• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

America and the Bosnia Genocide

On April 30, in a swift, well-executed coup d’état, local Serbs seized control of Prijedor itself. According to the United Nations investigators, the Serbs had been preparing to seize power for at least six months, arming themselves with weapons secretly supplied by the Army and developing their own clandestine “parallel” administrations, including a “shadow” police force with its own secret service.

Non-Serbs now began to lose their jobs. Policemen and public officials were the first to be dismissed, but the purge went on until even many manual workers had been fired. The “shadow” administrations already long prepared by the Serbs simply took over the empty offices.

The new Serb policemen, often accompanied by paramilitaries, began to pay visits throughout Prijedor, pounding on the doors of all non-Serbs who held licenses to own firearms and demanding they turn them in.

…The non-Serbs in reality [had become] outlaws. At times, non-Serbs were instructed to wear white armbands to identify themselves.

Finally, near the end of May, the local press—newspapers, radio, and television—began to broadcast a more hysterical version of Belgrade’s propaganda, claiming that dangerous Muslim extremists were hiding around and within Prijedor, preparing to seize the town and commit genocide against the Serbs.

By now it had become quite clear what this accusation heralded. Those few Muslims and Croats who still had weapons decided to move first. As the UN investigators describe it:

On 30 May 1992, a group of probably less than 150 armed non-Serbs had made their way to the Old Town in Prijedor to regain control of the town…. They were defeated, and the Old Town was razed. In the central parts of Prijedor…, all non-Serbs were forced to leave their houses as Serbian military, paramilitary, police and civilians advanced street by street with tanks and lighter arms. The non-Serbs had been instructed over the radio to hang a white piece of cloth on their home to signal surrender.

According to the UN Report, “Hundreds, possibly thousands were killed…frequently after maltreatment.” Those who survived were divided into two groups: women, children, and the very old were often simply expelled; as for the men, thousands were sent to Keraterm and Omarska, the two nearest concentration camps. Although the fighting on May 30 began a general exodus of non-Serbs—the Muslim population dropped from nearly fifty thousand in 1991 to barely 6,000 in 1993—it very quickly became clear that the Serbs were targeting for actual deportation the elite of the city: political leaders, judges, policemen, academics and intellectuals, officials who had worked in the public administration, important business people, and artists. And, after the burning of the old town, any “other important traces of Muslim and Croatian culture and religion—mosques and Catholic churches included—were destroyed.”

On the morning of May 30, 1992, two heavily armed soldiers came to his door and summoned him and, within hours, Rezak Hukanovic, a forty-three-year-old father of two, broadcaster, journalist, and poet, found himself packed into a bus with scores of other frightened men, bent over, his head between his knees, peering out of the corner of his eye at the tongues of flame rising from the Old City of Prijedor. He was on his way to Omarska.


In Washington, intelligence analysts were watching. “The initial Serb offensive moved an awful lot of people out of where they were living,” said Jon Western, who was then working analyzing Bosnian war crimes at the State Department, “and we knew these people were not simply disappearing. Where were they being taken?”

Officials would soon discover the answer; by late June or early July, little more than a month after Rezak Hukanovic boarded the bus at Prijedor, Western and his colleagues had learned of the camps:

We had information about the concentration camps, we were compiling that information and trying to get a more accurate picture but it was clear we knew…. To the extent that we could pinpoint and say that there was a camp here or here, we did that.28

The information was passed forward to Secretary of State James Baker and to senior officials at the Pentagon and the White House. It met with silence. Western was not surprised; when it came to information about war crimes in Bosnia, he said, the offices of senior officials were “generally a black box. We would send things up and nothing would come back. The only time we would get a response was when the press covered a particular event.”

When the inevitable press disclosures came, in early August, the timing could not have been worse for the Bush administration. Throughout the summer influential voices demanding that something should be done to halt the carnage in Bosnia had been growing louder and President Bush, fighting desperately to win re-election, had been struggling to defend his government’s own passivity.

For their part the Bosnian Serbs, seeing the dramatic increase of pressure on Bush to intervene, were quick to realize their blunder. In permitting Western journalists to see the camps, Karadzic apparently thought they could be duped into believing conditions were not so bad as the growing rumors seemed to suggest: in his Seasons in Hell, Ed Vulliamy tells of later learning from a survivor who had been imprisoned at Omarska during the journalists’ visit that “only the fittest” of prisoners had been displayed. (It is also remotely possible, as Judah suggests, that Karadzic did not allow himself to learn how dreadful conditions in the camps were.)

In any event, the Serbs quickly moved to close the most notorious camps. President Bush’s denunciations and demands that the camps be opened to international inspectors no doubt helped quickly shut the doors of Omarska and some others; had Bush chosen to reveal the camps and spoken out when he and his officials had first learned of them the result would have surely been the same—except a great many prisoners might still be alive.

Closing the camps did not put an end to the controversy over the atrocities in Bosnia. “They kept saying the war would ‘burn itself out,”’ a State Department official told me. “I actually sat in a meeting where people suggested that what would be needed for the war to ‘burn itself out’ would be around 20,000 dead.” On August 18, however, Senate investigators released a detailed report concluding that already in the first four weeks of the war 35,000 people, almost all Muslim victims of ethnic cleansing, had been killed. And, throughout the great breadth of their conquered lands, the Serbs went on applying the proven techniques of ethnic cleansing. They raped, mutilated, and killed thousands and expelled hundreds of thousands from their homes; many of these crimes took place virtually before the eyes of reporters, most of them from the West.

