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Bosnia: Breaking the Machine

Srebrenica: Record of a War Crime

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

The Serbs: History, Myth & the Resurrection of Yugoslavia

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

Blood and Vengeance: One Family’s Story of the War in Bosnia

by Chuck Sudetic


On May 22, 1995, fifteen months after Bosnian Serbs—bowing to an ultimatum from Western leaders infuriated by the televised carnage of sixty-eight dismembered bodies at Sarajevo’s Markela marketplace—had withdrawn their tanks and cannons and mortars from the mountains and ridges above the city,1 heavily armed Serb soldiers in camouflage uniforms forced their way into a United Nations “weapons collection point” and, strolling like leisurely weekend shoppers among artillery pieces and armored vehicles, picked out from the tempting array two cannons. Laughing off the protests of humiliated French UN “blue helmets” charged with “monitoring” Serb weapons, they hitched them up to their trucks and drove out the gate.

The following day Serb troops visited other “collection points” and made off with more weapons. On the day after that, General Ratko Mladic, the swaggering, bull-necked commander of the Bosnian Serb Army, ordered his rearmed and repositioned artillerymen to unleash on Sarajevo a merciless barrage, and they complied by battering the city with nearly three thousand shells. Some were fired from cannons and mortars they hadn’t even bothered to remove from the charge of the United Nations “blue helmets”; the Serb troops took pleasure in destroying the city shell by shell from under the noses of those who were meant to protect it.

On May 24, Lieutenant General Rupert Smith, an unusually imaginative and strong-willed British officer who had succeeded General Sir Michael Rose as commander of United Nations ground troops in Bosnia, announced another, more pointed ultimatum. If the Serbs did not cease firing on Sarajevo, NATO fighter planes would attack them the following day. And when the Serbs, as was their custom, contemptuously ignored the United Nations order, General Smith startled General Mladic and much of the rest of the world by doing what everyone least expected: he sent NATO planes to attack.

Nor did he send them to drop a bomb or two on some isolated mortar or tank—the kind of timid and vaguely risible “pinprick” response that the hapless General Rose, on the few occasions he found himself unable to avoid ordering air attacks, had favored. To the intense annoyance and embarrassment of General Mladic, General Smith had the temerity to send his fighter planes swooping down at four twenty in the afternoon to bomb two ammunition bunkers near the Serbs’ so-called “capital” of Pale, right in self-declared Serb President Radovan Karadzic’s backyard.

The furious General Mladic immediately got on the radio and ordered his soldiers, perched as they were on the hills and ridges surrounding all six of the United Nations-designated “safe areas”—Bihac, Gorazde, Tuzla, Zepa, Srebrenica, and Sarajevo itself—to unleash their guns on the towns, and this (with the exception of Zepa) they promptly did. They pounded the Srebrenica city center with half a dozen well-placed rounds and lofted into Tuzla a mortar shell that exploded among a crowd of young people who were hanging out on a cobblestone street before a popular pizza joint, killing seventy-five teenagers (whose shattered remains went unobserved by any television camera and who thus remained, unlike the celebrated sixty-eight dead of Sarajevo, a little-known statistic).

General Smith didn’t hesitate: at half past ten the following morning he sent NATO warplanes back to Pale to bomb the remaining six bunkers in the depot. And, with that, General Mladic ordered his Bosnian Serb soldiers to take a step anticipated by virtually all the international leaders involved in Bosnia—UN special envoy Yasushi Akashi, his military commander, French General Bernard Janvier, President Bill Clinton (who had been pushing the allies relentlessly for air strikes), the leaders of Great Britain, France, and other allied powers (who opposed air strikes because they had “troops on the ground”), as well as General Smith himself.

Mladic ordered his soldiers to surround the outgunned and outnumbered United Nations troops and take them hostage. And within hours people around the world turned on their television sets to see the soldiers of France, Britain, and various other proud Western countries chained to hangars, ammunition depots, bridges, and other strategic targets that NATO might be tempted to bomb. “It is not us who will carry out the executions,” one of Dr. Karadzic’s advisers warned reporters, “but NATO.”

As Tim Judah points out in his book The Serbs, this vivid display was in large part a well-planned propaganda exercise, designed specifically for the cameras:

In fact many of the prisoners had been chained up only during the filming. One was teased later as he drank beer with his guards who said that he had caught a suntan while being forced to pose. The propaganda value of such clips was obvious—its commercial value was even greater. Dragan Bozanic, the political editor of TV-Pale, had sold the film in an auction to the international news agencies with offices in Pale.

Not for the first time Bosnia had become a hall of mirrors. For despite the teasing over suntans Bosnian Serb soldiers had indeed taken prisoner some 374 United Nations troops, and as his men drank beer and laughed with the “blue helmets” General Ratko Mladic loudly vowed to execute them if General Smith sent his planes to attack.

This “UN hostage crisis,” as the press inevitably christened it, was surely the most anticipated and long-awaited crisis in the history of the war, for its politically intimidating specter had dominated the imaginations of Western policymakers since their troops had arrived, under United Nations aegis, to begin accompanying “humanitarian shipments” in late 1992. It had begun to loom larger in Spring 1993, when Western countries, in order to prevent a Bosnian surrender and possible massacre in the eastern enclave of Srebrenica, had declared five of the enclaves (and later Sarajevo itself) “safe areas” and interposed between the Muslim besieged and the Serb besieger small, lightly armed contingents of a few hundred United Nations troops. These were the “blue helmets” who were deployed without adequate arms, without a clearly defined mission beyond “deterring” a Serb attack, and who found themselves at the mercy of Serb gunners who could (and often did) block and turn back vital shipments of food, fuel, and other supplies.

