Death has two faces. One is non-being; the other is the terrifying material being that is the corpse.
Only now, more than three years after he recorded the interview with CNN’s World Report, can one see subtle signs of Richard Holbrooke’s discomfort and unease. It was July 16, 1995, a Sunday, and even as the bloody catastrophe of Srebrenica was playing itself out four thousand miles to the east, the assistant secretary of state for European and Canadian affairs managed to answer Jeanne Meserve’s questions about Bosnia with precision and aplomb. Yet look more closely now at the videotape, study it frame by frame, and you will see that this Sunday afternoon finds Holbrooke pale, unsettled, distracted; for it is five days after Bosnian Serb troops shelled and strafed and finally overwhelmed the “safe area” of Srebrenica, humiliated its several hundred Dutch peacekeepers, and seized its forty thousand or so underfed, sickly, and bedraggled Muslims; and though CNN’s producers had announced for that afternoon a typically self-regarding theme focused on the future—“The Bosnia Quagmire: How close is the United States to being pulled into the mess in Bosnia?”—their guest Richard Holbrooke could not help but be preoccupied with an all-too-painful present.
Even on that Sunday afternoon, as he sat answering the reporter’s questions, Holbrooke tells us in his memoirs,
precise details of what was happening [in Srebrenica] were not known…, but there was no question that something truly horrible was going on.
An odd construction, that sentence, defining what is known only by what is not: five days after the Serbs swept into Srebrenica, Holbrooke and other officials, men and women perched on the heights of the United States national security bureaucracy and benefiting from all of its vast powers of perception (satellites gazing down from space; spy planes snapping photographs from the upper atmosphere; unmanned “drone” planes relaying “real-time” video images; diplomats and attachés “in-country” working their informants for secrets and rumors and gossip) could know no “precise details” of Serb actions in this one tiny place in eastern Bosnia, but were able nonetheless to harbor the certainty that “something truly horrible was going on”?
How could they have been so certain? Doubtless the lack of “precise details” was meant partly to serve as something of a hedge against accusations of guilt through inaction. (Given real knowledge, so the implication goes, something might have been done.) But what after all could that “something truly horrible” be? Did Richard Holbrooke and his colleagues really require “precise details” to answer that question? And in what would such details have consisted? Would Bosnian Government Minister Hasan Muratovic’s explicit warning of July 13 qualify, in which he told US Ambassador John Menzies in Sarajevo that Serb soldiers had gathered more than a thousand Muslim prisoners in a soccer stadium in Bratunac? How about Bosnian Foreign Minister Mohammed Sacirbey’s detailed description, in a telephone call to UN Representative Madeleine Albright the same day, of how the Serbs were committing atrocities around Srebrenica? Or a similar statement Sacirbey made, also on July 13, to his opposite number, British Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind, in an emergency meeting in London and sent by cable to the State Department, that he
had just spoke[n] with President Izetbegovic and had received “alarming news” about the refugees from Srebrenica. Large numbers of refugees were now being moved out of the enclave in buses and trucks unescorted by UNPROFOR troops. Many were being taken “off the main track” and “all sorts of atrocities” were being committed.
If Sacirbey’s statement was not precise enough, it is hard not to suspect that the still-classified photo reconnaissance and cable traffic contained more details—for it is clear that American satellites and spy planes were taking many relevant photographs. The only dispute is who in the intelligence bureaucracy actually examined them and what they did with them and when. It is also clear that Bosnian Muslim intelligence officers were listening in on the Bosnian Serb Army communications and likely passing on at least some of what they heard to the Americans, who in any event were likely listening in as well. “If it ain’t scrambled, we’re listening to it,” as an American military intelligence officer said.
What “precise details” might these professional listeners have heard? The next evening, July 14, the Bosnians certainly heard Drina Corps Commander General Radivoj Krstic order a major whose soldiers had surrounded a two-mile-long column of fleeing Muslims near a village called Glodzanje, “You must kill everyone. We don’t need anyone alive.” The Bosnian intelligence officers would have heard Major General Zivanovic of the Drina Corps give the order to one of his officers that after the Muslims “must surrender with all their weapons,” he should then “shell the group with all your weapons and destroy it.” When an officer identified only by the codename “Hawk” reported that he had found fifty Muslims in the forest and that “we must kill them,” he is told by another officer, codenamed “Montenegro,” to “do it slowly. We don’t need any surprises. Surround them and kill them slowly.”1
We can count the foregoing, certainly, as a number of “precise details.” Short of an exhaustive investigation, it is hard to know for sure when US intelligence officers might have had this information; where and at what level of the security bureaucracy those officers might have found themselves; and, finally, and most important, how quickly they passed the intelligence up the line to their superiors and how quickly these latter gave it over to their political masters.
And yet in the end, after one sets out, as many of the writers listed above so ably do, the story of the killings in Srebrenica—the atrocity fated to be labeled, as in David Rohde’s subtitle, “Europe’s worst massacre since World War II”—that story does not derive from a scandal about information, about who knew what when. The massacre at Srebrenica, as Holbrooke himself implies, was a culmination, marking with stark barbarities committed on the people of a UN-guaranteed “safe area” the end of a long and terribly logical series of tawdry, cowardly decisions by the nations of the West and the bloody consequences of those decisions for the Muslims of Bosnia.
From the Bosnia war’s inception in April 1992, indiscriminate killing, rape, torture—massacre—lay at the heart of “ethnic cleansing,” the conscious and well-planned Serb strategy intended to render large swathes of the country “pure” enough of Muslims to form a “Greater Serbia.” Srebrenica, with its seven thousand or more Muslim dead, will stand as the bloodiest instance of ethnic cleansing, while other incidents that approach it in horror remain virtually unknown.2
Nor can the Western response to Srebrenica be ascribed to lack of “precise details,” for they acted as they had done for three years; the degree to which details might have been lacking was a convenience, an excuse for inaction, not an explanation. And for Holbrooke, who had loudly made known his disgust with the weak Western policy as early as 1992, when as a private citizen he had undertaken a “fact-finding” trip to the region, the final indignity, before he would be freed (by, in part, the horror of the massacre in Srebrenica itself, together with a coming presidential campaign) to launch into the virtuoso diplomatic performance he describes in To End a War, will be having to bear the burden of having “managed” the catastrophe of Srebrenica, part of which required of him to sit in CNN’s studio as a man keeping a horrible secret. It is hard not to believe that his glances this way and that, his blinking, his frequent adverting to the CNN coffee mug, derived in large part from the effort of insisting on an ambiguity that by then was no ambiguity at all.
What might Holbrooke have been thinking about that “something truly horrible” taking place four thousand miles away? “Precise details” aside, of course, anyone who knew anything of the war’s history had to know what the fall of Srebrenica would mean. Two years before, in the spring of 1993, as General Ratko Mladic’s Bosnian Serbs stood poised to seize Srebrenica during the bloody and chaotic “first siege” that led the Western powers to christen the battered, refugee-swollen town a “safe area,” Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic had telephoned David Owen, the United Nations negotiator. “I had rarely heard Milosevic so exasperated,” Owen later recalled in his memoirs, “but also so worried.”
He feared that if the Bosnian Serb troops entered Srebrenica there would be a bloodbath because of the tremendous bad blood that existed between the two armies. The Bosnian Serbs held the young Muslim commander in Srebrenica, Naser Oric, responsible for a massacre near Bratunac in December 1992 in which many Serb civilians had been killed.3
Leaving aside the question of Milosevic’s supposed “worry”—for in 1993, as two years later, he certainly knew everything Mladic was doing, and almost as certainly approved it—it is doubtless true that for Milosevic, for Mladic, and for Holbrooke himself, the name Bratunac would have had a special resonance, a resonance not so immediately evident to CNN’s Sarajevo correspondent, who now, this Sunday two years later, as Holbrooke waited his turn to be interviewed, reported from an already darkened Sarajevo that
…perhaps as many as four thousand men were taken to an area [sic] called Bratunac which is just outside the Srebrenica enclave. Their precise conditions and whereabouts [are] not known.
Not to worry, however: officials of the International Red Cross had appealed to Serb leaders for permission to visit the refugees and, according to the CNN man, “in Sarajevo there’s hope and expectation that that permission will come through.”
Listening to these words Holbrooke sat silent and glum. A moment later he would also gamely insist on the need to “get access to the twenty thousand Bosnian men who are now apparently missing….” But what can have been passing through his mind when he heard talk of Red Cross officials visiting the men at Bratunac? Whatever the lack of “precise details,” the odds seemed very good that at this point, five days after General Mladic strode triumphantly into Srebrenica, Richard Holbrooke knew that any visit by Red Cross officials to Bratunac would produce a very one-sided conversation.
