Lawrence Eagleburger
Lawrence Eagleburger; drawing by David Levine


To the hundreds of millions who first beheld them on their television screens that August day in 1992, the faces staring out from behind barbed wire seemed powerfully familiar.1 Sunken-cheeked, hollow-eyed, their skulls shaved, their bodies wasted and frail, they did not seem men at all but living archetypes, their faces stylized masks of tragedy. One had thought such faces consigned to the century’s horde of images—the emaciated figures of the 1940s shuffling about in filthy striped uniforms, the bulldozers pushing into dark ditches great masses of lank white bodies. Yet here, a mere half century later, in 1992, came these gaunt beings, clinging to life in Omarska and Trnopolje and the other camps run by Serbs in northern Bosnia, and now displayed before the eyes of the world like fantastic, rediscovered beasts.

The Germans, creators of millions of such living dead, had christened them Muselmänner—Musulmen, Muslims. At Auschwitz, wrote Primo Levi,

the Muselmänner, the drowned, form the backbone of the camp, an anonymous mass…of non-men who march and labor in silence, the divine spark dead in them…. One hesitates to call them living: one hesitates to call their death death, in the face of which they have no fear, as they are too tired to understand.2

In Omarska as in Auschwitz the masters created these walking corpses from healthy men by employing simple methods: withhold all but the barest nourishment, forcing the prisoners’ bodies to waste away; impose upon them a ceaseless terror by subjecting them to unremitting physical cruelty; immerse them in degradation and death and decay, destroying all hope and obliterating the will to live.

“We won’t waste our bullets on them,” a guard at Omarska, which the Serbs set up in a former open-pit iron mine, told a United Nations representative in mid-1992. “They have no roof. There is sun and rain, cold nights, and beatings two times a day. We give them no food and no water. They will starve like animals.”3

On August 5, 1992, Ed Vulliamy of The Guardian, the first newspaperman admitted into Omarska, stood in the camp’s “canteen” and watched, stupefied, as thirty emaciated men stumbled out into the yard, squinting at the sunlight:

…A group of prisoners…have just emerged from a door in the side of a large rust-colored metal shed. [T]hey run in single file across the courtyard…. Above them in an observation post is the watchful eye, hidden behind reflective sunglasses, of a beefy guard who follows their weary canter with the barrel of his heavy machine gun.

Their…heads [are] newly shaven, their clothes baggy over their skeletal bodies. Some are barely able to move. In the canteen,… they line up in obedient and submissive silence and collect…a meager, watery portion of beans….

They are given precisely three minutes to run from the shed, wait for the food and gulp it down, and run back to the shed. “Whoever didn’t make it would get beaten or killed,” a prisoner identified only as Mirsad told Helsinki Watch investigators. “The stew we were given was boiling hot…so we all had ‘inside burns.’ The inside of my mouth was peeling.”4

Vulliamy and his colleagues stand and gaze at the creatures struggling to wolf down the rations:

…[T]he bones of their elbows and wrists protrude like pieces of jagged stone from the pencil-thin stalks to which their arms have been reduced. Their skin is putrefied, the complexions…have corroded. [They] are alive but decomposed, debased, degraded, and utterly subservient, and yet they fix their huge hollow eyes on us with [what] looks like blades of knives.

It is an extraordinary confrontation, this mutual stare: Vulliamy and his colleagues are reporting from inside a working concentration camp. All the while, though, Serb guards in combat fatigues, cradling AK-47s and bearing great military knives sheathed at their hips, trudge heavily about the room, their eyes glaring above their beards.

Vulliamy moves forward to speak to a “young man, emaciated, sunken-eyed and attacking his watery bean stew like a famished dog, his spindly hands shaking,” but the fellow stops him: “I do not want to tell any lies,” he says, “but I cannot tell the truth.” It is an eloquent comment: most of these Muselmänner prove “too terrified to talk, bowing their heads and excusing themselves by casting a glance at the pacing soldiers, or else they just stare, opaque, spiritless, and terrified.”

The reporters ask to see the hospital and receive a curt refusal. Nor may they look inside that white building—the White House, the prisoners call it—or the great “rust-colored shed” from which the men had come, squinting at the August sun.

Later, survivors describe the shed as “a vast human hen coop, in which thousands of men were crammed for twenty-four hours a day…, living in their own filth and, in many cases, dying from asphyxiation.” So tightly were prisoners packed together in the stifling, airless heat, “Sakib R.” tells Vulliamy, that lying down was impossible and some lost consciousness standing up, collapsing one against another.


I [counted] seven hundred that I could actually see [around me]. A lot of people went mad…: when they went insane, shuddering and screaming, they were taken out and shot.

Though guards at Omarska and other camps shot many prisoners, this was by no means the preferred method. If Auschwitz’s killing tended to be mechanized and bureaucratized, Omarska’s was emotional and personal, for it depended on the simple, intimate act of beating. “They beat us with clubs, bats, hoses, rifle butts,” one survivor told a Helsinki Watch interviewer. “Their favorite was a thick rubber hose with metal on both ends.” They beat us, said another, “with braided cable wires” and with pipes “filled with lead.”

Next to the automatic rifle, next even to the knife (which was freely used at Omarska), the club or the pipe is exhausting, time-consuming, inefficient. Yet the guards made it productive. A female prisoner identified only as “J” told Helsinki Watch investigators:

We saw corpses piled one on top of another…. The bodies eventually were gathered with a forklift and put onto trucks—usually two large trucks and a third, smaller truck. The trucks first would unload containers of food, and then the bodies would be loaded [on]…. This happened almost every day—sometimes there [were]…twenty or thirty—but usually there were more. Most of the deaths occurred as a result of beatings.5

One survivor interviewed by United Nations investigators estimated that “on many occasions, twenty to forty prisoners were killed at night by ‘knife, hammer, and burning.’ He stated that he had witnessed the killing of one prisoner by seven guards who poured petrol on him, set him on fire, and struck him upon the head with a hammer.” All prisoners were beaten, but according to the UN investigators, guards in all the camps meted out especially savage treatment “to intellectuals, politicians, police, and the wealthy.”6 When four guards summoned the president of the local Croatian Democratic Union, Silvije Saric, along with Professor Puskar from nearby Prijedor, for “interrogation,” the female prisoner testified,

I heard beating and yelling…. At times it sounded as if wood were being shattered, but those were bones that were being broken.

