Bosnian Endgame III

On July 13 the Serbs began to deport civilians inside the Dutch compound. The men in particular were terrified. The devastating report on Srebrenica published by Kofi Annan at the end of 1999 stated that the Dutch knew that Muslim men had already been summarily executed. The men “pleaded not to be handed over to the Serbs, but to no avail. Dutchbat then ordered them to leave the compound and present themselves to the waiting Serbs. The Dutchbat personnel concerned have since stated that they did not believe they were handing these men over to certain death, and that they believed the men would be treated by the Serbs in accordance with the Geneva Conventions. They felt that, having prepared a list of the names of those handed over, the men would enjoy some degree of security. All 239 men on the list are still missing.”

The horror of the moment is summed up in the story of Hasan Nuhanovic, a United Nations interpreter. His mother, father and brother were with him in the Dutch compound and he begged for them to be allowed to stay. The Dutch said only he could remain. They were pushed out, and he has never seen them again. Nuhanovic said later, “Sometimes I say to myself: why didn’t you grab the pistol from the major’s holster and put it on his forehead and say, ‘You have to keep my family on the base’? … But you have no brain at these moments; you are so obedient that you just do what they tell you. And nobody complained when they walked to the gate. They just walked, knowing they were going to die.”

By the evening of July 13, the Annan report stated, there were now four categories of Muslim men in Srebrenica: those alive and trying to escape through the woods; those killed on that journey; those who had surrendered to the Serbs and had already been killed; and those who had surrendered and would soon be killed.

The Annan report subsequently noted that “the international community does not appear to have had any evidence at the time that executions were taking place in such staggering numbers.” No one had expected or even imagined the possibility of such barbarity.

But alarm was already being expressed at various levels of the system. Dutch soldiers had seen murders. The Bosnian permanent representative to the UN wrote to the secretary general to warn that the fate of the detainees was unknown “and there are substantial grounds to fear their execution.” He blamed the UN.

By July 14, Akashi was reporting to New York that Srebrenica was deserted and the Serbs were looting the town. He also passed on information from UN military observers about the mistreatment of the Bosnians by the Serbs. Rather than make an outcry, he suggested that in view of the vulnerable position of the observers, the reports be kept confidential. He also informed Annan that almost all the refugees arriving in Tuzla were old men, women and children. “We are beginning to detect a shortfall in number of persons expected to arrive in Tuzla. There is not further information on the status of approximately 4,000 draft age males. Tuzla reports four bus loads (+/-250) containing young women … have been missing for over 24 hours.”

That same day General Rupert Smith met in Sarajevo with the Bosnian prime minister, Haris Silajdzic. The prime minister was most anxious that the UN reinforce its contingent in the safe area of Zepa to protect it from the same sort of disaster as Srebrenica. Smith replied that he had neither the capability nor the orders to do so.

Silajdzic raised the reports of atrocities in Srebrenica, including the rape of young women and the murder of a busload of refugees. Smith’s note taker recorded that the Bosnian government was “ worried about reports of refugees being segregated into groups and men between the ages of 16 to 60 being sent to different locations.” Silajdzic asked that all convoys be escorted by UNPROFOR and that passenger lists be compiled on all buses.

Smith reckoned that the Serbs were moving fast to present a fait accompli. They wanted to overrun the enclaves to eliminate threats to their rear area, and to provide troops to enable them to make a decisive blow and possibly to counter the new Rapid Reaction Force. The Serbs, he wrote, were “cleansing” Srebrenica. Men of military age were being separated from the refugees, and reports of murder, unconfirmed as yet, were beginning to be heard.

Smith asked, in a memo he wrote at this time, whether the UN should “lie back,” withdraw from the safe areas, bomb the Serbs or reinforce the remaining safe areas to defend them. Bombing “has not worked because we have not been prepared to escalate and the bombing does not stop attacks on this terrain…. Ground cannot be held: there is difficulty in finding suitable targets: air supremacy has to be achieved; the raid is not part of a coherent All Arms battle; elements of UNPROFOR remain potential hostages to capture and attack; casualties must be expected.”

Smith thought that if the Serbs continued to move as fast as now, then the only option would be to “lie back.” “If we have more time then we must decide whether or not we wish to fight a war. If we do, it should be for a greater aim than the defence of an enclave. Furthermore, appropriate force must be deployed and we must remove the white and vulnerable elements of UNPROFOR or we will continue to have hostages to fortune.” (The UN’s vehicles are always painted white, not battle camouflaged.) If the UN was not prepared to fight and escalate “then we must face the harsh and unforgiving truth” that short of a peace settlement they would have to concede or withdraw. Right now what mattered were reinforcements to deal with the refugee crisis and high-level intervention to get the Dutch soldiers freed.

