Early one February afternoon in 1994, people in Sarajevo shed their heavy coats and hats and poured out into streets and markets, allowing themselves to forget, in the bright warming sun, that from artillery bunkers and snipers’ nests dug into hills and mountains above the city hunters stared down, tracking their prey. But the people of Sarajevo were not permitted to forget. As we cruised the city’s streets in a small armored car, climbing, under a trembling, light-filled sky, toward the Spanish Fort, signs fell abruptly into place: a sudden chaos of horns and screams and screeching tires; a blue van tearing by with one eye peering out from a shattered face, and, racing in its wake, a battered white Yugo with a smeared red handprint emblazoned on its door.

We turned and forced our way back, struggling to trace the source of this grim caravan. When a policeman bade us stop, we clambered out and trotted down cluttered streets, dodging and stumbling through jumbles of honking vehicles until we entered once more the tiny square where, the day before, we had edged our way through boisterous crowds, chatting with vendors behind bare wood tables that held the besieged city’s paltry wares: handfuls of leeks and potatoes, plastic combs in garish pink and green, scatterings of loose nuts and bolts, a blackened bit of banana, a monkey wrench half-rusted, glinting fitfully in the beneficent sun.

Twenty-four hours later Markela marketplace stood precisely so, when, at 12:37 on February 5, 1994, a 120-millimeter mortar shell plunged earthward in an impossibly perfect trajectory, plummeted within view of the somber gray façade of the Catholic cathedral and then by the windows of gray apartment buildings, passed through the market’s ramshackle metal roof and erupted, its five pounds of high explosive spewing out red-hot shrapnel and sending corrugated metal shards slicing through the crowd; in an eye-blink a thick forest of chattering, gossiping, bartering people had been cut down.

Now, turning into the tiny square, we found not infernal smoke or darkness but, amid a terrible clarity, clumps of dark bundles strewn about the asphalt, and, between them, spreading slowly amid shards of charred metal and blackened vegetables and bits of plastic, puddles of slick dark liquid.

We stepped gingerly forward, letting pass two men dragging a limp, softly moaning figure; before us men moved from bundle to bundle, crouching, pressing fingers to a throat, pausing, pushing back an eyelid, staring. I left the curb, feeling my throat constrict as I passed into a cloud of invisible and nauseating cordite; stumbling against a car, I looked down and saw my boot soles already shiny and slick.

A big man danced quickly by me, hoisting the video camera on his shoulder, and close at his back came sound, craning his silver boom forward over the cameraman’s head so that the two appeared together like some great rapacious bird. I followed step by careful step,1 and we passed through the bloody topography, tracing our way slowly past torsos and parts of torsos; past arms and hands and bits of limbs and unidentifiable hunks of flesh, all mixed with blackened metal and smashed vegetables and here and there a long splinter of wooden table. At the center of it all a man in a dark overcoat lay on his back, fully intact, face perfectly gray, eyes perfectly empty, staring blankly up at the perfect sky.

I took out my pen and notebook, and looked about me, somewhat bewildered. Here and there I recognized, or thought I did, vendors I had chatted with the day before; some artilleryman on one of those mountainsides had made of them objects now, exhibits for us and for the evening news. I tried to tally the corpses, matching limbs to trunks, heads to limbs, counting, counting; but it was impossible. In the back of the market, three blank-faced men worked with black-gloved hands behind a decrepit truck, crouching, lifting, heaving. As I approached I realized they were trying to match up parts of bodies on long pieces of corrugated metal; by now the truckbed was half full and its tires and undercarriage thick with gore.

Turning back I saw a big, mustached man weeping, his hands raised and grasping the air as he struggled to reach a bloodsoaked bundle of cloth and flesh on the ground; two smaller men held him, murmuring as they worked to push him back. As the mustached face, red and distorted and full of fury, rose above the shoulders of those imprisoning him, I realized that I had chatted with him the day before, that he had been selling…what? Yes, lentils, that was it, lentils and potatoes, and his wife, now eviscerated at his feet, had stood at his side. Now he lifted his great head, stared upward, and, raising a fist, began to shout. Along with several others I followed his gaze and picked out the glinting specks in the bright blue sky: the planes of NATO, patrolling over the “safe area” of Sarajevo.


Amid the human wreckage of this sun-filled square, what could this phrase possibly mean? Since United Nations diplomats had coined it the previous spring, as Bosnian Serb soldiers stood ready to advance from the hills around Srebrenica and seize the town,2 no one had quite known. Now, amid the stench of cordite in Markela marketplace, the world had at last been offered the hint of a definition, one that would be affirmed in Srebrenica and Zepa the following year: “safe area” meant very little indeed. Like so many of their “policies” in the Bosnian war, Western leaders had constructed this one solely of words.

