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Bosnia: The Great Betrayal

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

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

by Chuck Sudetic
Norton

The Reluctant Superpower: United States’ Policy in Bosnia, 1991-95

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

Srebrenica: Record of a War Crime

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

Logavina Street: Life and Death in a Sarajevo Neighborhood

by Barbara Demick
Andrews and McMeel, 182 pp., $19.95

The Serbs: History, Myth and the Destruction of Yugoslavia

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

Plunging forward into pitch-black night, their faces lashed by unseen branches, Srebrenica’s fleeing Muslims stumbled forward one against another. Fearing that the fifteen thousand men would disperse and scatter in the darkness, their commanders had linked many together with white string, one man’s belt loop to the belt loop of the next, and then the next, until they formed an endless column snaking for mile after mile over eastern Bosnia’s darkened mountains and through her wooded, mist-shrouded valleys. Fleeing fallen Srebrenica—which Serb soldiers had at last overwhelmed the day before, on July 11, 1995, after the enclave, its houses and buildings windowless and burned and pocked with shell-holes, its cratered streets teeming with homeless refugees, had endured more than three years of misery, the last two as a United Nations-protected “safe area”—these Muslims shuffled blindly up and over Bosnia’s black hills.

For though they had fled the fallen city, leaving their wives and daughters and fathers to the mercy of Serb conquerors—who even now were drunkenly celebrating their triumph, surveying the twenty-five thousand refugees huddled around the Dutch United Nations base at Potocari, picking out young women and raping them, singling out old men and boys and executing them1—Srebrenica’s fifteen thousand men well knew that they had not escaped. If Serb troops did not bother to follow, they did not need to: they knew the Muslims had undertaken a desperate attempt to reach Bosnian government-held territory forty miles away, knew the trails they must take, the roads they must cross. Gazing up at the hills above the city in the early morning gloom of July 12, the Serbs had watched the ten-mile-long column wend its way slowly out of the far reaches of the enclave and, after taking a few shots and picking off one or two, had taken up bullhorns. “We know you are going to try and pass through with your column!” they shouted. “Better for you to go to Potocari and leave with the buses!”2

However much they might have wanted, in their hunger and exhaustion, to believe these sweet words, however much they might have wanted to trust the Serbs to send them peacefully back to government-controlled land, the Muslims knew, as Bosnian Prime Minister Hasan Muratovic later put it, “what Serbs did before.”

Wherever they captured people, they either detained or killed all males from 18 to 55 [years old]. It has never happened that the men of that age arrived across the front-line.3

Srebrenica’s men understood as well that they were “special cases,” that years of massacre and retribution meant that they could expect no quarter after the countless raids their fearless commander Naser Oric had led against nearby Serb villages, raids in which Srebrenica’s famished refugees would storm Serb lines, picking houses clean of food before setting them afire. And so Srebrenica’s fifteen thousand ignored the Serbs’ siren song and set out in their long column, with fewer than one in three bearing some kind of weapon, and those, Srebrenica’s soldiers, concentrated near the column’s head.

The sun rose and with it July’s baking heat as, two by two, they crossed a mine field and then trudged single file into a silent forest; and there, just after noon, machine-gun bullets ripped the silence, sending down on the screaming, bolting men a green blizzard of leaves and branches and scattering about the rough trail scores of bloodied bodies. The firing might have gone on for minutes but probably only seconds, and when the unseen Serb gunners halted their fusillade as abruptly as they had begun, surviving Muslims rose from the earth one by one and came together to gather on their coats the softly moaning wounded, and stagger on through the green woods.

1.

Two days before, the Serbs’ beloved commander, General Ratko Mladic, had swaggered into Srebrenica, stalked past the ruined post office (from which, in March 1993, French General Morillon had dramatically promised Muslims that the UN “will never abandon you”), then turned to the camera:

Here we are in Srebrenica on July 11, 1995. On the eve of yet another great Serbian holiday, we present this city to the Serbian people as a gift. Finally, after the rebellion of the Dahijas, the time has come to take revenge on the Turks of this region.

