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Bosnia: The Turning Point

My Serb friends, sitting on the carpet beside me and nodding eagerly, were fully convinced, which did not surprise me. They were, however, not alone. The day after the bombing, David Owen, the European Union negotiator, had met with Dr. Karadzic in Zvornik to get him to agree to “a separate political and military peace agreement involving Sarajevo district.” Lord Owen found Dr. Karadzic “very angry” about, among other things, reports that he would be presented with an “ultimatum.”

It was the emotive word used by the Germans before the bombing of Belgrade in 1941. Karadzic was vehement in denying that his forces had fired a mortar bomb into the marketplace and claimed that it had been done by the Muslims.

As for Lord Owen, he was sympathetic:

Having now been exposed for eighteen months to the three parties’ claims and counter-claims I was capable of believing that any of them could have been responsible.11

Though he doesn’t say so in his book, Lord Owen had by this time become much more than “capable” of believing either side might have fired the shell. According to Laura Silber and Allan Little in their authoritative and powerfully written account, Owen, as he drove to meet Karadzic, had heard a radio interview with General Rose in which the UNPROFOR commander gave “the impression that the possibility that the bomb had not been fired by the Serbs had not even crossed his mind.” As he told Silber and Little,

I thought to myself “Blimey, he better be told a few things,” and I made a quick phone call to the Ministry of Defense…. I hope the message got across.

Clearly it did. For while the diplomats were drafting their ultimatum General Rose was working intensely to negotiate a cease-fire. For him NATO bombing would be a disaster. It was General Rose who commanded the “troops on the ground” and, as he saw it, from the moment the first NATO warplane dropped the first bomb, these troops would be transformed in the eyes of the Serbs from peacekeepers to warriors. As he explained it in a later interview,

When you deploy a peacekeeping force, you are excluding the war-fighting option. You’re putting small groups of lightly armed people throughout the entire length and breadth of a land, delivering humanitarian aid, permanently exposed, permanently at risk—and, of course, from that basis, you would not possibly go and fight a war.

And therefore the option is there to go and fight a war, but you don’t do it after you’ve deployed a peacekeeping force. You do it before; or you withdraw that force…. You cannot mix the two functions. The more force you use, the less receptive people are to your presence. Our mission is to sustain the people of this country. If the Bosnian Serbs withdrew their consent to our presence, we would have to leave.12

Even as the Western ministers in Brussels argued over the wording of their ultimatum, General Rose waited at the Sarajevo airport for officers of the Serb and Bosnian military forces. By fashioning a cease-fire agreement, he hoped to head off the ultimatum or at least prevent a NATO attack. But though the Serb officers arrived, the Bosnians did not. The Serbs hoped the agreement Rose offered would allow them to avoid NATO bombing and to do so while saving face; but for that they needed Rose to force the Muslims to make concessions as well. Izetbegovic and his colleagues, on the other hand, thought the marketplace bombing and the world sympathy that followed it would bring them what they had struggled for since the beginning of the war—the active military support of the West. Now that this seemed to be within their grasp, they did not intend to let General Rose deprive them of it.

In a fury, General Rose—a dynamic and celebrated officer who had commanded, among other units, Britain’s elite commando unit, the Strategic Air Services—set out for the President’s offices, where Izetbegovic was being interviewed by CNN. The general stalked in, and threatened, according to General Jovan Divjak, deputy commander of the Bosnian army, who was present, to “inform the international public…that we would be responsible for the continuation of the conflict, and that the Serb side had agreed to negotiate and that we had refused.”13

At this point, according to senior UNPROFOR officers present, the general took out an envelope, showed it to Divjak and Izetbegovic, and said, “I have an allegation here” about the marketplace bombing. Apparently it was the second crater analysis—the one by the French captain, which implicated the Muslims. Aghast, President Izetbegovic apologized to Rose and immediately sent General Divjak and the other members of the delegation to the airport. Very shortly thereafter they agreed on a cease-fire.

As it happened, rumors that the Muslims had carried out the Marketplace Massacre were already widespread. As usual, Dr. Karadzic’s determined hectoring had borne fruit. And it wasn’t only Karadzic. Tanjug, the Yugoslav press agency, published a report datelined February 8 asserting the shell was launched from “1-1.5 km. inside the territory under Muslim control” and attributing the story to “highly reliable and confidential sources within UNPROFOR” headquarters. For General Rose and for other United Nations officers, the interests of the protection force were clearly paramount.