Now, for the people who had elected those leaders, large glass lenses—more and more of them bobbing and glinting now as more cameramen pushed their way into the tiny square—would make those words flesh. A few hundred miles away Germans and French would press a button on a remote control and confront overwhelming gore; across the ocean Americans, with (presumably) more delicate sensibilities, would be permitted to see much less, but enough blood would remain for many of these citizens to pose a heartfelt if ephemeral question: Why is nothing being done about this?

Though the Serbs had shelled Sarajevo for nearly two years; though they had destroyed the National Library, burning thousands of books, and had methodically reduced to ruins many of the city’s other cultural treasures; though they had cut off electricity and water, forcing Sarajevans to place themselves in snipers’ telescopic sights as they chopped down every tree in every park in search of firewood and stood in line filling plastic bottles at outdoor water spigots—though the Serbs had killed and wounded thousands of Sarajevans from their bunkers in the hills and from their snipers’ nests in the burned out high-rise buildings that lined “sniper’s alley,” after two years of siege only “an event” like the “Marketplace Massacre” had a chance of engaging the fickle attention of the world. The day before, the Serbs had launched three shells into the Dobrinja neighborhood, killing ten Sarajevans as they waited for food; twelve days before, two Serb shells had blown apart six children as they sledded in the filthy snow. How many days of such steady, methodical work would be needed to match the marketplace’s toll? Six? Seven? And yet such daily work, however deadly, didn’t matter, for depending on the news in New York or London or Paris, it could not rise to the level of “massacre.”

I stood in the morgue across the road from Kosevo hospital. Compared to the bloodslick ground of Markela, compared even to the hospital entrance across the way—a hellhole now with shattered figures dead and dying in the hallways and a doctor, face brightly flushed, furious, screaming at us (“Get out, get out, I said. Let us do our work!”)—compared to that, it was quiet here, peaceful. I found myself alone for the first time that day—alone with those who had suddenly become the most important actors in the Bosnia drama. All unwittingly they had forced reluctant politicians and diplomats to come together—even now in Washington and Brussels and Paris they were gathering in urgent talks—and they would in the next few days change the direction of the war. And yet they had done nothing more than thousands of Sarajevans before them, stand in a particular place at a particular time and, all unknowingly, find a sudden and unseen death.

I took out my notebook, drew a deep breath, and began to count. It was easier now, all had been properly arranged, what limbs and parts remained had been matched up by people well practiced in such things. Twenty-one, twenty-two, twenty-three…Yes, this was a big story, perhaps the biggest of the war. Thirty-one, thirty-two…Yes, a huge story….


“Many had ice in their ears.”

What? Excuse me?”

Ice. They had ice in their ears,” said Dr. Radovan Karadzic, psychiatrist, poet, leader of the Bosnian Serbs, as he prepared to take another bite of stew. “You know, the Muslims—they took bodies from the morgue and they put them there, in the market. Even when they shell themselves like this, no one shell kills that many. So they went to the morgue…”

I was—and not for the first time during our lunch—left speechless. Dr. Karadzic, clearly a very intelligent man, had mastered the fine art of constructing and delivering with great sincerity utterances that seemed so distant from demonstrable reality that he left no common ground on which to contradict him. Ice in their ears? Muslim intelligence officers stealing into the morgue to snatch corpses, secreting them in cars, setting off a bomb in the marketplace, and in the smoke and confusion leaving the frozen corpses strewn about the asphalt: it seemed an absurd idea. And yet despite myself I found myself thinking of the man in the overcoat lying on his back, staring upward, open-eyed. His face was peculiarly gray. Strange he bore no evident wounds… Ice in his ears? No. No, of course not.


Dr. Karadzic watched me, lightly smiled, took a bite of stew, and chewed heartily. He is—or at least he was, during that lunch in his office in early February 1994—a hearty man, enormous, wide as the side of a barn and standing six foot four. In fact he appears taller than that, and this is clearly owing to the trademark hair. The hair is huge and sweeping and all-encompassing. It seems to be emerging from everywhere, head, forehead, ears, nose, in a kind of riot of power and fertility. And indeed, though he lived in Sarajevo thirty years, took his psychiatric degree at the university, and practiced in Kosevo Hospital, when he wasn’t studying medicine and dabbling in poetry for a year in New York; though he recited and sang his poetry in the cafés and bars of that most cosmopolitan of cities, the Bosnian capital, Radovan Karadzic was in fact a man of the mountains, from a small and rough Montenegrin village.

“He has a sense of grandiosity, like many mountain people—look at the Scots, say,” said Dr. Ismet Ceric, the chief of psychiatry at Kosevo Hospital who had largely trained Karadzic and had been his close friend for twenty-five years. “People from the mountains—Milosevic is Montenegrin too, you know, both his parents come from there—these mountain people come down here fresh and strong, and they see city people as soft and corrupt.”

