Lies, damn lies and Bosnia
The biggest lie being perpetrated about the war in Bosnia is that we
are being told the truth. Joan Phillips reports from Bosnia and Serbia on
the war the papers don't report. Photographs by Michael Kramer
'It's a big lie', said the man in Belgrade who had so much to say that he
couldn't find the words. He was talking about the Western media presentation
of the Yugoslav civil war. 'We're not asking you to take sides with Serbs',
he said. 'Just tell the truth.'
The truth about what has gone on in Yugoslavia has been well and truly buried
by the British media. Recently, an article in the Media Guardian by
Channel 4's Alex Thomson contrasted media coverage of the war in Yugoslavia
to that of the Gulf War. The truth may have been the first casualty in the
Gulf, said Thomson, but 'the truth about Serbian aggression in Croatia and
Bosnia is in better shape, although at a price with scores of news-gatherers
dead and injured'(24 August 1992). The casual manner in which the truth
is equated with 'Serbian aggression' says a lot about the partiality of
the British media.
The good thing about Yugoslavia, according to Thomson, is that journalists
are 'actually witnessing war', after being kept away from the war zone or
censored silly in Grenada, Panama, the Malvinas and the Gulf. 'The public
is better informed as a result', he concluded.
I don't think so, Alex. There may not be censorship of the sort we saw in
the Gulf, but only one story is coming out of Yugoslavia nevertheless. There
may be a lot of journalists covering this war, yet it is as if all their
stories are pooled. And the story is very simple. The Serbs are to blame
for everything bad that is happening in Bosnia. End of story.
Journalists covering the war in Bosnia are feted as heroes over here. They
are hated over there. And it's not hard to see why. 'To see the Western
TV reports you would think that there were no Serbian refugees, no Serbian
deaths, no Serbian suffering', objected Stanislava, a Bosnian Serb. 'When
I see CNN or Sky I can't believe it', said a Serbian woman from Belgrade.
'There is so much disinformation.'
'Do I look like a barbarian?', demanded the first young man I spoke to in
Serbia. 'Have you seen anything like that in Belgrade?' I must confess that
I didn't see anything like that anywhere in Serbia or Bosnia, although I
know that plenty of Western journalists have spotted Serbian men with 'inhumanly
dense brows' and 'large amounts of roughly trimmed hair' (Misha Glenny),
which I presume is what barbarians look like. I'll keep looking.
Not surprisingly, there is a great deal of anger against the West in Belgrade
and Bosnia these days. Serbs are livid about the way they have been singled
out by the media and subjected to a barrage of abuse. 'What's the West got
against us?', asked one woman in rage and frustration. 'We are normal people
like anywhere else.'
'Why do you want pictures of us', shouted an irate man in the middle of
a scrum of Serbs who had waited four days in the 40 degree heat to reach
the pumps of a petrol station. 'So that everybody in England can have a
good laugh?' At another petrol queue a furious middle-aged man expressed
his revulsion at the media coverage: 'When I see a Western film on television
I want to smash the TV.' Another man refused to talk, saying, 'we've been
told too many lies, we don't believe you will tell the truth'.
The media has managed to turn many Serbs against Westerners. But that is
not the only consequence of their campaign of vilification. They have also
managed to turn the whole world against Serbs. After the Iraqis, Serbs are
the new international pariahs. Of all the participants in the Yugoslav civil
war, only the Serbs have been singled out for Western economic sanctions.
Sanctions are seen as a soft option in the West. Well, sanctions are strangling
Serbia, slowly but surely. Driving into Belgrade, I caught my first glimpse
of what sanctions are doing to the Serbs. The bus in front was swaying wildly
from side to side as if the driver had drunk one slivovitz too many.
On closer inspection, the problem was not an excess of alcohol but a surfeit
of bodies. That bus would have matched anything on the Tokyo underground
in the rush hour - and it was eight o'clock in the evening.
Then we saw the queues of cars, snaking out from the petrol station and
stretching for kilometre after kilometre. When we arrived in Belgrade, the
queues were two days long; when we left, they were four days long. Petrol
is like gold-dust, public transport is crippled, factories are closing,
emergency services barely function and hospitals are improvising desperately.
