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Clinton, the UN, and the Bosnian Disaster

What Sudetic calls the cycle of “blood and vengeance”—kad tad, goes the saying, “sooner or later”—was well advanced after this great killing. Muslim and Serb knew they could expect no mercy from the other. In seizing control of Srebrenica, Naser Oric and his ragtag Muslim fighters achieved a great triumph. From the hills above, however, and from every side Serb guns stared down. Before long Srebrenica’s triumphant people began to starve.


Throughout the late spring and summer Naser Oric and his commanders methodically built up their forces, launching raids to seize weapons and ammunition, which enabled them to recruit and train more soldiers and carry out more ambitious attacks. Indeed, as Jan Willem Honig and Norbert Both point out in their Srebrenica: Record of a War Crime, this was “just about the only case in Bosnia where the much-vaunted Yugoslav territorial defence system was successfully applied by the Bosnians”; Oric’s forces put into effect Tito’s plan to resist invasion, relying not only on classic techniques of guerrilla warfare (lightning-fast small group attacks, sabotage, assassination) but also on the belief that all men, uniformed or not, are real or potential fighters.

During the summer and fall Oric’s men attacked and ambushed without warning, taking, as Sudetic says, “only a handful of prisoners and rarely [making] any distinction between combatants and civilians.” By fall, they had killed several hundred Serb soldiers and civilians and had vastly increased the size of the Srebrenica pocket. Oric’s forces had now swelled with bitter refugees from Bratunac and other towns, and all knew well that, if defeated, the best they could expect was a quick death. And the Muslim commander, as Sudetic writes, had discovered his greatest weapon:

Oric could now count on a force that struck the fear of God into the Serb peasants…: a horde of Muslim refugees, men and women, young and old, who were driven by hunger…and, in many cases, a thirst for revenge. Thousands strong, these people would lurk behind the first wave of attacking soldiers and run amok when the defenses around Serb villages collapsed. Some…used pistols to do the killing; others used knives, bats and hatchets. But most…had nothing but their bare hands and the empty rucksacks and suitcases they strapped onto their backs. They came to be known as torbari, the bag people. And they were beyond Oric’s control.

The climactic battle in Oric’s campaign came on January 7, 1993, Orthodox Christmas, when Oric’s fighters swept down on the Serb town of Kravica. Serb women had worked for days preparing suckling pigs, fresh bread, pickled tomatoes and peppers—an intoxicating feast to the starving torbari of Srebrenica. And Oric had also been working for days, preparing the attack:

After dark on Christmas Eve, some three thousand Muslim troops assembled on the slushy hilltops around Kravica. Behind them lurked a host of torbari who lit campfires to warm themselves. At dawn they started clattering pots and pans. “Allahu ekber! God is great!” the men shouted. The women shrieked. Shooting began. The Serb men in Kravica scrambled into their trenches….

The Serbs were vastly outnumbered; the Muslims, many in white uniforms that blended with the snow, seemed to come from every direction. By mid-afternoon, thirty Serbs had died and the front line had collapsed. Serbs ran into the town center, screaming for everyone to flee.

In his account of a battle three months before in the village of Podravanja, Sudetic tells of a similar torbari assault:

The Serb fighters left behind men and women who had been wounded and killed….Then the torbari rushed in. Muslim men shot the wounded. They fired their guns into the bodies of the Serb dead, plunged knives into their stomachs and chests. They smashed their heads with axes and clubs, and they burned the bodies inside buildings. Oric’s men grabbed half a dozen prisoners; one, a fighter from Serbia who had relatives in Podravanja, was beaten to death, and the others emerged bruised and battered when they were exchanged a month later.

In Kravica that Christmas Day in January the starving torbari found a paradise to plunder:

The first of the torbari to arrive in Kravica found entire Christmas dinners that had been waiting to be eaten by Serb men who had gone off to fight that morning thinking they would be back by noon. Three Muslim soldiers barged into one home and stood there as if paralyzed at the sight of the pastries and the jelly, the bottles of brandy and the roast pork on the stove. They laughed and shouted and plunged into a cake. The ashes of burning houses…fell like snow on the hillside. The pigs ran wild. Sheep were butchered and roasted on the spit or herded back to Srebrenica with the cows and oxen. The dead lay unburied, and within days the pigs, dogs and wild animals had begun to tear away at the bodies.

That day, though he didn’t know it, Naser Oric had reached the summit of his power. He had broadened the area of Muslim control to three hundred and fifty square miles around Srebrenica. Within the town, he had declared martial law and stood as all-powerful commander. (Another Muslim militia leader who tried to supplant him was arrested and murdered.)

A week after his Christmas victory at Kravica, Oric and his fighters attacked Skelani and tried to seize and destroy its steel-girdered bridge over the Drina. One of his men machine-gunned women and children as they fled in panic toward the Serbian side.

Throughout Serbia, people were outraged by the Muslim leader’s brazen attack. Immediately General Ratko Mladic sent his tanks and artillery over the bridge and drove Oric’s men back. They would retreat for ten days. Before they were able to stop and hold their ground, they were within ten miles of Srebrenica. And Mladic’s real offensive had yet to begin.