In the five days since the enclave fell, Holbrooke tells us in To End a War, he had
spent long hours unsuccessfully trying to find a way to stop the tragedy in Srebrenica…. My recommendation—to use airpower against the Bosnian Serbs in other parts of the country, as well as Srebrenica—had been rejected by the Western European nations that had troops at risk in Bosnia, and by the Pentagon….
Here again an oddly constructed sentence—would it not be more natural for an American official to speak of his recommendation as rejected “by the Pentagon, and by the Western European nations,” not the other way round?—alerts the reader that a seemingly simple point is not quite so simple. Holbrooke’s “recommendation,” however vehemently argued, never had a chance of success. The power to order air strikes was constrained by the notorious “dual key” arrangement, according to which either the United Nations or NATO leaders had the power to block a proposed attack. Having refused to allow air strikes that might have stopped the Serbs at Srebrenica’s gates—a refusal Holbrooke strongly implies might derive from “a deal” the UN Protection Force commander, French General Bernard Janvier, concluded with General Mladic a month before—would it have been at all likely that United Nations officials and Western leaders would approve them now, after the enclave had already fallen, and after the Dutch soldiers had been effectively taken hostage? As Holbrooke writes,
The first line of resistance to any action was the Dutch government, which refused to allow air strikes until all its soldiers were out of Bosnia…. The Serbs knew this, and held the bulk of the Dutch forces captive in the UN compound at the nearby village of Potocari until they had finished their dirty work at Srebrenica.4
The “bulk of the Dutch forces” were indeed trapped in Potocari, having been carried there by a vast chaotic wave of refugees who, fleeing the invading Serbs, clung frantically to the hatches and the mirrors of the armored personnel carriers—a Dutch report would later note the soft, repeated “bangs” that told the Dutch inside that “refugees (dead and/or alive) were [being] run over” beneath the treads.5 But it is also true that a number of Dutch troops found themselves distributed here and there about a few square miles of land upon which the Serbs had constructed, immediately after the fall of the enclave, a makeshift but highly organized, highly efficient killing machine. Although they had got wind of a handful of executions the Serbs had begun carrying out in and around the UNcompound in Potocari, the Dutch troops only slowly began to suspect the horror of the larger story, and thus the reader of the Report Based on the Debriefing on Srebrenica, drawn from interviews conducted with them—after an unconscionable six-week-long delay—by Dutch Ministry of Defense officials, occasionally finds himself overcome by a very strange feeling, as if he were reading an account of a complex and unsettling landscape written by a man who is nearly blind but doesn’t know it.
Fifty-nine Dutch troops, who had been seized as the Serb soldiers gradually “rolled up” one UN “observation post” after another, found themselves hostages of the Serbs, which meant that they stayed in a hotel and spent their time drinking beer and chatting with their families in Holland. As the report notes, the hotel happened to be in Bratunac—where, as the CNN reporter would remark on Sunday, July 16, “as many as four thousand [Muslims from Srebrenica] were taken…” and where, as he said, officials of the Red Cross hoped they would soon be visiting them.
In fact, more than two days before, something happened in Bratunac, a town conveniently located a few miles north of Potocari which seems to have served as a kind of “switching station” for General Mladic’s complicated killing system. According to the Dutch report,
On 14 July, there were a number of buses in Bratunac containing male refugees sitting with their heads between their knees and giving the impression that they were very frightened. There was a great deal of shooting in Bratunac, for example, from the direction of the so-called stadium (a football pitch surrounded by a fence).
The Dutch soldiers, the report goes on, “did not, however, find any victims”—a rather misleading locution, managing to suggest as it does that the soldiers searched for victims, when they apparently did not, and that there were none, when there certainly were.
What had happened on that football field? After the Bosnian Minister Hasan Muratovic told the American ambassador, John Menzies, on July 13 that Serbs had gathered hundreds of Muslim prisoners there, US officials, according to one report, “obtained… a photo…of the stadium [which] did not bear out the assertion. No further search was undertaken.”6 If true, and in view of the further “precise details” we have now, this is a horrible admission indeed; for it seems to confirm that the American government had the power not only to check these reports using photographs but to do it instantly—a charge which is, and remains, much disputed—while apparently showing how a minor mistake of timing not only can undermine that power but reverse it, leading the Americans to believe that all their technological prowess had “disproved” an allegation that happens to be true.
By now, in any case, we have other “precise details” that Richard Holbrooke and his colleagues then lacked; we have, concerning Bratunac and many other villages and towns in the area, the estimates of the dead and, in many cases, the accounts of survivors. In the end, however, such “precise details,” if they do not contradict the fact that “something horrible” was going on, are quite limited in what they really let us know.
None of the books listed above teaches this lesson more effectively than Chuck Sudetic’s brilliant Blood and Vengeance. Sudetic, an American of Croatian extraction who married a Serb and who reported from Bosnia for The New York Times, shows us how what happened in Bratunac in July 1995 began more than two years before, after Nasir Oric led Srebrenica’s Muslims on a notorious “Christmas attack” on the village of Kravica.7 Those Serbs that survived, now homeless, penniless, unable even to bury their mutilated dead, made their way to Bratunac. It was there, in 1996, that Sudetic interviewed Mihailo Eric, a remarkable Serb from Kravica:
“After the Christmas attack, when the people from Kravica were refugees in Bratunac, the menfolk were bitter, weren’t they?”
“They were angry…”
“What did they say?”
“Revenge…. They said, ‘Kad tad. Kad tad, sooner or later our five minutes will come.”‘
“…And the opportunity finally came.”
“Yes, blood vengeance.”
“Did they come for you?” [He nodded.] “They were excited?”
“What did they say?”
“They said, ‘Grab your gun and come down to the soccer field.”‘
The soccer field at Bratunac, that is, whence the Dutch hostages heard “a great deal of shooting.” Much of that firing was done by men like Mihailo Eric. As it happens, though, Mihailo himself, a war hero, a man who had been gravely wounded, shot through the forehead earlier in the fighting, refused to take part in the massacre. As he tells Sudetic,
“It’s one thing to kill someone in battle, and it’s something else to kill prisoners, men who’ve surrendered and have no guns.”
“And have their hands tied?”
Mihailo’s attitude, of course, was unusual; had it not been, the war would have been fought very differently. During Sudetic’s interview he and Mihailo were interrupted:
The door behind me swung open. A man with a construction worker’s beer belly stumbled in. He had a ruddy complexion, light eyes, and light hair. It was Mihailo’s father, Zoran; he had been a member of an “obligatory work brigade” called to Bratunac on the day the killings began. We stood up…. The father sat down in Mihailo’s chair, and Mihailo stood behind him leaning against a wall.
“Was it honorable to kill them all?” I asked the father.
“Absolutely,” he said. “It was a fair fight.”
Mihailo stared at me from behind him with a forlorn look in his eye.
“Absolutely,” the older man said again, and he turned to the woman: “Get some more brandy.”
In Bratunac, in Kravica, one suspects that the father’s view would be the accepted one. For him, Mladic’s victory over Srebrenica offered an opportunity, a chance to end the cycle of attack and retribution. Having finally conquered the enclave, would one then hand back to the Muslim leaders seven thousand men of military age (who, even if they weren’t soldiers, could easily take up arms) so they could then, or at some point in the future, rejoin the fight—the fight, that is, to regain the homes they had just lost? What, after all, had losing his home done to Zoran Eric and the other survivors of the Muslim attack on Kravica?
No, the moment must be seized, for future survival’s sake; and even Mihailo, though he stood aloof from the killing, freely admits he understands the feelings that lay behind it.
“And they killed all of them [Sudetic asks him], everyone they could?”
“And the Muslims in the column who escaped across the road? They held them up…as long as they could so that they could get some men together and have one more crack at them, didn’t they?”
“They came around looking for volunteers.”
“Did guys from Kravica go?”
“They wanted to kill as many of them as they could.”
“So they could never come back? So there would not be enough military-age men left to fight their way back?”
“Never,” Mihailo said.
Emerging out of the early-morning darkness of July 22, 1995—eleven days after the fall of Srebrenica, the “safe area” they had been charged to protect—a long caravan of white jeeps and trucks and white armored personnel carriers rumbled past ranks of cheering soldiers and politicians and dignitaries assembled at UN headquarters in Zagreb. Grinning beneath their blue helmets, the 430 Dutch soldiers and officers of the 13th Air Mobile Battalion passed before Netherlands Defense Minister Joris Voorhoeve, before Royal Army Commander General Hans Couzy, and, finally, before His Majesty, Crown Prince of the Netherlands Willem Alexander.
Later, as the sun rose that day, a forty-two-piece brass band would play some Glenn Miller arrangements for the troops. At makeshift outdoor bars beer flowed freely. In the trailer-like “containers” that served as barracks, pornographic videos played. Soon drunken Dutch soldiers linked arms and began kicking their legs high in a tottering, raucous chorus line.