At the regional hospital in Bijeljina, in Serb-held eastern Bosnia, Dr Milivoje
Kicanovic, the chief surgeon, called for sanctions to be lifted immediately.
'We have almost run out of medicines, and even if we had money we couldn't
buy medicine in Serbia or abroad.' His team is having to treat large numbers
of soldiers and civilians suffering from terrible head and leg wounds in
the worst possible conditions. The shortage of electricity means they cannot
use x-ray machines or respirators; bandages and rubber gloves are washed
and re-used; they have no splints to support legs shattered by mortars and
bullets, and have to improvise with home-made contraptions.
Sanctions are taking their toll in other ways too. Wages can buy very little.
There are now about 57 varieties of the dinar in circulation in the former
Yugoslavia; but nobody is proud of their crisp, new worthless notes. Inflation
is rampant. Rents are rising by 150 per cent in Belgrade. Milk is about
to disappear, and sugar, flour and cooking oil are in short supply. Ordinary
people, living in working class districts of Belgrade like Rakovica, are
in dire straits. 'I'm not to blame for anything', said one man, 'yet I'm
the one who's suffering'. Only the black marketeers and war profiteers want
the war to continue.
'I ask myself how I am still alive?', said a woman standing at a bus stop
in Vukovar. She wasn't talking about how she survived the Serbian siege
of the city, but how she has survived Western sanctions. 'People here have
nothing', said another woman. 'Pensioners receive no money, how can they
survive like this? The UN sends convoys to Sarajevo, but what about us?
We have no food here.' People appear to be surviving on a diet of bread
and peppers in Vukovar, and most haven't eaten meat since the war started.
People can scarcely believe what is happening. 'Why is it only the Serbs
who are guilty?', asked one man. Most people take the view that sanctions
are unjust, if only because they have been applied against one side only.
'I think the West is making a big mistake', said another man, 'we cannot
be the only guilty ones'. Convinced that they are the victims of a great
power game, many Serbs are waiting for what the world is going to visit
upon them next: 'The Western powers are just looking to their own interests',
concluded one man whose cynicism has deepened as sanctions have squeezed
tighter. 'They don't care for truth and justice.'
But journalists are supposed to care for truth and justice, aren't they?
So why does the truth automatically become synonymous with 'Serbian aggression'
for so many Western journalists?
As far as most of the world is concerned, the Serbs are a foreign army of
occupation in Bosnia. For instance, the media continually uses the expression
'Bosnians' when describing the victims of war. Are they referring to Bosnian
Serbs, Bosnian Muslims or Bosnian Croats? In the media usage of the word,
Bosnian has become synonymous with 'Muslim'. The effect is to suggest that
only Muslims live in Bosnia, and that the Serbs are an invading army. 'It
makes me so mad when I hear this word', said a young Serbian woman from
Bijeljina. 'My family has lived here for centuries. How can they say we
are aggressors. I am a "Bosnian"--a Bosnian Serb.'
Bosnian born and bred
While it is true no doubt that some soldiers from Serbia are fighting in
Bosnia, the Yugoslav People's Army (JNA) withdrew from the republic months
ago. When I asked three soldiers from Sokolac what they used to do before
the war, one said he had an import-export business and two were long-distance
lorry drivers. Like many in the Bosnian Serb army, they are raw volunteers.
Others are former members of the JNA who happen to hail from Bosnia. These
men resent being accused of being outsiders in their own land: 'How can
Serbs be aggressors in Bosnia?', shouted one young soldier sitting in a
dug-out on the frontline near Rogatica. 'We were born here, we live here,
this is our land too.'
Soldiers in the Bosnian Serb army are no angels; but neither are they the
devil incarnate as some media reports suggest. The biased reporting rarely
raises any critical questions about the other side. Meanwhile, entire divisions
of the regular Croatian army are active all over Bosnia-Herzegovina. They
have received no censure from the international bodies which have imposed
sanctions against Serbia. While all eyes were focused on the Serbian siege
of Gorazde in eastern Bosnia, for example, not far away in Tuzla, another
majority Muslim town, the Croats have taken control without anybody raising
Retreat or rout?