Between July 14 and July 17, hundreds of Bosnian Muslim men were loaded onto buses, ordered off them, stood in fields and shot; they included many of those who had attempted to walk through the woods and had been shot at or surrendered. Some of the Serbs were wearing blue UN helmets and driving UN vehicles stolen from the Dutch. They lured some of the men into ambushes and killed them. Others were attacked with mortars and small arms.

In some cases the victims were forced to dig their own graves before they were shot. Later, in an attempt to hide their work, the Bosnian Serbs took many of the bodies from the original graves and reburied them.

Several hundred men were packed into a warehouse in Kravica and killed by small arms fire and grenades. The Annan report stated that UN personnel later “were able to see hair, blood and human tissue caked to the walls of this building.”

Very few eyewitnesses to these massacres have been found. A tiny handful survived by pretending to be dead and lying still under bodies; they later escaped. One said this:

“We came near to what I saw through my right eye was a wooded area. They took us off the truck in twos and led us out into some kind of meadow. People started taking off blindfolds and yelling in fear because the meadow was littered with corpses. I was put in the front row, but I fell over to the left before the first shots were fired so that bodies fell on top of me…. About an hour later I looked up and saw dead bodies everywhere. They were bringing in more trucks with more people to be executed. After a bulldozer driver walked away, I crawled over the dead bodies and into the forest.”

Valuable testimony was later provided by Drazen Erdemovic, a Bosnian Croat soldier who was serving in the Bosnian Serb army. He reluctantly took part in the killing under orders and later gave himself up to the tribunal in The Hague. “I wanted to testify because of my conscience,” he said, “because of all that happened, because I did not want that. I was simply compelled to, forced to, and I could choose between my life and the life of those people; and had I lost my life then, that would not have changed the fate of those people….”

While the massacres were under way—unseen but increasingly suspected—international officials continued to deal with President Milosevic, Radovan Karadzic and General Mladic, not least in the hope of saving people who, as it turned out, were already dead. On July 15, Rupert Smith, Akashi and others had a secret lunch meeting in Belgrade with Milosevic and Mladic. The Serb leaders agreed to give the High Commissioner for Refugees and the Red Cross full and immediate access to Srebrenica and to all “prisoners of war.” Mladic reneged on this commitment.

Soon after the meeting, Akashi was informed by his staff in Zagreb that “we still have no clear idea where the Bosnian males in Srebrenica are…. MSF [Médecins sans Frontières] is reporting massacres on the road between Bratunac and Kladanj….” Survivors who had reached Tuzla began to talk of the killings, abductions and rapes they had witnessed, but none of the survivors of mass executions had yet arrived.

Late on July 16 and early on July 17, up to six thousand of the men who had tried to walk through Serb lines stumbled into Bosnian government territory. They told UN officials that at least three thousand of the original column had been killed by the Serbs in combat as they fled and others had surrendered.

By now Zepa was under increasing Serb pressure. On July 17, Rupert Smith asked Mladic to let the civilians there go. Mladic replied that there could be no evacuation unless there was first unconditional surrender, with all Muslim weapons handed over. The Bosnian government rejected Mladic’s proposal.

As Srebrenica fell, Boutros-Ghali was in Rwanda and Burundi. His journey there was chronicled by the writer Michael Ignatieff, who asked him why he did not fly back to the United Nations at once to deal with the humiliating crisis in Bosnia. Because, said Boutros-Ghali, if he did so all the African countries would complain that he was more interested in the fate of a village in Europe than in genocide in Rwanda. The UN did not have a mandate to intervene on the side of the Muslims, even if they were the victims, he told Ignatieff; nor did it have the resources to defend them. “No one realizes how long it takes for people to come to their senses,” he said. One should remember how long it took for the PLO and the Israelis to sit down together.

All this was true, Ignatieff reflected, “but it does not change the fact that promises were made to people in a village in Europe that should never have been made because those who made them knew the promises could not be kept.”

Boutros-Ghali pointed out in a striking phrase, “Everywhere we work, we are struggling against the culture of death.” The UN might not have succeeded completely in Bosnia, but look at the countries where it had been able to do even less to counter that culture—Afghanistan, Chechnya, Sri Lanka, Sierra Leone, Liberia. Boutros-Ghali saw these as “orphaned conflicts,” in which the West had no interest, for whatever reason.