The next day, during a press conference with Defense Minister Voorhoeve and seventeen handpicked Dutch peacekeepers, Colonel Ton Karremans would praise Ratko Mladic for his military skills, while noting that the general was “a commander not a gentleman.” Among the things the Dutch had learned in Srebrenica, said Karremans, was that “the parties in Bosnia cannot be divided into ‘the good guys’ and ‘the bad guys.”‘ Mladic had taken Srebrenica with “an excellently planned military operation” during which, Karremans conceded, his battalion “was cleverly outmaneuvered by the Bosnian Serbian Army.” The commander’s clever feints, his disguising of his true motives, his final relentless assault—it had been, said Karremans, managed “in a very neat way by the Serbs…almost like a game of Pac-Man.”
After the Serbs had taken the town, the Dutch had witnessed at least one execution and seen evidence of a handful of other killings within Potocari itself. Dutch hostages in Bratunac, meanwhile, began to hear from their proud Serb captors about the work the latter were doing every day. The Serbs, said Johan Bos, a Dutch sergeant, “bragged about how they had murdered people and raped women….”
They seemed pleased with themselves in a sort of professional, low-key way. I believed what they said, because they looked and behaved as if they were more than capable of doing what they claimed. Each had an Alsatian dog, a gun, handcuffs, and a terrifying-looking knife with a blade about 9 ins. long.8
Other Dutch soldiers had heard shots, seen here and there bodies of murdered men—on the football field at Nova Kasaba, for example, from which, during the night of July 13-14, some “blue helmets” had heard forty-five minutes of small-arms fire. Next morning two Dutch soldiers saw hundreds of bodies, and others had later glimpsed “‘clean-up teams’…wearing gloves…as well as tipper trucks and lorries carrying corpses.”9
Colonel Karremans’s men had thus seen considerable evidence of killing, but the Dutch were frightened, demoralized; the Serbs had seized much of their equipment while making hostages of more than 10 percent of their force. Not only had unit solidarity, under these conditions, simply evaporated, making efficient collection and evaluation of intelligence about the killings nearly impossible, but every acknowledgement of an execution, not to mention a massacre, forced the Dutch soldiers to confront their own impotence and failure.
The result was that, as he spoke, the colonel still did not know the full extent of what had just unfolded around him—did not know the numbers of dead, the scale of the operation. If he had, he likely would have described General Mladic in rather different words. Still, Karremans spoke with unwitting accuracy: although the Dutch grasped this reality only vaguely from their vantage as prisoners within it, they had just played a minor part in a brilliantly organized military performance.
At its heart was not the conquest of a town but the virtuoso display of ethnic cleansing that followed: an especial irony given the fact that many Western intelligence officers had judged it unlikely that Mladic intended to conquer Srebrenica—precisely because the Serbs would not be able “to deal with the refugees.”10 They need not have worried. Within thirty hours, little more than a single day, Mladic’s men had expelled to Muslim territory twenty-three thousand women and children; within five days they had murdered more than seven thousand men.
Mladic had, of course, a reservoir of hatred already at his disposal, stored in the minds and hearts of men like Zoran Eric. He had as well several thousand of his own crack troops, including the Drina Corps; an unknown number of troops from Serbia, including “red berets” from the Serbian Interior Ministry, paramilitary “Black Wolves”; as well as a number of heavily armed paramilitary forces including the Drina Wolves, the White Eagles, the Specialna Policia, and the two most notoriously brutal of the Serb paramilitary forces—the Militia of Vojislav Seslj and the Tigers of Arkan. What Mladic managed to conceive and construct, during those weeks working with Serb Chief of Staff General Momicilo Perisic and his colleagues across the Drina, 11 was an evanescent, makeshift system of death camps, fashioned on a foundation of meticulous logistics. He would build nothing of permanence; there would be no sweltering barracks full of emaciated prisoners for reporters to visit, as they had in August 1992, causing such an uproar. No, buses and trucks and school gymnasiums would serve Mladic as his barracks; grain warehouses and meadows and football fields as his gas chambers.
By July 12, when General Mladic appeared before the wretched frantic refugees inundating the Dutch camp at Potocari—“It is going to be a meza” (a long, luscious feast), the general reportedly told his troops as he gazed at the Muslims. “There will be blood up to your knees”12—the Serbs had already in effect constructed an elaborate system designed to capture the Muslim men and then to move them with great speed and effectiveness over the mountains and passes of the Drina valley. At the system’s heart was transport: scores and scores of buses and trucks. The operation’s success depended, the Serbs knew, on rapid movement of large numbers of people and so they painstakingly assembled north of Srebrenica, near the town of Bijeljina, parking lots full of vehicles. Serb officers moved as well an unknown number of buses and trucks across the Drina bridges from Serbia itself, many of which had Federal Republic of Yugoslavia license plates. So critical was having at hand a sufficient number of vehicles, in fact, that it determined the timing of the Srebrenica assault. A Serb soldier told a Dutch peacekeeper
that the military action could have been carried out a week earlier, but that they had waited until there was sufficient transport capacity (buses/trucks) to evacuate the refugees.13
As it happened, American pilots flying U2 spy planes noticed the burgeoning fleet of vehicles and photographed them, but intelligence officers who examined the evidence—in another demonstration that such information, stark and inarguable as it may seem, lies many assumptions away from actual knowledge—concluded that the buses and trucks were intended to move Serb soldiers.14
When he confronted the sea of tens of thousands of people around the Dutch headquarters at Potocari, and raised his voice and sought to calm their fears, General Ratko Mladic followed a script that he and his men would repeat countless times during the coming days. In front of a Serb cameraman, the general and his entourage handed out chocolates to children (“Give us candy,” the malnourished children can be heard shouting. “Give candy for my brothers and sisters”), and then, again and again, told the terrified people, “Do not be afraid. Do not be frightened. No one will do you any harm.” And then the conquering general motioned to the crowd to be quiet and shouted, “Please be very patient.”
All of you who wish to stay here can do so. If you wish to leave, there will be enough busses and trucks provided. You will be transported to Kladanj.15
Kladanj is Muslim territory, from which the refugees could make their way to Tuzla. However, even as the Dutch were “negotiating” the terms of the evacuation—in a memorable moment, Mladic is caught on videotape telling a Dutch officer, “I am in charge here, I’ll decide what happens. I have my plans and I’m going to carry them out. It will be best for you if you cooperate”—a fleet of trucks and buses suddenly appeared. Says the Dutch report, “The battalion was surprised by the speed with which the [Serbs] commenced the evacuation of the refugees.”
In a surprisingly short space of time, the [Serbs] appeared to have large numbers of buses and trucks. Mladic ignored protests by the battalion commander. UNPROFOR’s orders to Dutchbat were to offer as much protection as possible to the refugees and to provide optimal support in transferring the population to safer locations…. The battalion initially assumed that there would be one escort per bus. This was not permitted by Mladic.
Thus began a smaller and more intricate version of the diplomatic duplicity that had accompanied the entire war: Mladic made promises to placate the Dutch—and Western leaders—and then blithely broke them. No sooner had he broken his last promise than he would make another, and the Dutch, and the West, would pretend to believe him. They had no choice; the alternative was to take action of some sort, and this they would not do.
That very day, July 12, back in New York, Kofi Annan—the current United Nations secretary general who was then serving as undersecretary general for peacekeeping operations—was “briefing” ambassadors from the “contact group” countries (the United States, Russia, Great Britain, France, and Germany), plus Italy, “on the situation around Srebrenica” and how it related to a resolution then being drafted. According to the US mission’s cable,
ANNAN SAID THAT THE SECRETARIAT WAS CONCERNED THAT THE RESOLUTION RAISED UNREALISTIC EXPECTATIONS THAT A MILITARY RESPONSE TO THE BOSNIAN SERB ATTACK ON SREBRENICA WAS POSSIBLE. IN FACT, UNPROFOR HAD REPORTED THAT NO MILITARY RESPONSE WAS POSSIBLE.
And how had the Dutch officers come to this conclusion?
ANNAN SAID THAT THE BOSNIAN SERBS NOW HELD 51 DUTCH TROOPS AND HAD THREATENED TO SHELL THE UN COMPOUND IN POTOCARI IF NATO AIR POWER WAS USED AGAINST THEM. THE SERBS HAD DEPLOYED A NUMBER OF HEAVY WEAPONS WITHIN SIGHT OF THE UN COMPOUND TO EMPHASIZE THEIR POINT.
And what did the Dutch officers, given this uncomfortable situation, propose to do?
UNPROFOR WAS CONCENTRATING ON PROTECTING THE CIVILIAN POPULATION OF THE ENCLAVE AND ARRANGING THEIR EVACUATION.
And how were the UN peacekeeping troops going about this?