As darkness fell over Sarajevo on February 21, 1994, Serb tanks and cannons and mortars began moving slowly down off the mountainsides. Many of these heavy weapons were on their way to “collection areas” that were to be established in Serb-held territory and “monitored” by French, Russian, and Ukrainian peacekeepers. General Ratko Mladic and Dr. Radovan Karadzic, confronted by the threat of bombing by the warplanes of the West, had backed down. For President Izetbegovic and his Bosnian Muslims it should have been a triumph.

It was not. For ten days the Serbs had stood defiant, ignoring the ultimatum, until British Prime Minister John Major—General Rose’s true boss—had flown to Moscow and sought the intervention of Russian President Boris Yeltsin. With Major at his side, Yeltsin had angrily denounced the West’s attempt to intervene in the Balkans without Russia’s consent—the ultimatum had been a NATO, not a United Nations, initiative, thus avoiding a possible Russian veto. Yeltsin then sent a message to Dr. Karadzic offering to send Russian peacekeepers to protect Serb neighborhoods and to watch over Serb weapons.

As Russians rumbled into Sarajevo aboard their armored personnel carriers, Serbs cheered. Russians, their traditional allies, would defend them from the hordes of Bosnian infantry seeking to break through the lines at Sarajevo. In effect, UN peacekeeping troops themselves would help the Serbs partition Sarajevo, a goal Dr. Karadzic had sought since early in the war (“It can be like Beirut,” he told me), when it had become clear that conquering the city would be impossible. Finally, the prospect of NATO warplanes swooping down to bomb and strafe Serb artillery positions—which a week before had seemed so real—had become more improbable than ever. How could NATO pilots drop their bombs while Russian soldiers patrolled Serb neighborhoods? Even more important, how could they bomb while small groups of lightly armed French and Ukrainian and Russian troops patrolled weapons “collection areas” on Serb territory—in constant risk of being taken hostage by angry Serb soldiers?

Dr. Karadzic, denounced by the world as the killer of the Markela marketplace, had brilliantly played on the divisions of the West—the newly aggressive French and Americans, the ever reluctant British, and the resentful Russians—to turn what could have been a disaster into a triumph. He had emerged from the Marketplace Massacre stronger than before. President Izetbegovic, having seen the Western military support the Muslims had so long sought almost within his grasp, now found himself frustrated and humiliated—and trapped within a Sarajevo that was even less likely now to see those silver planes do anything more than circle overhead.

In the end, the Marketplace Massacre crisis would impose on Sarajevo many of the contradictions that for almost a year had plagued the so-called “safe areas” in eastern Bosnia—and, above all, Srebrenica. In April 1993, when General Mladic and his Bosnian Serb soldiers were on the verge of conquering Srebrenica, Western leaders, fearing a massacre, had created the “safe areas” idea, and had applied it to Srebrenica and five other enclaves (including, eventually, Sarajevo). Though the United Nations Secretary General determined that 37,000 soldiers would be needed to protect these enclaves, few countries proved willing to contribute troops and in the end no more than a few thousand soldiers could be scraped up, a number that could do little to “protect” anyone. As with the monitors outside the weapons dumps in Sarajevo, United Nations troops would now serve mainly as potential hostages. James Gow, in Triumph of the Lack of Will, sets out these contradictions:

Without secure logistics lines and a large UN presence the isolated enclaves in eastern Bosnia would be indefensible. They would therefore be no more than symbolically “safe” at the same time as they were hostages to fortune. This placed the UN on the hook…. First, the Security Council had made a commitment to protecting these areas; secondly, UNPROFOR was unable genuinely to deter attacks purely by a presence in the “safe areas”; thirdly, deterrence relied on the threat of using close air support to defend the troops, or possible air strikes, in response to bombardment of the areas; and fourthly, the threat of using air power was neutralized by the vulnerability of the troops on the ground in those areas…. (Italics added)

By late February 1994, thanks to the marketplace bombing, this “vulnerability” had been made manifest in Sarajevo itself. Scarcely a year and a half would pass, however, before the men of Srebrenica would suffer the ultimate consequences.


Hey, you were at the market in Sarajevo, weren’t you? Do you want to hear a story about that?”