…When they opened the door …, they started yelling at us, “Ustasa slut, see what we do to them!” …I saw two piles of blood and flesh in the corner. The two men were so horribly beaten that they no longer had the form of human beings.7

Apart from obvious differences in scale and ambition, it is the Serbs’ reliance on this laborious kind of murder that most strikingly distinguishes the workings of their camps from those of the German death factories. At many of the latter, healthy arrivals would work as slaves until they were reduced to being Muselmänner; death came when camp bureaucrats judged them no longer fit to provide any useful service to the Reich. The gas chambers—routinized, intentionally impersonal means of killing—had evolved partly out of a concern for the effect that committing mass murder would have on troops, even on men specially trained to do it. As Raul Hilberg observed,

The Germans employed the phrase Seelenbelastung (“burdening of the soul”) with reference to machine-gun fire…directed at men, women, and children in prepared ditches. After all, the men that were firing these weapons were themselves fathers. How could they do this day after day? It was then that the technicians developed a gas van designed to lessen the suffering of the perpetrator.8

And even within the camps themselves, SS officers worried that violence and sadism would demoralize and corrupt their elite troops. “The SS leaders,” Wolfgang Sofsky writes,

were indifferent to the suffering of the victims, but not to the morale of their men. Their attention was aroused…by the sadistic excesses of individual tormenters. As a countermeasure, camp brothels were set up, and the task of punishment was delegated to specially selected prisoners. The leadership also transferred certain thugs whose behavior had become intolerable. [Emphasis added]9

At Omarska such men would have been cherished; the out-and-out passion with which a guard administered beatings and devised tortures could greatly bolster his prestige. Acts of flamboyant violence, publicly performed, made of some men celebrities of sadism. In his memoir The Tenth Circle of Hell, Rezak Hukanovic—a Muslim who was a journalist in Prijedor before he was taken to Omarska—describes how guards responded when a prisoner rejected the order to strip and stood immobile amid the cowering naked inmates:


The guard…fired several shots in the air. The man stood stubbornly in place without making the slightest movement. While bluish smoke still rose from the rifle barrel, the guard struck the clothed man in the middle of the head with the rifle butt, once and then again, until the man fell. Then the guard…moved his hand to his belt. A knife flashed in his hand, a long army knife.

He bent down, grabbing hold of the poor guy’s hair…. Another guard joined in, continuously cursing. He, too, had a flashing knife in his hand…. The guards [used] them to tear away the man’s clothes. After only a few seconds, they stood up, their own clothes covered with blood….

…The poor man stood up a little, or rather tried to, letting out excruciating screams. He was covered with blood. One guard took a water hose from a nearby hydrant and directed a strong jet at [him]. A mixture of blood and water flowed down his…gaunt, naked body as he bent down repeatedly, like a wounded Cyclops…; his cries were of someone driven to insanity by pain. And then Djemo and everyone else saw clearly what had happened: the guards had cut off the man’s sexual organ and half of his behind.

Hukanovic’s memoir (in which he writes about himself in the third person as Djemo) and the testimony of other former prisoners overflow with such horror. Reading them, one feels enervated, and also bewildered: What accounts for such unquenchable blood-lust? This is a large subject, to which I shall return; but part of the answer may have to do with the elaborate ideology that stands behind Serb objectives in the war. In order to achieve a “Greater Serbia,” which will at last bring together all Serbs in one land, they feel they must “cleanse” what is “their” land of outsiders. Founding—or rather reestablishing—“Greater Serbia” is critical not only because it satisfies an ancient historical claim but because Serbs must protect themselves from the “genocide” others even now are planning for them.

In this thinking, such genocide has already begun—in Croatia, in Kosovo, in Bosnia itself: anywhere Serbs live but lack political dominance. As many writers, including Michael Sells and, especially, Tim Judah, point out, such ideas of vulnerability and betrayal can be traced far back in Serbia’s past, and President Slobodan Milosevic, with his control of state radio and television, exploited them brilliantly, building popular hatred by instilling in Serbs a visceral fear and paranoia.

Administering a beating is a deeply personal affirmation of power: with your own hands you seize your enemy—supposedly a mortally threatening enemy, now rendered passive and powerless—and slowly, methodically reduce him from human to nonhuman. Each night at Omarska and other camps guards called prisoners out by name and enacted this atrocity. Some of their enemies they beat to death, dumping their corpses on the tarmac for the forklift driver to find the next morning. Others they beat until the victim still barely clung to life; if he did not die, the guards would wait a week or so and beat him again.

For the Serbs it was a repeated exercise in triumph, in satisfying and vanquishing an accumulated paranoia. As Hukanovic makes clear in his account of the first time his name was called out, this torture is exceedingly, undeniably intimate—not simply because force is administered by hand but also because it comes very often from someone you know:

“In front of me,” the [bearded, red-faced] guard ordered, pointing to the White House…. He ranted and raved, cursing and occasionally pounding Djemo on the back with his truncheon….

…The next second, something heavy was let loose from above, from the sky, and knocked Djemo over the head. He fell.

…Half conscious, sensing that he had to fight to survive, he wiped the blood from his eyes and forehead and raised his head. He saw four creatures, completely drunk, like a pack of starving wolves, with clubs in their hands and unadorned hatred in their eyes. Among them was the frenzied leader, Zoran Zigic, the infamous Ziga…. He was said to have killed over two hundred people, including many children, in the “cleansing” operations around Prijedor…. Scrawny and long-legged, with a big black scar on his face, Ziga seemed like an ancient devil come to visit a time as cruel as his own….

“Now then, let me show you how Ziga does it,” he said, ordering Djemo to kneel down in the corner by the radiator, “on all fours, just like a dog.” The maniac grinned. Djemo knelt down and leaned forward on his hands, feeling humiliated and as helpless as a newborn….

Ziga began hitting Hukanovic on his back and head with a club that had a metal ball on the end. Hukanovic curled up trying to protect his head. Zigic kept hitting him, steadily, methodically, cursing all the while.

The drops of blood on the tiles under Djemo’s head [became] denser and denser until they formed a thick, dark red puddle. Ziga kept at it; he stopped only every now and then…to fan himself, waving his shirt tail in front of his contorted face.

At some point a man in fatigues appeared…. It was Saponja, a member of the famous Bosna-montaza soccer club from Prijedor; Djemo had once known him quite well…. “Well, well, my old pal Djemo. While I was fighting…, you were pouring down the cold ones in Prijedor.” He kicked Djemo right in the face with his combat boot. Then he kicked him again in the chest, so badly that Djemo felt like his ribs had been shattered…Ziga laughed like a maniac…and started hitting Djemo again with his weird club….

Djemo received another, even stronger kick to the face. He clutched himself in pain, bent a little to one side, and collapsed, his head sinking into the now-sizable pool of blood beneath him. Ziga grabbed him by the hair…and looked into Djemo’s completely disfigured face: “Get up, you scum….”

Then Ziga and the other guards forced Djemo to smear his bloody face in a filthy puddle of water.

…”The boys have been eating strawberries and got themselves a little red,” said Ziga, laughing like a madman…. Another prisoner, Slavko Ecimovic,…was kneeling, all curled up, by the radiator. When he lifted his head, where his face should have been was nothing but the bloody, spongy tissue under the skin that had just been ripped off.

Instead of eyes, two hollow sockets were filled with black, coagulated blood. “You’ll all end up like this, you and your families,” Ziga said. “We killed his father and mother. And his wife. We’ll get his kids. And yours, we’ll kill you all.” And with a wide swing of his leg, he kicked Djemo right in the face….


Confronted by the televised faces behind barbed wire, Bush administration officials reacted instinctively: they denied knowing anything about the camps. Or rather, they first said they knew and then, next day, said they didn’t.

On August 3, 1992, the day after Roy Gutman’s first, highly graphic story on Omarska appeared in Newsday, the State Department deputy spokesman, Richard Boucher, faced reporters and announced that administration officials had not only been aware “that the Serbian forces are maintaining what they call detention centers” but that “abuses and torture and killings [were] taking place.” Angry questions followed: If President Bush had known of these camps, why had he not publicly denounced them? Why had he not insisted the prisoners be released, or that the camps open their doors to the Red Cross? Why, finally, had he not at least revealed that the camps existed?

