|Revisiting Srebrenica I:|
And We Are All Guilty...
by John Sweeney
The UNPROFOR soldier strolled in the lazy heat across the Zagreb HQ car park, sporting, not a blue helmet, but a sombrero with a brim the size of a cartwheel. The soldier walked down a corridor of gleaming white 4X4s and disappeared into a suite of offices. Beyond the torpor of the car part, 300-odd kilometres east down Tito's Highway of Brotherhood and Unity - its macadam Aero-bar-bubbled by shrapnel - and a turn south, into the wild hills of eastern Bosnia, stood the town of Srebrenica, sealed off from the world by the victorious Bosnian Serb army. There, that day, and in the days that followed, the worst war crime on the Continent since the end of the Second World War was taking place.
Srebrenica: Record of a War Crime, by Jan Willem Honig and Norbert Both (Penguin 1996) is a dry document of man's bestiality - academic, grim. The authors deserve our thanks for logging this black chapter of nineties Europe. That said, for those of us who lived on the margins of Srebrenica's tragedy, the book fails to get across the evil of Europe's big sleep. Perhaps no book ever could.
To kill 5,000 was not a simple affair. Death pits have to be dug, victims captured, bussed, shot, buried; killers radioed, rostered, refreshed, rested. A massacre of 5,000 people is not easy to hide. One important piece of evidence of massacre was film shot by a Serb camaraman, Zoran Petrovic. His film showed Serbs, sporting the blue berets of the UN's DutchBat, making Nazi-style selections, men to the left (and death), women to the right (and safety). Petrovic caught a Muslim man, Ramo Mustafic, middle-aged, bald, terrified, as he was shepherded by Serb fighters to the killing zone. In answer to an unheard question, Mustafic said:
'We've spent two days and nights here.'
'Where are your guns?'
'I wasn't carrying a gun. I'm a civilian.'
'Are you afraid?'
'How can I not be afraid?'
That film lay unseen in Belgrade until it was unearthed by BBC2's 'The Spin' and became the basis of a report I made for that programme on the massacre. The Red Cross, by 16 August 1996, had registered 6,546 tracing requests for people missing from Srebrenica, 6,513 of whom were men. Everyone knew that a massacre was taking place in Srebrenica in those days after the fall of the town. The past words and works of General Ratko Mladic and Dr Radovan Karadzic, poet, psychiatrist and psychopath, had signalled that they were out for revenge. Without the fall of the town, the UN, Nato, and the Western governments (including Her Majesty's) which run both organizations, could not move the next piece in the Balkan chess game. They, we, were complicit with the massacre. And complicit with the siege.
Imagine what it must have been like to have been shelled in Srebrenica on Easter Monday, 12 April 1993. The sound alone can make you physically sick. The pressure wave from the shell is so strong that, if you are caught close by, it can burst eyeballs. The force of the bang rips the metal casing into hundreds of shreds of flying steel shrapnel.
The town's long agony began that Easter Monday. The Serbs' shelling was methodical, starting at one end of town, moving up the high street and then stopping, 20 minutes later. In that one bombardment, 56 people were killed. It moved Larry Hollingsworth of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees to say: 'My first thought was for the commander who gave the order to attack. I hope he burns in the hottest corner of hell. My second thought was for the soldiers who loaded the breeches and fired the guns. I hope their sleep is forever punctuated by the screams of the children.'
Before the Easter Monday 1993 massacre, the Serbs had opened a window of compassion. They had allowed food aid in and some refugees - women and children only - out. The wounded arrived in the safety of Muslim-controlled Tuzla to give the world a glimpse of what was happening in Srebrenica. The icon of that suffering was a lad who had lost both his eyes because of a shell-burst. For me, the worst image of the suffering of Srebrenica was the sight of his brother. The two had been separated in the rush to escape and the moment they were reunited was caught by the TV cameras. He looked at his brother with bandages where once there had been eyes, turned away and wept.
