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America and the Bosnia Genocide

In this thinking, such genocide has already begun—in Croatia, in Kosovo, in Bosnia itself: anywhere Serbs live but lack political dominance. As many writers, including Michael Sells and, especially, Tim Judah, point out, such ideas of vulnerability and betrayal can be traced far back in Serbia’s past, and President Slobodan Milosevic, with his control of state radio and television, exploited them brilliantly, building popular hatred by instilling in Serbs a visceral fear and paranoia.

Administering a beating is a deeply personal affirmation of power: with your own hands you seize your enemy—supposedly a mortally threatening enemy, now rendered passive and powerless—and slowly, methodically reduce him from human to nonhuman. Each night at Omarska and other camps guards called prisoners out by name and enacted this atrocity. Some of their enemies they beat to death, dumping their corpses on the tarmac for the forklift driver to find the next morning. Others they beat until the victim still barely clung to life; if he did not die, the guards would wait a week or so and beat him again.

For the Serbs it was a repeated exercise in triumph, in satisfying and vanquishing an accumulated paranoia. As Hukanovic makes clear in his account of the first time his name was called out, this torture is exceedingly, undeniably intimate—not simply because force is administered by hand but also because it comes very often from someone you know:

In front of me,” the [bearded, red-faced] guard ordered, pointing to the White House…. He ranted and raved, cursing and occasionally pounding Djemo on the back with his truncheon….

…The next second, something heavy was let loose from above, from the sky, and knocked Djemo over the head. He fell.

…Half conscious, sensing that he had to fight to survive, he wiped the blood from his eyes and forehead and raised his head. He saw four creatures, completely drunk, like a pack of starving wolves, with clubs in their hands and unadorned hatred in their eyes. Among them was the frenzied leader, Zoran Zigic, the infamous Ziga…. He was said to have killed over two hundred people, including many children, in the “cleansing” operations around Prijedor…. Scrawny and long-legged, with a big black scar on his face, Ziga seemed like an ancient devil come to visit a time as cruel as his own….

Now then, let me show you how Ziga does it,” he said, ordering Djemo to kneel down in the corner by the radiator, “on all fours, just like a dog.” The maniac grinned. Djemo knelt down and leaned forward on his hands, feeling humiliated and as helpless as a newborn….

Ziga began hitting Hukanovic on his back and head with a club that had a metal ball on the end. Hukanovic curled up trying to protect his head. Zigic kept hitting him, steadily, methodically, cursing all the while.

The drops of blood on the tiles under Djemo’s head [became] denser and denser until they formed a thick, dark red puddle. Ziga kept at it; he stopped only every now and then…to fan himself, waving his shirt tail in front of his contorted face.

At some point a man in fatigues appeared…. It was Saponja, a member of the famous Bosna-montaza soccer club from Prijedor; Djemo had once known him quite well…. “Well, well, my old pal Djemo. While I was fighting…, you were pouring down the cold ones in Prijedor.” He kicked Djemo right in the face with his combat boot. Then he kicked him again in the chest, so badly that Djemo felt like his ribs had been shattered…Ziga laughed like a maniac…and started hitting Djemo again with his weird club….

Djemo received another, even stronger kick to the face. He clutched himself in pain, bent a little to one side, and collapsed, his head sinking into the now-sizable pool of blood beneath him. Ziga grabbed him by the hair…and looked into Djemo’s completely disfigured face: “Get up, you scum….”

Then Ziga and the other guards forced Djemo to smear his bloody face in a filthy puddle of water.

…”The boys have been eating strawberries and got themselves a little red,” said Ziga, laughing like a madman…. Another prisoner, Slavko Ecimovic,…was kneeling, all curled up, by the radiator. When he lifted his head, where his face should have been was nothing but the bloody, spongy tissue under the skin that had just been ripped off.

Instead of eyes, two hollow sockets were filled with black, coagulated blood. “You’ll all end up like this, you and your families,” Ziga said. “We killed his father and mother. And his wife. We’ll get his kids. And yours, we’ll kill you all.” And with a wide swing of his leg, he kicked Djemo right in the face….


Confronted by the televised faces behind barbed wire, Bush administration officials reacted instinctively: they denied knowing anything about the camps. Or rather, they first said they knew and then, next day, said they didn’t.

On August 3, 1992, the day after Roy Gutman’s first, highly graphic story on Omarska appeared in Newsday, the State Department deputy spokesman, Richard Boucher, faced reporters and announced that administration officials had not only been aware “that the Serbian forces are maintaining what they call detention centers” but that “abuses and torture and killings [were] taking place.” Angry questions followed: If President Bush had known of these camps, why had he not publicly denounced them? Why had he not insisted the prisoners be released, or that the camps open their doors to the Red Cross? Why, finally, had he not at least revealed that the camps existed?

The next morning Thomas Niles, assistant secretary of state for European affairs, took his seat before the House Foreign Affairs Committee and told congressmen that “we don’t have, thus far, substantiated information that would confirm the existence of these camps.” Less than twenty-four hours before, Bush officials said they had known of the horrors at Omarska; now they were unable to say the camps existed.

