Srebrenica, Trnopolje and the deniers

Author: Oliver Kamm
Uploaded: Monday, 07 December, 2009

Careful refutation by a prominent blogger and leader-writer for The Times (London) of the spurious claims still being made to this day by people who, for whatever reason, seek to deny or minimize the reality of major crimes committed during the 1992-95 war in B-H

This is a long post on an insanitary subject. Whereas my colleague David Aaronovitch covers the waterfront in his research on conspiracy theories, I concentrate on sub-sections of that group. I have read most of the main books published in the last 40 years that deny the Holocaust. These volumes of pseudo-scholarship and conspiracy theory are predominantly in French and English. For obvious reasons, this stuff doesn't get published in German. The Holocaust denial that's promulgated in the Arab world is, I believe, almost entirely derivative of this body of bogus history. Being familiar with its techniques, I can recognise them elsewhere. There is a method to the denial of genocide. The subject matter of war crimes committed out of xenophobic fanaticism is, unfortunately, extensive.

This is a case information sheet published by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. The case is that of a man called Drazen Erdemovic, who was 24 when Bosnian Serb forces overran the supposed safe area of Srebrenica. According to the trial chamber sentencing judgement:

‘On the morning of 16 July 1995, Drazen Erdemovic and seven members of the 10th Sabotage Detachment of the VRS were ordered to leave their base at Vlasenica and go to the Pilica farm, north-west of Zvornik. When they arrived there, they were informed by their superiors that buses from Srebrenica carrying Bosnian Muslim civilians between 17 and 60 years of age, who had surrendered to the members of the Bosnian Serb police or army, would be arriving throughout the day. Starting at 10 o’clock in the morning, members of the sabotage detachment made the male civilians in the first buses, get off in groups of 10. The men were escorted to a field adjacent to the farm buildings where they were lined up with their backs to the firing squad. The members of the 10th Sabotage Detachment, including Drazen Erdemovic, who composed the firing squad, then killed them. Drazen Erdemovic carried out the work with an automatic weapon. The executions continued until about 3 o’clock in the afternoon. The accused estimated that there were about 20 buses in all, each carrying approximately 60 men and boys. He believes that he personally killed about 70 people. The Trial Chamber stated that there was no valid reason for discussing the charge of crime against humanity since Drazen Erdemovic pleaded guilty to this count.’

Having, by his own account, killed 70 civilians by shooting them in the back, Erdemovic was sentenced to ten years' imprisonment. On appeal, this was reduced to five years, owing to his age and his remorse. He was released after three.

Heaven knows, I intend no disrespect to the memory of the victims of that crime. But it is in some ways unfortunate that the name of Srebrenica has come to define the Bosnian war of 1992-95. Srebrenica was the atrocity that finally demonstrated to Western governments that the war was not some intractable and arcane historical dispute: it was the planned outcome of a xenophobic, genocidal campaign orchestrated by one party, Slobodan Milosevic, through his plenipotentiaries Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic. But it was not unique. Crimes of the same type, though not on the same scale, had been perpetrated throughout the conflict.

Of my family and friends who witnessed that war, none had seen anything like it. All, without exception, felt desolate at their inability to influence events. One of those friends is Ed Vulliamy of The Guardian and The Observer. I pointed a few weeks ago to a caustic open letter Ed had written to Amnesty International after that organisation had invited Noam Chomsky to give a lecture. Amnesty is a body ostensibly devoted to the defence of human rights. Ed is an oustanding human rights journalist. He wasn't prepared to let that invitation pass without comment.

There is now an open letter in circulation that purports to respond to Ed. Its authors are Ed Herman, a sometime co-author of Chomsky's, and David Peterson, a blogger. It has been published by Media Lens, a small sub-Chomskyite organisation that has been aptly described by Andrew Marr as ‘pernicious and anti-journalistic’. While the letter's intellectual quality is nugatory, its disrepute is impossible to overstate. Its cited sources extend to a man called Peter Brock, of whom Charles Lane of The New Republic wrote the poignant line: ‘As for the evidence that his media critique is a compendium of inventions, Brock refused to comment.’

I once cited Lane's article about Brock, in a blog post about four years ago. I received shortly afterwards a curious email from Brock, copied to Herman, in which he launched a stream of insinuations about Lane's character before concluding darkly: ‘I well know your type.’

Another of Herman and Peterson's sources is Jared Israel. He is a former vice-chairman of the International Committee to Defend Slobodan Milosevic and a 9/11 ‘truth’ campaigner. In 2000, he wrote: ‘The Western media has [sic] used the Myth of Srebrenica to slander the Serbian people for five years.’

