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Ed Vulliamy of the Guardian insists that the Bosnian Serb-run camp at the centre of LM's legal battle with ITN was a concentration camp. And he has the nerve to accuse us of rewriting history, says Mick Hume

There are camps, and then there are concentration camps

Ed Vulliamy got piles of awards for his reports on the Bosnian-Serb run camps which he visited with an ITN news team in August 1992. Not content with being the Guardian's star international reporter and chief crusader against parliamentary sleaze, however, he has recently expanded his range of talents to become a book reviewer, a film buff and an art critic. Why? Because writing about these things provides him with another pretext to pursue his obsession with smearing LM magazine and its writers, over our revelations about those famous ITN reports from Trnopolje camp.

On 20 April in the Observer, Vulliamy used a review of a book about the Bosnian camps as a platform from which to denounce us as 'lice' with a 'diabolical' mindset. On 25 April in the New Statesman, a review of art exhibitions about Bosnia gave Vulliamy the opportunity to accuse 'the apparently insignificant gang who publish Living Marxism' of trying to 'poison and slaughter' the truth. On 9 May in the Guardian, Vulliamy used an article about the film Welcome to Sarajevo to brand us as 'lunatics'. And so it goes on. He may not know much about art, but he knows what he doesn't like. You get the feeling that, if Ed Vulliamy wrote a food column, he would end up complaining that LM had put him off his dinner.

Reading between the bile, Vulliamy's central accusation is that LM's coverage of the Bosnian civil war, and particularly Thomas Deichmann's article 'The Picture that Fooled the World', is guilty of 'revisionism' and rewriting history. What he seems to mean by 'rewriting history' is that we disagree with his version of events. Does Ed Vulliamy now claim a monopoly on Bosnia's history? The notion that journalists' accounts should be accepted as historical record is highly dubious.

After all, Vulliamy himself has given several different 'eye-witness' accounts of what he saw at Trnopolje on 5 August 1992. First he said it was not a concentration camp, then he recalled that it was one after all. His first report from Trnopolje failed to mention any barbed wire fence; his later book remembered that the camp compound was 'surrounded by barbed wire fencing'; and now (after Thomas Deichmann's revelations in February's LM) he remembers that it was not. Which report are we to take as the gospel truth? (For a full account , see 'Ed Vulliamy's recovered memories', LM, March 1997).

Vulliamy's 'I am the Truth' posturing, and his feverish attempts to discredit LM, cannot be allowed to distract from the major issue at stake in the debate about Trnopolje camp. That issue is not about the existence of camps during the war in northern Bosnia; contrary to what Vulliamy and his allies claim, LM has never denied the existence of the camps or accused ITN of 'fabricating' their pictures. Nor is the argument about whether or not Trnopolje camp was a pleasant place; as we have always made clear, there is no such thing as a 'good' camp and everybody at Trnopolje would undoubtedly have rather been somewhere else.

The issue is simply this: was the world right to interpret the ITN pictures from Trnopolje, centred on the image of Fikret Alic and other Bosnian Muslims behind barbed wire, as proof that the Bosnian Serbs were running Nazi-style concentration camps?

Vulliamy now insists that Trnopolje was a concentration camp, a symbol of the Bosnian Serbs' war of 'genocide' against the Bosnian Muslims. LM insists that there is a world of difference between a camp like Trnopolje, however grim, and a real concentration camp like Auschwitz or Belsen.

Trnopolje was a chaotic refugee and transit camp situated on the grounds of a local school in the middle of a war zone. At its peak it held about 7 500 people, many of whom were under-nourished, and there have been reports of some beatings, rapes and killings there. Auschwitz concentration camp in occupied Poland was a huge industrially-organised extermination machine, with about 40 'branch' camps attached, where the Nazis killed between three and four million Jews, Poles, Russians, Gypsies, communists and others, mostly in mass gas chambers.

The respected Stockholm International Peace Institute estimates, in its 1996 yearbook, that a total of between 30-50 000 people died on all sides during the whole of the Bosnian civil war (not the 250 000 figure that is bandied around by journalists who get their information from Bosnian government sources). The Nazis exterminated about 100 times as many at Auschwitz alone. There can be no intelligent comparison between that concentration camp and the ramshackle centre at Trnopolje.

