Dusk falls on the center of Sarajevo and two hundred ghostly figures, turned eastward, silently pass seven bodies from hand to hand before lowering them into another mass grave. The three imams offer up prayers on behalf of the dead. Inspired by these voices which seem to pierce Sarajevo’s shadows, the neighborhood dogs begin to howl in unison as if sensing the grief of their fellow creatures.
This dignified, miserable rite took place a few hundred meters from the outdoor market where the seven men died along with dozens of fellow Sarajevans. The spot is marked by a hole in the ground, no larger than a clenched fist. This little crater, bearing its grim testimony, is surrounded by a few concentric circles of shrapnel—the handful of shrapnel from the 120mm mortar that did not reach its target. The rest, after exploding a meter above the ground, ripped off the faces, heads, and limbs of almost three hundred people, sixty-eight of whom died. This particularly unpleasant atrocity in a war already renowned for its bestiality left only a few ripples of shrapnel on the ground but the political shock waves this sent throughout the former Yugoslavia and the Western world changed the course of the Bosnian conflict.
No incident has shaken Bosnia-Herzegovina as thoroughly as the marketplace mortar attack. “There is a paradox, of course,” I was told by Zlata, a seventy-four-year-old Muslim woman who fought as a partisan in Mostar during the Second World War. “This number of people are killed and injured every day, so what difference does it make either to us or the world if it just happens to be in one place?”
There is no better example to underscore the decisive impact television can have on policy-makers. The mortar attack may have just been another mundane massacre were the film crews from CNN, among others, not out in the city that Saturday morning. (How many massacres have we missed in other parts of Bosnia and Croatia?) Instead, the mortar attack has been transformed into a moment of history much more powerful than the explosion itself.
The responses of the Russians, Americans, and Europeans to the mortar attack were influenced by considerations that went well beyond the Bosnian conflict. Once both the United States and Russia decided to become much more actively involved, the still unanswered question, “Who fired the mortar?” remains of strong interest to historians and journalists but of less interest to policy-makers. Even if we were to learn tomorrow that it was the Muslims who fired on their own people in order to encourage air strikes, this information would not make NATO rescind its ultimatum to Bosnian Serbs to withdraw from around Sarajevo; nor would the Russians move their troops from the Serb-occupied section of the city where they installed themselves after the mortar attack, establishing for the time being what amounts to a Green Line in the Bosnian capital.
The mortar attack propelled the international “community,” as we have come to call the nebulous blob that has failed to contain the Balkan war, into a new and unknown phase of diplomacy. The Europeans—exhausted, divided, and largely ineffective—are handing over the central mediating role in the Balkans to the Americans and the Russians, a development with large implications. On February 28, the slight toughening of the American position prompted NATO to enter into combat for the first time since it was founded in 1949, when two American jets shot down four Bosnian Serb fighter bombers. Similarly, the Russian deployment of troops around Sarajevo boosted the confidence of the Bosnian Serbs at the moment when they faced a clear ultimatum to stop shelling the city.
In fact, the decision of the Bosnian Serbs to comply with the NATO ultimatum speeded up both American and Russian involvement. This has brought the possibility of a peaceful solution to the conflict closer, but it has also raised the stakes—if the Americans and Russians fail to steer Bosnia toward peace, then the consequences both for greater violence in the Balkans and impaired relations between Moscow and Washington could be severe.
The mortar attack on the market-place produced two responses, one put forward by the United Nations and favored by Britain and Russia, and one conceived by NATO in collaboration with Washington. Although the stated aim of these two policies was identical, they employed very different methods to achieve it. The UN, the UK, and the Russians concentrated on the power of negotiation, NATO and the Americans on the power of air strikes. The withdrawal of the artillery and the Sarajevo cease-fire was a curious hybrid born of these two policies.
The day before NATO issued its ultimatum, the UN’s new head of mission in the former Yugoslavia, Yasushi Akashi, and the new commander of UNPROFOR in Sarajevo, Lieutenant-General Sir Michael Rose, traveled to Belgrade. Politely but firmly, they told Slobodan Milosevic that unless he persuaded the Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, to pull back the Serb guns from around the Bosnian capital, then NATO would almost certainly unleash air strikes against those positions. Milosevic replied that he would recommend the policy of withdrawal to Karadzic, whose military commanders duly accepted it.
The arrival of General Rose in Sarajevo has made a marked difference to UNPROFOR operations in Bosnia. Inside the United Nations, it is no secret that the organization’s operations were turning into a farce. Theovald Stoltenberg, the co-chairman of the Geneva Conference in charge of UNPROFOR, could not tolerate General Jean Cot, the rather peppery French military commander in Zagreb, and Cot, in turn, developed a loathing, which was reciprocated, for the UN head of Civilian Affairs, Cedric Thornberry.