The immediate effect of the Easter 1993 massacre was for the UN to designate Srebrenica as a 'safe area', though what that was no one was entirely sure. To man the safe areas - eventually there were six in all - the UN called for 35,000 extra troops from contributing countries. They got 7,000. The British, the French and the Dutch did volunteer their soldiers. The Americans, who had been the most die-hard in their opposition to any accommodation with the Serbs, offered none. The Dutch went out to Srebrenica, taking over from the Canadians, but as babysitters, not fighters. Within months they were demoralized. The safe areas were never made safe. Inside the siege there were circles of hell. Survival for the townsfolk who still had their homes and the fighters who still had their guns was less hard than for the refugees from the hinterland with nothing but their own clothes.
The Muslim haves played rough with the Muslim have-nots, bilking them of food aid, money, bullets. The authors of Srebrenica report that the refugees from villages outside the town elected their own representative to ensure they got a fair share of the UN's food aid. The day after he was elected, the refugees' man was found murdered. And not by a Serb. Come the spring of 1995, Lt-General Sir Rupert Smith, the new top military UN man in Bosnia, faced a brick wall. He knew that the Unprofor (United Nations Protection Force) machine was not up to its job of protecting the Bosnians. He also knew that his masters - the Western gov- ernments - did not want to know that. He knew that each of his predecessors had come unstuck trying to resolve the inherent, self-defeating tensions of the mission. The French General Philippe Morillon, a brave and decent soldier, had gone to Srebrenica in 1993 and announced, to much acclaim: 'We will not abandon you' and 'Here I am and here I stay'. He left. Morillon's failure to deliver on his promises to the people of Srebrenica all but broke him. Smith is a thinker. He believes in the oxymoron of military intelligence. He is one of the very few figures in Srebenica: Record of a War Crime who comes out with his reputation intact. That spring Smith set out, deliberately, to test Unprofor against it mission, if necessary to 'break the machine'. If it broke, then his masters would have to come up with one that worked.
His first opportunity came on 7 May 1995, when a Serb mortar dropped on a football game taking place in Sarajevo, killing many of the players. Smith called for air strikes against the Serbs. He was vetoed by the UN's civil boss in former Yugoslavia, the wimpish Yasushi Akashi, and by Smith's superior in Zagreb, the unwimpish French General Bernard Janvier. (Janvier once saved President Omar Bongo's bacon in 1990, when the pygmy tyrant of Gabon was briefly overthrown in a coup.) Had Akashi and Janvier sanctioned air strikes against the Serbs then, it is possible that the massacre of Srebrenica would never have taken place. But Smith lost the argument and he remained in charge of an inherently unsound machine.
The town's doom was foretold in a UN strategy paper of Bosnia, dated 30 May 1995, written by UN Special Envoy Yasushi Akashi's team and signed by Secretary General Boutros Boutros Ghali. The paper set out four options: withdrawal; the status quo; Nato wages ground war; consolidate in central Bosnia. Consolidation meant the UN's departure from the eastern enclaves. It timetabled massacre, so no one supported it in public. But consolidation was the silent policy.
The Serbs, alert to every nuance in Zagreb, knew what was about to happen too. They applied pressure. On 1 June, they demanded that the Dutch pull back from an outlying observation post commanding a strategic road. The Dutch refused. Two days later, the Serbs attacked and the Dutch retreated. The pattern had been set. By early June, the morale of DutchBat inside Srebrenica was abysmal. The leader of DutchBat, Lt-Col Ton Karremans, was close to nervous collapse; his troops were uneasy, bored, sick of the Muslim gangsters who ruled much of the town under the sight of the Serb guns. Far from being on the side of the underdog Muslims they were there to protect, many in DutchBat appeared to become victims of 'Stockholm syndrome', where the kidnapped come to sympathize, then empathize, with the kidnappers.