What happened in Gorazde recently is a good example of how the Serbs can
do nothing right in the eyes of the Western media. At the London conference
in August, Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic agreed to pull back his
forces from Gorazde, which had been under siege for months.
When the order to retreat arrived on 27 August, the Serbs abandoned their
emplacements overlooking Gorazde to the west of the river Drina. Over the
next few days, thousands of Serbian civilians in the surrounding villages
and on the east bank of the Drina also fled their homes and made their way
to Rogatica. The Muslims responded by going on the offensive, advancing
from Gorazde and burning down Serbian settlements in their path.
Within a week the history of the Serbian retreat had been rewritten. According
to the Daily Telegraph, the Serbs had been routed: 'It now appears
that last week's withdrawal by the Serbian forces from positions west of
Gorazde was prompted not by a political decision, as claimed by Dr Karadzic,
but by a counter-offensive by the city's mainly Muslim defenders.' (7 September)
Not only has history been rewritten, part of the story has not even been
told. That is the story of the Serbian refugees who were killed and wounded
by Muslim forces as they fled Gorazde. For months, Western reporters had
focused on the suffering endured by the mainly Muslim inhabitants of Gorazde
while the town was under Serbian bombardment. Fair enough. But why did they
see fit to ignore the suffering inflicted on the Serbs fleeing Gorazde?
The worst attack on the Serbs happened as Tadeusz Mazowiecki was preparing
his report for the United Nations, accusing the Serbs of being mainly responsible
for atrocities committed in Bosnia. The former Polish prime minister was
particularly concerned about 'grave incidents of physical abuse of Catholic
priests and nuns' in the region of Banja Luka. I can assure him that far
graver abuses were being carried out against Serbs fleeing from Gorazde.
In one incident, men, women and children were killed when a convoy of refugees
was attacked at Kukovica, half way between Gorazde and Rogatica. Six of
the dead were buried in a graveyard in Rogatica. Other decomposing bodies
were still strewn around the hillsides, according to Western observers travelling
with the first UN convoy to reach Gorazde after the siege was lifted.
A week after the incident, the refugees I spoke to in Rogatica were still
traumatised. An old woman with a wounded ankle told us what happened: 'An
order came that all Serbs should leave Gorazde. We had to run. I can't believe
now that I am still alive.' Her husband cried silently as he spoke. 'Our
houses have been burned down. My heart is broken. I want only to live in
peace.' Another woman, with bullet wounds from her right knee to her thigh,
said that the buses carrying the refugees were riddled with bullets.
Serbs are victims in this war, just like Muslims and Croats. But you wouldn't
know it from following the British media reports. The image that is conveyed
is that of Serbs as conquerors, greedy for land and ready to spill a lot
of blood to get it. Although the focus has shifted to the battles raging
in northern and eastern Bosnia, Vukovar, in Serb-held Croatia, is still
a potent symbol of Serbian 'Lebensraum' for the Western media.
I have never seen anything like Vukovar before. This eastern Slavonian city
became the Beirut of the Balkans after it was pounded mercilessly for months
on end before it fell to Serbian forces at the end of 1991. Hardly a building
is unscathed in what was once, by all accounts, a beautiful city.
Driving through what appeared to be a ghost town, it scarcely seemed credible
that 15 000 people live among the ruins and the rubble. But they do. We
saw hundreds of them later, when crowds came to listen to Vojislav Seselj,
a bigoted Serbian nationalist, who is seen, unfortunately, by many Serbs
as their only protector in this disputed enclave between Serbia and Croatia.
Vukovar is an easy propaganda weapon to use against the Serbs. The city
is now inhabited by Serbs, where once it was home to Croats too. According
to the Western media, this is an example of ethnic cleansing. The conquering
Serbs have driven out the Croats and brought in their own people.
The ordinary Serbs of Vukovar do not look like conquerors. And they do not
sound like victors. Some Western reporters might be surprised to learn that
many Serbs in Vukovar do not want to be there. 'We have nothing', wailed
a chorus of three Serbian women who had been forced to leave their Croatian
village not far from Vukovar. 'We've lost everything. Now we live in Croatian
Like thousands of displaced Croats occupying Serbian houses, these Serbian
women wish all this had never happened. Like the Croatian refugees who threatened
to march back to their villages in Serb-held Croatia, these Serbian women
want to go home. They do not want to live in a stranger's house.