In many ways, that theme—fresh, pure, hardy people descending from the mountains and from the countryside to take their revenge on the soft corrupt cosmopolitans of the cities—had marked the conflict from the beginning. During the 1950s and 1960s, the traditional Muslim gentry, deracinated by Tito’s land reforms, had migrated to the cities, particularly Sarajevo, where they joined an already well-established secular Muslim intelligentsia. As Ed Vulliamy points out in his Seasons in Hell: Understanding Bosnia’s War,

When Bosnians (usually Muslims, nowadays) tell you that all three people lived together without regard to ethnic groups, they are by and large telling the truth. But… while the towns and cities were nonchalant arenas for the practice of multi-ethnic Bosnia, everyday life in the countryside was one in which Muslims, Serbs and Croats were more insular. The Second World War in Bosnia had been driven by undercurrents of civil war and in the villages, peasants who had fought on all sides, and in particular the Serbs, made sure to keep their weapons. For them, the war had not yet ended; it was a question of waiting for the right moment to recommence it.

Later, during the 1960s and 1970s, many of these Serbs also moved to the cities, drawn by jobs in Tito’s factories; but they remained ill at ease and distrustful. To these Serbs—those of the countryside and those who had taken uneasy root in the cities—the bloodbath carried out by the Croat fascist forces, the Ustashe, in the early 1940s remained very fresh, for almost all of them had lost family members in it. All Serbs could recite stories of the Croat-run concentration camp at Jasenovac, on the Bosnian border, where a hundred thousand or more Serbs were murdered; all could tell of massacres of Serbs like the one at Omarska (a name now notorious as the site of the Serb-run concentration camp that appeared on the world’s television sets in August 1992); and all could instruct a visitor by relating an anecdote about Ante Pavelic, Croatia’s Nazi-puppet dictator (as told here by the Italian war correspondent and novelist Curzio Malaparte):

…I gazed at a wicker basket on [Pavelic’s] desk. The lid was raised and the basket seemed to be filled with mussels, or shelled oysters—as they are occasionally displayed in the windows of Fortnum and Mason in Piccadilly in London. [Italian minister Raffaele] Casertano looked at me and winked, “Would you like a nice oyster stew?”

“Are they Dalmatian oysters?” I asked [Pavelic].

Ante Pavelic removed the lid from the basket and revealed the mussels, that slimy and jelly-like mass, and he said smiling, with that tired good-natured smile of his, “It is a present from my loyal ustashis. Forty pounds of human eyes.”3

Many Serbs were well prepared for Belgrade’s inescapable and incessant propaganda that marked President Franjo Tudjman and his Croats as a reborn Ustashe eager to recommence the work of massacre and annihilation of Serbs, and portrayed the Muslims both as the Croats’ eager henchmen and as “Turks” determined to create an exclusivist “Islamic Republic” in the heart of Europe.

And that deeply instilled suspicion and fear is partly why—when thousands of Sarajevans marched for peace in the first days of April 1992, moving in a great river through the city toward the Holiday Inn, an impossibly ugly yellow box of a building where Dr. Karadzic had installed Serbian Democratic Party offices, and Dr. Karadzic’s bodyguards climbed to the roof and began firing into the crowd, killing six people—that is why sixty thousand Serbs fled the city, almost all of them relatively recent arrivals who had come to enjoy the riches the city offered but still distrusted its sophisticated ways.

Some of these Serbs would enlist in or be drafted into the Bosnian Serb Army, an entity that Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic and his generals simply created out of whole cloth by rechristening the eighty thousand fully equipped Yugoslav Peoples Army troops then in Bosnia; these Serbs would take their places on the mountainsides, living in the tiny log cabins with their tiny wisps of cooking smoke that marked each artillery emplacement, and spending their days gazing, over the barrel of a cannon, at the beautiful city that had welcomed them.

Radovan Karadzic, doctor, psychiatrist, businessman, poet, a man who had traveled, who had broad and cosmopolitan interests, among them a devotion to American poetry, would seem to have little in common with such men. True, he had been born in 1945, into the violent postwar world of peasant Montenegro; his father had fought as a Chetnik, a Serbian nationalist guerrilla, and served time in Tito’s prisons. And during our conversation the war he then presided over and the slaughter of a half-century before often blended together.

“The Serbs did not invent ethnic cleansing,” he told me, several times. “The Croats did, in World War II. When Tudjman and Izetbegovic formed a [Croat-Muslim] alliance, all Serbs were frightened to death that the same would happen as during the war, when hundreds of thousands of innocent Serbs were slaughtered.”

This was partly true, of course: Karadzic well understood, as Goebbels did, that any effective propaganda had within it a kernel of truth. But memories were only the beginning; nationalist leaders like Milosevic, Tudjman, and Karadzic, as former US Ambassador to Yugoslavia Warren Zimmerman points out, “were able to turn many normal people toward extremism by playing on their historic fears through the baleful medium of television, a matchless technological tool in the hands of dictators.”