The next morning Thomas Niles, assistant secretary of state for European affairs, took his seat before the House Foreign Affairs Committee and told congressmen that “we don’t have, thus far, substantiated information that would confirm the existence of these camps.” Less than twenty-four hours before, Bush officials said they had known of the horrors at Omarska; now they were unable to say the camps existed.

Why this high-level Keystone Kops routine, particularly from an administration that prided itself on its cool, professional management of foreign affairs? The answer is not far to seek. The reporters’ discovery of Omarska and the other camps, and the outrage their dispatches and videotape provoked, did not pose, for Bush, a problem of foreign policy at all but rather one of politics. For though Secretary of State James Baker had claimed that the administration did not act forcefully in the Balkans because “the American people would never…support it,” the matter was not so simple: as Baker well knew, polls could fluctuate wildly. At various times during the Bosnia conflict, lurid television pictures provoked “spikes” in the fever chart of popular concern, and, if Americans still wouldn’t support dispatching ground troops, they were not shy about demanding their government do something. The Bush people, having concluded nearly two years before that taking strong action posed unacceptable risks, 10 now feared that popular outrage, momentarily fueled by just this sort of “telegenic” but (in their view) ephemeral atrocity, might drag them toward such involvement—or else, popular sentiment would penalize them politically (with the election barely three months away) for “doing nothing.”

State Department officials, who approved Boucher’s original announcement that the government had known of the camps, had wildly misjudged the response. In declaring that they had known, an unnamed official told Warren P. Strobel, author of Late-Breaking Foreign Policy, the intent had been “to move the ball forward one step, and the [news] reports moved it forward two steps.” Two steps was clearly too much; so Niles was ordered up to Congress to try to move the ball back one, an absurd notion under the circumstances. “We kind of waffled around a little bit,” acknowledged Lawrence Eagleburger, then acting secretary of state, in an interview with Strobel. “All of us were being a little bit careful…because of this issue of whether or not it was going to push us into something that we thought was dangerous.”

The pictures from the camps thus confronted Bush officials with the challenge not of how to deal with the reemergence of concentration camps in Europe but rather how to withstand the political pressures arising from the televised images of them. Concentration camps a half-century after the Nazis would have been bad enough, but pictures of the emaciated, tortured prisoners: this was the sort of thing that stirred the lethargic and fickle American public.

On August 6, the day pictures of the emaciated prisoners taken by ITN British television were broadcast in the US and around the world, President Bush finally called for international observers to be granted access to the camps and, for good measure, he asked that the United Nations authorize that “all necessary means” be used to deliver humanitarian supplies to Bosnia. Even as the President, faced with pictures of men in concentration camps, talked of the UN and food shipments, Governor Clinton, now the Democratic presidential candidate, was demanding that the administration push NATO to send fighter bombers to save Bosnians from “deliberate and systematic extermination based on their ethnic origin.” The next day, facing a barrage of questions at Kennebunkport, Bush proved defiant:

I don’t care what the political pressures are. Before one soldier…is committed to battle, I’m going to know how that person gets out of there. And we are not going to get bogged down into some guerrilla warfare. We lived through that once.

As Eagleburger later put it, “Vietnam never goes away,”11 and obviously this was dramatically the case for George Bush. The President plainly felt that any American involvement in Bosnia, even a limited one to eliminate concentration camps, must inevitably lead to “a quagmire.”

Thus, according to former Ambassador to Yugoslavia Warren Zimmermann, when the possibility of an “air operation” to rescue victims of the camps was raised within the embattled administration that August, and Baker and the adviser for national security affairs, Brent Scowcroft, showed serious interest in it, “there was no sign… that the President ever did, and nothing was done.” Indeed, as Zimmermann tells it, when officials discussed any change in Bush’s passive policy the ghost of Vietnam could be felt hovering in the room:

The “lesson” drawn from Vietnam was that even a minimum injection of American forces could swell inexorably into a major commitment and produce a quagmire. The second objection…was the view that had prevailed during the successful prosecution of the Gulf War: there should be no US military intervention unless the objectives were clear, the means applied to [them] would bring certain victory, there was an “exit strategy” (the earlier the better)…. Pervading all these reasons was an almost obsessive fear of American casualties…. 12

In effect, requiring that the “means applied” always “bring certain victory” would likely preclude even minimal intervention. As Arnold Kanter, a former high Bush administration official, says flatly, Pentagon officers “clearly understand that if intervention options entail very large force requirements, it often has the practical political effect of virtually ruling out military intervention.”

As George Bush, “the foreign policy President,” knew, and as Bill Clinton would soon discover, such an ideology, taken as faith by a Vietnam-haunted officer corps, severely limits a president’s freedom of diplomatic action. If the State Department “tends to be more willing…to threaten, deploy, and employ military forces,” Kanter says, this is because diplomats view “the threat and use of force as a key instrument of US foreign policy….”13

In late September, as the debate set off by the concentration camp pictures raged, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Colin Powell summoned to his office a New York Times reporter and gave a remarkable interview, which the Times ran on its front page under the headline “Powell Delivers a Resounding No On Using Limited Force In Bosnia.” Powell declared:

As soon as [politicians] tell me it is limited, it means they do not care whether you achieve a result or not. As soon as they tell me “surgical,” I head for the bunker.

Insisting he did not believe the military must apply “overwhelming force in every situation,” the general said leaders must “begin with a clear understanding of what political objective is being achieved,” then determine whether the objective is “to win or do something else.”

Preferably, it is to win because it shows you have made a commitment to decisive results…. The key is to get decisive results to accomplish the mission.14

The simplicity is deceptive: for Powell the opposite of “to win” is not “to lose” but rather to fail to achieve “decisive results.” If a military action does not prove “decisive,” it has failed. And if a proposed mission cannot be virtually guaranteed to produce such results, it should not be attempted.

One might think the responsibility for determining what such “results” should be would properly fall not to Powell but “above his pay grade.” If the president, having decided that he could define success as something less than what military officers deem to be “decisive results,” chooses to employ “limited force” to strike, say, the rail lines or roads leading to Omarska—or to destroy the Drina River bridges in order to cripple the Bosnian Serb supply system—then this decision belongs to him, not to senior officers.

And so it comes as no surprise that the State Department spokesman’s first response to the faces from Omarska had been the forthright one. Of course the American government had known about the Serbian camps, long before the pictures and stories had come out. The only question was exactly when. As John Fox, an official in the State Department’s policy planning office, told ABC News, “The US government had in its possession credible and verified reports of the existence of the camps, Serbian-run camps in Bosnia and elsewhere, as of June, certainly July, 1992, well ahead of media revelations.”15 To the public, Bush officials had said nothing of the torture and the killing; for the outrage that would greet such news was predictable. And the administration, now as before, was determined to do nothing at all.

As it happened, though, the public revelations of the camps in August 1992, and the political controversy that followed, were mirrored within the government by a quieter struggle: over the meanings, and implications, of genocide.


