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America and the Bosnia Genocide

In the event, though, and not surprisingly, Bosnia would not be wooed. Although its inexperienced leader, Alija Itzetbegovic, understood the danger of declaring independence—his nascent state, a third of whose people were Serb, might instantly collapse in war—his desperate proposals (offered jointly with the Macedonian president) to make of Yugoslavia a loose confederation were hardly of interest to Serbia, Croatia, or Slovenia. Slovenia, a small, prosperous republic with few Serbs and therefore of no real importance to Milosevic, was determined to secede, and once the Slovenes departed, the Croats were bound to follow (in fact, both republics seceded from Yugoslavia on June 25, 1991).

This left the Bosnians with a stark choice: either passively sink into a reconfigured Yugoslavia dominated by Milosevic and the Serbs, or declare independence and pray that the world would recognize the new country and somehow protect it from the onslaught to come. Itzetbegovic chose the latter, imploring the “international community” to recognize his new country and to send United Nations monitors to patrol its territory and prevent the war he knew would come. After a referendum on independence was duly held in February 1992 (which the Bosnian Serbs boycotted), the “international community” in early April recognized Bosnia as a sovereign state, and gave it a seat at the United Nations. But sending troops to protect the new state, even lightly armed “monitors,” was a different matter. According to John Fox, a regional official on the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff at the time,

The French came to the [Bush] administration at very senior levels…once in the early phase of Belgrade’s attack on Croatia, and at least once well before the military campaign against Bosnia, and they made a proposal to join with the United States, and other willing states, to put preventive peace-keepers on the ground across Bosnia—to support the legitimate elected government of Bosnia, to stabilize and prevent the outbreak of conflict, and to see Bosnia through that transition process to becoming a new independent state. 18

One might consider the proposal to dispatch peacekeeping troops as either a relatively inexpensive way to prevent what seemed an inevitable and possibly horrendous war, or as a risky initiative that would involve Americans in a situation that didn’t have a clear “exit strategy.” In any case, Fox says, “the French never got a very clear answer.” His office, the Policy Planning Staff, had proposed that the Americans join the French; but “that proposal was not accepted.”

Itzetbegovic would be given no “peacekeepers”; but after all he had international recognition. The Serbs were not impressed. “Milosevic couldn’t care less if Bosnia was recognized,” a laughing Dr. Karadzic later told a television interviewer. “He said, ‘Caligula proclaimed his horse a senator but the horse never took his seat. Itzetbegovic may get recognition but he’ll never have a state.”’ Karadzic, the self-proclaimed leader of the Bosnian Serbs, now declared, in a famous speech during the waning days of the integral Bosnian parliament in Sarajevo, “I warn you, you’ll drag Bosnia down to hell. You Muslims aren’t ready for war—you’ll face extinction.”19

He was right. By the time Cyrus Vance, the United Nations negotiator, concluded the ceasefire in Croatia on January 2, 1992, thousands of Serb troops were heading for Bosnia in their tanks and armored personnel carriers. On May 5, all soldiers and officers of the Yugoslav National Army (JNA) who came from Bosnia were taken out of the main force, complete with their equipment, and officially became a “Bosnian Serb Army” of more than eighty thousand fully trained men. Over the objections of the Bosnian government in Sarajevo, the Serb forces took up strategic positions around the country, clearly preparing for war. Jerko Doko, then Bosnia’s minister of defense, explained in testimony at The Hague that

this could be seen by the deployment of units; the control of roads by the JNA; the relocation of artillery on hill tops around all the major cities of Bosnia-Herzegovina; their collaboration with extremist forces of the [Bosnian Serbian Democratic Party], arming them and assisting the arming of them.

But Belgrade retained control. “We promised to pay all their costs,” said Borislav Jovic, then a close aide of Milosevic’s. It was not, he said, as if the Bosnian Serbs had their own state budget to draw on. “They couldn’t even pay their officers.” Doko remembers the National Army commander, General Blagoje Adzic, visiting troops near Banja Luka and Tuzla toward the end of March 1992 in order to check their preparedness for the coming combat operations in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

As for the Bosnians, they were, as Karadzic said, unprepared for war. “Before the fighting,” David Rieff writes in Slaughterhouse, “Alija Itzetbegovic insisted there could be no war because one side—his own—would not fight. To have imagined that carnage could have been averted for this reason was only one of the many culpably naive assumptions the Bosnian presidency made.”

The Serb leaders, on the other hand, could not have been more prepared. During the last few years a group of selected senior officers had secretly developed a military strategy to guide the “Bosnia Serb Army” in its campaign to seize control of most of Bosnia. The objectives were in turn based on ideological claims of Serb vulnerability, Serb suffering, and Serb destiny that virtually every Serb who read a newspaper, listened to the radio, or watched television would by now know by heart.

The center of the ideology remained, as it had for six centuries, the redemption of the defeat at Kosovo. In 1889, on the 500th anniversary of the battle, Serbia’s foreign minister declared that the Serbs had “continued the battle in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when they tried to recover their freedom through countless uprisings.” As Judah notes, Milosevic himself would make use of this occasion a century later to invoke “Lazar’s ghost” to come to the Serbs’ aid.