THE DUTCH COMMANDER HAD HELD TWO “HOSTILE” MEETINGS WITH GENERAL MLADIC WHO IS IN SREBRENICA. DURING THEIR FIRST MEETING MLADIC SLAUGHTERED A PIG IN FRONT OF THE DUTCH COMMANDER TO PROVE HIS TOUGHNESS. THE SECOND MEETING, HOWEVER, WAS MORE POSITIVE AND MLADIC AGREED TO THE EVACUATION OF THE CIVILIAN POPULATION….
That is, the general “agreed” to what he had planned to do anyway, and the Dutch, perceiving themselves to be quite powerless—Was not the current situation, with the mob of sweating, starving, thirsty refugees, quite untenable? And might not the Serbs shell them at any time, as they had threatened to do?—accepted Mladic’s promises of “safeguards” gratefully.
Still, one obstacle remained to the efficient commencement of Mladic’s plan, and one could almost hear Annan’s frustration seeping through the stark lines of the cable, as he complained “that the [Bosnian government] was blocking the evacuation….”
Perhaps this uncooperative behavior had to do with what Foreign Minister Sacirbey had only that day told UN Representative Albright and Foreign Secretary Rifkind—that the Serbs were committing atrocities and “genocide” on the people of Srebrenica? Whatever the reason for the Bosnian officials’ reluctance to see their citizens evacuated from Srebrenica under such conditions, Undersecretary Annan “asked if members of the contact group could pressure them to cooperate….”
General Mladic, meantime, was doing precisely that. Earlier that day, the Serb commander had his third meeting with Colonel Karremans, during which, as the Dutch officer later wrote, it finally “became clear that Mladic was operating entirely according to a pre-planned scenario.” As Honig and Both describe it in their fine account, Srebrenica: Record of a War Crime, Karremans communicated to Defense Minister Voorhoeve Mladic’s most menacing intention—to separate the men from the women. To this Voorhoeve responded that the Dutch troops should not “assist in any way with the ethnic cleansing and the separation of men and women,” then added that they should “see to it that the forced evacuation takes place in as humane a way as possible.”
That incomprehensible ambiguity shows the fecklessness into which the UN mission had collapsed. “There was,” as Holbrooke writes, “no more energy left in the international system,” and the result, as the Dutch report puts it in typical bureaucratic language, was that “in order to prevent excesses with regard to the transport, the battalion commander decided to cooperate in the evacuation.”
What these words mean is that as the great crowds of people carrying their babies and their suitcases and their makeshift bundles pushed forward in a great tide toward the buses, then passed between a makeshift “cordon” of Dutch blue helmets—the soldiers who, on the part of the “international community,” had guaranteed the safety of this “safe area”—Serb troops stepped forward to pull the Muslim men roughly away. The women shouted, wept, reached out grasping hands as they turned on the steps of the buses. It was no use. Their sons, brothers, husbands were led off: many were quite old or disabled; some were in their early teens, for most of Srebrenica’s military-aged men had already assembled in a great column fifteen thousand strong and fled the enclave, hoping to fight their way through to Tuzla.16 Now the Serbs led off the men who had elected to remain, installing them in selected houses to await “interrogation.”
On the videotape we can see the signs of the UN officers’ impotent concern. A Kenyan military observer, Major Joseph Kingori, has just visited one of the interrogation houses and we can hear his agitation as he speaks to the Dutch troops:
This is not good, crowding at one place…. Where are all the men being taken….They are separated from each other? It’s too crowded. This is not good….
How aware were the exhausted peacekeepers of what was happening? At one point on the videotape we see a tall sunburned Dutch soldier in shorts and hear the reporter’s voice:
Reporter: For Independent Television in Belgrade: What’s going on today here?
UN soldier: You know what’s going on.
Reporter: I just came here.
UN soldier: You know…
The Dutch plan to “escort” the buses fell instantly apart. The Serbs would not let the Dutch troops aboard; when the Dutch tried to follow in their white jeeps, the Serbs confiscated the vehicles and detained the troops. The Muslim women, having suddenly lost their husbands and fathers and sons, and trembling with their fear of what the Serbs might now do, were subjected to night voyages of terror. They passed through darkened Serb towns where villagers greeted them with angry shouts and threats and clatters of stones. Here and there the buses were stopped and Serb troops charged aboard, demanded money, threatened to cut off the breasts of those who had none to give; at some of these stops younger women would be pulled off and never seen again.
In The Graves: Srebrenica and Vukovar, the book on which he collaborated with the brilliant war photographer Gilles Peress, Eric Stover gives one woman’s account of what happened when a Serb militiaman came aboard her bus at a checkpoint.
He was young and hard-faced. She smelled the intensely familiar odor of cigarettes, musty sweat, and faint sweetness of alcohol…. He spoke, and his words came out in a slur. Suddenly he pulled a long knife from his belt and held it up in the air. He was smiling, and his large hands, she now saw, were swollen from the heat. Then, in one motion, he leaned over and pulled the blade across the throat of a baby sleeping in her mother’s arms. Blood splattered against the windows and the back of the seat. Screams filled the bus. The man shouted something at the woman and then with his left hand he pushed her head down…. “Drink it, you Muslim whore,” he screamed again and again. “Drink it!”
By now the dawn had come; in the rising light many of the women once again saw their husbands and their fathers and their sons. They saw them in groups of ten and twenty and by the hundred, gathered by the side of the road, their hands raised in the three-fingered Serbian salute, as the Serb soldiers stood about them, cradling their rifles. They saw them sitting in a field, hundreds of them, their hands clasped behind their necks, their heads bent between their knees, afraid to look at the Serb soldiers who stood around them. The Serbs made the women look.
They said to us, “See your army?” Kneeling in the grass were many men I knew. They had their hands behind their necks. I saw one of my sons among them. But I could say nothing to him. I do not know if he saw me.17
As the buses drove on the women saw other men lying on the road and in the grass beside it, pools of blood beneath their gashed necks, and as they drove past the women forced themselves to look closely to see if those bodies were those of their husbands and fathers and sons.
In Ratko Mladic’s great composition, these men lying bloodied by the side of the road were no more than variations on a theme. The women of Srebrenica, frozen in terror by their own vulnerability, did not dare grasp fully what was happening around them; but they knew well how the war had been fought, heard clearly what the Serbs encircling Srebrenica had always threatened, and, most of all, were free of the disabling ambivalence and guilt that helped the Dutch—and their masters in The Hague and other Western capitals—deny what was fast becoming undeniable.
Reviewing Sacirbey’s charges and those of other Bosnian officials, as well as the accounts of Muslim women arriving exhausted and near hysterical in Tuzla, the testimony of Dutch soldiers in Zagreb and The Hague; reading radio “intercepts” of Bosnian Serb officers giving orders to their men and gazing at photographs taken by American reconnaissance satellites and U2 spy aircraft; comparing, finally, the accounts of survivors—one is confronted by a blizzard of signs. Now their meaning is obvious, indisputable. Then, the evidence trickled in bit by bit; its reliability seemed to vary; it was put in separate boxes for consideration and study. As Yasushi Akashi, the UN special representative, put it in a cable to New York on July 13, “WE ARE BEGINNING TO DETECT A SHORTFALL IN…OUR DATA BASE”—this “shortfall” being thousands of Muslim men.
“Precise details,” as Richard Holbrooke says, were lacking; but details were not necessary. “After Srebrenica fell,” a senior American intelligence official told Washington Post reporters, “everybody said atrocities were going to happen.” Officials at the highest level of the government would have had to make a decision that all effort must be made to prevent these atrocities. American officials might have made public what (considerable) information they had and focused all their resources on learning more; senior American political figures might have spoken out vigorously to warn General Mladic and Dr. Radovan Karadzic and the other Bosnian Serbs in Pale that atrocities in Srebrenica would be met with…what?
As Holbrooke says, by the time of Mladic’s attack on Srebrenica Western policy in Bosnia had reached a nadir: “There was no more energy left in the international system.” From the moment in 1991—when American prestige and power was at its height during the months after the Gulf War—that President Bush made it clear that the United States, come what may, would take no military action in the former Yugoslavia, American policy had followed a slow and steady path leading to the destruction of its own credibility. Bill Clinton, for all his strong words in support of the Bosnian Muslims, vowed he would never send American troops to Bosnia, and though he urged that NATO send its warplanes to attack the Serbs, the European allies, who did have troops there, blocked him, producing an inescapable paralysis. The takeover of Srebrenica, and the failure to defend it by air strikes, constituted only the most horrible last step into utter powerlessness, and now the West could offer nothing, threaten nothing—had become, for the Serbs, nothing at all.