In early April 1992, little more than a week after officers of the newly christened Bosnian Serb Army launched their campaign of limited conquest in Bosnia, officials in Washington began receiving reports of atrocities, among them mass executions, beatings, mutilations, and rape. Jon Western, at the State Department, then working on human rights in Bosnia, recalls that

many of these atrocities looked an awful lot like what we had heard and read about during World War II—the Balkans historically produce a lot of disinformation—and we were trained to look at them critically and decipher what was real. But as reports continued to come in…, it became apparent that they weren’t just propaganda.

In fact, we were getting reports from a number of sources: eyewitnesses who had been incarcerated in concentration camps begin filtering out in summer 1992 and began giving accounts of atrocities that we could cross-reference with those from other eyewitnesses….16

As the Serbs prosecuted their “lightning campaign”—the Bosnian Serb Army of eighty thousand men, which had come fully equipped from the Yugoslav National Army, conquered 60 percent of Bosnian territory in scarcely six weeks—State Department officials compiled testimony of increasingly shocking and gruesome atrocities. Jon Western recalls that children were “systematically raped”:

There was one account that affected me: a young girl was raped repeatedly by Serb paramilitary units. Her parents were restrained behind a fence and she was raped repeatedly and they left her in a pool of blood and over the course of a couple of days she finally died, and her parents were not able to tend to her; they were restrained behind a fence. When we first heard this story, it seemed very hard to believe but we heard it from a number of eyewitnesses …and it became apparent there was validity to it.

Western and his colleagues were struck not only by the cruelty of these abuses but by their systematic nature; they very rapidly came to understand that though the Serb soldiers and, especially, the “paramilitary” troops responsible for “mopping up” were committing wildly sadistic acts of brutality, often under the influence of alcohol, their officers were making rational, systematic use of terror as a method of war. Rather than being a regrettable but unavoidable concomitant of combat, rapes and mass executions and mutilations here served as an essential part of it.

The Serbs fought not only to conquer territory but to “clear” it of all traces of their Muslim or Croat enemies; or, as the notorious Serb phrase has it, to “ethnically cleanse” what they believed to be “their” land. Of course making use of terror in such a way is probably as old—and as widespread—as warfare itself:

Houses and whole villages reduced to ashes, unarmed and innocent populations massacred en masse, incredible acts of violence, pillage and brutality of every kind—such were the means which were employed by the Serbo-Montenegrin soldiery, with a view to the entire transformation of the ethnic character of regions inhabited exclusively by Albanians.

This account is drawn from the Carnegie Endowment’s Report of the International Commission to Inquire into the Cause and Conduct of the Balkan Wars, published in 1914.17 Substitute the word “Muslims” for “Albanians” and the sentence could have been composed in spring or summer of 1992. Not only was the technique of “ethnic cleansing” identical, its purpose—“the entire transformation of the ethnic character of regions”—was clear to all.

The motive force driving Serbs to fight to achieve a “Greater Serbia”—or “all Serbs in one country”—depends however on a fortuitous conjunction of factors: a set of powerful historical legends combined in a cherished nationalist myth; the advent of economic hardship and the uncertainty brought on by the end of the cold war; and the rise of an ambitious, talented, and ruthless politician.

On the nationalist myth in particular Tim Judah writes splendidly, briefly describing the Battle of Kosovo of 1389, and discussing its transformation into the founding epic of the Serbian “exile.” The story he tells does much to explain both the Serb obsession with the treachery of outsiders and their quasi-religious faith in the eventual founding, or rather reestablishment, of the Serbian state.

It was at Kosovo that King Lazar and his Serb knights rode boldly out to take the field against the Turks under Sultan Murad and defend Europe against the infidel. The Serbs lost this battle—although, as Judah shows, the evidence for this is ambiguous, as it is for much of the story; they later came to blame the defeat on the (probably imaginary) treachery of Vuk Brankovic, one of Lazar’s favorite knights. As Petar Petrovic-Njegos, prince-bishop of Montenegro, wrote in his 1847 epic The Mountain Wreath:

Our Serbia chiefs, most miserable cowards,
The Serbian stock did heinously betray.
Thou, Brankovic, of stock despicable,
Should one serve so his fatherland,
Thus much is honesty esteem’d.

Judah argues that the “myth of treachery was needed as a way to explain the fall of the medieval state, and it has powerful seeds of self-replications contained within it,” which have sprouted into an obsession with betrayal. (During the 1991-1995 war, Judah notes, with “monotonous regularity losses were always put down to secret deals—and treachery.”)

In the last supper the night before the battle, Brankovic plays Judas to Lazar’s Christ; in causing the Serbs to lose the battle, and thus their country, to the Turks, Brankovic’s betrayal made way for the crucifixion of the Serb homeland itself. But, as Judah writes, Lazar’s “idea that it is better to fight honourably and die than to live as slaves” not only “provided for Serbs an explanation for their oppression by the Ottomans,”

it also identified the whole nation with the central guiding raison d’être of Christianity: resurrection. In other words Lazar opted for the empire of heaven, that is to say truth and justice, so that the state would one day be resurrected. An earthly kingdom was rejected in favor of nobler ideals—victimhood and sacrifice—and this choice is to be compared with the temptations of Christ.

As Jesus would be resurrected so Lazar would be: and so, as well, would Serbia. This becomes a holy certainty, premised on the Serbs’ heroism and their sacrifice in losing to the Turks. “That is what people mean when they talk about the Serbs as a ‘heavenly people,”‘ Zarko Korac, a psychology professor at Belgrade University, tells Judah.

In this way the Serbs identify themselves with the Jews. As victims, yes, but also with the idea of “sacred soil.” The Jews said “Next year in Jerusalem” and after 2000 years they recreated their state. The message is: “We are victims, but we are going to survive.”

Milosevic himself exploits this powerful ideological view of history—Professor Korac believes that for most Serbs “it is not a metaphor, it is primordial”—as a motivating force; but he has not let it limit his own tactical flexibility. Judah rightly emphasizes that Milosevic plainly did not always believe armed conquest and ethnic cleansing central to carrying out his project in Bosnia, for example. Well before the Bosnians declared independence and war broke out in the spring of 1992, Milosevic tried hard to woo Bosnia into remaining in what was left of the Federation—which, of course, Slovenia and Croatia having seceded (and the Serbs of the Krajina now “liberated” from Croatia and loosely tied to Serbia), was now politically dominated by the Serbs.

The Bosnians referred to Milosevic’s planned state derisively as “Serboslavia” and it is no wonder they wanted no part of it; but the Serb leader’s tenacious attempts to persuade the Bosnians not to follow the Slovenians and Croatians in seceding show him to be much more a ruthless political tactician than an ideologue, a distinction he would confirm by his behavior four years later when he abandoned to the “ethnic cleansing” of the Croatian army the very Krajina Serbs his National Army made such a show of “liberating” in 1991.

In the event, though, and not surprisingly, Bosnia would not be wooed. Although its inexperienced leader, Alija Itzetbegovic, understood the danger of declaring independence—his nascent state, a third of whose people were Serb, might instantly collapse in war—his desperate proposals (offered jointly with the Macedonian president) to make of Yugoslavia a loose confederation were hardly of interest to Serbia, Croatia, or Slovenia. Slovenia, a small, prosperous republic with few Serbs and therefore of no real importance to Milosevic, was determined to secede, and once the Slovenes departed, the Croats were bound to follow (in fact, both republics seceded from Yugoslavia on June 25, 1991).

