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 …