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The US and the Yugoslav Catastrophe

Origins of a Catastrophe: Yugoslavia and its Destroyers—America’s Last Ambassador Tells What Happened and Why

by Warren Zimmermann
Times Books, 269 pp., $25.00

Srebrenica: Record of a War Crime

by Jan Willem Honeg, by Norbert Both
Penguin, 204 pp., $11.95 (paper)

Endgame: The Betrayal and Fall of Srebrenica, Europe’s Worst Massacre Since World War II

by David Rohde
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 440 pp., $24.00

The Reluctant Superpower: United States Policy in Bosnia, 1991-1995

by Wayne Bert
St. Martin’s, 296 pp., $35.00

Triumph of the Lack of Will: International Diplomacy and the Yugoslav War

by James Gow
Columbia University Press, 343 pp., $29.50

The Serbs: History, Myth, and the Destruction of Yugoslavia

by Tim Judah
Yale University Press, 350 pp., $30.00

Balkan Tragedy: Chaos and Dissolution After the Cold War

by Susan L. Woodward
Brookings, 536 pp., $19.95 (paper)

1.

Scarcely two years ago, during the sweltering days of July 1995, any citizen of our civilized land could have pressed a button on a remote control and idly gazed, for an instant or an hour, into the jaws of a contemporary Hell. Taking shape upon the little screen, in that concurrent universe dubbed “real time,” was a motley, seemingly endless caravan, bus after battered bus rolling to a stop and disgorging scores of exhausted, disheveled people. Stumbling down the stairs, bumping one against the other, the tens of thousands of Muslim refugees bent under the weight of bursting suitcases and battered trunks and unruly cloth bundles that now held their sole belongings. In their eyes one could make out fear and a dulled shock, an inability to comprehend how they, who hours before had slept in houses and driven cars and worked in fields, had so abruptly been recast as homeless beggars.

In the former Yugoslavia, where in four years of war millions had been “ethnically cleansed,” such eyes had long since grown familiar. And yet something set apart this particular sea of the uprooted: every last one was a woman or child. The men of Srebrenica had somehow disappeared.

Videotaped images, though, persist: on the footage shot the day before, the men can be seen among the roiling mob, together with their women and children, pushing up against the fence of the United Nations compound, pleading for protection from the conquering Serbs. Though two years before, foreign leaders had guaranteed Srebrenica’s safety by christening it a “safe area,” the Serbs had needed but a few days to seize the town, and now the heavily armed Serbian warriors shouldered contemptuously aside the disarmed Dutch “blue helmets” and strode among their Muslim captives, menacing them with unblinking stares.

The night before, as the exhausted people tried to rest, the Serbs, drunk with triumph, walked among them. They pulled men away from their sobbing wives for “interrogation” and moments later gunshots told the women they would not see their husbands again. As they grew drunker, the Serbs dragged away for their pleasure young girls and boys, ten, eleven, twelve years old. Finally they no longer bothered to carry off their victims but simply fell upon them and did as they pleased amid hundreds of terrified people packed together in an abandoned factory: “Two took her legs and raised them up in the air, while the third began raping her. Four of them were taking turns on her. People were silent, no one moved. She was screaming and yelling and begging them to stop. They put a rag into her mouth and then we just heard silent sobs….”1

By dawn the people of Srebrenica had become hysterical with fear, and the UN compound and its environs had become a vast chaotic refugee camp of the terrified, with tens of thousands of desperate people moving about in waves of screaming and pleading and shouting.

Suddenly quiet began spreading out from the edge of the crowd, and heads turned to see a stout bull-necked general march forward, trailed by an entourage of officers and television cameras. Elated by his victory, General Ratko Mladic puffed out his barrel chest. “Please be patient,” he shouted. “Those who want to leave can leave. There is no need to be frightened. You’ll be taken to a safe place.” As his men passed out chocolates to the children, Mladic bent to pat the head of a frightened young boy—a telegenic image that was to circle the globe.

When the buses began to pull up, a “blue helmet” stepped forward and told Mladic timidly that he must speak to the Dutch commander before any refugees could be taken. The general smiled patronizingly. “I am in charge here,” he said. “I’ll decide what happens.”