The nationalist media sought to terrify by evoking mass murderers of a bygone time. The Croatian press described Serbs as “Cetniks.” … For the Serbian press Croatians were “Ustase” (and later, Muslims became “Turks”). People who think they’re under ethnic threat tend to seek refuge in their ethnic group. Thus did the media’s terror campaign establish ethnic solidarity on the basis of an enemy to be both hated and feared.

At the time we spoke, in early 1994, the so-called historic Croat-Muslim alliance which had “frightened all the Serbs to death” had largely collapsed; Bosnian Croats and Muslims fought bitterly in Mostar, Vitez, and elsewhere. Croat troops had seized Bosnians who had battled at their sides against the Serbs and had forced them, together with Muslims “cleansed” from west Mostar, Capljina, Stolae, and other villages, into concentration camps whose brutality rivaled that of Omarska and other Serb camps. Ed Vulliamy visited Dretelj in September 1993:

Their huge burning eyes, cropped heads and shrivelled, sickly torsos emerged only as one became accustomed to the darkness: hundreds of men, some of them gaunt and horribly thin, crammed like factory farm beasts into the stinking, putrid spaces of two large underground storage hangars built into the hillside…. This infernal tunnel had been their hideous home for ten weeks now….

At the back of the hangars, the walls were pockmarked with bullet-holes…. Prisoners talked about Croatian guards coming up to the hangar doors after drinking sessions and singing as they fired into their quarters…. Estimates of the number of dead on these occasions ranged from three to ten.

However much Karadzic insisted on the continuity of today’s conflict with that of the early 1940’s, he never seemed convincing, or to have convinced himself. For Karadzic’s entire life had followed the opposite path: he had escaped from the past, fleeing the insular country for the cosmopolitan light of Sarajevo. Izeta Bajramovic, who ran a corner sweet shop, described the young Karadzic to a Los Angeles Times reporter as an awkward kid with a messy head of hair who used to hang around waiting for free pieces of baklava. “He was skinny, hairy and shy, very, very shy,” she recalled. “I used to feel sorry for him. He was provincial, a typical peasant lost in the big city.”

Many recall that he wore every day the same dirty white sweater, made from the wool of his native village, and that even then, his big head of hair set him apart. “He had a hillbilly kind of haircut, very fashionable in his village,” recalled Mohamed Dedajic, the neighborhood barber. “When I tried to make a suggestion, he’d say, ‘No, no, I like long hair.”‘4

Perhaps he thought his Byronic locks appropriate to a great poet, for if one theme arises again and again in conversations about the younger Karadzic it is the breadth of his ambition, his single-minded determination to achieve greatness. “He told me he was the great poet of Serbian history,” Dr. Ceric told me. “I said, ‘I know ten here in Sarajevo who are better than you and maybe seven hundred in Belgrade.’ He hardly reacted. He said, ‘Well, I have three books out already and soon [my reputation] is going to go: boom!”‘

“But it was the same with his psychiatry,” said Ceric. “He was good, but not excellent. He had many ideas but to be excellent you must follow one way, have one thought. He had many other interests—soccer, poetry, business—that took too much of his time.”

Karadzic married a psychoanalyst, the daughter of an old and well-to-do Serb family. Among his poet friends, his bride was not popular; they thought her unattractive and domineering and they assumed he married her so that, as one man told me, “the peasant could get some money.” Soon he was appointed official psychiatrist to the Sarajevo national soccer team, a prominent and desirable position, but unfortunately his pep talks on the psychology of confidence and winning seemed to bring the young players little success. Meantime his face and hair became familiar to Sarajevans as he doggedly read his poems on television and radio and at the cafés, but, as Ceric told me, “his reputation among his colleagues remained relatively low.”

One can see a traditional plot taking shape here: ambitious and idealistic country boy arrives in the glittering city, struggles desperately to make good, but succeeds only in earning the laughter and contempt of the cosmopolitan intellectuals he longs to impress; and so he climbs back up the mountainside, rejoins the “clean and pure” fellow peasants, and takes his revenge. It is a convenient story, particularly when one glances at the façades of Karadzic’s old apartment house—his name remains on the bell—and of Kosevo Hospital, and notes pockmarks from shells launched by Karadzic’s guns, just below his Pale chalet-office where we spoke. Several Saraje-vans told me how the psychiatrist-poet, during a reading, had been laughed and jeered off the stage, how he had fled cursing and redfaced and resentful; but none knew where the event had taken place, or when. In his memoir, The Tenth Circle of Hell, Rezak Hukanovic writes of the planning for the Serb concentration camps:

And where on earth was the poisonous game conceived? In the head of that bloodthirsty lyricist, the mad psychiatrist from Sarajevo, Radovan Karadzic. Years before, clearly spelling out the evil to come, he had written: “Take no pity let’s go/kill that scum down in the city.”