In the White House, President Clinton followed General Mladic’s grim and steady progress in his morning briefings, watching as the Serb tanks and artillery pushed the lightly armed Muslims closer and closer to Srebrenica, seizing village after village until the Serbs stood on the outskirts of the city, and began to rain down shells. Mladic’s technique, as David Rieff describes it in Slaughterhouse, “combined the standard Yugoslav National Army (and Warsaw Pact) military doctrine—which can be summarized as never sending a man where a bullet can go first—with the Bosnian Serb predilection for targeting hospitals, water treatment plants, and refugee centers in order to produce the maximum amount of terror in the population.”

To produce such terror was not difficult; without shelter or defense, the refugees who had fled the surrounding towns and now slept in Srebrenica’s streets were easy targets. During one horrible hour late in the siege, Serb shells killed sixty-four people and wounded more than a hundred. Many were children, as Louis Gentile, the UN official, cabled his head office:

Fourteen dead bodies were found in the school yard. Body parts and human flesh clung to the schoolyard fence. The ground was literally soaked with blood. One child, about six years of age, had been decapitated. I saw two ox-carts covered with bodies…. I will never be able to convey the horror.25

Only weeks before the Serb offensive began, Bill Clinton had declared in his inaugural address that he would use military force if “the will and conscience of the international community is defied.” That defiance now confronted him daily, particularly after Tony Birtley, a reporter working for ABC News, slipped into Srebrenica aboard a Bosnian helicopter with a small video camera. Birtley’s smuggled reports, as Warren P. Strobel says in Late-Breaking Foreign Policy, showed the world “the medieval conditions in the city itself—people dressed in rags and living in the streets, children drinking sewer water.”26

Srebrenica brought Clinton face to face with the contradiction between his idealistic rhetoric supporting the Bosnians and his pragmatic reluctance to commit his new administration to a complicated war. The horrible images of suffering, together with his own rhetoric, pushed him to take action. Finally, the Bosnians forced his hand: on February 12, officials in Sarajevo announced they would refuse any further shipments of aid to Sarajevo while aid to Srebrenica was cut off by the Serbs. The intent of this seemingly perverse decision was to force the Western nations, and particularly the as yet untried Clinton—on whom the Bosnians had placed much hope for intervention—finally to take strong action against the Serbs.

In fact, the Bosnians’ announcement represented only their latest attempt to make use of the only lever they had that might force the West to act. In delivering food to Bosnia, starting in June 1992, the Western countries intended to reduce the political pressures to do something to stop the slaughter—which meant, in effect, intervening militarily against the Serbs. The Bosnians now hoped to turn that strategy on its head. By showing the world that the food was not getting through, and that the result was “ethnic cleansing by starvation,” they sought to force the Western nations to take stronger action, and preferably to use military force. In Srebrenica: Record of a War Crime, Jan Willem Honig and Norbert Both quote an unnamed United Nations official explaining to David Owen (for whom Both worked as a research assistant) how the Sarajevo government attempted to make use of Srebrenica and the other enclaves “as pressure points on the international community for firmer action.”

The longer that aid convoys were unable to reach them, the greater the pressure on the [UN] mandate. When convoys did succeed, calls for firmer action were unwarranted.

When aid convoys were blocked, however, the Western powers were placed in the position of watching as Bosnians starved. The United Nations official went further, according to Honig and Both, arguing that the Bosnians actually timed their military offensives to coincide with successful aid deliveries. For example, he says, in November 1992,

Two weeks after the first successful delivery, Muslims launched an offensive toward Bratunac. Thus the integrity of [the UN] was undermined, further convoys were impossible, and the pressure for firmer action [by the US and other nations] resumed.

In other words, the Sarajevo leaders sought to give the impression that UN aid helped their commanders carry out attacks. When Muslim military offensives followed closely after food shipments, this not only cast doubt on the UN’s cherished “impartiality,” weakening the organization’s legitimacy as the principal Western instrument to deal with the Bosnian war. It also led Serbs to block future shipments, thereby causing more starvation and misery and once again increasing the pressure on the West to intervene.

Oric’s campaigns had clear military objectives, of course, as Honig and Both are careful to point out. After the first months of the war, when their main goal had been to build up their forces by capturing weapons and to sack villagers’ crops, Oric and his officers fought for two strategic objectives. First, they sought to conquer and cleanse territory that would join together the isolated eastern enclaves—especially Zepa and Cerska—and form one larger, more powerful Muslim stronghold; this Oric’s men achieved, battling through to Zepa in September 1992 and reaching Cerska after the Christmas victory at Kravica on January 7, 1993. They would hold this vast tract of territory for barely a month, however, before Mladic’s armored forces sent Oric’s infantry reeling back.

  1. 25

    Quoted in Laura Silber and Allan Little, Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation (Penguin, 1997), pp. 269-270.

  2. 26

    Birtley, as Strobel describes, soon ran out of food and his batteries ran low, and then, as he watched with UN peacekeepers at an observation post, he was struck with shrapnel from a Serb mortar. His leg was shattered in four places, and an emergency operation just managed to save it (a colleague filmed the operation with Birtley’s camera). Birtley was finally smuggled out of Srebrenica on a UN helicopter.

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