Oh yes,” I said. “I certainly do.” I was drinking with Ed Barnes, a Time foreign correspondent, at a bar in Port-au-Prince, both of us having spent the day watching Haitian policemen club their citizens in front of newly arrived American soldiers. Bosnia was half a year behind me; but I had been unable to stop myself from thinking about the marketplace and had compulsively followed the continuing propaganda war.

There was, for example, the Turkish-American doctor who claimed that 80 percent of the wounds in the emergency room were from the waist down, and that there was hardly any trace of shrapnel. From this unnamed “experts” concluded “that the injuries …were caused by a cone-shaped explosive device placed among the crates in the market.”

There were the “representatives” in the Bosnian Serb parliament who now ascribed the bombing “not only to the Muslims, but also to foreign special [intelligence] services.”

There were the United Nations military experts who, according to Moscow’s Channel One, concluded that “the mortar was located on the Muslim side.” The Russian station also claimed that Belgrade television

showed pictures in which it could clearly be seen that, alongside human corpses, pseudo-corpses were also being loaded onto vehicles—models and dolls dressed in rags. Some pathologists claim that among the victims were people who had died several days before….

And then there was Dr. Radovan Karadzic, who “appealed for the holding of an international expert study” to “clear up the mystery” of the Marketplace Massacre. “One thing is so far clear,” the Russian commentator concluded. “This action could not, either in a military or political sense, have been advantageous to the Serb side.”14

That’s true, of course,” Ed Barnes said, as he sipped his drink in Port-au-Prince. “On the other hand, it would be almost impossible for anyone to have hit that tiny target, with its high buildings on two sides, with one shot. That’s not how mortars work. You ‘bracket’ the target: first you shoot long, then short—then boom!”

And yet, whatever the propaganda about remote-control bombs hidden in crates, it had been a mortar shell; all the United Nations crater analyses at least agreed on that—the three that United Nations officers performed within hours of the explosion, as well as a fourth, more extensive study, conducted a week later by an international team of artillery experts led by a Canadian lieutenant colonel, which rejected entirely the first two reports (the French captain who concluded the Muslims had fired the shell had based his findings, the experts said, on a serious “mathematical error”). The team could state only that the shell had been fired from somewhere north-northeast of the marketplace—and that, given the range of a 120-millimeter mortar, it could have come from well within either the Serb or the Muslim lines. Which doesn’t mean, of course, that it is equally likely that Serbs or Muslims launched the shell, simply that experts found themselves unable to determine the mortar’s position solely from studying a single crater left by a single explosion.

As Barnes observed, since it was a mortar, and therefore of doubtful accuracy, the Muslims would have been foolish to have depended on a single shot to hit a target as tiny as Markela marketplace; on the other hand, had they fired a series of shells to “bracket” and then hit the marketplace, the experts likely would have been able to trace the position of the mortar. If, however, someone had actually been shooting at something else and missed…

Before death and mutilation rained down on Markela that day, Barnes reminded me, one newsworthy event had occupied besieged Sarajevo. Israelis of the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), the same group that had rescued the Falashas from Ethiopia in Operation Solomon in 1991, had negotiated passage for 294 Sarajevans—many, but by no means all, Jews—to depart the city in a convoy of six buses. First to board was Zaimeba Hardega-Susic, a seventy-seven-year-old, black-shawled Muslim woman who, during World War II, had risked her life to save Sarajevo’s Jews and thus earned the title of “Righteous Gentile”; now a Jewish organization was saving her.

It was a big event—and one beautifully documented by Ed Serotta in the chapter called “Exodus,” in his superb book, Survival in Sarajevo. By mid-morning a crowd of several hundred had gathered around the buses at the Sarajevo Synagogue and Jewish Community Center:refugees, relatives, reporters and photographers, Bosnian policemen, French United Nations troops, a handful of local dignitaries. Through painstaking negotiations the JDC had arranged a cease-fire that would extend until the buses had safely crossed the airport and left the city, which would give the crowd time to disperse.

I was waiting for Mrs. Hardega and the buses at Makarska, a little town on the coast thirty miles south of Split,” said Barnes. “I was standing just outside a room behind the front desk that they had made into a communications center to monitor the operation; the place was full of refugee experts, communications people, and a lot of sophisticated equipment. It seemed like a high-level intelligence operation.

About half past twelve, everyone listened intently as the buses headed out of the city. “We heard the voice on the radio—’They’re going through the checkpoint, everything’s okay’—and just at that point something went wrong.