Many press and television commentators, human rights representatives, members of Congress, leaders of Jewish and Muslim advocacy groups, and others now brought pressure to bear on the Bush administration to declare that what was taking place in Bosnia constituted “genocide.” A number of administration officials, particularly lower- and mid-level foreign service officers with responsibility for Bosnia, also began to promote this cause within the State Department, believing, as one of them, Paul Williams, then a lawyer at the Office of European and Canadian Affairs, put it, that “if the United States identifies what is occurring in Bosnia as genocide, then it ups the ante, it creates a moral obligation as well as a legal obligation to take action.”29

Genocide” (a word coined in 1944 by the scholar Raphael Lemkin) was meant to denote not simply murdering an entire people—the object of the law against it was to prevent the crime, not simply to define legally the extent of a massacre—but, wrote Lemkin, “a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destructions of different foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves.” The “actions” Lemkin lists as constituting genocide—“disintegration of the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups, and the destruction of the personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups”30—read like the catalog of ethnic cleansing.

Lemkin’s definition laid the foundation for the United Nations’ Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948), and it was according to the terms of this treaty that a growing number of State Department officials were pressuring their government to define what was happening in Bosnia. The treaty calls on its signers to undertake “to prevent and to punish” crimes of genocide. But the declaration would not necessarily be of “operational importance,” as a colleague told State Department official Richard Johnson, since individual war crimes “are easier to prove than genocide”; nor would it be a help in “ending the killing in Bosnia (through a ‘negotiated settlement’).”

But that was exactly the point: to call ethnic cleansing by its proper name would be a powerful political act. As Johnson points out in his essay “The Pinstripe Approach to Genocide” (included in The Conceit of Innocence), a determination of genocide “would undermine the credibility of Western policies that rely on…peace talks to reach a ‘voluntary settlement’ between ‘warring factions’—who would now be defined as the perpetrators and victims of genocide.” And if the administration had officially identified what was happening as genocide, Paul Williams says, it would have created “a moral imperative. Genocide is a term that is recognized by the American people. It means something, both to the American people and under international law.”

In the wake of the concentration camp controversy, George Bush and his senior officials recognized that a determination of genocide would multiply the pressure to act forcefully in Bosnia—and that was clearly the last thing they wanted. Having denounced the camps, Bush officials promised to submit information on war crimes in Bosnia to the United Nations War Crimes Commission—and assigned one foreign service officer to the task. The secretary of state, meantime, requested a determination from the Office of Legal Advisor of whether or not what was going on in Bosnia constituted genocide, and was told, according to Williams, that “it appeared to be a simple question: if the atrocities which are occurring in Bosnia continue, this amounts to genocide.” It was unclear, however, whether the lawyers had enough evidence to trace responsibility directly to Milosevic.

With Governor Clinton strongly denouncing Bush’s inaction—shortly after the election he would declare, in what must have been an irritating echo of Bush’s warning to Saddam Hussein, that “the legitimacy of ethnic cleansing cannot stand”—General Colin Powell once again went on the offensive. On October 10, three weeks before the election, General Powell published his own essay on The New York Times‘s opinion page, in which, while offering a strong endorsement of his beleaguered Commander-in-Chief, he asserted that “Americans know they are getting a hell of a return on their defense investment.”

The reason for our success is that in every instance we have carefully matched the use of military force to our political objectives. President Bush, more than any other recent President, understands the proper use of military force. In every instance, he has made sure that the objective was clear and that we knew what we were getting into.

Though Powell doesn’t mention Vietnam, it is evident his own demons lurk just beneath the surface:

[Y]ou bet I get nervous when so-called experts suggest that all we need is a little surgical bombing or a limited attack. When the desired result isn’t obtained, a new set of experts then comes forward with talk of a little escalation. History has not been kind to this approach.31

The American officers would use this tactic, subtly managed, of brandishing Vietnam in front of policymakers and then the public, to undermine nearly every proposal for action that the United States might take to influence the evolving conflict in Bosnia.32 “The Pentagon’s tactic,” Warren Zimmermann says, “was never to say no, simply to raise objections which made proposals seem unworkable.” And though it is true the officers “never got very good answers to [their] incessant questioning of what was the precise military objective and what political end would be served by achieving it[,]…it is also true that Bosnia proved the United States incapable of managing a complex war requiring a limited use of force for limited objectives.” Zimmermann, America’s “last ambassador to Yugoslavia,” has now left the State Department; four of the young Foreign Service officers who were fighting for a change in Bosnia policy resigned in protest.

As for the demands that had risen to a crescendo after the emaciated faces from Bosnia appeared on American television screens, demands that the administration do something about this horror, Bush officials devised a novel solution. They would indeed do something, going so far as to send American troops; but their mission would be to tend to a different population of emaciated beings. In deciding to dispatch troops to feed starving Africans, Eagleburger conceded, “We knew the costs weren’t so great and there were some potential benefits.” And as for General Powell, he was said to have predicated his support for Somalia’s Restore Hope on the condition that the United States “would attempt no such mission in Bosnia.”33

This is the second in a series of articles.

  1. 28

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

  2. 29

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

  3. 30

    See Raphael Lemkin, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation, Analysis of Government, Proposals for Redress (Carnegie, 1944), p. 79.

  4. 31

    See Colin L. Powell, “Why Generals Get Nervous,” The New York Times, October 8, 1992, p. A35.

  5. 32

    A bit less subtly, Dr. Karadzic, the wily psychiatrist, was playing the same game, proclaiming that if the West attempted to intervene, “Bosnia will turn into a new Vietnam.” Quoted in Judah, The Serbs, pp. 212-213.

  6. 33

    See “Operation Restore Hope,” US News & World Report, December 14, 1992, pp. 26-30, quoted in Strobel, Late-Breaking Foreign Policy, p. 129. Eagleburger’s statement also comes from Strobel, p. 138.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print