But the poem—entitled “Let’s Go Down to the Town and Kill Some Scum” (1971)—seems clearly to have been an attempt to capture the feelings of Yugoslav peasants and was understood as such at the time. To read into it a secret program for wholesale extermination on the part of the author, a kind of Mein Kampf in verse, is to assume an intent for which there is little evidence. As Dr. Ceric told me, echoing many who knew Karadzic well,

Radovan had a cosmopolitan approach to problems. You never felt he was a Serb, never. You never felt he was a religious man. I remain quite sure to this day that he is absolutely atheistic. A lot of his friends were Muslims. He was, in fact, a very typical man of this multicultural environment.

His neighborhood was fully integrated (Alija Izetbegovic, now Bosnia’s president, lived around the corner); Serbs, Croats, and Muslims occupied apartments in his building; a Muslim stood as godfather to his son. Even as his guns destroyed it—two days, indeed, after a shell had killed sixty-eight people who were shopping in the sunshine of the public marketplace—Dr. Karadzic spoke warmly of his city. “I liked very much living in Sarajevo,” he told me. “It was very pleasant there. Culturally, the city looked more toward the West. At that time too, before the war, even Muslims felt more Serb than Muslim. Of course, that is what they are: Serbs who became Muslim under the Turks. Many of them identified themselves only as Yugoslavs, because religion was much less important than national unity.”

Then came 1989, and Milosevic’s fiery speech at the field of Kosovo, virtually threatening war; and the rise in Croatia and in Bosnia of nationalist parties under Tudjman and Izetbegovic. Radovan Karadzic, ever ambitious, ever searching for a means to achieve greatness, saw his chance and entered politics. One can gauge the depth of his nationalism by the fact that he first joined the Green Party. Only later did he transfer his loyalties to the Initiative for a Serbian Democratic Party, which Milosevic had started as a Bosnian vehicle to advance his program to achieve a Greater Serbia—“All Serbs in one nation.” The embryonic party consisted of little more than a collection of bullies and thugs, and Karadzic, standing out as a well-known and cultured man, rose quickly; in July 1990, his new colleagues chose Dr. Radovan Karadzic, fledgling politician, to lead the now-official Serbian Democratic Party.

It was, as Dr. Ceric told me, echoing a comment I heard a dozen times, “a very big surprise.” But though his Sarajevo acquaintances expressed bewilderment at “what happened to Radovan when the war started,” by now the logic of his transformation takes on a certain clarity. If one constant in his life was great ambition, a fierce and unremitting conviction that he was in some way destined to achieve greatness, another was a relative disregard for the means by which he would find it. A great doctor, an innovative psychiatrist, a celebrated poet: by 1990, seeing that none of these paths had yet carried him to triumph—though he had likely not lost faith, he was simply impatient, unwilling to wait for the recognition of his genius—he recognized that politics in the era of Yugoslavia’s dissolution would offer him instant greatness. And that untrammeled ambition, unencumbered as it was by any true principle—for Karadzic the ideology resulted from the ambition, it had not caused it—could not help but make him attractive to a great political manipulator like Milosevic. As Marko Vesovic, a well-known writer and a Montenegrin who has known Karadzic since 1963, told Time magazine:

In poetry and in life, Karadzic was a person without personality. He was like clay, without personality, without character, who could be molded…. The man of clay was [Milosevic’s] ideal student. He did what he was told.5

Dr. Ceric, himself a Muslim, who was bewildered by Karadzic’s abrupt conversion to nationalism, demanded that his close friend and protégé give him a reason for it.

I asked him, “What is the problem—what is the political problem that you are trying to solve?”

He said, “There is only one problem: Alija [Izetbegovic] wants to organize an Islamic Republic here….”

I said, “This is completely stupid, because even if Alija did want to organize such a thing a majority of Muslims don’t want it and wouldn’t accept it. I mean, even now, after we’ve lost 200,000 people, the majority by far wouldn’t accept an Islamic Republic.”

Could Karadzic have somehow made himself believe what he said? “He may well have forced himself to believe,” Dr. Ceric told me. “Radovan had some mechanism for falsification of reality, there is no question about it. No doubt now he believes he’s right. But when he lies in bed at night, he’s neurotic, he has many neurotic symptoms because of what has happened in this country.”

Anyone who has spoken to Dr. Karadzic will recognize this “mechanism of falsification of reality” as his most distinctive quality. When I inquired of him, over our plates of beef stew, in his small office, with color-coded maps showing successive diplomatic plans for slicing up Bosnia on one wall and an Orthodox crucifix on the other, about the siege of Sarajevo, the siege that people around the world had been watching in transfixed horror for almost two years, the leader of the Bosnian Serbs replied that there was no siege—that in fact those artillery pieces and mortars had been dug into the mountainside to keep the Muslim hordes from breaking out of the city and attacking the Serbs. As always with Karadzic, the words seemed so distant from reality that one had trouble mustering arguments to challenge him.