This left the Bosnians with a stark choice: either passively sink into a reconfigured Yugoslavia dominated by Milosevic and the Serbs, or declare independence and pray that the world would recognize the new country and somehow protect it from the onslaught to come. Itzetbegovic chose the latter, imploring the “international community” to recognize his new country and to send United Nations monitors to patrol its territory and prevent the war he knew would come. After a referendum on independence was duly held in February 1992 (which the Bosnian Serbs boycotted), the “international community” in early April recognized Bosnia as a sovereign state, and gave it a seat at the United Nations. But sending troops to protect the new state, even lightly armed “monitors,” was a different matter. According to John Fox, a regional official on the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff at the time,

The French came to the [Bush] administration at very senior levels…once in the early phase of Belgrade’s attack on Croatia, and at least once well before the military campaign against Bosnia, and they made a proposal to join with the United States, and other willing states, to put preventive peace-keepers on the ground across Bosnia—to support the legitimate elected government of Bosnia, to stabilize and prevent the outbreak of conflict, and to see Bosnia through that transition process to becoming a new independent state. 18

One might consider the proposal to dispatch peacekeeping troops as either a relatively inexpensive way to prevent what seemed an inevitable and possibly horrendous war, or as a risky initiative that would involve Americans in a situation that didn’t have a clear “exit strategy.” In any case, Fox says, “the French never got a very clear answer.” His office, the Policy Planning Staff, had proposed that the Americans join the French; but “that proposal was not accepted.”

Itzetbegovic would be given no “peacekeepers”; but after all he had international recognition. The Serbs were not impressed. “Milosevic couldn’t care less if Bosnia was recognized,” a laughing Dr. Karadzic later told a television interviewer. “He said, ‘Caligula proclaimed his horse a senator but the horse never took his seat. Itzetbegovic may get recognition but he’ll never have a state.”‘ Karadzic, the self-proclaimed leader of the Bosnian Serbs, now declared, in a famous speech during the waning days of the integral Bosnian parliament in Sarajevo, “I warn you, you’ll drag Bosnia down to hell. You Muslims aren’t ready for war—you’ll face extinction.”19

He was right. By the time Cyrus Vance, the United Nations negotiator, concluded the ceasefire in Croatia on January 2, 1992, thousands of Serb troops were heading for Bosnia in their tanks and armored personnel carriers. On May 5, all soldiers and officers of the Yugoslav National Army (JNA) who came from Bosnia were taken out of the main force, complete with their equipment, and officially became a “Bosnian Serb Army” of more than eighty thousand fully trained men. Over the objections of the Bosnian government in Sarajevo, the Serb forces took up strategic positions around the country, clearly preparing for war. Jerko Doko, then Bosnia’s minister of defense, explained in testimony at The Hague that

this could be seen by the deployment of units; the control of roads by the JNA; the relocation of artillery on hill tops around all the major cities of Bosnia-Herzegovina; their collaboration with extremist forces of the [Bosnian Serbian Democratic Party], arming them and assisting the arming of them.

But Belgrade retained control. “We promised to pay all their costs,” said Borislav Jovic, then a close aide of Milosevic’s. It was not, he said, as if the Bosnian Serbs had their own state budget to draw on. “They couldn’t even pay their officers.” Doko remembers the National Army commander, General Blagoje Adzic, visiting troops near Banja Luka and Tuzla toward the end of March 1992 in order to check their preparedness for the coming combat operations in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

As for the Bosnians, they were, as Karadzic said, unprepared for war. “Before the fighting,” David Rieff writes in Slaughterhouse, “Alija Itzetbegovic insisted there could be no war because one side—his own—would not fight. To have imagined that carnage could have been averted for this reason was only one of the many culpably naive assumptions the Bosnian presidency made.”

The Serb leaders, on the other hand, could not have been more prepared. During the last few years a group of selected senior officers had secretly developed a military strategy to guide the “Bosnia Serb Army” in its campaign to seize control of most of Bosnia. The objectives were in turn based on ideological claims of Serb vulnerability, Serb suffering, and Serb destiny that virtually every Serb who read a newspaper, listened to the radio, or watched television would by now know by heart.

The center of the ideology remained, as it had for six centuries, the redemption of the defeat at Kosovo. In 1889, on the 500th anniversary of the battle, Serbia’s foreign minister declared that the Serbs had “continued the battle in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries when they tried to recover their freedom through countless uprisings.” As Judah notes, Milosevic himself would make use of this occasion a century later to invoke “Lazar’s ghost” to come to the Serbs’ aid.


By this time, Milosevic was making use of an ideological program, drawn up by Serbian intellectuals, that came to be called “the Memorandum,” a kind of quasi-sociological rendition of the Lazar legend. In September 1986, extracts from this document, which was drafted by sixteen eminent economists, scientists, and historians in the Serbian Academy of Arts and Sciences at the suggestion of the prominent novelist and nationalist Dobrica Cosic, had been leaked to the Belgrade press, and (in Judah’s phrase) shook “the whole of Yugoslavia” with “a political earthquake.”

In the key section entitled “Position of Serbia and the Serbian People,” the writers launch a vigorous, bitter attack on what they call the “Weak Serbia, strong Yugoslavia” policy implicit in the “injustices” of Tito’s 1974 constitution (which in effect “divided Serbia in three,” by making Vojvodina and Kosovo autonomous provinces; though on Serbia’s territory, they both retained a right to vote in national government institutions).

The Serb exodus from the province of Kosovo—which, as Judah shows, has amounted only to a relative decrease of population with respect to the Albanians—the writers repeatedly describe as “the genocide in Kosovo.” The shift in population in Kosovo—which results from “a physical, moral and psychological reign of terror”—together with the economic and legal “hardships” all Serbs suffer daily, “are not only threatening the Serbian people but also the stability of Yugoslavia as a whole.”

In the Federation’s “general process of disintegration,” the academicians wrote, the Serbs “have been hit hardest” and in fact the country’s difficulties are “directed towards the total breaking up of the national unity among the Serbian people.” Observing that 24 percent of all Serbs live outside the Serbian Republic and more than 40 percent outside of so-called “inner Serbia,” the writers declare:

A nation which after a long and bloody struggle regained its own state, which fought for and achieved a civil democracy, and which in the last two wars lost 2.5 million of its members, has lived to see the day when a Party committee of apparatchiks decrees that…it alone is not allowed to have its own state. A worse historical defeat in peacetime cannot be imagined.20

The roots of Milosevic’s, and Karadzic’s, ideological campaigns are all here: the near-hysterical sense of historical grievance and betrayal, the resentment over Serbia’s “inferior political position,” the heightened rhetoric about the “genocide” of the Serbs—a term used to describe the exile of Serbs from their rightful lands but that evokes darker suspicions of the true intentions of Serbia’s betrayers.

To combat these injustices Serbs are obliged to seize their fate in their own hands and achieve the long-awaited resurrection of King Lazar: “the territorial unity of the Serbian people.” They must act not only to ensure their survival but to lay claim at last to an ancient birthright: “the establishment,” the Memorandum says, “of the full national integrity of the Serbian people, regardless of which republic or province it inhabits, is its historic and democratic right.” (Emphasis added)

Dominating the newspapers, television, and radio from the late Eighties onward, Milosevic and the other purveyors of this ideology brilliantly exploited the insecurities and fears of a people caught in a maelstrom of economic decline and political change. In the Serbian press all Muslims became “Islamic fundamentalists,” all Croats “Ustase.” As Norman Cigar writes in a chapter of his Genocide in Bosnia entitled “Paving the Way to Genocide,” well before the actual breakup of Yugoslavia, “influential figures in Serbia had begun to shape a stereotypical image of Muslims as alien, inferior and a threat to all that the Serbs held dear.”