In Rwanda, the Patriotic Front government took Boutros-Ghali on a tour of some of the “memorials” to the victims of the genocide conducted by the Hutus, where the bodies of Tutsi victims had been left in the open as a reminder of the horror which the “culture of death” had visited upon that country. In Burundi, which was experiencing a sort of slow-motion genocide, a hundred people here, a dozen there, Boutros-Ghali watched and listened as the Hutu and Tutsi politicians he had summoned denounced each other. He then told them that they made him ashamed to call himself an African. The international community would not save them from themselves. It had not saved Beirut. “God helps those who help themselves,” Boutros-Ghali said. “Your enemy is not each other but fear and cowardice. You must have the courage to accept compromises. That is what a political class is for. You must assume your responsibilities. If you don’t, no one will save you.”

That night, on CNN, there were stories that Serb soldiers, wearing the UN’s blue helmets, were luring Muslim civilians out of the safe haven of Zepa and shooting them dead. Ignatieff thought he had witnessed “the moment when liberal internationalism reached the end of its tether.”

On July 19, Rupert Smith met with Mladic at a restaurant in Serbheld territory outside Sarajevo. The Serb general, fresh from the killing fields of Srebrenica, was in a “chipper mood” according to Smith’s note taker. Smith asked for access to Srebrenica for the Red Cross and UNHCR. Mladic agreed but said convoys would have to drive via Belgrade. Smith asked him for an account of the activities of his troops in Srebrenica. According to Smith’s note taker, “General Mladic was at pains to point out that Srebrenica was ‘finished in a correct way.’ … He said he engaged personally in this operation and organised as much food and water for the refugees as possible.”

Smith said he had information that not all wounded Muslims had been able to leave Srebrenica. “Mladic appeared to have no knowledge of this but agreed to find out and resolve the matter,” Smith related. Mladic claimed that he had opened a corridor to allow men to escape to Tuzla (in fact he had opened a trap in which they were slaughtered). All he would acknowledge was that some skirmishes had taken place with casualties on both sides and some “unfortunate small incidents” had occurred.

By now the scale of the massacre was still unknown, but stories of the atrocities were beginning to emerge. According to Boutros-Ghali, it was not until July 21, as the last Dutchbat soldiers were released from Srebrenica, that “UN civilian officials were told about the horrors perpetrated by Mladic’s men.” This is not quite accurate. Refugees arriving in Tuzla and elsewhere had sounded the alarm as early as July 13. In the following days it became clearer that something truly terrible was happening. The military had had a pretty good idea for days. U.S. satellites had filmed mass graves being dug, but it is not clear when these pictures became available to senior U.S. officials. Madeleine Albright revealed them only on August 10.

On July 21 the foreign and defense ministers of NATO, together with the Russians, met in London to discuss how to respond to the disaster. The London conference made crucial decisions. The ministers—though not the Russians—decided that any new Serb attack on Gorazde or any other safe area, like Sarajevo, would be met with a “disproportionate” or overwhelming response including NATO airpower and the Rapid Reaction Force, which had been deployed around Sarajevo. They also decided to change the mechanics of the dual key to unlock NATO bombing strikes. From now on the two air strike launch “keys” would be held by military men—one would be with the commander of UN forces, General Janvier, rather than with Yasushi Akashi; the other key remained in the hands of Admiral Leighton Smith, NATO’s Southern Region commander. From now on, bombing could begin if the two commanders agreed that a safe area was under serious threat. It could be suspended temporarily by either NATO or the UN if necessary for the safety of UN troops. Once the dual keys were turned, the UN’s force commander would be required to continue the bombing until he and the NATO command agreed that attacks on or threats to a safe area had ceased. The London meeting in effect abandoned the international community’s previous policy of containment.

That was not all. At last—and crucially—the United States embraced a plan for a “comprehensive settlement” which included the division of Bosnia into two entitities, 49 percent Serb and 51 percent Muslim-Croat. On July 22, Presidents Tudjman and Izetbegovic adopted the Split declaration, which provided for a joint defense of Bosnia. It legalized the presence of Croatian troops in Bosnia and strengthened the overall military capacity of the Muslim-Croat federation.