And so as the Serb soldiers with the handcuffs and the Alsatian dogs began to hustle Muslim men in Potocari into buses, pushing them forward roughly with their rifles, in Belgrade the US chargé d’affaires, Rudolf V. Perina, paid a hurried call on Slobodan Milosevic. The fall of Srebrenica, said the American, was a serious blow to peace negotiations; if Milosevic wanted to demonstrate his own “credibility,” he should immediately “cut off all military supplies” to Mladic and his Bosnian Serbs.
“We felt [Milosevic] could prevent things from happening,” an official The Washington Post identifies as “involved in the frantic effort to forestall atrocities” said. “His ability as interlocutor was on the line.”
It was as if all the shadow play of the last four years, which had reached a climax only the previous week with Milosevic claiming he knew nothing of Mladic’s attack on Srebrenica—and that anyway the general would never dare seize the enclave—had never taken place. It is the sad fate of the powerless to hear only what they want to hear.
If Mr. Perina, a distinguished and respected diplomat, had expected much from Milosevic he was immediately disappointed. Affecting to be “stung” by the American’s statements, the Serb leader, the arsonist now become fireman, responded plaintively: “Why blame me?” he asked the American. “I have been unable to contact Mladic.”18
However dubious Milosevic’s claim, it is certainly true that at this moment, and for the next several days, General Mladic’s hands were very full. Indeed, if one wanted to make sense of the great movements of men and trucks and buses, the complex assignment of military units and weaponry and various sorts of “specialized” equipment—earthmovers and bulldozers, notably—that figured in Mladic’s master plan, one could do worse than to follow the movements of the master himself. For it was in Srebrenica that Ratko Mladic—born and marked by a brutal war against the Croats and Muslims in which the father of young Ratko (the name means “warlike”) died fighting the Ustashe when the boy was only two—was determined to enjoy his fullest and most complete triumph. He had conquered the pitiful West, had overwhelmed his most intransigent opponents, and now he would obliterate his enemies, wipe them from the face of the earth, and he would be there to see firsthand that the job was done as it should be. At each critical spot along the way, General Mladic, along with a certain “red sports car” that seems to serve as a distinctive command vehicle, makes his appearance.
Even as Mr. Perina pleaded with Milosevic in Belgrade, General Mladic was paying visits to the seventeen hundred or so men who had been torn from their families and who squatted now, terrified, under the eyes of heavily armed Serb guards and their Alsatian dogs in various buildings and factories around the UN base at Potocari. At about six o’clock, the general, bull-necked, gigantic-seeming in his camouflage uniform with sleeves rolled up to expose his thickly muscled forearms, strode into a house where some two hundred men were crammed together on the floor and addressed the prisoners, most of them old or infirm, in booming voice:
Neighbors, if you have never seen me before, I am Ratko Mladic. I am the commander of the Serbian army, and you see we are not afraid of the NATO pact. They bombed us, and we took Srebrenica. And where is your country now? What will you do? Will you stand beside Alija [Izetbegovic, Bosnia’s President]? He has led you to ruin….
When a Muslim prisoner interrupted, demanding to know why they had been separated from their families, Mladic abruptly changed tone, turned soothing. He is negotiating a prisoner exchange, the general said, no one should worry: “Not a hair on your heads will be touched.”
As Serb soldiers loaded the Muslims aboard waiting buses, Mladic himself spoke to the drivers, ordering them to follow the red sports car. Just before the drivers leaned forward to pull the handles that closed the pneumatic doors, Mladic’s men stepped aboard, to stand at the drivers’ shoulders throughout the journey. For these Muslims, though, the journey would be very short: the buses pulled over only a few miles away, in Bratunac, rumbling to a stop before a warehouse that had been used to store cattle feed. The doors swished open, the Serbs gestured with their guns, and the Muslims clambered down the steps and into the dark cavernous hall, collapsing on the cold earth floor.
One after another the buses and trucks drew up and soon the Muslims sat packed together, legs crossed painfully beneath them or drawn up to their chests. Those who dared looked at the Serbs—men in camouflage uniforms who brandished Kalashnikovs and wore on their hips long, ugly knives—and struggled to master their fear. That Mladic would be negotiating their exchange, after all, made perfect sense; were they not too old, too young, too sick to fight? Why should the Serbs harm them? For what reason?
Outside the Serb guards, whose uniforms bore no insignia, went abruptly silent. “Through the doors,” writes Chuck Sudetic,
some of the men in the warehouse heard members of the Drina Wolves receiving orders from an officer.
“The twelve of you here tonight have been given an order to carry out the task assigned you. Is that clear?”
“Clear, sir,” shouted the militiamen.
The gunmen entered the warehouse with flashlights. A pool of light fell on one Muslim.
The man wound his way to the door, turned to the left and disappeared…
There were thuds, then screams, cries for help, and gurgles. Inside the building there were muffled groans.
“Do you know him? Who was that?”
…”He’s my relative.”
…A flashlight shone through the door…. “You! You!”
Throughout the night the men kept their heads down and prayed that they would not be the next to be caught in the beams of light. As David Rohde tells us, they had no choice but to listen to the eloquent sounds:
Prisoners seated near the front of the warehouse heard the cries, gasps and groans….The Serbs cursed as they tortured their prisoners: “Turk bastard.” After a few minutes a Serb would mutter, “He’s finished.” The loud hiss of air and gurgle of blood rushing out of a man’s throat was followed by the sound of feet kicking the ground. As prisoners’ throats were slashed, their bodies went into seizures.
At one point, several men were led out to relieve themselves and one managed to steal a glimpse in the half-light of Drina Wolves at work:
Seven or eight Serb soldiers had formed two lines. A Muslim prisoner was walking between them. On the left, one of the Serbs had what looked like an iron crowbar in his hand. He pummeled the prisoner with it. The man crumpled to the ground. On the right, one of the Serbs had an ax, which he embedded in the Muslim’s back. The prisoner’s body twitched. Blood spattered across the pavement.
Back in Potocari, Serb soldiers had gathered up the bundles and suitcases and packages the men had left behind, heaped them into a great pile, and set them afire.
Pushing their emaciated and sweat-soaked bodies up and down the punishing hills and mountains of eastern Bosnia, fifteen thousand Muslims of Srebrenica staggered onward dreaming of sanctuary. Soon, very soon, they would reach government-held Tuzla, having avoided capture in Srebrenica, having boldly fled the town to keep their freedom.
It was all illusion. After months without a real meal, days without sleep, suffering under unbearable thirst, their delirium left them unable to see that this freedom was a poisoned gift. The open portal before them was only their inability to see the bars of the cage. The facts of geography were stark: to escape the ten-square-mile zone around the Srebrenica pocket and make it to Tuzla they must pass over one of two roads and even now at these places Serb troops and militiamen manning antiaircraft guns and mortars and heavy machine guns waited patiently, smoking, pacing, joking. They need do nothing: the Muslims would come to them; they had no choice. Encircled by General Mladic’s “iron ring,” those who survived the shelling would come staggering and tripping like exhausted children to enfold themselves in the great strong arms of Ratko Mladic.
First, however, the pressure on the Muslims, who were already near disabled by lack of sleep and nourishment and by paralyzing fear, must be steadily, carefully increased. “During the trek, it quickly became clear,” Rohde notes in his definitive reconstruction, Endgame, “that the threat to the column was as much psychological as physical.”
Shells abruptly whizzed overhead. Gunfire erupted with no warning. Corpses littered their route. A Serb mortar had landed ahead of them…and killed five men. A human stomach and intestines lay across the green grass just below the intact head and torso of a man in his twenties…. The image would slowly eat at their minds.
Paranoia infected the Muslims: Serbs had infiltrated the column, spied on their movements, prepared an ambush. Soon the Serbs filled the sky with booming metallic voices and many of the sleep-starved men began to break. As a doctor recalled:
A megaphone voice reverberated against the mountainside. The [Serbs] summoned us to surrender. Escape was impossible, they said…. The waiting tried our nerves to the utmost. Some people in the group began to hallucinate. Fear. Stress. Such people were a danger to their comrades: they shouted and screamed and could betray our position…. Some armed men completely panicked and opened fire randomly. They shot a few of their own men. We had to overpower them with force.19
Yet far from “betraying their position,” these “hallucinating” men had perceived the horror of it:that the Serbs knew where they were, that they were playing with them. Their fellows’ dogged determination to escape had become true hallucination. During the evening of July 12, as their wives and daughters and mothers began their phantasmagorical journeys along these very roads, hundreds of exhausted men lay in a great grassy clearing on a hillside. As Rohde tells it, just as a young man rose from the crowd to search for his father:
The hillside exploded. Screams filled his ears. He dove toward a cluster of trees. Other men piled on top of him. He hugged the ground. Mortars whistled overhead….