The specter loomed larger still in February 1994, when Western countries, after the Serbs bombed the Markela marketplace, had stationed a handful of UN troops on Serb territory above Sarajevo as “arms monitors.” And it first assumed a terrible reality in April and December 1994, when ferocious Serb attacks on the “safe areas” of Gorazde and Bihac forced a very reluctant General Rose to undertake “pinprick bombing” of a few “smoking guns” and the Serbs for the first time responded by seizing a considerable number of UN troops.

During the last days of May 1995, however, the Serbs faced, in General Smith, an antagonist determined to push ahead and prove that the Serbs’ threat to execute the UN troops was in fact no threat at all—for what would it do but call down on the Serbs the wrath of the world? Smith was determined to call Mladic’s bluff and, by so doing, to destroy the “air strike- hostage” cycle that was now paralyzing Western policy in Bosnia. Smith proposed, as he put it, to “break the machine.” The UN general’s attempt to do so brought clearly into the open the tangle of public posturing and private reluctance and fear that lay at the heart of Western policy in Bosnia.


Less than three months before, during the first weekend in March, the poet-psychiatrist Dr. Radovan Karadzic and the unusual group of intellectual-politicians who were his political colleagues (including Vice President Nikola Koljevic, the ardent Shakespeare scholar, and Biljana Plavsic, the biologist who delighted in seeing her image painted on Serbian tanks), together with the camouflage-garbed General Mladic and his highest staff and intelligence officers, welcomed to the resort hotel on the snowy heights of Mount Jahorina their counterparts and longtime sponsors from Belgrade for two days of serious discussion. Despite the beauty of their surroundings—it was down Jahorina’s steep slopes that, a mere decade before, the great skiers had plunged, battling among themselves, as the world watched, for Olympic medals—Serb leaders from both sides of the Drina found themselves in a less than triumphant mood.

When, three years before, on March 27, 1992, the officers of the national Yugoslav Peoples Army had launched their intricate and well-planned campaign to dismember Bosnia, the Serbs had counted on a short, intense, and successful war. And indeed they had managed, during six weeks of bombarding undefended cities and towns with tanks and heavy artillery, to seize and occupy nearly seventy percent of Bosnian territory. For Alija Izetbegovic, the Bosnian president, had at first organized no army, fearing to provoke the Serbs and trusting that the countries of the “international community” would step forward as one to defend a newly recognized state. But the international community—apart from imposing on the Bosnians an arms embargo that had been voted by the United Nations six months before, and that now prevented them from obtaining weapons with which to defend themselves—debated and condemned and did, on the whole, nothing at all.

By the end of May 1992, the soldiers of the newly rechristened, and supposedly independent, Bosnian Serb Army had conquered all of western Bosnia, except for Bihac, and much of the East, bordering Serbia, apart from the enclaves of Tuzla, Cerska, Zepa, and Srebrenica. At this point, as Jan Willem Honig and Norbert Both write in their excellent analysis Srebrenica: Record of a War Crime,

The Serbs took their time consolidating their gains. They concentrated on ethnically cleansing their newly won territory. The summer and autumn of 1992 saw massive population movements. By the end of the year, two million people, nearly half the population of Bosnia, were refugees. The majority were Muslims. They were herded towards Bosnian-government-held territory in central Bosnia and towards the enclaves.

However impressive the scope of this “ethnic cleansing”—most of it efficiently accomplished by paramilitaries who specialized in murder, rape, and various other forms of terror—by the time they met on Mount Jahorina three years later Serb politicians and officers must have been able to see the flaws in their strategy. Triumphant in victory, the Serbs had assumed, as Honig and Both put it, that “it would only be a matter of time before [they] would get around to dealing with the enclaves.”

So instead of crushing the thoroughly unprepared and defenseless Bosnian government, as the world’s leaders had clearly expected they would, the Serbs, in order to accomplish their ideological goal of ethnic cleansing, had left aside their two prime strategic tasks: conquering the enclaves—several of which, including Srebrenica, stood near Serbia’s border and thus had to be taken in order to secure “Greater Serbia”—and forcing the Bosnian leaders to sue for peace. The delay, and the spectacular killings and tortures and rapes that were an integral part of the Serbs’ vast ethnic cleansing campaign—including, in August 1992, televised pictures of emaciated Bosnians staring out from behind the barbed wire of Serb-run concentration camps—had caught the attention of the world and forced reluctant Western leaders to respond. And though the Europeans undertook only a modest and “neutral” effort to, as the phrase went, “feed the victims,” even this minor intervention, and the odd contortions and initiatives which it had gradually imposed on leaders of the West, had managed to stalemate the Serb advance. According to Chuck Sudetic in his powerfully written book Blood and Vengeance:

  1. 1

    See “Bosnia: The Turning Point,” The New York Review, February 5, 1998, the fourth of the present series of articles, which began with “The US and the Yugoslav Catastrophe,” The New York Review, November 20, 1997, “America and the Bosnian Genocide,” The New York Review, December 4, 1997, and “Clinton, the UN, and the Bosnian Disaster,” The New York Review, December 18, 1997.

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