Such propaganda, fed incessantly to a people who in many cases had been prepared for it by their own cherished historical myths, served to transform neighbors into “the other”—outsiders, aliens. And Milosevic did not find it difficult, in the bewildering world of nascent popular politics, to portray a relatively new phenomenon for Yugoslavs—the legitimate political opponent—as a mortal threat. By “isolating the entire Muslim community,” writes Cigar, such propaganda would ensure that “any steps…taken against Muslims in pursuit of Belgrade’s political goals would acquire legitimacy and popular support.”

Such “steps” were even then being prepared. During the late 1980s a small group of officers (among them, then Colonel Ratko Mladic) who called themselves the “military line” had begun meeting secretly with members of Serbia’s secret police.

By 1990, or perhaps a bit earlier—the timing here is a matter of controversy—the officers had drafted what they called the “RAM plan” which set out schemes for the military conquest of “Serb lands” in Croatia and Bosnia. The plan was called RAM, or “FRAME”—it is not known what the individual letters stand for—because it makes clear the boundaries, or frame, within which the new Serbian-dominated lands will be established. As Jerko Doko, the former Bosnian minister of defense, describes it in his Hague testimony:

The substance of the plan was to create a greater Serbia. That RAM was to follow the lines of Virovitica, Karlovac, Karlobag, which we saw confirmed in reality later on with the decision on the withdrawal of the JNA, the Yugoslav People’s Army, from Slovenia and partly from Croatia to those positions.21

In their plan, the officers described how artillery, ammunition, and other military equipment would be stored in strategic locations in Croatia and then in Bosnia, and how, with the help of the Secret Police, local Serbian activists would be armed and trained, thereby creating “shadow” police forces and paramilitary units in the towns of the Croatian Krajina and throughout Bosnia. And, as early as July 1990, this is precisely what the Army began to do. In the area of Foca, according to Doko,

The JNA had distributed among the Serb voluntary units about 51,000 pieces of firearms and [among] SDS members, about 23,000…, [the Army] also gave them armoured vehicles, about 400 heavy artillery pieces, 800 mortars….

The leaders of the Bosnian Serb Army would be able to depend upon this “parallel power structure” of dedicated, often fanatical, and now well-armed men to support their troops as they carried out their campaign to conquer Bosnia. For “to conquer” here does not mean simply to subdue. In Bosnia people of different religions tended to be well mixed together; many cities in the Drina Valley, for example, adjacent to the border of Serbia itself, contained large numbers of Muslims.

The officers confronted, then, both a demographic and a strategic challenge. They must create a new state whose contiguous territory bordered the Serbian motherland—and which held most of the “liberated” Serbs. “The fact that Muslims are the majority,” Karadzic said, “makes no difference. They won’t decide our fate. That is our right.” Serb lands were Serb lands, regardless of who happened to live there.

And thus came into use “ethnic cleansing,” an ancient and brutally effective technique of war christened by the Serbs with a modern, hygienic name. In city after city, town after town, in the spring and summer of 1992, the Bosnian Serb Army and its commandos and paramilitary units launched their attacks in precisely the same pattern. It was clear these operations of conquest and cleansing were minutely, and centrally, planned. According to Vladimir Srebov, a former Serbian Democratic Party leader who read the “RAM Plan,” the officers stipulated a vast program of ethnic cleansing the aim of which “was to destroy Bosnia economically and completely exterminate the Muslim people.” As Srebov later told an interviewer:

The plan…envisaged a division of Bosnia into two spheres of interest, leading to the creation of a Greater Serbia and a Greater Croatia. The Muslims were to be subjected to a final solution: more than 50 percent of them were to be killed, a smaller part was to be converted to Orthodoxy, while an even smaller…part—people with money—were to be allowed to buy their lives and leave, probably, through Serbia, for Turkey. The aim was to cleanse Bosnia-Herzegovina completely of the Muslim nation.22

This plan was not fully accomplished, although it is astonishing to think that it might have been. With some exceptions, when the Serbs launched their campaign on March 27, 1992, they chose as their first objective to seize those parts of Bosnia closest to Serbia and to the (now Serbian-controlled) Krajina, regardless of who lived there. Within six weeks they controlled 60 percent of the country, and though they would later increase their gains, occupying, at their strongest, some 70 percent of Bosnia’s territory—Serbs made up slightly less than a third of Bosnians—and though the fighting and shelling and skirmishing would go on, the front lines would not change dramatically during the next three years of the war.

When the Serb gunners began shelling cities and towns in Bosnia, the pattern of “cleansing” emerged immediately. Army units would form a perimeter around a town, setting up roadblocks. Messages were sent inviting all Serb residents to depart. Then the artillerymen would begin their work, shelling the town with heavy and light guns; if defenders fired back, the Serb bombardment might last many days, destroying the town and killing most of those in it; if there was no resistance, the heavy guns might stop in a day or two. Once the town was considered sufficiently “softened up,” the paramilitary shock troops would storm in, and the terror would begin.

Like the camp guards—whom they visited when they could in order to take part in torturing prisoners—the paramilitary troops had one responsibility: to administer terror. After a town had been subdued by artillery fire the paramilitaries “mopped up.” Many bore on their person all the iconography of World War II “Chetnik” nationalists: bandoliers across their chests and huge combat knives on their belts; fur hats with symbols of skull and crossbones; black flags, also with skull and crossbones; and the full beard, which, as Ivo Banac says, “in the peasant culture of Serbia is a sign of mourning; somebody dies, one does not shave. This was something that happened in times of war….”23

Often the paramilitary troops would arrive at a newly conquered town with lists of influential residents who were to be executed; just as often they simply shot, or stabbed, or mutilated, or raped any resident whom they managed to find. These killers, many of whom were criminals who had been released from prison to “reform themselves” at the front, were attracted to the job by their virulent nationalist beliefs, by simple sadism, and by greed. Looting Muslim houses made many of them rich.

Many of the sadistic, high-living, and colorful paramilitary leaders became celebrities in Serbia. Zeljko Raznatovic, for example, known as Arkan (everyone knew his Serb Volunteer Guard, by far the strongest and best armed of the paramilitaries, as Arkan’s Tigers), was a famous criminal—a bank robber by profession who was thought to be wanted in several European countries, in several of which he had been imprisoned and escaped.

Judah speculates that Arkan’s legendary prison escapes have owed much to his longstanding contacts with agents of an espionage network run out of the Yugoslav Secretariat for Internal Affairs, for whom he reputedly worked as an assassin abroad. (His day job was running a pastry shop.) Having lately married a Serbian pop singer in a huge wedding, Arkan now is a member of the Yugoslav parliament.