As David Rohde tells us in Endgame, his meticulous and fascinating account of the Srebrenica affair, the “rebellion of the Dahijas” was a Serb uprising that the Turks had indeed suppressed with great brutality—in 1804.

In his talk of revenge General Mladic might better have reminded his audience of the great Muslim counter-offensive of May 1992, when Naser Oric, a charismatic young weight lifter who had served as one of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic’s bodyguards, led a daring attack to recapture Srebrenica from Serb paramilitaries who had seized and “cleansed” it. The general could have described how the next day, in nearby Bratunac, Serb soldiers with megaphones had summoned Muslim men from their houses and marched them down the main street to a school gymnasium where, during the next three days, they beat more than three hundred and fifty to death.

He might also have recalled Oric’s audacious raids on Serb villages and towns: his murderous attack on Podravanja, for example, during which his torbari—the “bag people,” emaciated Muslim refugees from Bratunac and other “cleansed” towns who followed the assaulting soldiers—dispatched the wounded with clubs and axes and then sacked and torched the village; or the infamous assault on Kravica, on Orthodox Christmas in January 1993, when Oric’s men swept down out of the swirling snow, killed at least thirty Serbs, and drove off the entire population before seizing a great booty of Christmas food and drink and then burning Kravica’s houses to the ground.4

For General Mladic this Christmas attack was too much, and his troops, armed with tanks and heavy artillery, began pushing Naser’s lightly armed fighters back until, in April 1993, they had retreated, along with a flood of refugees, into Srebrenica itself. Only the United Nations and the Western powers that stood behind it had stopped General Mladic from seizing the town. Instead, Srebrenica would become a “safe area,” demilitarized—the Muslims in the town were ordered to hand over to the UN what few heavy weapons they had—and “protected” by a handful of Canadian, and later Dutch, United Nations “blue helmets.” On the hills around the town, meantime, more than a thousand of General Mladic’s Serbs manned their guns, watching and waiting.

Within the enclave, Nasir Oric, heavily muscled, dark-bearded, clothed head to foot in camouflage fatigues, still ruled. Oric’s men controlled the black market that kept alive Srebrenica’s slowly starving people; they smuggled cigarettes and fuel from the Ukrainian “blue helmets” in Zepa, a day-long trek away, and profited from the huge food and fuel price increases brought on by the periodic embargoes imposed by Serbs encircling the enclave and by the influx of perhaps 35,000 refugees into what had once been a prosperous little town of 8,000 souls. In February 1994, Naser Oric, the twenty-seven-year-old uncrowned king of now-ravaged Srebrenica, entertained a Washington Post reporter:

Naser Oric’s war trophies don’t line the wall of his comfortable apartment—one of the few with electricity in this besieged Mus-lim enclave stuck in the forbid-ding mountains of eastern Bosnia. They’re on a videocassette tape: burned Serb houses and headless Serb men, their bodies crumpled in a pathetic heap.

We had to use cold weapons that night,” Oric explains as scenes of dead men sliced by knives roll over his 21-inch Sony.5

Though UN “blue helmets” had set up their “observation posts” between Muslim and Serb lines nearly a year before, Oric still managed to lead his men on occasional nighttime raids, creeping past the UN posts, through gaps in the Serb encirclement, and then attacking and plundering Serb villages and farms. This not only infuriated the Serbs, who blamed the UN troops for not containing Oric and his men—and who retaliated by blocking fuel and equipment deliveries to the “blue helmets”—it angered the UN as well. Oric’s Muslims, on the other hand, distrusted the UN soldiers—could they really depend upon these few hundred lightly armed foreigners to defend them from Mladic’s Serbs and their cannons and tanks? And the Muslims deeply resented it when in January 1995, as a second Dutch battalion was relieving the first, the Dutch allowed the Serbs to take advantage by moving their guns forward.