I asked Karadzic about the shelling of the National Library, whose broken, cluttered ruins I had visited a few days before, perusing the odd charred scrap of paper, the pitiful remains of hundreds of thousands of irreplaceable books and manuscripts. How could he, a man of learning and culture, a poet himself, have countenanced his gunners lobbing shell after shell into the great building, destroying it in a day in a great conflagration that left his adopted city canopied in a cloud of priceless ash? Dr. Karadzic could only shake his head sadly, stare gravely into my eyes, and declare that of course the Muslims had destroyed this building themselves: “It was a Christian building, you know, from the Austro-Hungarian period, and so the Muslims hated it. Only Christian books were burned, you know. The others they removed.”

And so it was with the shells that had reduced the world-renowned Institute of Oriental Culture to a burned carcass; so it was with the mortar round that had plunged into a crowd waiting outside a shop in a downtown street and brought the world the Breadline Massacre of May 27, 1992, in which sixteen people died in a telegenic horror that forced the Western countries to impose the first set of sanctions against the Serbs; so it was with the two shells that had killed six children who were sledding twelve days before the Marketplace Massacre, and the three shells that had killed ten Sarajevans and wounded eighteen in Dobrinja on February 4. In each case, Dr. Karadzic told me, the Muslims, “trying to gain the sympathy of the world,” had “shelled themselves.”

There was a certain brilliance to his blank and impenetrable sincerity. I actually found myself wondering, as a young blond waitress cleared the dishes from Karadzic’s desk, whether he could possibly believe anything he was saying. “Mechanism for falsification of reality”—that was Dr. Ceric’s term. And yet this seemed insane: Karadzic visited his troops as they sat in their hillside bunkers, shaking their hands and clapping them on the back as they smoked their cigarettes and cooked their soup. In a BBC film about Karadzic, the leader of the Serbs smiles as he sights down a cannon barrel and then offers a Russian visitor, the nationalist writer Eduard Limonov, the chance to fire off a shell into Karadzic’s former city. (Limonov gladly accepts.)6

I thought of Karadzic’s bodyguards, who lounged about the lobby as I waited for the Great Man. The guards appeared to have been chosen in large part for their beauty and they were clearly conscious of it as they sauntered about, laughing and preening, some wearing combat fatigues, others distinctive purple jumpsuits, all with 9-millimeter automatic pistols belted tightly at their hips; they ignored me while watching me closely. Who could this be, granted an interview with the Big Man, the man who shelled the Turks?

And yet it was clear that the consistent and inarguable preposterousness of Karadzic’s answers held within it an importance far beyond any press conference or interview, reaching into the complex diplomatic struggle of the war itself. He was in the business of creating excuses—excuses, however absurd, that let the world allow the war to go on. What he said admitted of no answer. Ice in their ears? How could I respond? I was there, the bodies were real, you can’t be serious. And Dr. Karadzic would look me in the eye and answer in that reasonable tone: Yes, but did you check their ears? You didn’t? So how can you be sure?


I am finally lost,
I am glowing like a cigarette
On a neurotic’s lip:
While they look for me everywhere
I wait in the ambush of dawn.
—from “A Morning Hand Grenade” (1983), by Radovan Karadzic7

Two days before, four hours after the mortar shell plummeted through the corrugated tin of the marketplace, I sat in the cluttered ABC News Sarajevo office and watched television. Sarajevo TV was airing its video virtually unedited and I watched again each torso and limb float past me on the screen as the announcer’s voice intoned: Nura Odzak, Mladen Klacar, Ahmed Foco, Sakib Bulbul, Alija Huko… Disjunctive, disorienting somehow, to watch the bundles that had had no names now being supplied with them, in an effort to return the objects to the world of the human.

Someone switched to Great Britain’s Sky News just in time for us to hear the young woman reading the news announce that Dr. Radovan Karadzic had reacted with outrage to accusations that the Serbs had bombed the marketplace, had demanded the charge be withdrawn, and had vowed that, until it was, his soldiers would block all food deliveries into the city. This was a grave threat indeed—not because it might bring Sarajevo’s malnourished citizens to the point of starvation, although it might, but because if the Serbs did not permit Western troops to make “humanitarian deliveries” to Bosnia’s besieged people, Western leaders—having said again and again that NATO warplanes could not bomb Serb artillery because they had “troops on the ground” who would be vulnerable to Serb retribution—would have difficulty explaining exactly what their suddenly idle troops were doing in Bosnia beyond providing them, the Western leaders, an excuse for refraining from taking some strong action to stop the war that, it had long since become clear, they greatly preferred not to take.

