Srebrenica: a genocide foretold
by Nenad Popovic
Review of Srebrenica: un génocide annoncé by Sylvie Matton,
Flammarion, Paris 2005
On the tenth anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide, the French writer and journalist Sylvie Matton asked herself a very simple question: How come that mass suffering began there in 1992; that for three years tens of thousands of people of all ages, from nursing babies to the very old, experienced chronic famine and death in this small area; that in 1995 this huge concentration camp turned into a place of systematic execution of its inhabitants; that thousands of survivors continue to endure the distress of living in the miserable conditions of refugee existence?
Since the author was not one of those who directly witnessed the war and ‘ethnic cleansing’ in the area of the former Yugoslavia, she searched for answers in documents, articles, film material, court testimonies and books. Faced with an ever growing number of disparate and contradictory accounts, she conducted parallel interviews with a range of key personalities on the international political stage: high UN officials, government ministers, generals, negotiators and diplomats - including, for example, former French foreign minister Hubert Védrine, Swedish politician Carl Bildt, French generals Bernard Janvier and Jean Cot.
Sticking to this simplest of methods, the author obtained the most devastating of all possible results, filling nearly four hundred and fifty pages. As early as June 1991 (does anyone still remember Vukovar?) Western intelligence services informed their politicians of Serbia’s true intentions in regard to the war of territorial expansion accompanied by ethnic cleansing. Again, in the months before the attack on Sarajevo the West had accurate information on the positioning of the JNA’s artillery around the city. Again, France and Great Britain spent years manipulating other members of the Security Council in favour of the creation of a large Serbian state in the Balkans - at the cost, moreover, of genocide then in progress. Again, Karadžić’s order ‘Kill them all!’ was recorded by the West’s monitoring services and forwarded to those higher up. ...
They all knew everything. Not only was it possible to save Srebrenica, it was possible even to prevent the war in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina and thus the killing of some 200,000 people and the dispossession of millions who have lost their homes and families and have come to suffer permanent physical and mental disabilities.
Sylvie Matton’s book would not be an exceptionally important and great work, if all this were merely stated. It is important because the author has taken the trouble to reconstruct every telefax sent from Srebrenica, every comma and every half sentence she has managed to uncover; and to use it all to embarrass her esteemed interlocutors (she is masterly with Bildt); to put together exact tables of the movements of the important protagonists; to learn the type, rhythm and approximate number of telephone conversation made at the height of the Srebrenica crisis by Yasushi Akashi; to measure the distance between two rooms at UN headquarters in Zagreb (where misunderstandings occurred, telephones malfunctioned, etc); to learn about the warning words addressed every Monday at 2 o’clock by Mitterrand to his inner cabinet, whenever someone mentioned Serbia; to record the size of the fees earned by General MacKenzie lecturing in Canada and the United States as an alleged expert on Bosnia; to establish in which laboratory in the Netherlands the films Dutch soldiers had made of the mass executions at Srebrenica were lost or spoiled; to analyse how UN documents were crossed out or falsified (they were crossed out and falsified so many times by people working within the organization’s hierarchy that sometimes the truth managed to come through, along with contradictory passages, impossible dates, words revealing knowledge of something not registered in the text in which they appear).
This is why this book makes you shiver, despite the passage of time. Or, more accurately, today more than ever. Self-important officials, mental or indifferent malefactors like Boutros Boutros Ghali, pathetic careerists like Kofi Annan, snobs like Yasushi Akashi, unscrupulous creatures like Douglas Hurd, form a gallery of individuals who speak here with their own words and deeds - while ‘down there’ genocide is running its course, characters called Izetbegović and Saćirbegović are banging on the door, a country is falling into complete chaos, and blood flows in rivers.
The Eichmann syndrome
One shivers because the genocide at Srebrenica - which for the author is but the finale of a methodical implementation of the strategy of ethnic cleansing of the projected Serbian state - was not just foretold. The book’s title moderates the results of the author’s own research. Her work is investigation for prosecution: it was known from the start what was happening; possible indeed to predict in advance in every detail what would happen, yet the killers were not stopped. On the contrary. To be sure they were stopped in the end, but only when the thing became unbearable; when, for example, Al Gore had to explain to his young daughter the meaning of a picture in an illustrated magazine showing another young woman pushed by despair into hanging herself from a tree.
One may be tempted to say that all this is already known. But that is not true. We don’t, we didn’t know, at least not ‘all’. What was suspected, what appeared discernible, is here analysed, checked and laid out to form a large and logical picture, with a depth of frightening extent. For Sylvie Matton is also very militant. Rejecting the cynical political discourse, she puts in italics ethnic cleansing (which is genocide) and safe area (meaning concentration camp); and when she quotes phrases about the killing of Muslims, she puts Muslims too in italics because it is people who were being killed. She leaves not a millimetre of space for excuses, suppositions and relativism. She speaks throughout like a citizen: revolted, disgusted, moved - and possibly also frightened - by what she has uncovered.
This is expressed not only through her solidarity with the victimized. She also provides fitting portraits of those higher and lower powerbrokers on the international scene who had the courage, morals and passion to do something, to resist. Here we come across persons whom we may know only superficially, but who paid for their efforts with being belittled, pressurized, held back in their careers, embittered. Worse still is that the political and bureaucratic class, intent on brushing everything under the carpet, ensured that such moral individuals should appear in the eyes of the public as involved in the same crimes as all the others. Yet there is a world of difference between people like Tadeusz Masowiezki, who resigned because Srebrenica was not saved; Florence Hartmann, author of an early book on Milošević; French ambassador George-Marie Chenu, who recorded what people really said; Margaret Thatcher, who was laughed at for demanding intervention; the impotent Alija Izetbegović, who was made to shake hands with the butcher of his people before the cameras in Paris; and on the other hand individuals like the Dutch colonel Karremanns, who took with him from Srebrenica a bottle of plum brandy given to him with a smirk by Ratko Mladić; or François Leotard, though the latter - formerly the French minister of defence - did summon up enough courage to tell the truth publicly ten years later, albeit in the form of a novel entitled no more nor less than Nostalgic Life of the Jelly Fish.
Sylvie Matton, by contrast, was not given to writing poetry. Her precise chapters - different people will find different chapters to admire in particular: I myself was singularly impressed by the passages on the deadly manipulation in diplomatic language, as well as by the episode in which General Morillon of his own will and contrary to orders prevented the invasion of Srebrenica on 12 March 1993 - guide us in a disciplined manner towards the inevitable and unbearable finale, when she confronts us in an equally disciplined manner with , for example, the description of a baby’s decapitation in front of its mother’s eyes. The mother fainted in response.
Although a documentary work, this book is not an account of genocide like those of Roy Gutman or David Rohde. On its cover, the word Srebrenica signifies far more. Its stands for Auschwitz, just as the trial in The Hague stands in her book in place of Nuremberg, and just as the image of Adolf Eichmann, the pale and indifferent killer behind a typewriter, floats before our eyes as we read it. The book appears in this regard as an exemplary investigation into contemporary civilization. A civilization which, as we know, produces every now and then little Hitlers in the persons of Pol Pot, Radovan Karadžić, or Osama Bin Laden. Sylvie Matton helps us to understand this better. She shows how the Eichmann syndrome still remains operative.
Translated from Dani (Sarajevo), 3 March 2006. The author is founder and director of the Durieux publishing house in Zagreb, which played an irreplaceable role during and after the war in making available the work of many of the best Bosnian writers