bosnia report
New Series No:32-34 December - July 2003
Finally: the truth
by Allan Little

The superlative documentary The Fall of Milošević will force us to totally rethink our views on the Balkan conflict. Not a moment too soon


In November 1995 Bill Clinton leaned across a desk at an air force base at Dayton, Ohio and handed a Cuban cigar to Slobodan Milošević. Not much more than three years later Clinton sent bombers to drive the Serb leader out of Kosovo. The two events bookend the grandeur of Milošević's epic fall from grace and his descent into self-destruction.

The first of these two episodes is still the odder. When it took place Milošević was already known to have planned, orchestrated, financed and prosecuted three wars against his neighbours. He had added a new and grotesque term to the lexicon of aggression - ‘ethnic cleansing’. He had destroyed the Serbian middle class, robbed them of their material wealth, plundered their bank accounts and handed the Serbian economy over to criminal gangs who had thanked him by sending their private paramilitary forces into neighbouring Croatia and Bosnia to burn and murder and rape. Most of the crimes for which Milošević now stands in the dock at The Hague were committed before he shared his Cuban smoke with the President of the United States.

For in 1995, in order to bring the war in Bosnia to an end, the leaders of the Western world had chosen in a quite calculated way to turn the principal architect of war into the principal bestower of peace. What a price there was to pay for it!

Less than a year later, the Kosovo Albanians drew the obvious lesson from the moral shambles of the Dayton Agreement and it was this: in the real world only force will get you what you want.

They had been challenging Milošević peacefully for a decade and had suffered defeat after defeat. Dayton taught them to take up arms. They started to kill Serbian policemen and civilians. The strategy was to provoke the massive and brutal retaliation that they knew Milošević to be capable of. The cold calculus of it was known and articulated at the time - manipulate the Serbs into killing Albanian civilians and, by so doing, draw NATO into war against Belgrade. It worked more quickly than even the most optimistic Albanians had dared to believe possible.

Why did Western leaders act so decisively in Kosovo when they had dithered so long and so disastrously in Bosnia?

Two different wars

I spent the best part of three years screaming down a telephone line from Sarajevo and elsewhere in Bosnia, covering the conflict for the BBC. The dynamic of the conflict seemed obvious to most of us who spent any time there: the war was coming from Belgrade, Milošević needed conflict to stay in power and had hijacked the Yugoslav People's Army to do it. I would come back to London after prolonged assignments to find the political classes in Britain assessing a conflict I simply didn't recognize. I thought they were talking about a different war altogether - and in a sense they were. Seen from London the war was about ‘ancient ethnic hatreds’; there was something inevitable (and therefore unstoppable) about it; and, above all, it was ‘horribly complicated’.

It was, of course, nothing of the sort. It was very simple and straightforward. There was a war in former Yugoslavia because a criminalized elite in Belgrade, that had jumped from the sinking ship of communism onto the life-raft of nationalism, had chosen to have one.

Until 1995 it was hard to argue this in Britain (although important voices including Paddy Ashdown and Margaret Thatcher did). Among the journalists, those of us who took this view (and most of us did) were accused of taking sides, of being ‘anti-Serb’ (we were not) and of being ‘lap-top bombardiers’. This caused real problems in reporting the Bosnian war - how to explain to the reading and listening and viewing public what was going on without appearing to have abandoned impartiality, objectivity and neutrality. I argued passionately and frequently with editors who worried that I was losing the plot.

Sea change

After 1995, it all changed. By the time Kosovo exploded onto our television screens it was, suddenly, respectable mainstream stuff to say that Milošević was a megalomaniac dictator for whom conflict had become a power base. It was no longer hard to argue this position; it was, on the contrary, ludicrous to believe otherwise.

I am convinced that one reason for this remarkable sea change in international public opinion was a documentary television series that painstakingly, forensically and compellingly chronicled the Milošević phenomenon. It was called Death of Yugoslavia, had cost a fortune to make and hit our screens in late 1995.

Before Death of Yugoslavia, the causes of the Yugoslavian wars were ‘complicated’ - lost somewhere in the exotic nature of the Balkans. After Death of Yugoslavia the causes were blindingly clear and were seldom argued about again. The series, unwittingly, itself became a part of the Yugoslav story. I have watched tapes of it in both Belgrade and Sarajevo, in the company of Serbian and Bosnian friends and colleagues. It is a shaming, sombre experience. The whole thing unfolds before you as a deliberate, calculated criminal enterprise, while a conscience-stricken Western world looks on and talks about ancient enmities and unstoppable passions.

Now we have the long-awaited sequel from the makers of the original series, Norma Percy and Brian Lapping. The difference this time is that the story they are chronicling is so well known, so documented (not least because of their own success last time round), that it hard to see how they can be as breath-takingly revealing as they were in the first series.

But they have pulled off another television coup. Here is Richard Holbrooke, the US envoy, admitting that, yes, at a secret meeting with the KLA in 1998, he did indeed tell them that Kosovo independence was an option, and the clear implication in the film is that this actively encouraged the KLA to step up their campaign of terror against Serb policemen and civilians. Here too is Holbrooke being hoodwinked by the KLA into having his photograph taken sitting rubbing shoulders (literally) with a bearded gunman from an organization most of the world still considered terrorist; and then, in the next moment, Jacques Chirac describing his reaction when the photograph was published on front pages around the world the next day: ‘I was astonished. I telephoned Bill Clinton and told him this was unacceptable’.

Massacre at Racak

It is universally acknowledged that the event that tipped the world into war was the massacre at Racak in January 1999, when more than forty Albanian men were killed in circumstances that have never been explained. Three years ago, I was part of a BBC team that spent seven months trying to pin down what really took place at Racak. At that time, Belgrade was off-limits to us. Milošević was still in power and no one in Serbia dared speak. Percy and Lapping have found the major who commanded the Racak operation and persuaded him to tell his story. ‘We killed the men guarding the trenches’ he says, matter-of-factly. ‘And then there was a gun battle.’

Much of what the Western leaders say in this second series they have said before. What is new is what the programme makers have dug up in Serbia and - to a lesser extent - in Russia. Milošević's own inner circle - hidden behind an impenetrable wall of silence until now - are talking at last. These include Milan Milutinović who, when he steps down as president of Serbia, will lose his immunity from prosecution and join his old boss in the dock at The Hague. These old Milošević hands - many of them, in their own ways, guilty men - have so much to reveal.

This series seems to me as powerful and meticulously sourced as its predecessor. And by doing what its predecessor did - by the patient, careful assembly of evidence - it kills stone dead the Balkan myths that prevented the world from acting in Bosnia. By revealing who chose violence, and when, where and how they did it, it quietly, unsensationally lays the blame squarely where it belongs.

The review appeared in The Guardian (London), 6 January 2003


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