By this time, Milosevic was making use of an ideological program, drawn up by Serbian intellectuals, that came to be called “the Memorandum,” a kind of quasi-sociological rendition of the Lazar legend. In September 1986, extracts from this document, which was drafted by sixteen eminent economists, scientists, and historians in the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences at the suggestion of the prominent novelist and nationalist Dobrica Cosic, had been leaked to the Belgrade press, and (in Judah’s phrase) shook “the whole of Yugoslavia” with “a political earthquake.”

In the key section entitled “Position of Serbia and the Serbian People,” the writers launch a vigorous, bitter attack on what they call the “Weak Serbia, strong Yugoslavia” policy implicit in the “injustices” of Tito’s 1974 constitution (which in effect “divided Serbia in three,” by making Vojvodina and Kosovo autonomous provinces; though on Serbia’s territory, they both retained a right to vote in national government institutions).

The Serb exodus from the province of Kosovo—which, as Judah shows, has amounted only to a relative decrease of population with respect to the Albanians—the writers repeatedly describe as “the genocide in Kosovo.” The shift in population in Kosovo—which results from “a physical, moral and psychological reign of terror”—together with the economic and legal “hardships” all Serbs suffer daily, “are not only threatening the Serbian people but also the stability of Yugoslavia as a whole.”

In the Federation’s “general process of disintegration,” the academicians wrote, the Serbs “have been hit hardest” and in fact the country’s difficulties are “directed towards the total breaking up of the national unity among the Serbian people.” Observing that 24 percent of all Serbs live outside the Serbian Republic and more than 40 percent outside of so-called “inner Serbia,” the writers declare:

A nation which after a long and bloody struggle regained its own state, which fought for and achieved a civil democracy, and which in the last two wars lost 2.5 million of its members, has lived to see the day when a Party committee of apparatchiks decrees that…it alone is not allowed to have its own state. A worse historical defeat in peacetime cannot be imagined.20

The roots of Milosevic’s, and Karadzic’s, ideological campaigns are all here: the near-hysterical sense of historical grievance and betrayal, the resentment over Serbia’s “inferior political position,” the heightened rhetoric about the “genocide” of the Serbs—a term used to describe the exile of Serbs from their rightful lands but that evokes darker suspicions of the true intentions of Serbia’s betrayers.

To combat these injustices Serbs are obliged to seize their fate in their own hands and achieve the long-awaited resurrection of King Lazar: “the territorial unity of the Serbian people.” They must act not only to ensure their survival but to lay claim at last to an ancient birthright: “the establishment,” the Memorandum says, “of the full national integrity of the Serbian people, regardless of which republic or province it inhabits, is its historic and democratic right.” (Emphasis added)

Dominating the newspapers, television, and radio from the late Eighties onward, Milosevic and the other purveyors of this ideology brilliantly exploited the insecurities and fears of a people caught in a maelstrom of economic decline and political change. In the Serbian press all Muslims became “Islamic fundamentalists,” all Croats “Ustase.” As Norman Cigar writes in a chapter of his Genocide in Bosnia entitled “Paving the Way to Genocide,” well before the actual breakup of Yugoslavia, “influential figures in Serbia had begun to shape a stereotypical image of Muslims as alien, inferior and a threat to all that the Serbs held dear.”

Such propaganda, fed incessantly to a people who in many cases had been prepared for it by their own cherished historical myths, served to transform neighbors into “the other”—outsiders, aliens. And Milosevic did not find it difficult, in the bewildering world of nascent popular politics, to portray a relatively new phenomenon for Yugoslavs—the legitimate political opponent—as a mortal threat. By “isolating the entire Muslim community,” writes Cigar, such propaganda would ensure that “any steps…taken against Muslims in pursuit of Belgrade’s political goals would acquire legitimacy and popular support.”

Such “steps” were even then being prepared. During the late 1980s a small group of officers (among them, then Colonel Ratko Mladic) who called themselves the “military line” had begun meeting secretly with members of Serbia’s secret police.

By 1990, or perhaps a bit earlier—the timing here is a matter of controversy—the officers had drafted what they called the “RAM plan” which set out schemes for the military conquest of “Serb lands” in Croatia and Bosnia. The plan was called RAM, or “FRAME”—it is not known what the individual letters stand for—because it makes clear the boundaries, or frame, within which the new Serbian-dominated lands will be established. As Jerko Doko, the former Bosnian minister of defense, describes it in his Hague testimony:

The substance of the plan was to create a greater Serbia. That RAM was to follow the lines of Virovitica, Karlovac, Karlobag, which we saw confirmed in reality later on with the decision on the withdrawal of the JNA, the Yugoslav People’s Army, from Slovenia and partly from Croatia to those positions.21

  1. 18

    Drawn from an unbroadcast section of an interview with ABC News, “While America Watched: The Bosnia Tragedy,” January 1994.

  2. 19

    See “The Gates of Hell,” Program Four (UK TX version) in The Death of Yugoslavia, Brian Lapping and Associates; Laura Silber, consultant.

  3. 20

    See “The SANU ‘Memorandum,”’ in Boze Covic, editor, Roots of Serbian Aggression: Debates Documents Cartographic Review (Centar Za Strane Jezeke Vodnikova, Zagreb, 1991).

  4. 21

    Testimony of Jerko Doko, The Prosecutor v. Tadic, case IT-94-I-T, June 6, 1996, pp. 1359-1361, in “Testimony Offered to the International Commission for the Former Yugoslavia,” The Hague, June 6, 1996.

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