To the crowd, and the world, Mladic proclaimed, “No one will be harmed. You have nothing to fear. You will all be evacuated.” Yet when hundreds, thousands of families began to rush toward the buses, stumbling under the weight of their baggage, Mladic bellowed, “All men should go back! Only women can go to the buses.”

Video images of tearful parting now, as the Serbs, weapons raised, stepped forward to pull fathers and sons and brothers from the desperate clutches of their women. “Follow the line!” the soldiers shouted.2 And finally, casting pleading looks back over their shoulders, the women and children began to board.3

One by one the buses set out on their nightmare voyages, passing through darkened villages where Serb civilians shouted angry threats and attacked with a clatter of stones. In one town, “three soldiers came onto the bus and told us to give them the youngest child …so they could slit its throat.”4 Usually, though, the soldiers were content to rob and to rape, dragging out women of their choice, who wept and pleaded and did not return.

As the darkness faded the women saw ghostly corpses taking shape by the roadside, and they forced themselves to stare at the bloody remains to see if their husbands or sons were among them. Near dawn they begin to pass crowds of Muslim prisoners. “I saw about 2,000 of our men…. They had their hands tied above their heads…. The [Serbs] were standing around them with their guns at the ready.”5

A couple of thousand of these men the Serbs pack aboard trucks and unload at a school, where they are forced into a sweltering gymnasium that is so inhumanly crowded many have no choice but to sit for hours in one another’s laps. Others the Serbs dump out on an athletic field and push to their knees, prodding them with their rifles throughout the day as the men kneel frozen beneath the blazing sun. Still others they hold imprisoned in buses and trucks, ordering them to sit for hour upon hour with their bodies bent fully forward and their heads held between their knees.

In each place General Mladic appears, urging the men to “be patient,” for “a prisoner exchange” is being worked out. And at last the Serbs announce that the negotiations have been completed and the Muslims will be driven to freedom.

Yet the men of Srebrenica are blindfolded before they are packed aboard the trucks, which rumble only a short distance before they come to a stop and the men are ordered to jump out:

I saw grass underneath the blindfold. [My cousin] Haris took my hand. He said, “They’re going to execute us.” …I heard gunfire…. Haris was hit and fell towards me, and I fell with him. I heard moaning from people who were just about to die, and suddenly Haris’s body went limp.

I heard the [Serbs] talking. They sounded young…. Someone was ordering them to finish us off…. [T]he next…prisoners… were executed about twenty meters away…. I heard all the bullets whizzing by and thought I would be hit…. I also heard a bulldozer working in the background and became horrified. My worst nightmare was that I would be buried alive.

I kept hearing people gasping, asking for water so they wouldn’t die thirsty…. I lay on the ground with no shirt on all day; it was extremely hot, and ants were eating me alive…. Soon many of my body parts fell asleep…. [I blacked out and when] I woke up, [it] was night and I saw light beams from a bulldozer’s headlights. I still heard the same noises…—trucks driving up, people getting out, and gunshots. I also remember distinctly an older voice calling, “Don’t kill us, we didn’t do anything to you,” followed by gunfire. Later, I heard…someone saying, “No more left; it’s late…. Leave some guards here and we’ll take the bodies away tomorrow.” … [N]o one wanted to stay…. They said, “They’re all dead anyway,” and then left.

…When I finally decided to get up, I couldn’t; my whole body was numb.

When at last he managed to get to his feet and pull off his blindfold he found himself gazing at a moonlit “sea of corpses.” Though the meadow was broader and longer than a football field, the thousands of cadavers so thoroughly obscured every bit of ground that when he tried to flee “without stepping on the dead…[it] was impossible, so I tried at least not to step on the chests and torsos, but [only] onto arms and hands.”6

Though neither the murderers nor their victims knew it, their images would twice more be committed to film.7 As the men of Srebrenica stood before their executioners, a United States satellite high above had snapped a photograph, and in coming days, when an American pilot flew his spy plane over the same site, he would take another—of freshly covered plots of earth.8

2.