Naser Oric was furious, for he had warned the Dutch that the Serbs would try to advance, and at just this point. The Muslim commander of the sector forbade UN troops to set foot in his zone; when the Dutch came anyway, he seized a hundred as hostages and held them for four days.

The Serbs, meantime, had cut off the Srebrenica enclave, blocking all supply convoys. As the town’s food reserves ran out, tension between Oric’s Muslims and the Dutch officers meant to protect them grew. According to Chuck Sudetic, “Dutch troops with night-vision goggles reported seeing Muslim soldiers sneak through the perimeter around Srebrenica and open fire on Dutch observation posts …to make it seem that the Serbs were attacking them.”

Such incidents, if they happened, would not be surprising. The Muslims believed their survival depended on forcing UN troops to abandon their treasured “neutrality” and support them against the Serbs. UN officials, however, saw Srebrenica’s Muslim leaders as corrupt and dangerous provocateurs. “From Yasushi Akashi on down,” Sudetic writes,

UN military and refugee-relief personnel had by now had enough of Naser Oric. Akashi personally viewed the senior Muslim commanders in Srebrenica as criminal gang leaders, pimps and black marketeers.

However accurate this appraisal, and however much it was shared by Muslim political and military leaders in Sarajevo—many of whom resented Naser Oric’s independence and his arrogance—it was nonetheless true that he was a leader and that he had made his men into fighters who had managed, with virtually no outside help, during the first overwhelming Serb assault in the spring of 1992, to take back and then defend their town. “I am a man of action,” Oric had declared to the Washington Post reporter in February 1994. “I like adventure. As long as I am in Srebrenica, it will never be Serb. We will protect the hearths of our people. We will never be Palestinians.”

On March 21, 1995, Muslim military commanders sent an order to Oric and his lieutenants: they were to proceed to a mountain known as Orlov Kamen, or “Eagle Rock,” and wait; and wait they did, for almost two weeks before a helicopter dropped out of the sky, plucked them off the frozen mountainside, and flew them off to Tuzla for “consultations and training.” Naser Oric, the celebrated leader of Srebrenica, would not return.

2.

In the wake of Naser Oric’s mysterious and ominous departure, Srebrenica’s people, malnourished and mistrustful, subsisted on little more than rumors: Sarajevo’s commanders, it was said, had summoned Oric to help them plan a new offensive, a great attack that would at last liberate Srebrenica. No, Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic and Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic had finally fashioned a secret deal, whereby the Muslims would trade away Srebrenica, Zepa, and Gorazde, the three eastern enclaves, in exchange for the Serb suburbs of divided Sarajevo. Yes, that must be it: Oric’s military skills would no longer be needed; soon luxurious cars and buses would come for Srebrenica’s bedraggled defenders and carry them to glittering Sarajevo, in whose suburbs each man would now be offered for his family a choice of fine apartments or houses…

  1. 1

    For the fall of Srebrenica, see my earlier article in these pages, “The US and the Yugoslav Catastrophe,” November 20, 1997, the first in the present series of articles, which was followed by “America and the Bosnian Genocide,” December 4, 1997; “Clinton, the UN, and the Bosnian Disaster,” December 18, 1997; “Bosnia: The Turning Point,” February 5, 1998; and “Bosnia: Breaking the Machine,” February 19, 1998.

  2. 2

    The buses would this day begin evacuating women and children, and later—to a different destination—some thousand or more men who didn’t undertake the trek through the forest, from the Dutch United Nations base at Potocari.

  3. 3

    See “Srebrenica: A Bosnian Betrayal,” Dispatches, Channel 4/BBC, May 29, 1996.

  4. 4

    For an account of Naser Oric and the Muslim raids expanding the Srebrenica pocket, see “Clinton, the UN, and the Bosnian Disaster,” pp. 71-72.

  5. 5

    See John Pomfret, “Weapons, Cash and Chaos Lend Clout to Srebrenica’s Tough Guy,” The Washington Post, February 16, 1994.

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