Indeed, in Washington, where President Clinton was even now meeting with his senior advisers, it seemed a process of reevaluation had already begun, for one of those advisers—we learned from the Sky News reader—had hastened to let it be known that “sentiment” was growing that NATO planes should in fact bomb the Serbs. Meantime the President himself had denounced the slaughter—and demanded the United Nations “urgently investigate” who was to blame. Having delivered herself of that bit of news, the newsreader looked into the camera and with practiced gravity delivered her closing line: “There is no report yet,” she said, “on who could be the author of this terrible crime.”

The absurdity of this statement seemed so palpable that I started, then looked around the room, speechless, to see others’ reactions. No one flinched. They were used to it. Nor would they have been surprised to learn that at that very moment a Canadian major assigned to the United Nations forces was crouching in the northeast corner of the marketplace, hard at work examining the “splash pattern” left by that afternoon’s shrapnel in order to determine whence the shell had come. In fact, the Canadian major was working on no less than the third of that afternoon’s “crater analyses,” a French lieutenant having conducted the first at two o’clock, and a French captain a second an hour later. As it happened—and not surprisingly with what was a rather inexact science—results differed markedly: while the French lieutenant concluded that the shell had followed a northerly course, and thus either Serb or Muslim gunners could theoretically have launched it, and the Canadian major arrived, by a slightly different path, at largely the same destination, the French captain found that the round had followed an easterly path—which would have put the mortar and its crew behind Muslim lines.8

To an innocent eye, the entire exercise appeared bewildering. Sarajevo lay in a valley surrounded by mountains from which for nearly two years Serb artillery pieces—including a great number of 120-millimeter mortars—had day after day rained down shells on the city. During twenty-two months, Serb gunners and snipers had launched hundreds of thousands of shells and had killed perhaps ten thousand Sarajevans. Yet when a shell happened to kill a large number of people, United Nations officials, acting in the full flower of their “neutral” appreciation for the interests of Serbs and Muslims, felt obliged to treat the explosive’s source as “undetermined.” As much as anything did, this decision demonstrated the symbiosis that had developed between the Serbs, who were winning the war and thereby had brought Bosnia closest to “peace” (if the irritatingly stubborn Muslims would only accept this as a fact), and the United Nations forces—mainly, but not exclusively, French and British—who showed themselves loyal only to the task of delivering “humanitarian aid” and the “neutrality” that they must maintain in order for the Serbs to permit them to keep feeding the victims.

Karadzic with his apparently absurd statements had in fact read the situation with great brilliance. As Peter Maass well describes in his beautiful and moving memoir Love Thy Neighbor: A Story of War, the Serb leader succeeded in creating doubt where there should have been none because people wanted to doubt.

I knew that the things Karadzic said were lies, and that these lies were being broadcast worldwide, every day, several times a day, and they were being taken seriously. I am not saying that his lies were accepted as the truth, but I sense they were obscuring the truth, causing outsiders to stay on the sidelines, and this of course was a great triumph for Karadzic.

If Karadzic could not prove that the Bosnians were “shelling themselves,” he did not need to; he needed only to present the idea and, once presented, to harp on it, again and again. As Maass writes,

He needed, for example, to make everyone question whether the Bosnians were bombing themselves, and in fact everyone did wonder about that, because each time a lot of Bosnians were killed by a mortar in Sarajevo, Western governments asked the UN soldiers for a “crater analysis”…. “Crater analysis” is not always an exact science…. The incoming direction of the shell could be determined, but not the precise position from which it was fired. If Karadzic denied responsibility, and if the United Nations could not prove scientifically that the Serbs were responsible, then we should hold off on punishing them, right? Right. Thankfully, we have not always been so circumspect, and did not demand, during World War II, that Winston Churchill provide proof that the bombs exploding in London were German rather than British.


By late afternoon Saturday, after workers in Sarajevo’s morgues had assembled corpses as best they could, the Sarajevo anchorman was able to announce that sixty-eight people had died in Markela marketplace—a horrendous number, yes, but a fraction of those who had died since the United Nations Security Council had declared Sarajevo a “safe area” eight months before. These sixty-eight Sarajevans, however, had perished together in a bloody holocaust whose immediate aftermath television cameras were able to capture. As with the Breadline Massacre in May 1992 or the revelation of Omarska and Trnopolje and other Serb-run concentration camps in August 1992, the pictures framed by a tiny screen helped overcome for an instant the world’s power to ignore what was happening in Bosnia.

Before that moment in February 1994, Western leaders were caught in a paralysis they had begun to find increasingly embarrassing. President Clinton was demanding “strong action” but was still unwilling himself to send American troops. The Europeans were determined to limit their intervention to providing troops to escort food convoys and were obliged, therefore, to maintain the strict and morally compromising “neutrality” that was necessary to persuade the Serbs to let their troops pass unmolested and unharmed. Western leaders now felt the eyes of the world turned briefly but intensely upon them.