Back in Washington, the President was behind the White House, practicing his putting. As Bill Clinton crouched over his private putting green, Sandy Berger, his deputy adviser for national security affairs, and Nancy Soderberg, number three on the National Security Council (NSC) staff, approached hesitantly. They had news from Srebrenica, Berger announced, and with that he began to tell the President tales of terror and murder. He did not get far. As Bob Woodward tells it:

This can’t continue,” Clinton said, blowing up into one of his celebrated rages. “We have to seize control of this.” Where were the new ideas?

Berger reminded him that [adviser for national security affairs Anthony] Lake was trying to develop an Endgame strategy.

I’m getting creamed!” Clinton said, unleashing his frustration, spewing forth profanity. He was putting, and he did not look up at Berger or Soderberg as he stroked the balls one after the other to the hole. They kicked the balls back to him to putt again. Soderberg felt almost as if she had fallen into Clinton’s mind, and they were witnessing the interior monologue of his anxiety. He was in an impossible position, he said. He needed to do something.9

What is striking here is not Clinton’s “forty-five-minute diatribe”—no follower of his career is unfamiliar with these—but that shortly after this particular eruption his administration did indeed begin to “do something.” If one had to identify a point where the half-hearted diplomatic initiatives and hollow threats and straddling of options finally coalesced into a purposeful American policy toward Bosnia, it would be here, after the fall of Srebrenica and the bloodbath that followed.

Scarcely three weeks later, on August 4, the Croats, having received a discreet “green light” from the Americans, launched a lightning attack on the Krajina, the Serb-inhabited region of Croatia that had been conquered by Serbia early in the war. The Croatian military, which had been rearmed with the help of Iran and other Middle Eastern states and had been trained by retired high-ranking American officers, reconquered the entire region, and expelled the Serbs, many of whose families had lived there for centuries, in barely four days. The Croats—and the Bosnian Muslims as well, who, thanks to the efforts of American diplomats were now fighting with the Croats in a loose coalition—swiftly began to retake territory from the Serbs. The tide of war had begun to turn.

  1. 1

    See Snjezana Vukic, “Refugees Tell of Women Singled Out for Rape,” The Independent (London), July 18, 1995.

  2. 2

    The Mladic quotations are drawn from Rohde, Endgame, except for the second to last, for which see Fawn Vrazo, “Loved ones’ final good-byes endure in the minds of families,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, April 15, 1996, and the last, for which see Laura Silber and Allan Little, Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation (Penguin, 1997), p. 349. The quotation from the Serb soldiers is drawn from the videotape quoted in Srebrenica: Record of a War Crime, p. 39.

  3. 3

    According to some reports, the Dutch peacekeepers videotaped many of these scenes, and perhaps much graver ones later on as well (see note 6, below), but General Hans Couzy, the commander of the Royal Netherlands Army, ordered the tape destroyed—presumably because it identified Dutch troops. See John Sweeny, “UN Cover-Up of Srebrenica Massacre,” The Observer (London), August 10, 1995, quoted in Bosnia-Hercegovina: The Fall of Srebrenica and the Failure of UN Peacekeeping (Human Rights Watch/Helsinki), October 1995, pp. 22-23.

  4. 4

    See The Fall of Srebrenica and the Failure of UN Peacekeeping, p. 23.

  5. 5

    See The Fall of Srebrenica and the Failure of UN Peacekeeping, p. 24.

  6. 6

    The Fall of Srebrenica, pp. 42-43. Though the Human Rights Watch report identifies this survivor only as “N.P.,” a number of newspaper accounts, as well as David Rohde’s Endgame, make it clear that his name is Mevludin Oric.

  7. 7

    And also on the Dutch videotape which, according to John Sweeny’s London Observer account (note 3, above), showed Serbs herding Muslim prisoners onto a field and making ready their weapons before the tape went abruptly blank.

  8. 8

    See Michael Dobbs and R. Jeffrey Smith, “New Proof Offered of Serb Atrocities,” The Washington Post, October 29, 1995.

  9. 9

    Bob Woodward, The Choice: How Clinton Won (Simon and Schuster, 1996), p. 260.

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