All of a sudden there was yelling: ‘The cease-fire’s still on! The cease-fire’s still on! Stop firing! Stop firing!”’

As one of the leaders of the operation, an Israeli, recalled, “We heard a loud explosion close to the [Jewish] Community Center…. I thought at first that the Serbs had begun shelling after seeing the departure of the first three buses, believing the evacuation had been completed.”

They divided the convoy,” said Barnes, “and it was a mistake.” Partly because the Bosnian police insisted on searching bags, it had taken so long to load the buses that the Israelis decided to send three buses on ahead.


One of the JDC organizers went up to the communications room at the Sarajevo Jewish Community Center, called his contact in Zagreb, and asked him “to inform General Milovanovic [the Chief of Staff of the Bosnian Serb Army] that the evacuation was not yet completed. I requested that the promised cease-fire be immediately reinstated.” He then called United Nations Headquarters, and “asked them to immediately inform the Serbs that the evacuation had not yet been completed.”

His first fear, the man said later, “was that the incident might be connected to the three buses”—a view Barnes shared. “My guess,” he told me, “is the Serb commanders said, ‘As soon as you see those buses cross the runway, the ceasefire’s over, you blast those bastards down there in the city.’ And the guys saw those buses cross—those three buses, thinking that was all of them—and they let loose….”

But let loose on what? The fourth and most reliable “crater analysis” could determine only that the shell had come from the northeast, roughly from the direction of a large hilly area called Mrkovici, on whose heights the Serbs’ Kosevo Brigade had emplaced, among other weapons, 120-millimeter mortars; the Muslim infantry faced them farther down the slope. The day after the shelling, as I had coffee in UNPROFOR headquarters with a UN officer—a captain from a Middle Eastern country—he told me casually, “Sure, we know where the shell came from,” and, pointing to a map, “from the Serbs here in Mrkovici. We had monitors not far from there and they heard it whoosh as it left the tube.”

So perhaps the mortar crew on Mrkovici was following the buses with their binoculars. Perhaps they readied their weapons and, as they saw those buses with the evacuees rumble across the airport, they hefted the twenty-six pound shell and, crouching, covering their ears, let it slide down the metal tube….

And at what were they firing this sunny day? Simply randomly lobbing the latest of half a million shells into battered and broken Sarajevo? Perhaps. “My guess,” said Barnes, sipping his drink, “is that they watched those buses go and then let loose on what you might call a ‘very ripe target.’ I mean, all those people standing around on the street, those minor Sarajevo dignitaries—the street near the Jewish Community Center would have been hard to resist….”

For a moment, certainly, some of those involved in the evacuation thought they were the target: “They stopped the evacuation,” a JDC executive monitoring the operation told me. “They thought that they were being fired on. Everyone wondered:What, are they trying to hit the Jewish Center? Why?Maybe those guys up there in the hills are trying to prove a point, trying to prove no one’s immune.”

The Center happens to lie within five or six hundred meters of Markela marketplace, almost directly south across the Miljacka River. If, as the United Nations experts found, the shell came from the northeast, it could very well have risen into the bright sky from Mrkovici, on a course heading straight for the Community Center—but fallen, in the way mortar shells will, just a few hundred meters short of its intended target. On a normal Sarajevo day it would have been just the first shot of several, the first “bracketing” shot. It did not work out that way. No wonder the Serbs had at first been outraged; for, as we shall see, what they might well have intended as an attempt to terrorize a handful of Bosnians gathered on a noontime street had become, in the warm bright sunshine of Markela marketplace, a singular event that would alter forever the course of the Bosnian war.

This is the fourth in a series of articles.

  1. 11

    See David Owen, Balkan Odyssey: An Uncompromising Personal Account of the International Peace Efforts Following the Breakup of the Former Yugoslavia (Harcourt Brace, 1995), pp. 275-276.

  2. 12

    Drawn from an unbroadcast section of an interview for Peter Jennings Reporting, “Peacekeepers: How The UNFailed in Bosnia,” ABC News (April 24, 1995).

  3. 13

    Quoted in Silber and Little, Yugoslavia, p. 315.

  4. 14

    See the compilation by Srpska Mreza, Library, “Corroborating Muslim Responsibility for Markela Shelling,” including Intelligence Digest,March 11, 1994, and Ostrankino Channel One TV, Moscow, February 13, 1994.

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