By this time the Serbs, emboldened by Srebrenica, were becoming more aggressive elsewhere. They began an attack on the Bihac enclave and increased their shelling of Sarajevo. On July 22, two French UNPROFOR officers were killed in Sarajevo and four other UNPROFOR members were injured. UNPROFOR fired ninety mortar rounds at Serb targets around Sarajevo to try to suppress the fire. But the Bosnian ministry reported that twenty-five Bosnians were killed in Sarajevo that week and seventy-five more injured.

On July 26, General Smith met Mladic again. Mladic arrived by helicopter, in yet another breach of the UN’s no-fly rules. He was “in a serious and purposeful mood,” according to Smith’s note taker. He was dismissive of the ultimatum from the London conference. “ People have no right to tell Serbs how to conduct themselves in their own country,” he said. “We did not start the war, we did not endanger the countries who delivered the ultimatum, all we require is equal treatment, the lifting of sanctions and the right to live on our own land.”

Zepa, which, bizarrely, had not been discussed at the London conference, was the main item on the generals’ agenda. The Bosnian government still did not wish to accept its surrender. In frustration and terror, three members of the Zepa war presidency had signed their own surrender agreement with Mladic. He told Smith to tell the Bosnian government that those men who refused to hand over their weapons “would be liquidated.”

Smith went to Zepa itself and talked to the three men who had signed the agreement. They told him they were in an impossible position; they were upset that their government had failed over fourteen days to conclude an agreement for the exchange of prisoners of war. Smith was in a quandary over whether or not to withdraw UNPROFOR from Zepa altogether. The Serbs were still insisting that all Muslim fighters must surrender to them. They were not planning to attack and drive the Muslims out. “It is clearly in BSA interest to keep UNPROFOR troops in the pocket especially French troops, as potential hostages,” wrote Smith. There were about 2,800 civilians and 1,500 fighters in Zepa; they would be very difficult to separate. The Bosnian government was insisting that the UN peacekeepers—less than two hundred—stay.

Smith reported, “I consider UNPROFOR has a duty, both moral, mandated and stated in the recent [Security Council] presidential statement, to remain in the pocket as long as civilians are unaccounted for. To withdraw will mean the abandonment of these people with further loss of UN credibility.” But he knew that “To stay will run the risk of hostage taking which may foreclose on other actions elsewhere in the theatre.” That, as always, was the problem. It was one with which Smith was dealing—by gradually withdrawing peacekeepers from the areas in which they were most vulnerable.

The Bosnian government remained opposed to the surrender of Zepa and Mladic remained obdurate. He ordered the murder of the local leaders from Zepa with whom he had been negotiating. By July 28, Smith feared an all-out Serb attack on the enclave. But just before that happened, Croat forces seized two Serb-held towns in southwest Bosnia, creating ten thousand Serb refugees and exposing Knin, the capital of the Serb-held Krajina region of Croatia. Mladic immediately turned his attention toward the new threat from Croatia. He withdrew most of his regular forces from around Zepa; many of the Bosnians in Zepa were able to escape the dreadful fate of those in Srebrenica.

At Srebrenica an estimated 7,414 men and boys were murdered. It was the greatest war crime committed in Europe since the Second World War. The agonized debate over responsibility for it continues to this day.

As Kofi Annan’s remarkably detailed and painful report to the General Assembly on Srebrenica (1999) made clear, there is blame enough to go around. Colonel Karremans believed that, given the weakness of the Dutch defenses, air support was essential, but his requests for it went unheeded or were denied. Why? Because all senior UN and UNPROFOR officials believed that this would bring the UN into the war against the Serbs, which was not authorized by the council and would be fatal to a peacekeeping mission. It would endanger UN troops; it would disrupt what was still seen as UNPROFOR’s primary mission—to deliver humanitarian aid. These were all powerful reasons, but as Annan’s report acknowledged, “We were with hindsight wrong to declare repeatedly and publicly that we did not want to use air power against the Serbs except as a last resort.”

Once Karremans was told (by the Dutch Defense Ministry as well as the UN Secretariat) that the security of his troops took precedence over “deterring attacks” on the safe area, the Dutch battalion withdrew to its compound. Dutch troops were ordered never to fire on the attacking Serbs. Had they done so, events might have unfolded differently.

The Dutch did not know that the Serbs were bent on massacring thousands of men and boys, but they were aware that something sinister was happening and they did not report it fully. This failure of intelligence sharing was an endemic weakness of UNPROFOR.

Despite the evidence of randommurders, the Dutch obeyed Mladic and handed over the refugees. “Perhaps they should have allowed everyone into the compound and then offered themselves as human shields to protect them,” said the Annan report. “Thismay have slowed down the Serbs and bought time for negotiations to take effect.”