As June gave way to early July, the Serbs nibbled at more of the enclave, never launching a full attack, never killing any Dutch, never triggering Nato's tripwire. The only Dutch soldier to die was not killed by a Serb. As the Dutch retreated from the Serbs on 7 July, they passed through a Bosnian army roadblock. The Muslim militia, enraged that the Dutch were giving up their land without a fight, lobbed a grenade, killing Private Raviv van Renssen, a Dutch trooper. From then on, the Muslims were the more dangerous enemy for the Dutch. When the Serbs next closed in on a Dutch observation post, the UN troops chose to surrender to them.
Honig and Both's chronology takes on the character of a countdown to massacre: the Dutch panicking, Karremans by turns sick or whistling for air strikes that never came; the Muslims in despair, some fleeing, some suicidal; the UN effete, remote and, at the top, following a silent policy of withdrawal from Srebrenica; the Serbs remorseless. On Tuesday 11 July, two Nato jets popped one Serb tank, and then the UN wilted, surrendered and the exodus began. What happened that day was a disgrace to the Royal Dutch Army. As up to 25,000 Muslims fled from the town of Srebrenica and the advancing Serbs to the battery factory at Potocari, where the battalion had made its headquarters, discipline collapsed.
The authors miss out some of the worst detail. The debriefing report conducted by the Dutch Defence Ministry after the fall is touched on, but not properly explored. It noted that when the Dutch pulled out, troops inside their armoured personnel carriers heard soft repeated 'bangs' as people, Muslims, were crushed under their tracks. The debriefing report continued: 'Refugees (dead and/or alive) were run over.' One senior Dutch officer based in Bosnia at the time told me later: 'We don't know how many people were killed. They were hanging on to the tracks and the wheel arches, like Indians on a train. It could be 10 or 15, maybe more. No one knows.'
The report described Potocari: 'There was rubbish and excreta everywhere. At over 35 degrees centigrade, a terrible stench filled the area.' One man hanged himself from a tree, a woman tried to kill herself. The wholesale killing started. One soldier watched the Serbs fire on refugees near the Potocari bus station, shooting them in the upper body or legs. Others heard shots near an 'interrogation' centre. One soldier had a camera. He took photographs of terrified refugees and of nine corpses. All of them had been shot in the back at heart level. The soldier's film was destroyed when it was wrongly developed by the Dutch Ministry of Defence - 'human error', they said.
The Dutch troops saw two lorries each carrying 40 to 50 men. The vehicles turned off the road and about 100 shots were heard. Some days later, two trailers were seen coming from the direction of Srebrenica, carrying about 100 bodies. Far from combating the Serbs' blood lust, the Dutch were overcome by a feeling that the Serbs were the liberators.
The Dutch surrendered their weapons and vehicles, against orders, and even their blue UN flak jackets, helmets and berets. Muslims may well have then seen the blue helmets - not realizing they were being worn by the enemy - and surrendered. The Dutch handed over 14 armoured vehicles, 18 Mercedes jeeps, one lorry, six mortars, six missiles, 18 machine guns and a large number of hand-held weapons. The Dutch even gave the Serbs driving lessons.
One soldier used a camcorder to record the shelling of Srebrenica, and the later shelling of Potocari. This tape was also destroyed. The massacre is well documented by Honig and Both, but not so the cover-up by the Western powers. The Dutch government destroyed evidence of massacre; the American government sat on evidence of massacre, delaying the release of spy satellite or drone photos of the killing until three weeks later; the British government gave prominence to reports that no one had been massacred.
When the women of Srebrenica arrived in Tuzla, they were hysterical. They made the throat-cutting gesture to explain what had happened to their men. But they had no evidence. It is less easy to dismiss the evidence of the Serb cameraman Zoran Petrovic's film. It reveals Muslim men prisoners herded into a remote field, as Serbs readied their weapons. What happened next was erased by the Serb cameraman because of his fear of repercussions.
The film goes black.
This article was originally published in The Observer, on 8 December 1996.