The thrust of Thomas Deichmann's argument is that the ITN pictures of Trnopolje camp, showing emaciated Bosnian Muslims apparently caged behind barbed wire, gave the world the false impression that Trnopolje was a Nazi-style concentration camp - and neither ITN nor its journalists ever corrected that false impression. The Bosnian Muslims were not encircled by barbed wire at all. There was no barbed wire fence surrounding Trnopolje camp; the barbed wire actually encircled the British news team, who took those shots from inside an old fenced-in agricultural compound next to the camp (for the full story, see 'The Picture that Fooled the World' in February's LM).

In all of his hysterical attempts to rubbish LM's case, Ed Vulliamy has never once considered the actual evidence which Thomas Deichmann has amassed, instead confining himself to cheap insults and boring old Red scares, or trying to dismiss the question of the barbed wire fence as 'a detail'. But the amount of time and space Vulliamy has devoted to his campaign suggests that he knows it is nothing of the sort.

The picture of Fikret Alic behind barbed wire is the defining image of the Bosnian war, the one thing above all others which convinced the world that another Holocaust was taking place in Serb-run concentration camps. And that false interpretation has not only distorted the reality of Bosnia; it has belittled the real Nazi genocide against the Jews.

The notion that the Bosnian civil war was a war of genocidal aggression, with the Bosnian Serbs cast in the role of the new Nazis, served to justify Western intervention, as Vulliamy and his fellow breast-beaters demanded 'an end to appeasement'. In reality it was the interference of the Western powers which sparked off the Yugoslav civil war in the first place, and perpetuated it thereafter, to the detriment of all those on the receiving end - the Muslim, Croatian and Serb communities. The post-war pay-off from the moral crusade for Western intervention is that Bosnia is now effectively under foreign occupation (see Dave Chandler, 'You will be democratised', LM, March 1997).

Trivialising the Holocaust

The ironic twist is that Vulliamy's insistence that Trnopolje and another Serb-run camp at Omarska were concentration camps really has helped to rewrite history. Any attempt to speak of these camps in the same breath as concentration camps like Auschwitz and Treblinka can only serve to alter the historical record by trivialising the unequalled horrors of the Nazi Holocaust.

As the veteran Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal said when the camps in Bosnia first made sensational headlines, 'To call the camps "concentration camps" is a minimisation of Nazi concentration camps, because not even the gulag camps could be compared with the Nazi camps'.

Vulliamy himself once seemed almost to grasp this point. In the introduction to his 1994 book, Seasons in Hell, he explained how, at the time when the ITN pictures from Trnopolje first had the world's press screaming about 'Belsen 1992' , 'I declined to use the term "concentration camp" because of its resonance since the Nazi Holocaust'. However, Vulliamy went on, for some reason since then 'I have decided that "concentration camp" is exactly the right term'. The camps deserved 'the strict definition of "concentration camp", but there is no intention to draw parallels with the scale of the Nazi Holocaust' (pxii).

Tadic is not Goering

That's alright then, Ed. Never mind that the term concentration camp has only one meaning in the post-1945 world, or that it can only conjure up direct comparisons with Auschwitz and all that. So long as there was 'no intention to draw parallels' in your head, you cannot be blamed for the stupidity (or was it diabolical lunacy?) of people who thought that when you said concentration camp you meant concentration camp.

This same habit of implying bogus parallels with the Second World War infuses all discussion of the Bosnian conflict. The International War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague has been set up on the assumption that what happened in Bosnia bears comparison with the Nazi experience. In May the three Tribunal judges found Bosnian Serb Dusko Tadic, against whom Vulliamy gave evidence, guilty of 'crimes against humanity' - the same charge which was levelled against the Nazi leaders at Nuremberg. Yet how can anybody with a passing knowledge of history seriously suggest that a local militiaman like Tadic could be compared to the powerful Nazis sentenced to death for crimes against humanity? The notion that Tadic could really be another Herman Goering, Rudolf Hess, Martin Bormann or Julius Streicher takes revisionism to ridiculous lengths. (A full legal assessment of the Tadic trial will appear in the next issue of LM.)

Who benefits from the fashion for crying 'Holocaust' and 'genocide' every time a local war breaks out from Bosnia to Rwanda, a comparison which implicitly belittles the Nazi experience through the comparison? Vulliamy deludes himself that his Bosnian crusade presents a radical challenge to the 'appeasers' within the Anglo-American establishment. In fact the powerful elites of Western society have good reason to be delighted with his Holocaust-mongering.