The background to all these failures, as I have tried to show, was the way in which the Security Council year after year commanded the UN Secretariat, and through it UNPROFOR, to keep peace where there was only war. The council may have originally expected that the “warring parties” on the ground would respect the authority of the UN. If so, it should soon have been disabused of this notion. It was not. Nor did the council understand that the Serbs and Croats would view the UN’s humanitarian operation not as an obstacle to the systematic and ruthless campaigns they were conducting but as an instrument of their aims.

Annan’s 1999 report acknowledged that the Secretariat of which he was a prominent member had been wrong. It “had convinced itself early on that the broader use of force by the international community was beyond our mandate and anyway undesirable. Knowing that any other course of action would jeopardize the lives of the troops, we tried to create—or imagine—an environment in which the tenets of peacekeeping—agreement between the parties, deployment by consent, and impartiality—could be upheld.”

Annan wrote, “It is with the deepest regret and remorse that we have reviewed our own actions and decisions in the face of the assault on Srebrenica. Through error, misjudgment and an inability to recognize the scope of the evil confronting us, we failed to do our part to help save the people of Srebrenica from the Serb campaign of mass murder…. The tragedy of Srebrenica will haunt our history for ever.”

A brutal and crucial new force on the ground now came into play. In early August the Croatian army, which had been retrained by retired U.S. officers acting in a mercenary role, stormed through Krajina and drove about 250,000 Serbs out of homes they had occupied, in some cases, for centuries. The spectacle of these refugees, poor peasants in the main, on their tractors and carts, winding east toward Serbia, was appalling. This was probably the biggest single example of “ethnic cleansing” during the entire war and was conducted harshly. Hundreds of Serbs were murdered by the Croats, who abused human rights as viciously as the Serbs had elsewhere. But because the victims were Serbs, they invoked almost no international attention, still less sympathy. Indeed, the Croatian blitzkrieg had the support of the United States.

The offensive suited the U.S. aim to roll back the advances made by the Serbs in the last three years. In his book To End a War, Holbrooke quotes a note written to him by Bob Frasure, a senior State Department official, at a meeting with Tudjman in Zagreb: “Dick: We ‘hired’ these guys to be our junkyard dogs because we were desperate. We need to try to ‘control’ them. But this is no time to get squeamish about things. This is the first time the Serb wave has been reversed. That is essential for us to get stability, so we can get out.” This view was not shared by all in the Clinton administration, but it was the view that prevailed. It was helped by the fact that, despite previous warnings, Milosevic did nothing to help the Krajina Serbs. During August and September the Bosnian Serbs lost some 30 percent of the ground they had controlled to Croat and Bosnian attacks.

Two days after he wrote this note, Frasure and two other senior U.S. officials, Joe Kruzel and Nelson Drew, working with Holbrooke to secure a peace agreement, were killed. On August 19 the armored car in which they were riding to Sarajevo fell off the Mount Igman road and crashed down the hillside. These were the first deaths of American officials in the Yugoslav wars, and they added a personal, emotional incentive for Holbrooke and their other colleagues to see the defeat of the Serbs.

Peacekeeping is filled with bizarre compromises. On August 22, Rupert Smith had lunch with Mladic in a villa near Zepa. The meeting was requested by Mladic. He wanted to discuss UN support for the tens of thousands of new Serb refugees from Krajina. Smith felt this gave him something to bargain with in discussing his most important concern: the planned withdrawal of British and Ukrainian troops from Gorazde, the last of the remote eastern safe areas in which peacekeepers were still based. Smith wanted the last potential UN hostages out of the Serbs’ reach.

Mladic provided a barbecue of mutton. Just over a month after the massacre at Srebrenica, he appeared to Smith’s note taker to be “fit and rested. He was very cheerful but as open, balanced, and as attentive as we can remember.” His bodyguards explained that he had been on ten days’ leave. He offered to help with the withdrawal of UN troops from Gorazde.

When Smith explained the outlines of the Holbrooke peace initiative, Mladic said the Bosnian Serbs could not and would not accept federation or a union with the Croats or Muslims: “Our children drew the map with their blood. We can only be one nation in one state.” Smith stressed the outrage that had been aroused in the world by Srebrenica and said that Bosnian Serb actions had undermined whatever support they might have enjoyed in the international community. In an emotional outburst Mladic declared, “I am a war criminal, but you have to talk to me as I am the only one who can allow you to leave Gorazde.”

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