All around…men sprinted down the hill, then up and across in a panic. Weapons and bags with food were dropped in the pandemonium. Men gasped or groaned where they had fallen. Those carrying stretchers threw the wounded to the ground and ran for the nearest cluster of trees or bushes…. Men running downhill tripped, fell and tumbled head over heels for fifty yards, the ground was so steep….
[The gunners] had a devastating position…, [with] a half-mile-wide clearing filled with people for targets. For the first twenty seconds, it was a question of how many rounds the Serbs could fire, not whether they would hit anyone.
The next five minutes were the cruelest. The men who found cover in the foliage were trapped. In a macabre technique…, the Serbs would estimate which clusters of trees were filled with the most men and then methodically saturate them with flak from the antiaircraft gun and mortar rounds. Bodies were found stacked on top of each other in the trees. The living pulled the dead on top of them and used corpses as sandbags.
This ambush—which effectively severed perhaps half of the Muslim civilians’ communications with their military and political leadership at the head of the column—and others like it drained many of the Muslims of hope. Or rather it forced them to reach the desperate conclusion that a step that had seemed insane and suicidal the day before—delivering themselves into the hands of the Serbs—had become their only choice. They were unarmed, without food, without water, desperately in need of sleep; before them, blocking their escape, stood their well-armed, well-rested enemies; if they forced themselves onward these soldiers would surely kill them. And if, in their thousands, they surrendered? Was there not the chance that someone would help them, that someone would intervene? However savage the Serbs might wish their retribution to be, the men of Srebrenica were too many. Simple numbers must afford them some protection.
So they debated among themselves, and then one by one, score by score, hundred by hundred, they came down, into the kindly hands of the Serbs, who welcomed them in the soothing words of Mladic’s script, treated them with gentleness and patience. On the Petrovic video, we see them come down, a great straggling line of them: dirty, unshaven, skinny, their chests are sunken, and their fear makes them crouch, hunch their shoulders, look up, fearful, ratlike. “It’s all right, we won’t eat you,” says a big Serb soldier jovially. And then comes the voice of the unseen cameraman—“Where are your guns?”—and the slightly resentful, slightly resigned, exhausted reply, from a man later identified as Ramo Mustafic: “I wasn’t carrying a gun. I’m a civilian.”
“Are you afraid?”
“How can I not be afraid?”
In the background, a Serb gunner lobs a few antiaircraft shells into the trees on the hillside, floating gray cloudlets over the luminous July green. Ghostly figures are briefly silhouetted, staggering from copse to copse. We hear again the cameraman’s voice, talking to the Serb troops:
“How many have come out so far?”
“It must be three to four thousand, for sure.”
On the videotape we see in the distance a group of men seated on the ground, guarded by soldiers. They turn briefly toward the cameraman, squinting in the bright sunlight as they look past the Serbs cradling their assault rifles, and we see them for just an instant before the tape goes black. As with Ramo Mustafic, this is the last glimpse anyone will ever have of these men.
By Thursday, July 13, two days after the fall of Srebrenica, General Mladic’s invisible death camp had miraculously taken shape. Using scores of buses and trucks, his troops had expelled, in a matter of hours, 24,000 Muslim women and children. Using antiaircraft guns and tanks and mortars, his troops had killed perhaps two thousand, perhaps three thousand Muslim men as they tried frantically to slip the bounds of Mladic’s “iron ring.”
In the hills the few survivors who had fought the urge to surrender dragged themselves onward toward Tuzla. Many helped the wounded along; some carried relatives on blankets, a man on each corner. Exhaustion hobbled the men as they tried to advance through the grim Beckettian landscape. “I remember,” said Dr. Pilav later,
that I was walking, that is, I felt my body walk, but only with a small part of my consciousness. While I was running, and vaguely conscious of it, I was also sleeping and had crazy, terrible dreams. At one point, Iheard my own voice say, “Enough, when I get some money together, I will buy a car and never walk again, not an inch.” The strange sound of my own voice woke me up.
As in a nightmare, macabre visions confronted the reeling men at every turn. Corpses, parts of corpses, the mutilated and wounded lay everywhere. When one of Sudetic’s relatives reached the bottom of a hill, emerging from the impenetrable early-morning fog,
he heard a bleating sound, like the sound of a goat in pain. Aman knelt there in the grass. The skin of his face had been stripped away, leaving a crusty black pulp of coagulated blood and muscle. His lips had been cut away, and from the cavern of his mouth he bleated again. His index finger sliced across his throat.
Paja’s steps slowed as he turned all the way around and looked back at that face. He stopped long enough for the man to climb to his feet. Another bleating cry. Another appeal to cut his throat. Paja moved on.
Far ahead was the front of the column and the military and political leaders of Srebrenica and its strongest soldiers. Behind were most of the civilian men who, having been strafed and shelled, having seen their friends and relatives left in pieces on the trail, having been bombarded for hours with the inescapable electronically amplified appeals of the Serbs—“Come down! We will exchange you for our prisoners!” “Come down! We have your women and children!” “Come down!United Nations troops are here and they will protect you!”—had finally come down the hillside by the thousands. Those who had not been led gently off into the woods to have their throats slit were now kneeling fearfully in some part of Mladic’s freshly made death camp, built as it was of buses and ware-houses and football fields and grassy meadows.
This is how the women had seen their husbands and sons from the buses—“See your army?” asked the Serb soldiers contemptuously. This is how the Dutch “blue helmets,” attempting to escort the women evacuees in the few white armored personnel carriers and jeeps that remained to them (for the Serbs had been confiscating their vehicles and using them with considerable success to impersonate the UNtroops and trick the Muslims into surrendering), had glimpsed the men as well:kneeling fearfully, their hands clasped behind their necks, at these “collection and interrogation points.”And this is how, later that Thursday, an American reconnaisance satellite photographed them, showing perhaps six hundred people crowding the football field surrounded by their Serb guards.20
Of all the people whose eyes were trained on the captured Muslims that day and the next, only the Americans could have brought great power to bear. It would be good to say that American officials, knowing, in Richard Holbrooke’s words, that “something truly horrible was going on”—knowing, as a “senior US intelligence official” told The Washington Post, that “after Srebrenica fell…atroci-ties were going to happen”21—were watching Mladic’s activities closely. It would be good to know they made some effort to cast a strong light on what was about to happen, to raise a voice in protest beyond the solitary complaint to Slobodan Milosevic and in so doing perhaps save the lives of some of those thousands of Srebrenica’s men.
And yet for all Holbrooke’s talk of bombing and the recalcitrant Dutch and the other damnable obstacles, one can find no evidence that American officials made any such effort. Even the “aerial photographs,” which Madeline Albright brought so triumphantly before her colleagues at the UN Security Council, were displayed more than three weeks after the fall of Srebrenica—long after the thousands were dead and buried—and in any event they do not appear to have resulted from any directed attempt to discover “real-time” atrocities. For after Bosnian Foreign Minister Sacirbey telephoned Albright about the killings on July 13 and she in turn telephoned Samuel Berger, the deputy national security adviser, at the White House, Berger simply told her, according to The Washington Post and other accounts, to ask “the intelligence community” to “find corroborating evidence.”
Albright did apparently make such a request the next day—even as the Serbs were beginning to undertake the large-scale killings at various points around Srebrenica—but apparently officials in “the intelligence community” ignored her. “Several officials,” according to The Washington Post, said that “the National Photographic Interpretation Center (NPIC), which has a special group assigned to analyze satellite and U-2 spy-plane imagery of Bosnia, was not assigned the task in mid-July of looking for atrocities or mass graves.” Failing a congressional investigation of the incident one can only speculate that, as one official told The Washington Post, “it was not a military priority. A lot of this [atrocity] stuff is not looked at” when the imagery comes down. Officials have always been more interested in directing the country’s intelligence assets toward military priorities, in this case toward the ongoing battle for Zepa, a second “safe area” nearby that the Serbs were trying to capture. And to have truly made a change in this traditional priority the call would have had to come not from Albright, who, as UN ambassador, after all did not rank high in the eyes of other officials at the Pentagon’s National Reconnaissance Office, but from the White House itself—from, say, Sandy Berger, the man who suggested Albright make the call. And given the timing and what was known then, it seems fair to assume that when Berger suggested Albright call the NRO or the CIA, he might have been thinking that such “corroborating evidence” of atrocities might eventually be useful diplomatically to help force the Serbs into a settlement. There is no reason to believe, however, that Berger or his colleagues would have sought such evidence immediately in order to save lives, for doing so might have pushed the Clinton administration into the greater involvement it had always shunned.
And so the satellites stared down, as they passed overhead, and took their pictures, and not until weeks later did anyone look at them. The Muslims meanwhile knelt while, according to the account of a young man who survived, the Serbs passed through the crowd, beating people, “hitting them on the head with their rifles” and selecting some for “interrogation” in a small house.
