded to be flown low enough over the Bosnian Serb capital of Pale to break several windows. No one knew at the time of this eccentric piece of bravado that NATO's number two was aboard the plane.

The idea of air strikes was not to destroy the Bosnian Serbs' armed forces, but to neutralise the artillery that was pounding the enclaves senseless, to wreck the communications system and to browbeat the Bosnian Serbs to coming to the table to talk peace seriously, instead of simply playing a pipe for the UN to dance to. When the moderate air strikes did begin in earnest, in September 1995, the Serbs jumped to attention with astonishing speed.

Our argument was (and by 'our' I mean almost all journalists covering the war's duration and most senior UNPROFOR military officers, privately) that such air strikes would and could have stopped the war at any of the junctions detailed above; the camps, the Bihac and Gorazde crises, the first Srebrenica crisis, the Vance-Owen farce. It would not have been so apocalyptic - all the allies needed to do was to keep their word. At the peace table, the Serbs would have been required to dismount the sieges and to accept international supervision in a complete reversal of ethnic cleansing. This would have been infinitely easier in 1992 than the imposition of the Dayton plan - with its pledge to return all refugees - is now. Non-compliance would have been met with further - carefully targeted but ruthless - displays of air power until compliance was secured.

This could have been achieved without ground troops other than signals, scout and intelligence units, such as were deployed by the SAS alongside UNPROFOR. However, had the air strikes not brought the Serbs to serious peace talks, then the allies would and should have debated the deployment of an international peace enforcement force, with a military brief rather than the disastrously conceived humanitarian one which was deployed. This force would have had to regard the ethnically cleansed territory much as it did occupied Kuwait in 1991, established a military authority and put what is now the 'Republika Sprska' under international military tutelage - a scale model of Berlin in 1945. Knowing the Serbian army, I genuinely believe that this would have been a quick and simple operation. All the talk about the mountain guerrilla Serbs was hogwash - their might depended only upon the fact that the other side was unarmed, and that the West never called their bluff.

Hindsight tells us that such a land operation would probably have been unnecessary. But it had to be an option. That way at least the West would have retained its credibility, its honour. It would have stopped a monster in its tracks and saved an inestimable number of lives - rather than appease the monster and facilitate the creation of a monoethnic state built on horrible violence, which was the price of inaction. The Muslim victims would have been the main beneficiaries of military intervention, of course - that would have been the whole point - and the Serbs would have screamed blue murder. But if the war had been thus stopped in 1992, the mass grave of Serbs murdered by Caco's killers in 1993 would not have been filled; there would still be Serbs in Knin and the Croatian Krajina. The Serbian-majority cities of Bosnia-Herzegovina would have scars across their memories, to be sure, but they might have resembled their agreeable, mixed Yugoslav selves, more than the drab, accursed monoethnic police statelets they are now.

But eventually, after three long years, came the bloodbath at Srebrenica- where UN soldiers not only stood by while Mladic's men massacred up to 8,000 peopole, but had wheeled and dealed the Serbs into town in the first place, and then given them the fuel they needed to drive the bulldozers that ploughed the corpses into the ground. It was miserable, pathetic, despicable - almost tragi-comic, had the consequences not been so bloody. The Serbs, certainly, found the circus act hilarious. The impish Professor Nikola Koljevic, Vice President of the Republika Srpska, took me to tea one day in Blegrade after we discovered the camps and laughed, squeakily, a great deal: 'Took you a long time, didn't it? Ha ha! All that happened so near Venice! And all you could think about was poor Sarajevo! None of you ever had your holidays in Trnopolje, did you?'

From the United States came the odd attempt at robust action to stop the war. The advent of the Clinton administration brought with it a few individuals who refused to swallow the nonsense about lion-hearted Serbian warriors whose tail should not be pulled, and believed that careful air strikes against offending gun emplacements and their drunken crews would bring the perpetrators of this nightmare to the table in earnest. Leading this group were the foursquare Madeleine Albright and the US ambassador to Zagreb, Peter Galbraith, who probably did more than any other individual to prevent the total annihilation of Bosnia's Muslims. But there were two problems, and the first was Britain. 'I learned to treat Britain as a hostile power,' said one former senior official at the State Department; 'it was like having the Russians around. Britain was prepared to block anything...your guys were usually so refined, but they were going crazy on this. Dammit, someone even collared me in Safeway on a Saturday about the arms embargo!' The other problem was Clinton himself, whose pronouncements on Bosnia came to resemble a church spire weathercock spinning in a hurricane. At least with the British, the Bosnians knew what not to expect; Clinton, however, made promises that played hard with people's hopes and fears on the ground, as the butchery went on.


'Reckoning' is probably the harshest word in the English Language. The Oxford Modern English Dictionary defines it as 'the act or an instance of counting or calculating', or else 'the settlement of an account'. In the wake of calamity, however, it means staring history in the face, asking not only what happened but why. For the victim, it means a bitter counting of the cost; for the perpetrator, it means an acceptance of responsibility - and it requires truth. It is a painful and cathartic process which the Germans, by and large, underwent during the 1950s, enabling that country to grow into a European democracy.