Civilians are being uprooted all over Bosnia. This is not a consequence
of an official policy of 'ethnic cleansing' being implemented by the Serbs
or anybody else. The uprooting of civilian populations is an unfortunate
fact of war - all wars. Bosnian Serbs as well as Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian
Croats are being turned into refugees. We saw coachloads of them flooding
into Serbia as we crossed the rickety Raca bridge over the river Sava into
Bosnia. More than 220 000 Serbs have fled Bosnia into Serbia and at least
as many have fled from Croatia into Serbia. About one in every 30 people
in Serbia is a refugee.
A quiet life
If ethnic cleansing is Serbian policy, how come Serbs in Rogatica are organising
food convoys to three outlying Muslim villages (Satorovici, Okruglo and
Osovo)? Why are villages such as Janja, in Serb-held eastern Bosnia, still
90 per cent Muslim if the Serbs are persecuting the Muslims with such ruthless
abandon? In Janja a group of Muslim and Serbian workmen were erecting new
power cables. The electricity used to come from Tuzla, but now the Croats
control Tuzla, so they will be supplied from Serbia. 'Janja is 99 per cent
Muslim, but there are no problems here', said a Serbian soldier. 'Everybody
just wants a quiet life.'
Most people just want to live a quiet life. But that was no longer a possibility
once the West interfered in Yugoslav affairs. The power struggle in Bosnia
was made inevitable by the West's sponsorship of Slovenia and Croatia, and
its open invitation to the other republics to secede from the Yugoslav federation
too. The fratricidal conflict that ensued was the consequence, not the cause,
of the disintegration of Yugoslavia.
A Muslim woman in Satorovici told us that everybody had lived well together
until the politicians started their power struggles in Sarajevo. A Serbian
woman who lost her home in Croatia said that all the troubles started when
Franjo Tudjman came to power and started beating the nationalist drum. 'All
this was not inevitable', protested an old man in Sarajevo, 'for 45 years
we lived together well'.
Yet now the BBC accuses Serbs in Sarajevo of 'systematically raping Muslim
women' in order to carry on the blood line. This must be the most idiotic
of the many idiotic stories to have come out of Bosnia courtesy of the British
media. How Malcolm Brabant managed to keep a straight face when relating
this preposterous tale we will never know.
Apparently scores of Muslim women are being held prisoner in 'a warren of
alleyways and apartment blocks' in a sordid little Serbian enclave of Sarajevo
called Grbavica. I was in Grbavica. I didn't see any Serbs raping young
Muslim women, but I did see Serbs feeding some old Muslim women from a soup
kitchen in the street.
What can we expect next? 'Serbian Dr Mengele found experimenting on Muslim
prisoners' or 'Gas ovens discovered in Banja Luka'? Certainly not a balanced
account of this war. If the British media bothered to talk to a few more
Serbs, they might get a few surprises.
West keep out
Asked for their solutions to the war, no Serb I spoke to suggested a Greater
Serbia or a Muslim-free Bosnia. 'I think Yugoslavia was the best solution,
but nobody asked me what I wanted', said a Serbian teacher in Pale. 'We'll
end up with seven banana republics without any bananas', she added ruefully.
'We need a peaceful solution to this war', said a softly spoken Bosnian
Serb soldier. 'But only Yugoslavs can sort this problem out, not outsiders.'
A young man in Sarajevo said the West was to blame for everything: 'The
West has been involved from the beginning, from the crashing of Yugoslavia.
I would prefer the West to keep out and give us a chance to find our own
solution to stop this war.' Got the message?
The new Nazis? Serbian soldiers are no better or worse than soldiers
on the other side
No 'ethnic cleansing' here: Serbian soldiers in the Muslim village
of Satorovici in eastern Bosnia
Sanctions are bringing Serbia to a standstill
Serbian refugees fleeing from Gorazde, arriving at the frontline
Sarajevo under siege: a city with no water, no electricity and no
Serbs suffer too: funeral procession in Pale, near Sarajevo
Vukovar is home to 15 000 Serbs: some want to go home to their villages
elsewhere in Croatia
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 49, November 1992