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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 an eyebrow.

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)

Untold story

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.

Decomposing bodies

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.

Serbian 'Lebensraum'

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.

Ghost town

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 houses.'

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.

Dr Mengele?

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 near Rogatica

Sarajevo under siege: a city with no water, no electricity and no way out

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

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