They were being taken to this house one by one…. They were taking certain people and saying, “Don’t worry, your time will come. There’s no need to be afraid. You’re just going in for interrogation,” but nobody was coming out again.
Very quickly the intentions of the Serbs, and the prospects of the Muslims, became difficult to deny, and the realization showed on the Muslims’ faces.
They were pale and terrified. They knew what was awaiting them—I did too. They knew they were going to be killed. They were praying to be simply killed. I heard people whispering that they were hoping to be killed without being made to suffer.22
Halfway through the baking afternoon, however, a silver-haired, bull-like figure strode to the front of the crowd, which now numbered perhaps two thousand, and cupped his hands to his mouth. “You are welcome here,” shouted Ratko Mladic. “No one will harm you!”
You should have given yourselves up earlier. You shouldn’t have tried to go through the woods.
Look what your Alija has done to you. He destroyed you. You will be going to Bratunac and be spending the night there.
As he and his red command car visited each “interrogation and collection point” that afternoon and evening—and survivors have told of his speeches in virtually all of them—he gently rebuked the prisoners, established his godlike authority, then reassured them by offering a detail or two about their immediate futures. Mladic had crafted a psychological message that would keep alive what little hope the men may have had and thereby serve to ensure docile behavior. Hopelessness, after all, might bring desperation, and with it desperate acts. In this operation planning was extremely tight, deadlines unyielding; Mladic had no time for irritating rebellions.
Now two sixty-foot-long trucks pulled up, and Serb troops packed aboard several hundred prisoners, shoulder to shoulder. After a short drive the trucks stopped and for several hours the men struggled to stay conscious in the suffocating darkness. At last the doors swung open, flashlight beams shone in, and the prisoners knew at once that Mladic had spoken the truth:they saw before them the faces of Serbs from Bratunac. These Serbs, most in civilian clothing, spoke kindly to any Muslims they knew and invited them to come down from the truck for a talk; they then began savagely beating them, and after a time they dragged their bodies away and the cowering prisoners heard shots. The Serbs returned and the flashlight beams flickered among the faces again, searching for more.
Though they didn’t know it, a short while before General Mladic had made a second appearance before the surviving prisoners in the agricultural warehouse of Bratunac. By now, the Serbs with their knives and axes had killed an unknown number of the men. General Mladic spoke to his officers and then supervised, hands on hips, as six buses pulled up to the warehouse and the troops loaded the rest of the prisoners aboard.
Everywhere this night on the territory encircled by the “iron ring” Mladic had built around Srebrenica there was great activity: convoys of trucks and buses moved thousands of men according to precise timetables; officers consulted with one another, radioed orders, moved hundreds of their men about; drivers delivered earthmovers, bulldozers, heavy equipment of all sorts from site to site. Meantime many stayed in their houses, listening and wondering.
The Dutch troops, for example, who had seen perhaps a thousand Muslim prisoners kneeling on the football field near Nova Kasaba, and whom Serb troops had now detained in the village “for their own safety,”heard, according to the Report Based on the Debriefing on Srebrenica, “continuous shots from hand-held weapons… coming from the direction of the football pitch…for three quarters of an hour to one hour.” The next morning two Dutch UNsoldiers “reported that they had seen between 500 and 700 bodies”; however—the writer of Report Based on the Debriefing carefully adds—“two other members of Dutchbat [i.e. the Dutch batallion] who were in the same vehicle reported seeing only a few corpses.” Presumably the need to clarify this ambiguity (and not their frantic concern to find a way out of Bosnia) is why the Dutch did not find this eyewitness account of a substantial massacre worth broadcasting to the outside world, or indeed even worth mentioning at their press conference in Zagreb more than a week later. It would take more than three weeks and the flight of an American U2 spy plane for the world to gain a hint of what happened at Nova Kasaba that night. The plane took a photograph revealing that the assembly of Muslim men last seen in the satellite picture had been supplanted by three large plots of recently disturbed earth.
As it happens, interviewers from Human Rights Watch discovered in late July a man, identified as I.N., who hid in high grass not far from the field at Nova Kasaba and witnessed what happened after Mladic left and several hundred men were trucked to Bratunac. The Serbs, he said,
picked out Muslims whom they either knew about or knew, interrogated them and made them dig pits…. During our first day, the Cetniks killed approximately 500 people. They would just line them up and shoot them into the pits. The approximately one hundred guys whom they interrogated and who had dug the mass graves then had to fill them in. At the end of the day, they were ordered to dig a pit for themselves and line up in front of it…. [T]hey were shot into the mass grave….
At dawn,…[a] bulldozer arrived and dug up a pit…, and buried about 400 men alive. The men were encircled by Cetniks; whoever tried to escape was shot.23
The Nova Kasaba men never made it to Bratunac, Mladic’s main switching point: they were regarded, perhaps, as “overflow”in the general’s meticulous hydraulics. For that night thousands of Muslim men would move along various roads to and from Bratunac and then to a school in Karakaj. Here Serb troops hustled the men into a gymnasium—“Quickly! Quickly!”—and forced them to remove their jackets, hats, shirts. When the room had grown so crowded that most of the sweltering men were sitting in their neighbor’s laps, Mladic appeared in the front of the gymnasium. He gazed at the men but said nothing to them; instead he spoke with his officers, laughed, smiled, then left. The Muslims could hear the engines of trucks and buses as they pulled up to the schools.
The final stage had begun. Mladic would make no more calming speeches. Now the Serbs would direct every action to suggest inevitability: there was no more talk of exchanges or rescue. The Muslims were half stripped, their shoes and other belongings rudely taken. They were beaten, bloodied; forced to shout “Long live Serbia,” to run down hallways, jump into trucks, follow orders without question, even those final orders leading to their own executions. For Mladic and his men, the Muslims had to be made to see that they had already entered into a dark, bloody landscape; they had already stepped partly into the world of the dead. “We were ordered to run out into the corridor”of the school, one survivor recalled.
We were running barefoot on a floor which was covered in blood. I saw about twenty corpses lying near the front door…. The Cetniks kept on yelling to load more and more people into the truck until it was crammed full…. They ordered everyone to sit, but we couldn’t because it was so tightly packed…. The Cetniks started to shoot at people in order to make us sit down.
The running, the shouting, the beating—the objective of all of this, as Honig and Both remark in Srebrenica:Record of a War Crime, was “to instill the execution process with a sense of inexorable movement and speed. No one, including the executioners, was given an opportunity to question the process.” Mladic had carefully planned the operation so the execution sites lay only a few minutes from the final “interrogation points”—they might better be called “pre-execution chambers”—so that the final truck ride, during which the blindfolded men could hardly deny what was about to happen, gave them no time to react. Upon their arrival—and for the same reason—“operations” began instantly:
When the truck stopped, we immediately heard shooting outside; stones were bouncing off the [truck’s] tarpaulin. The Cetniks told us to get out, five at a time. I was in the middle of the group, and the men in the front didn’t want to get out. They were terrified, they started pulling back. But we had no choice, and when it was my turn to get out with five others, I saw dead bodies everywhere…. A Cetnik said, “Come on [Turk], find some space.”… They ordered us to lie down, and as I threw myself on the ground, I heard gunfire. I was hit in my right arm and three bullets went through the right side of my torso.
Another survivor describes his first glimpse of the execution site under the blindfold:
We came near to what I saw through my right eye was a wooded area. They took us off the truck in twos and led us out to some kind of meadow. People started taking off blindfolds and yelling in fear because the meadow was littered with corpses. I was put in the front row, but I fell over to the left before the first shots were fired so that bodies fell on top of me….
About an hour later, Ilooked up and saw dead bodies everywhere. They were bringing in more trucks with more people to be executed. After a bulldozer driver walked away, I crawled over dead bodies and into the forest.
Bodies were everywhere within Mladic’s “iron ring,” covering the fields, the mountains and hillsides. In the moonlight another survivor rose slowly and fearfully; he was wounded, bloody, and cramped from hours lying motionless beneath his dead countrymen. Now he gazed in astonishment out upon a moonlit “ocean of corpses,” so many of them in the vast meadow that try as he might he could not avoid stepping on them to escape.
The following day, as his troops were hard at work with bulldozers and diggers, and as special “clean-up teams” scoured the roads filling trucks with stray corpses,24 General Mladic traveled to Belgrade to meet with Milosevic, Special Representative Yasushi Akashi of the United Nations, Carl Bildt of the European Community, and General Rupert Smith, the commander of UN troops in Bosnia. Though Mladic had already “cleansed” the greater part of the population, perhaps a thousand Muslims at this moment remained imprisoned in various warehouses and storage depots in Bratunac.In his cable reporting to Kofi Annan in New York, Akashi expresses his pleasure that “despite their disagreement on several points, the meeting re-established dialogue between the two generals.”