Despite their flamboyance and seeming independence, Arkan’s Tigers and the other paramilitaries—Vojislav Seslj’s Chetniks, the White Eagles, the Yellow Ants (the name is a testament to their prowess at looting)—were creatures of the Serbian state. As Milos Vasic, an expert on the Yugoslav military, writes, “They were all organized with the consent of Milosevic’s secret police and armed, commanded, and controlled by its officers.”

Though it is unclear how specifically the officers described actual tactics in the RAM Plan, the similarity of atrocities committed in town after town lends credence to Beverly Allen’s assertion, in Rape Warfare, that they debated in detail the most effective means of terror. Allen quotes one document, “a variation of the RAM Plan, written by the army’s special services, including…experts in psychological warfare,” that offers a chilling sociological rationale for the tactics of ethnic cleansing:

Our analysis of the behavior of the Muslim communities demonstrates that the morale, will, and bellicose nature of their groups can be undermined only if we aim our action at the point where the religious and social structure is most fragile. We refer to the women, especially adolescents, and to the children. Decisive intervention on these social figures would spread confusion…, thus causing first of all fear and then panic, leading to a probable retreat from the territories involved in war activity.

This is why Vasic calls the paramilitaries the “psychological weapon in ethnic cleansing.” The men knew that they must be brutal enough, and inventive enough in their cruelty, that stories of their terror would quickly spread and in the next village, says Vasic, “no one would wait for them to come.” He estimates that the paramilitaries consisted on average of “80 percent common criminals and 20 percent fanatical nationalists.”24

José Maria Mendiluce, an official of the United Nations High Commission on Refugees, who happened to pass through Zvornik on April 9, was watching the paramilitaries “mopping up” the town, when he suddenly realized that “the Belgrade media had been writing about how there was a plot to kill all Serbs in Zvornik…. This maneuver always precedes the killing of Muslims.” As Michael Sells, who includes this quotation in his The Bridge Betrayed, comments,

The national mythology, hatred and unfounded charges of actual genocide in Kosovo and imminent genocide in Bosnia had shaped into a code: the charge of genocide became a signal to begin genocide.

Army gunners—some of them positioned across the Drina in Serbia itself—targeted Zvornik and drove its few, lightly armed defenders out in a matter of hours. Then Vojislav Seslj and his Chetnik paramilitaries moved in.

Mendiluce watched as the soldiers and the paramilitaries did their work:

I saw lorries full of corpses. Soldiers were dumping dead women, children and old people onto lorries. I saw four or five lorries full of corpses. On one bend, my jeep skidded on the blood.25

United Nations investigators say Seslj briefed his Chetniks in a local hotel, reading out a list of the names of local Muslims who were to be killed. “Milosevic was in total control,” Seslj later told an interviewer, “and the operation was planned…in Belgrade.”

The Bosnian Serbs did take part. But the best combat units came from Serbia. These were special police commandos called Red Berets. They’re from the Secret Service of Serbia. My forces took part, as did others. We planned the operation very carefully, and everything went exactly according to plan.26

According to the United Nations, some two thousand people from Zvornik remain unaccounted for. As for the other 47,000 Muslims, they were expelled, many of them forced onto the roads with only what they wore. Zvornik, which had a thriving community of Muslims for half a millennium, now has none.

Sometimes the cleansing was carried out more gradually. Early in 1992, members of a small paramilitary group seized control of Prijedor’s television transmitter, thus ensuring that the town received only programs from Belgrade—programs which, UN investigators wrote, “insinuated that non-Serbs wanted war and threatened the Serbs.” Soon Yugoslav National Army troops, fresh from the Croatia war, began arriving in the Prijedor area. The Army officers demanded that Prijedor’s leaders permit their troops to take up positions around the city, from which they could control all roads to, and exits from, the district.

It was an ultimatum. The legitimate authorities were invited for a guided sightseeing tour of two Croatian villages…which had been destroyed and left uninhabited. The message was that if the ultimatum was not [accepted], the fate of Prijedor would be the same. … The ultimatum was accepted.27

With Bosnian Serb troops guarding all roads, Prijedor became isolated. The Serbs closed down the bus service. They required that people have permits to visit even nearby villages. They imposed a curfew. The telephones were often not working.

On April 30, in a swift, well-executed coup d’état, local Serbs seized control of Prijedor itself. According to the United Nations investigators, the Serbs had been preparing to seize power for at least six months, arming themselves with weapons secretly supplied by the Army and developing their own clandestine “parallel” administrations, including a “shadow” police force with its own secret service.

Non-Serbs now began to lose their jobs. Policemen and public officials were the first to be dismissed, but the purge went on until even many manual workers had been fired. The “shadow” administrations already long prepared by the Serbs simply took over the empty offices.

The new Serb policemen, often accompanied by paramilitaries, began to pay visits throughout Prijedor, pounding on the doors of all non-Serbs who held licenses to own firearms and demanding they turn them in.

…The non-Serbs in reality [had become] outlaws. At times, non-Serbs were instructed to wear white armbands to identify themselves.

Finally, near the end of May, the local press—newspapers, radio, and television—began to broadcast a more hysterical version of Belgrade’s propaganda, claiming that dangerous Muslim extremists were hiding around and within Prijedor, preparing to seize the town and commit genocide against the Serbs.

By now it had become quite clear what this accusation heralded. Those few Muslims and Croats who still had weapons decided to move first. As the UN investigators describe it:

On 30 May 1992, a group of probably less than 150 armed non-Serbs had made their way to the Old Town in Prijedor to regain control of the town…. They were defeated, and the Old Town was razed. In the central parts of Prijedor…, all non-Serbs were forced to leave their houses as Serbian military, paramilitary, police and civilians advanced street by street with tanks and lighter arms. The non-Serbs had been instructed over the radio to hang a white piece of cloth on their home to signal surrender.

According to the UN Report, “Hundreds, possibly thousands were killed…frequently after maltreatment.” Those who survived were divided into two groups: women, children, and the very old were often simply expelled; as for the men, thousands were sent to Keraterm and Omarska, the two nearest concentration camps. Although the fighting on May 30 began a general exodus of non-Serbs—the Muslim population dropped from nearly fifty thousand in 1991 to barely 6,000 in 1993—it very quickly became clear that the Serbs were targeting for actual deportation the elite of the city: political leaders, judges, policemen, academics and intellectuals, officials who had worked in the public administration, important business people, and artists. And, after the burning of the old town, any “other important traces of Muslim and Croatian culture and religion—mosques and Catholic churches included—were destroyed.”

On the morning of May 30, 1992, two heavily armed soldiers came to his door and summoned him and, within hours, Rezak Hukanovic, a forty-three-year-old father of two, broadcaster, journalist, and poet, found himself packed into a bus with scores of other frightened men, bent over, his head between his knees, peering out of the corner of his eye at the tongues of flame rising from the Old City of Prijedor. He was on his way to Omarska.


In Washington, intelligence analysts were watching. “The initial Serb offensive moved an awful lot of people out of where they were living,” said Jon Western, who was then working analyzing Bosnian war crimes at the State Department, “and we knew these people were not simply disappearing. Where were they being taken?”