The argument that there are new Holocausts happening in the East or the South has helped to establish the moral authority of the West to intervene around the world as it sees fit, under the banners not of empire but of a righteous crusade against evil. This does not mean, of course, that Washington or Whitehall will answer every crank call for intervention, but it does mean that they have an almost open invitation to intervene in their pockets. Having liberal journalists scream at them to invade small countries, and denounce them as 'appeasers' for failing to do so, must be like music to the ears of the great military powers of the West, which are more used to being branded imperialists and told to get their hands off the rest of the world.

The Holocaust-mongering of the likes of Vulliamy also helps to relativise the Nazi experience, by reducing the great genocide of the century to the level of just another atrocity like those carried out today in the Bosnian or Rwandan civil wars. The German authorities are of course keen to encourage this process of relativisation, to rehabilitate their own global reputation . But all of the other Western powers have an interest in it, too. For half a century the Nazi experience has cast a shadow over them all, discrediting the politics of race and empire that are so close to the heart of Western societies and advertising the dangers of a capitalist system out of control.

That is why the Western establishment should be grateful to Vulliamy and his fellow Holocaust-mongers, for providing them with an opportunity to get off the hook and spread the guilt for genocide around. Better still, the focus on alleged concentration camps and genocide 'over there' in the East and the South allows the West to present itself as the potential saviour of the innocent. The great powers, who invented the politics of racial supremacy and put them into practice at the cost of millions of lives around the world, are recast in the role of Holocaust-busting super heroes. That is history not just rewritten but turned on its head.

The final little irony in all of this is that Ed Vulliamy, who has tried to win himself a reputation as a crusader for the truth against sleaze and the abuse of power, should now act as the mouthpiece for ITN's libel writs against LM - a blatant attempt by a mega-corporation to gag the press and buy immunity from criticism through the courts.

Obsessed: Ed Vulliamy

Despite the impression given by ITN's picture, Trnopolje (left) was not Auschwitz (right)

News from the legal front

The battle between LM magazine and ITN, over Thomas Deichmann's article 'The Picture that Fooled the World', is starting to warm up as we spar over the legal details of the libel case.

Contrary to the impression given recently in the media, LM has not apologised to ITN or anybody else. The magazine is continuing to defend itself against ITN's libel writs and gagging orders.

All that happened in April was that Two-Ten Communications (a subsidiary of the Press Association) issued a High Court apology to ITN and two of its journalists, over allegations made in a Living Marxism press release promoting Deichmann's article. The Two-Ten case was reported in terms which gave the clear impression that ITN had won a major legal battle over Deichmann's allegations.

But there was no legal battle. Two-Ten Communications lawyers offered no defence. They simply made a short, formal apology (but paid no damages), and then ITN's lawyers read out a lengthy statement giving their own version of what happened at Trnopolje camp on 5 August 1992. The court made no examination whatsoever of Thomas Deichmann's counter evidence, and no jury passed judgement on who was telling the truth.

Two-Ten Communications is only a commercial distributor of press releases which, as its own solicitor's courtroom statement makes clear, 'does not make any comment or judgement on the content of such press releases'. For Two-Ten, apologising to ITN was strictly a business matter, to do with protecting commercial relations. For LM Magazine, however, the battle against ITN's libel writs is an issue of principle to do with defending press freedom. That is why LM is continuing with its defence and refusing to apologise.

As LM editor Mick Hume said after the Two-Ten case: 'Judgement as to who is telling the truth about the ITN reports will have to wait until all the evidence is finally made public. We have that evidence. We stand by our story. Watch this space.'

Meanwhile, another settlement relating to the case went unreported. In April the Guardian agreed to settle a claim made by former US state department official George Kenney, over the paper's 12 March article about the London Off the Fence rally where Kenney spoke. Luke Harding of the Guardian described Kenney as a 'leading apologist for Serbian aggression'. Kenney's solicitors, Bindman & Partners, complained to the Guardian Newspapers Ltd that this was a serious defamation of their client, and demanded an apology and payment of costs and damages.

Although the Guardian Newspaper Ltd claimed that the article was 'fair comment' they nevertheless were not prepared to see the case go to court. Instead they agreed to publish a letter from Kenney and to pay him in excess of £2250. Readers can draw their own conclusions about the strength of the Guardian's case. Kenney told LM magazine that in his view the settlement was 'a small moral victory, but a victory nonetheless'.

If we are to win a bigger victory for press freedom, we still need all the help we can get. Send messages of support, offers of help and money to the LM libel appeal, the Off The Fence Fund.

Helen Searls

first appeared in LM 101

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