INFORMAL AGREEMENT WAS REACHED IN THE COURSE OF THE MEETING ON A NUMBER OF POINTS BETWEEN THE TWO GENERALS WHICH WILL, HOWEVER, HAVE TO BE CONFIRMED AT THEIR MEETING SCHEDULED FOR 19 JULY. IN VIEW OF THE HIGHLY SENSITIVE NATURE OF THE PRESENCE OF MLADIC AT THE MEETING, IT WAS AGREED BY ALL PARTICIPANTS THAT THIS FACT SHOULD NOT BE MENTIONED AT ALL IN PUBLIC.
Four days later General Mladic was, according to the UN meeting summary, in a “chipper mood,” which the note-taker attributed to the general’s “success in pressing his attack on Zepa,” which he would conquer in a few days. He had retained, as insurance, most of his Dutch hostages. Indeed the agreement negotiated is telling in its almost total focus on the Dutch, who would be freed on July 21, and its failure to take up what Akashi had referred to as the “shortfall in our database”—the seven thousand or so Muslim men who had simply disappeared. Failing to agree on whether to refer to these parties as detainees (as Smith wanted) or POWs (as Mladic insisted), the generals contented themselves with guaranteeing access to the Red Cross—after July 20.
The following day the Dutch battalion would depart for Zagreb. Since the beginning, the release of Dutch troops had always been the West’s primary concern, a blatant self-interest that the Muslims found maddening. (David Rohde speaks of a Muslim artillery officer who had written bitterly on a Dutch colleague’s pad a simple equation: “30 Dutch equals 30,000 Muslims.”) As a young translator who lost his entire family said later:
Everyone was afraid. The Dutch were afraid. We were afraid, but I don’t know who was more afraid. I think we had much more reason to be afraid than the Dutch. As far as I know, the Dutch all arrived home safely.
They did, of course, and they were promptly given six weeks leave before any investigation was undertaken. The events at Srebrenica, however, had already had their effect. Even as he sat in CNN’s studio on July 16—the very day that Serb troops would murder the final thousand or so Muslims held at Bratunac, machine-gunning them at the state farm of Pilica—Richard Holbrooke must have known that he and the other “hard-liners”in the administration were about to win.
Like many before, Mladic had overreached himself. Soon he would turn his sights on the Bihac “safe area” to the west, thus threatening the Croats, who would unleash a brutal attack that would “cleanse” the Krajina of more than one hundred fifty thousand Serbs and hand Mladic and the Serbs their first defeat. President Clinton, with an election coming, knew he would have to send troops to Bosnia, either to help evacuate the allies or somehow force an end to the fighting.
And finally—for how can one know how much it really mattered?—General Mladic had committed an enormous crime that had shamed the West as nothing had before. In so doing he had left the way for Bosnia to at last become an American war.
—This is the eighth in a continuing series of articles.
September 24, 1998
The transcripts of Serb radio communications are drawn from Roy Gutman, “The UN’s Deadly Deal: How troop-hostage talks led to slaughter of Srebrenica,” Newsday, May 29, 1996. ↩
As Charles Lane and Thom Shanker wrote in these pages, “During the late spring and early summer of 1992, some three thousand Muslims in the northern town of Brcko were herded by Serb troops into an abandoned warehouse, tortured, and put to death. A US intelligence satellite orbiting over the former Yugoslavia photographed part of the slaughter. ‘They have photos of trucks going into Brcko with bodies standing upright, and pictures of trucks coming out of Brcko carrying bodies lying horizontally, stacked like cordwood,’ an investigator working outside the US government who has seen the pictures told us . The photographs of the bloodbath in Brcko remain unpublished to this day.” See The New York Review, May 9, 1996, p. 10. ↩
See David Owen, Balkan Odyssey (Harcourt Brace, 1995), pp. 134-135. For the story of Bratunac and the history of the war around Srebrenica, see my earlier article, “Clinton, the UN, and the Bosnian Disaster,” The New York Review, December 18, 1997. This was the third article in the present series in these pages, which began with “The US and the Yugoslav Catastrophe,” November 20, 1997; “America and the Bosnia Genocide,” December 4, 1997; “Bosnia: The Turning Point,” February 5, 1998; “Bosnia: Breaking the Machine,” February 19, 1998; “Bosnia: The Great Betrayal,” March 26, 1998; and “Slouching Toward Dayton,” April 23, 1998. ↩
Mr. J.J.C. Voorhoeve, the present Dutch minister of defense, who held that office at the time Srebrenica fell in 1995, took strong issue with Holbrooke’s description of the Dutch role in a letter to the secretary dated June 3, 1998, a copy of which the minister sent to this author. Holbrooke, who had just been named US representative to the United Nations, said he would revise this statement in future editions of his book and that he would now say that “European governments” refused to authorize air strikes until the Dutch forces had left Bosnia. ↩
“We don’t know how many people were killed,” according to a senior Dutch officer quoted by a British journalist. “They were hanging onto the tracks and the wheel arches, like Indians on a train. It could be 10 or 15, maybe more. No one knows.” See John Sweeny, “And We Are All Guilty,” The Observer, December 8, 1996. ↩
See Roy Gutman, “UN’s Deadly Deal.” ↩
For an account of the attack in Kravica, see my article “Clinton, the UN and the Bosnian Disaster.” ↩
See The Independent on Sunday, July 23, 1995; quoted in Srebrenica: Record of a War Crime, p. 37. ↩
See Report Based on the Debriefing on Srebrenica, p. 51. ↩
See, for example, Chris Hedges, “Serb Forces Fight Dutch UN Troops in Eastern Bosnia,” The New York Times, July 10, 1995. “But senior United Nations officials also said the Bosnian Serbs may not take the town, filled with refugees as it is .” ↩
Like many of the details of this event, the degree of cooperation between Mladic’s forces and the Yugoslav National Army remains a matter of dispute. I discuss some of the specific evidence, including the movements of Mladic and Perisic during the weeks before the attack and intercepted transcripts of radio calls between them, in “Bosnia: The Great Betrayal.” See also the words of a man whom the producers of the British television documentary series describe as a “highly placed NATO officer”: “The Bosnian Serb Army couldn’t plan an attack like this without the Yugoslav National Army, much less survive without them. The Bosnian Serb Army was only supported by the Yugoslav National Army logistically, but you have to look at their command and control [and] communications. The Bosnian Serb Army communications were all networked with the Yugoslav National Army, just like the Sam-6 missiles aimed at our planes.” See Dispatches, June 17, 1996. ↩
See Roy Gutman, “Dutch Reveal Horrors of Mission Impossible,” Newsday, July 24, 1995. ↩
See Report Based on the Debriefing on Srebrenica, p. 57. ↩
Lane and Shanker, in their New York Review piece cited above, attribute this information to an unnamed “intelligence official.” ↩
See the so-called “Petrovic video,” shot by Serb cameraman Zoran Petrovic-Pirocanac, in and around Srebrenica from July 11 to July 16, 1995. ↩
For a description of this “Trek Through the Forest,” see my article, “Bosnia: The Great Betrayal.” ↩
See Anthony Lloyd, “Srebrenica’s Exiles Tell Grimly Familiar Stories of Murder,” The London Times, July 15, 1995. ↩
See Michael Dobbs and R. Jeffrey Smith, “New Proof Offered of Serb Atrocities,” The Washington Post, October 28, 1995. ↩
The words are Dr. Ilijas Pilav’s, quoted in Honig and Both, Srebrenica: Record of a War Crime, pp. 52-55. ↩
Although the initial images of Nova Kasaba were identified, when USRepresentative Madeleine Albright unveiled them to the United Nations Security Council, only as “aerial photographs,” it seems generally agreed that they were drawn from satellite imagery. According to William E. Burrows, for example, “On July 13 or 14 a US reconnaissance satellite downlinked imagery showing several hundred people gathered at a soccer field in the area.” See “Imaging Space Reconnaissance Operations during the Cold War: Cause, Effect and Legacy,” on the Cold War Forum Website (www.fas.org). Both The New York Times and The Washington Post agree with this, though Honig andBoth, whose sources tend to be very solid, claim the photographs were taken by an “American U-2 spy plane.” ↩
See Michael Dobbs and R. Jeffrey Smith, “Proof Offered of Serb Atrocities,” October 28, 1995. ↩
Drawn from an interview in the “Petrovic video,” cited above. ↩
See Human Rights Watch/Helsinki, The Fall of Srebrenica and the Future of UN Peacekeeping (October 1995). This and the accounts of other survivors below are drawn from this report, pp. 36-45. ↩
“On 15 July, [Dutch] military personnel saw ‘clean-up teams’ (these people were wearing rubber gloves) as well as tipper trucks and lorries carrying corpses.” See Report Based on the Debriefing on Srebrenica, p. 51. ↩