As it happened, for some Clinton officials—so-called “hardliners” in an administration that had been deeply divided over what to do about Bosnia—the shell struck the marketplace at a propitious time. For almost a year, since Secretary of State Warren Christopher had visited European capitals in May 1993 and presented, half-heartedly and, as it turned out, futilely, President Clinton’s “lift and strike” proposal (which envisioned “lifting” the arms embargo against the Bosnian government and “striking” the Serbs with NATO fighters and bombers to provide the Bosnians a “breathing space” to assimilate their new weapons), the Americans had been largely passive.

President Clinton blamed the Europeans; they had, after all, rejected his policy. The Europeans blamed Clinton: his passionate rhetoric and expressions of sympathy for the Bosnians had accomplished little except to convince Bosnian leaders that the Americans would be coming to the rescue. Meanwhile Clinton had in effect rejected the Vance-Owen plan for dividing Bosnia up into nine cantons, which was, diplomatically speaking, the only game in town. As for “lift and strike,” how could the Americans expect the Europeans to accept a policy that would put at risk their “troops on the ground”—the phrase had become a mantra—especially when the Americans refused to consider sending troops of their own? In pointing fingers at each other with growing acrimony, both sides were in fact supporting the status quo.

Many Clinton officials, meantime, were unhappy: Anthony Lake, the adviser for national security affairs; Vice President Al Gore; UN Representative Madeleine Albright—these influential figures, among others, had long lobbied for a more assertive American policy. By the time of the Marketplace Massacre, the “hardliners” had acquired new and powerful allies in France. On January 21, Foreign Minister Alain Juppé met with Christopher in Paris and demanded that the Americans take a more assertive part in Bosnia. The day before the massacre Christopher wrote Lake that he was “acutely uncomfortable with the passive position we are now in and believe that now is the time to undertake a new initiative.”9

Had the shell never struck Markela, no one can say how long it might have been before the Americans took a more active position on Bosnia, or indeed if they ever would have. As it was, in the words of Warren P. Strobel in Late-Breaking Foreign Policy, the “images from Sarajevo helped make France’s case for more aggressive action in the Balkans.” Without those images, as Michael McCurry, Christopher’s spokesman, told Strobel, “it could have taken weeks or months. The impact of the marketplace bombing…was to force there to be a response much quicker than the US government” could normally produce.

That response was a decision, taken together with the French, to deliver an ultimatum to the Serbs: if they did not within ten days move their heavy weapons to sites outside an “exclusion zone”—in effect, a demilitarized zone—twenty kilometers from the center of Sarajevo, NATO fighter planes would attack those artillery emplacements and destroy them. As it happened the ultimatum not only proved successful but had unexpectedly far-reaching effects. For not only did it provide a respite to the battered residents of Sarajevo, it also set in motion a series of events that finally shattered the contradictory Western policy on Bosnia and led to the present tenuous Dayton truce—by way of Srebrenica, and the massacre of several thousand unarmed men.


A few evenings after the shell landed in the marketplace, as Western foreign ministers prepared to meet at NATO headquarters in Brussels and the commander of the United Nations Protection Forces in Sarajevo, Lt. General Sir Michael Rose, labored to bring about a cease-fire in Sarajevo—and thus, he hoped, avoid retaliatory NATO air strikes—I sat with three young Serb acquaintances in a living room in Pale, the capital of “Republica Srpska,” and watched a two-hour television “special” on the bombing. TV Pale—an institution cobbled together largely out of stolen BBC equipment—had outdone itself. In a predominantly pink studio an anchorman sauntered back and forth, Phil Donohue style, interviewing a panel of experts, several of them military officers who had brought with them drawings, charts, and graphs.

An artillery officer, his chest festooned with medals and ribbons, tapped a wooden pointer here and there on a diagram of the marketplace on which figures of the dead and wounded had been outlined in heavy black ink. “Those closest to the impact—here, here, and here—would have absorbed most of the shrapnel,” he explained. “No mortar, therefore, could have done such damage.” A scientific type wearing a black suit then displayed a chart on which seven or eight trajectories had been drawn and demonstrated, pointing with his pencil, how surely no mortar could have landed in that square—which was, after all, tiny (100 feet by 164 feet) and was sheltered on two sides by seven- and eight-story buildings. And had it been a mortar it must have come—here a map and a new chart were brought out—from a Muslim position. And in any case—we then saw a videotape of the Breadline Massacre in 1992 and several more charts—everyone knew the Muslims had done such things many times before.10

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

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

As for Lord Owen, he was sympathetic:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is the fourth in a series of articles.

This Issue

February 5, 1998