What about reckoning over the carnage in Bosnia? Not only has there been none, but the tapestry of deception continues to be woven. Rewritting the history of the war began while it was still raging. United Nations officials in New York, Zagreb and Sarajevo suggested to journalists that some of the bloodiest massacres in the streets of the Bosnian capital were the work not of the Serbs at all, but of the government side - killing their own people in order to secure military intervention. I was myself called in for two such briefings, in Zagreb, by different officials. It was manifestly obvious where the idea was coming from, as Alan Little and Laura Silber show: Radovan Karadzic. He had been 'quick off the mark', they write, after the marketplace slaughter of 5 February 1994. 'He denied responsibility, as he always did when civilians were killed in large numbers...Only later did he develop a series of hypotheses that the bomb had been planted "by the Muslim side'" or fired from "Muslim positions" or, more bizarrely still, that the bodies were rushed to the market square from the city morgue for the benefit of television cameras. Karadzic's denials always bore fruit. General Lewis McKenzie had first given credence to the idea that the Bosnian government...had taken to bombing its own people...the allegation was never made publicly, because it would have required evidence. If there was any evidence, it never came to light.'

Indeed, when there were ballistic investigations into these bloodbaths, they came to the unsurprising conclusion that the mortars causing them came, like the hundreds of thousands of others, from the Serbs. But the UN strategy worked beautifully. Newspapers loved the idea of the Muslims slaughtering their own people, from the bread-queue massacre of May 1992 to the marketplace massacre of September 1995 which did, finally, produce the air strikes that ended the war. It was perfect for neutrality.

In the war's aftermath, the lies progressed to the matter of the camps. It seemed inconsequential that an obscure pro-Serb Trotskyite magazine called Living Marxism should publish an article by a German communist called Thomas Deichmann, who had testified in defence of the now convicted war criminal Dusko Tadic, accusing ITN and myself of fabricating the story of the camps. But when ITN quite rightly sued these revisionists for libel, Living Marxism and Deichmann became a cause célèbre. A campaign was waged to support them by such figures as Noam Chomsky, Auberon Waugh, Stephen Glover, the National Union of Journalists - and even the distinguished Harold Evans, who wrote that the matter of the camps was a 'complex situation' which warranted a 'television confrontation'. None of us could work out what was so 'debatable' or 'complicated' about concentration camps. The damage is limited, but it takes very little arsenic to poison the groundwater of truth. An official from the Human rights Watch organisation went to present her credentials at the United Nations office in Banja Luka last year, only to be given a copy of Mr Deichmann's article by an official and told that she' would find it very interesting'. These are hardly symptoms of a reckoning on the international stage. More importantly, what about a reckoning among the perpetrators? Three and a half years after finding Omarska, I decided to go and find the managers of the camps, the middle-managers of genocide who in 1992 had introduced themselves to us as responsible for Omarska and Trnopolje.

It had taken five putrid summer days to argue our way into Omarska back in 1992, but now the road was empty. There it was: Rudnik Omarska - Omarska Mine - now buried beneath a sheet a sheet of ice and lies. Flakes of snow, which muted all sound and draped the mine in virgin white, had overlaid what happened there. Children played on sledges in the yard that had been a tarmac killing ground. A couple of stray mongrels frolicked in the jaw of the hydraulic door that leads inside the great rusty-red hangar where the prisoners were packed like battery hens. Three sentries stopped us. Two of these lads were from the village of Omarska, and had worked at the mine. 'Nothing happened here', asserted a bright-eyed 28-year-old. He had worked here in 1992 as a technician: 'It was a mine, up to the end of the year. So how can it have been a camp in August of that year? I know, I was here.' I believed he was there, at least. 'I blame the journalists', said his friend, aged 24; 'the Muslims paid the media and they forged the television pictures.' There is a fascination with deception. 'Anyone could do that.' We asked them their names. The answer from the mine technician, suddenly harsh, was unexpected. 'We had a nice chat, but no names. They are a secret. The Muslims know me, and I know them. But they have to produce evidence of what I did. These days, they can just pick you up and take you to The Hague.' 'Did you know Dusko Tadic?' we asked. 'Not well. He had a nice café...There was no camp here.'

Next to the mine is the Wiski Bar, in the shadow of the accursed hangar, alongside the railway lines. Prisoners were brought here in boxcars - and there they were, rusting and idle on the tracks. If the music had not been too loud, these people, sipping coffee and chatting, would easily have heard the screams.