General François Briquemont, commander in Sarajevo, sank into a deep depression and failed to achieve anything. This was partly because he had virtually no experience of combat and partly because he was duped by the three warring factions into the nightmare of “linkage.” A UN official in Sarajevo explained to me what this meant:
The Bosnians would only agree to a cease-fire in Sarajevo if the Croats would allow convoys through to Mostar. The Croats would link the convoys to the evacuation of wounded from Nova Bila hospital and the Muslims would only agree to that if the Serbs allowed Tuzla airport to be opened. The Serbs would say yes but only if they were given more aid at the expense of the Muslims. It was a circus and of course nothing ever happened—it was a recipe for operational gridlock.
General Rose, a former commander of the tough British special unit SAS, broke the gridlock. After he had threatened Milosevic in Belgrade, he returned to Sarajevo where he visited the Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic and members of the Bosnian Army leadership. He adopted the same forceful tone as he had used with President Milosevic. He quickly secured the agreement of both sides to attend a meeting the following day at which a plan for the withdrawal of the heavy artillery of both sides from in and around the Bosnian capital would be concluded.
That evening NATO issued its ultimatum. This was a substantial political victory for the Muslims—if NATO planes were to attack the heavy artillery positions around Sarajevo, then the Serbs would be at war with NATO. No longer, the Muslims argued, would they be put at disadvantage by their lack of fire power. There was only one problem—the Muslims had already told General Rose that they would sign the deal which guaranteed the withdrawal of Serb forces without air strikes (although unknown to the Muslims, Rose had already warned Milosevic about the threat of NATO intervention).
The following day at noon, the Bosnian Serb leadership and General Rose turned up at the airport, but the Muslims were nowhere to be seen. As far as they were concerned, the ultimatum had rendered the Rose plan redundant, but they had not reckoned with the general himself. After waiting a short while, General Rose drove to the Bosnian presidency in downtown Sarajevo where he was received by the deputy commander of the Bosnian Army, Jovan Divjak, and President Izetbegovic. It is not known what arguments the commander used to force the Bosnians to go to the airport but these must have been fairly persuasive since within minutes the Bosnian delegation had changed its mind and decided to accept the Rose plan after all. According to one eyewitness, Commander Divjak was “white and shaking like a leaf” after the encounter with Rose.
Having threatened both the Muslims and Serbs, General Rose then announced that under the terms of the NATO ultimatum, he was the only authority at liberty to order the use of air strikes. An American observer I talked to in Sarajevo was skeptical about this claim: “I hardly think,” he said, “the White House or the Pentagon is likely to give that much power to a former head of the SAS who has that glazed look in his eye which comes when you have spent too much of your time crashing through bedroom windows and then icing everything in sight.”
Thus when the countdown to the end of the ultimatum started, the tension between the NATO strategy and the UN strategy became evident. NATO was gearing up for air strikes, helped along by some steely rhetoric from Washington. General Rose, on the other hand, said he was confident that the two sides would fulfill their commitment and that air strikes would be unnecessary. The Bosnian Serbs started pulling out some weapons, handed some over to UN control, and allowed UN military observers to guard the rest. As we now know, they also hid some. (So much for the UN’s and NATO’s ability to detect these weapons.) They also dawdled: if they had continued to comply at that slow rate, they would have faced a NATO attack.
NATO’s decision to issue the ultimatum was of great moment. Unlike most other international organizations, NATO had yet to burn its fingers in Yugoslavia. Once the ultimatum was issued, NATO had to display an iron resolve if either side (the Serbs in particular) flouted the demands stipulated in the ultimatum. NATO was preparing to break with the habit of a lifetime and move “out of area.” President Clinton is alleged to have warned the British prime minister, John Major, that failure to carry out the threat would probably lead to the collapse of NATO.
The NATO threat set off the alarms in the Kremlin. President Yeltsin argued forcefully that NATO had no right to prepare unilateral military action against the Bosnian Serbs without first securing the approval of the UN Security Council. Washington retorted that existing Security Council resolutions relating to the establishment of “safe zones” in Sarajevo and five other Bosnian towns gave sufficient authority for the strikes. Russia and NATO were on a collision course, with both sides having maneuvered themselves into a corner. NATO was certainly in no position to back down, while President Yeltsin (under increasing pressure from the nationalists and the military) evidently believed that he could not accommodate the Americans on this issue. A real danger arose that the Bosnian conflict might develop into a proxy dispute between Russia and the US.