Why this high-level Keystone Kops routine, particularly from an administration that prided itself on its cool, professional management of foreign affairs? The answer is not far to seek. The reporters’ discovery of Omarska and the other camps, and the outrage their dispatches and videotape provoked, did not pose, for Bush, a problem of foreign policy at all but rather one of politics. For though Secretary of State James Baker had claimed that the administration did not act forcefully in the Balkans because “the American people would never…support it,” the matter was not so simple: as Baker well knew, polls could fluctuate wildly. At various times during the Bosnia conflict, lurid television pictures provoked “spikes” in the fever chart of popular concern, and, if Americans still wouldn’t support dispatching ground troops, they were not shy about demanding their government do something. The Bush people, having concluded nearly two years before that taking strong action posed unacceptable risks, 10 now feared that popular outrage, momentarily fueled by just this sort of “telegenic” but (in their view) ephemeral atrocity, might drag them toward such involvement—or else, popular sentiment would penalize them politically (with the election barely three months away) for “doing nothing.”

State Department officials, who approved Boucher’s original announcement that the government had known of the camps, had wildly misjudged the response. In declaring that they had known, an unnamed official told Warren P. Strobel, author of Late-Breaking Foreign Policy, the intent had been “to move the ball forward one step, and the [news] reports moved it forward two steps.” Two steps was clearly too much; so Niles was ordered up to Congress to try to move the ball back one, an absurd notion under the circumstances. “We kind of waffled around a little bit,” acknowledged Lawrence Eagleburger, then acting secretary of state, in an interview with Strobel. “All of us were being a little bit careful…because of this issue of whether or not it was going to push us into something that we thought was dangerous.”

The pictures from the camps thus confronted Bush officials with the challenge not of how to deal with the reemergence of concentration camps in Europe but rather how to withstand the political pressures arising from the televised images of them. Concentration camps a half-century after the Nazis would have been bad enough, but pictures of the emaciated, tortured prisoners: this was the sort of thing that stirred the lethargic and fickle American public.

On August 6, the day pictures of the emaciated prisoners taken by ITN British television were broadcast in the US and around the world, President Bush finally called for international observers to be granted access to the camps and, for good measure, he asked that the United Nations authorize that “all necessary means” be used to deliver humanitarian supplies to Bosnia. Even as the President, faced with pictures of men in concentration camps, talked of the UN and food shipments, Governor Clinton, now the Democratic presidential candidate, was demanding that the administration push NATO to send fighter bombers to save Bosnians from “deliberate and systematic extermination based on their ethnic origin.” The next day, facing a barrage of questions at Kennebunkport, Bush proved defiant:

I don’t care what the political pressures are. Before one soldier…is committed to battle, I’m going to know how that person gets out of there. And we are not going to get bogged down into some guerrilla warfare. We lived through that once.

As Eagleburger later put it, “Vietnam never goes away,”11 and obviously this was dramatically the case for George Bush. The President plainly felt that any American involvement in Bosnia, even a limited one to eliminate concentration camps, must inevitably lead to “a quagmire.”

Thus, according to former Ambassador to Yugoslavia Warren Zimmermann, when the possibility of an “air operation” to rescue victims of the camps was raised within the embattled administration that August, and Baker and the adviser for national security affairs, Brent Scowcroft, showed serious interest in it, “there was no sign… that the President ever did, and nothing was done.” Indeed, as Zimmermann tells it, when officials discussed any change in Bush’s passive policy the ghost of Vietnam could be felt hovering in the room:

The “lesson” drawn from Vietnam was that even a minimum injection of American forces could swell inexorably into a major commitment and produce a quagmire. The second objection…was the view that had prevailed during the successful prosecution of the Gulf War: there should be no US military intervention unless the objectives were clear, the means applied to [them] would bring certain victory, there was an “exit strategy” (the earlier the better)…. Pervading all these reasons was an almost obsessive fear of American casualties…. 12

In effect, requiring that the “means applied” always “bring certain victory” would likely preclude even minimal intervention. As Arnold Kanter, a former high Bush administration official, says flatly, Pentagon officers “clearly understand that if intervention options entail very large force requirements, it often has the practical political effect of virtually ruling out military intervention.”

  1. 10

    See James A. Baker III, with Thomas M. DeFrank, The Politics of Diplomacy: Revolution, War and Peace 1989-1992 (Putnam, 1995) pp. 635-636.

  2. 11

    See Mark Danner and David Gelber, writers, Peter Jennings, correspondent, “While America Watched: The Bosnia Tragedy,” Peter Jennings Reporting, ABC News (March 17, 1994) ABC-51, p. 8 and p. 12.

  3. 12

    See Warren Zimmermann, “Yugoslavia: 1989-1996,” in Jeremy R. Azrael and Emil A. Payin, editors, US and Russian Policymaking with Respect to the Use of Force (Rand, 1996), p. 191.

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