Mayor Milomir Stakic of Prijedor, a bulldog of a man, turned out, unnervingly, to be a doctor. In 1992 he had introduced himself as being in charge of Omarska. Now he said there had been no camp at all; ITN's pictures were of 'Serbs in Muslim camps', he said. Then came an immediate, illogical negotiation: 'Omarska was for Muslims with illegal weapons. Omarska was not a hotel' - and he managed his only smile, which was not an agreeable one - 'but Omarska was not a concentration camp.' This nonsensical blend of denial and vindication was pretty typical in Prijedor - indeed, of all Republika Srpska. Then I found Milan Kovacevic.

Kovacevic was Stakic's deputy, whose job had been the day-to-day running of Omarska and then to explain to the media circus what a 'collection centre' was - the day after our visit, when the camp had been closed. Horribly, Kovacevic also turned out to be a medical man: director of Prijedor hospital, where we found him early in the morning. In 1992 his eyes had been fiery with enthusiasm. They were still fiery now, in 1996, but from some other, more haunted emotion. He has a taste for homemade plum brandy, and extracted a bottle from his cupboard. It had been a good year for plums, he explained; shame to let the fruit go to waste. I did not say that we had met before. He started to relate the extraordinary psychodrama of his life story. It turned out that he was not - as he had said in 1992 - born in the Jasenovac concentration camp set up by Croats in the Second World War for Serbian prisoners, but had been taken there as a child. Having been brought up to believe that 'all Germans are killers', he elected to go to - of all places - Germany, to study - of all things - anaesthesiology. He returned to his native Yugoslavia to practise anaesthetics, became a fervent Serbian nationalist, deputy mayor, architect of ethnic cleansing, and the creator and manager of Omarska, Trnopolje and Kereterm.

His certainty about the ends at first concealed his doubts about the means. What about all those burned-out Muslim houses along the road? we asked. Was that necessary, or a moment of madness? Kovacevic proceeded cautiously, emboldened by a glass of brandy. 'Both things. A necessary fight and a moment of madness. People weren't behaving normally.' This came as a surprise. Bosnian Serbs, let alone their leaders, do not usually talk like this. Was it all a terrible mistake, then? 'To be sure, it was a terrible mistake,' said Kovacevic. A second glass, and suddenly, unprompoted: 'We all know what happened at Auschwitz and Dachau, and we knew very well how it started and how it was done. What we did was not the same as Auschwitz or Dachau, but it was a mistake. It was planned to have a camp, but not a concentration camp.' Usually it is only 'enemies of the Serbian people' or 'media liars' who invoke the shadow of Auschwitz when discussing the Serbian gulag; but here was the man who created that gulag initiating this language. With the help of a third glass, the anaesthetist ploughed boldly on. 'Omarska was planned as a reception centre. But then it turned into something else. I cannot explain this loss of control. I don't think even the historians will explain it in the next 50 years. You could call it collective madness.' He admitted that he had never had this conversation before except with himself. In fact, no one in Bosnia had ever had this conversation before. Another glass to steel the spirit, unsurprisingly his own childhood in Jasenovac came back to mind. 'Six hundred thousand were killed in Jasenovac,' he mused, a little quieter for a moment. 'I was taken there as a baby by my aunt. My mother was in the mountains, hiding. We remember everything, history is made that way.'

But Jasenovac was run by Croats, we said; why did the Serbs now turn on someone else, the Muslims? Kovacevic straightened himself. 'They committed war crimes, and now it is the other way round'. In Omarska, he said, 'there were not more than 100 killed, whereas Jasenovac was a killing factory'. Only 100 killed at Omarska? We suggested that was a low figure. 'I said there were 100 killed,' he specified, a little desperately, 'not died.' You would have to talk to the doctors about how many died'. But you are a doctor, we replied. How many died? Suddenly Kovacevic threw off all caution. 'Oh, I don't know how many were killed in there. God alone knows. It's a wind tunnel, this part of the world, a hurricane blowing to and fro.'

So who planned this madness?

'It all looks very well planned if your view is from New York,' he replied. 'But here, when everything is burning, and breaking apart in people's heads...This was something for the psychiatrists. These people should all have been taken to the psychiatrist. But there wasn't enough time.'

In 1992, Kovacevic did not hide his role in operating Omarska, Trnopolje and the other camps. But, we asked, what about now? The Hague tribunal, we said, is becoming a serious business. Were you part of this insanity, doctor? 'If someone acquitted me,' he replied, with surprising calm, 'saying that I was not part of this collective madness, then I would have to admit that would not be true...But then I would want to think about how much I was a part of it...We cannot all be the same, even within the madness...If someone said did I kill people like Dusco Tadic killed people, then I would say I was not guilty...But: if things go wrong in this hosptital, then I am guilty.'

He said he had left political life 'because I saw many evil things. That is my personal secret...If you have to do things by killing people, well...Now my hair is white; now I don't sleep too well.' We asked if he had ever met anyone who had been among his inmates. He remembered a call to the front lines, to administer his medical skills, where enemy soldiers baited each other from trench to trench. He was recognised by one of his former prisoners. 'God help me,' said the doctor, 'he had been in Omarska.'



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