Officials would soon discover the answer; by late June or early July, little more than a month after Rezak Hukanovic boarded the bus at Prijedor, Western and his colleagues had learned of the camps:

We had information about the concentration camps, we were compiling that information and trying to get a more accurate picture but it was clear we knew…. To the extent that we could pinpoint and say that there was a camp here or here, we did that.28

The information was passed forward to Secretary of State James Baker and to senior officials at the Pentagon and the White House. It met with silence. Western was not surprised; when it came to information about war crimes in Bosnia, he said, the offices of senior officials were “generally a black box. We would send things up and nothing would come back. The only time we would get a response was when the press covered a particular event.”

When the inevitable press disclosures came, in early August, the timing could not have been worse for the Bush administration. Throughout the summer influential voices demanding that something should be done to halt the carnage in Bosnia had been growing louder and President Bush, fighting desperately to win re-election, had been struggling to defend his government’s own passivity.

For their part the Bosnian Serbs, seeing the dramatic increase of pressure on Bush to intervene, were quick to realize their blunder. In permitting Western journalists to see the camps, Karadzic apparently thought they could be duped into believing conditions were not so bad as the growing rumors seemed to suggest: in his Seasons in Hell, Ed Vulliamy tells of later learning from a survivor who had been imprisoned at Omarska during the journalists’ visit that “only the fittest” of prisoners had been displayed. (It is also remotely possible, as Judah suggests, that Karadzic did not allow himself to learn how dreadful conditions in the camps were.)

In any event, the Serbs quickly moved to close the most notorious camps. President Bush’s denunciations and demands that the camps be opened to international inspectors no doubt helped quickly shut the doors of Omarska and some others; had Bush chosen to reveal the camps and spoken out when he and his officials had first learned of them the result would have surely been the same—except a great many prisoners might still be alive.

Closing the camps did not put an end to the controversy over the atrocities in Bosnia. “They kept saying the war would ‘burn itself out,”‘ a State Department official told me. “I actually sat in a meeting where people suggested that what would be needed for the war to ‘burn itself out’ would be around 20,000 dead.” On August 18, however, Senate investigators released a detailed report concluding that already in the first four weeks of the war 35,000 people, almost all Muslim victims of ethnic cleansing, had been killed. And, throughout the great breadth of their conquered lands, the Serbs went on applying the proven techniques of ethnic cleansing. They raped, mutilated, and killed thousands and expelled hundreds of thousands from their homes; many of these crimes took place virtually before the eyes of reporters, most of them from the West.

Many press and television commentators, human rights representatives, members of Congress, leaders of Jewish and Muslim advocacy groups, and others now brought pressure to bear on the Bush administration to declare that what was taking place in Bosnia constituted “genocide.” A number of administration officials, particularly lower- and mid-level foreign service officers with responsibility for Bosnia, also began to promote this cause within the State Department, believing, as one of them, Paul Williams, then a lawyer at the Office of European and Canadian Affairs, put it, that “if the United States identifies what is occurring in Bosnia as genocide, then it ups the ante, it creates a moral obligation as well as a legal obligation to take action.”29

“Genocide” (a word coined in 1944 by the scholar Raphael Lemkin) was meant to denote not simply murdering an entire people—the object of the law against it was to prevent the crime, not simply to define legally the extent of a massacre—but, wrote Lemkin, “a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destructions of different foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves.” The “actions” Lemkin lists as constituting genocide—“disintegration of the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups, and the destruction of the personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups”30—read like the catalog of ethnic cleansing.

Lemkin’s definition laid the foundation for the United Nations’ Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (1948), and it was according to the terms of this treaty that a growing number of State Department officials were pressuring their government to define what was happening in Bosnia. The treaty calls on its signers to undertake “to prevent and to punish” crimes of genocide. But the declaration would not necessarily be of “operational importance,” as a colleague told State Department official Richard Johnson, since individual war crimes “are easier to prove than genocide”; nor would it be a help in “ending the killing in Bosnia (through a ‘negotiated settlement’).”

But that was exactly the point: to call ethnic cleansing by its proper name would be a powerful political act. As Johnson points out in his essay “The Pinstripe Approach to Genocide” (included in The Conceit of Innocence), a determination of genocide “would undermine the credibility of Western policies that rely on…peace talks to reach a ‘voluntary settlement’ between ‘warring factions’—who would now be defined as the perpetrators and victims of genocide.” And if the administration had officially identified what was happening as genocide, Paul Williams says, it would have created “a moral imperative. Genocide is a term that is recognized by the American people. It means something, both to the American people and under international law.”

In the wake of the concentration camp controversy, George Bush and his senior officials recognized that a determination of genocide would multiply the pressure to act forcefully in Bosnia—and that was clearly the last thing they wanted. Having denounced the camps, Bush officials promised to submit information on war crimes in Bosnia to the United Nations War Crimes Commission—and assigned one foreign service officer to the task. The secretary of state, meantime, requested a determination from the Office of Legal Advisor of whether or not what was going on in Bosnia constituted genocide, and was told, according to Williams, that “it appeared to be a simple question: if the atrocities which are occurring in Bosnia continue, this amounts to genocide.” It was unclear, however, whether the lawyers had enough evidence to trace responsibility directly to Milosevic.

With Governor Clinton strongly denouncing Bush’s inaction—shortly after the election he would declare, in what must have been an irritating echo of Bush’s warning to Saddam Hussein, that “the legitimacy of ethnic cleansing cannot stand”—General Colin Powell once again went on the offensive. On October 10, three weeks before the election, General Powell published his own essay on The New York Times’s opinion page, in which, while offering a strong endorsement of his beleaguered Commander-in-Chief, he asserted that “Americans know they are getting a hell of a return on their defense investment.”

The reason for our success is that in every instance we have carefully matched the use of military force to our political objectives. President Bush, more than any other recent President, understands the proper use of military force. In every instance, he has made sure that the objective was clear and that we knew what we were getting into.

Though Powell doesn’t mention Vietnam, it is evident his own demons lurk just beneath the surface:

[Y]ou bet I get nervous when so-called experts suggest that all we need is a little surgical bombing or a limited attack. When the desired result isn’t obtained, a new set of experts then comes forward with talk of a little escalation. History has not been kind to this approach.31

The American officers would use this tactic, subtly managed, of brandishing Vietnam in front of policymakers and then the public, to undermine nearly every proposal for action that the United States might take to influence the evolving conflict in Bosnia.32 “The Pentagon’s tactic,” Warren Zimmermann says, “was never to say no, simply to raise objections which made proposals seem unworkable.” And though it is true the officers “never got very good answers to [their] incessant questioning of what was the precise military objective and what political end would be served by achieving it[,]…it is also true that Bosnia proved the United States incapable of managing a complex war requiring a limited use of force for limited objectives.” Zimmermann, America’s “last ambassador to Yugoslavia,” has now left the State Department; four of the young Foreign Service officers who were fighting for a change in Bosnia policy resigned in protest.

As for the demands that had risen to a crescendo after the emaciated faces from Bosnia appeared on American television screens, demands that the administration do something about this horror, Bush officials devised a novel solution. They would indeed do something, going so far as to send American troops; but their mission would be to tend to a different population of emaciated beings. In deciding to dispatch troops to feed starving Africans, Eagleburger conceded, “We knew the costs weren’t so great and there were some potential benefits.” And as for General Powell, he was said to have predicated his support for Somalia’s Restore Hope on the condition that the United States “would attempt no such mission in Bosnia.”33

This is the second in a series of articles.

This Issue

December 4, 1997