Readers with long memories will recall a court case from nearly a decade ago in which ITN successfully sued a magazine called LM for libel. The libel was grotesque. In an article called ‘The picture that fooled the world’, by one Thomas Deichmann, the magazine had accused two ITN journalists, Penny Marshall and Ian Williams, of deliberately misrepresenting an image of an emaciated Bosniak, Fikret Alic, at the Trnopolje camp. The jury accepted that the camp was indeed a prison and that the ITN journalists, along with Ed at The Guardian, had not misrepresented the truth about the camp. The award against LM reflected the severity of the libel. The magazine was bankrupted and it closed.

I'm a near-absolutist on free speech. I strongly defend the right to liberty and to free expression of my reader David Irving, the Holocaust denier and racist faker. But libel laws to protect reputation are necessary. ITN was entitled to use them to defend the integrity of its journalists and uphold historical truth. LM hadn't confined itself to disputing the analogy of Trnopolje with Belsen: it had claimed fraud on the part of honest journalists. The factoids put out by LM and its supporters still pollute this debate; I recommend a cogent and definitive refutation of them by David Campbell of Durham University.

Herman and Peterson's letter simply repeats these lies regardless. I don't think Media Lens, whose editors' grasp of historical debates I've had cause to comment on before, even realises that it's publishing accusations that have already been judged defamatory in the High Court. Herman and Peterson refer to ‘what Thomas Deichmann's original debunking of ‘The picture that fooled the world’ argued correctly’. Again, I urge you to refer to Campbell's exhaustive shredding of these lies.

(Media Lens's regulars respond reliably to the dog-whistle, incidentally. ‘The deceitfulness of the 'Bosnian concentration-camp' scam, with its famous iconic image of painfully-thin Fikret Alic, is just laughable,’ writes one supporter on the group's message board. Another asks plaintively: ‘What became of the story that the Serb concentration camp famously found by an ITN news crew was a possible hoax?’ I can tell you what became of the fabrication that you've just repeated and Media Lens has published, comrade: it cost LM £375,000 in damages. That's the reason that the magazine formerly known as Living Marxism is a former Marxist magazine that is No Longer Living.)

But even that isn't the nadir of Herman and Peterson's remarks. Ed referred in his letter to the campaign of mass rape by Bosnian Serb militias. Herman and Peterson fulminate: ‘Vulliamy of course gets on this Serb rape bandwagon.’ The ‘bandwagon’ they refer to concerns war crimes such as these, judged by the ICTY in 2001:

'The presiding judge, Florence Mumba of Zambia, described in graphic detail how the three Bosnian Serbs had in the summer of 1992 abducted girls as young as 12 and subjected them to appalling sexual torture in sports halls and a variety of "rape houses"... 'Dragoljub Kunarac, 40, said to have been involved in a "nightmarish scheme of sexual exploitation", was given 28 years for rape and torture. Radomir Kovac, 39, was sentenced to 20 years for similar crimes. The third defendant, Zoran Vukovic, 45, was given a sentence of 12 years because prosecutors were able to produce less evidence in his case. He was, nevertheless, convicted of raping and torturing a 15-year-old Muslim girl who was about the same age as his own daughter. The three had looked confident before the judgment was read out, shaking hands with their lawyers, but when the verdict was pronounced Kunarac sank slowly into his seat and shook his head.'

But stay, for that still isn't the grossest part of Herman and Peterson's farrago. My choice for that accolade is where they attribute the peculiar destructiveness of the Bosnian war not to Milosevic, not to Karadzic, not to Mladic, but to Ed Vulliamy. Seriously. This is what they say: 'An excellent case therefore can be made that many of the deaths in Bosnia during the 1992-1995 years, over which Vulliamy has shed so many bitter tears, were fomented by the same journalists who swallowed the claims of the Western and Bosnian Muslim hawks that Izetbegovic was a committed democrat and that the peace plans supported by Western negotiators such as Cyrus Vance, Jose Cutileiro, David Owen, and Thorvald Stoltenberg were the work of the ‘sons of the appeasers of 1938,’ and simply wouldn’t do.'

And even then, there's an irony. I began by referring to one of the perpetrators of the massacre at Srebrenica. Well, Herman and Peterson have something to say about that: they think the massacre at Srebrenica been hyped up by Western news media. Here is what they said in 2006, after the death of Milosevic: ‘It should be noted that there has also been a challenge to the claimed numbers of executions in the Srebrenica massacre, which has been maintained at 8,000 since the events of July 1995. In this case, as in Kosovo, the number of bodies found in the vicinity fell far short of the initially claimed (and long sustained) total--only some 2,600, including unknown numbers who may have been killed in action or before July 1995. Other evidence in support of the 8,000 has been meager, and despite Madeleine Albright’s statement in August 1995 that ‘we will be watching’ via satellite, no satellite evidence of moved or reburied bodies has ever been provided to the public. There is a good case to be made that, while there were surely hundreds of executions, and possibly as many as a thousand or more, the 8,000 figure is a political construct and eminently challengeable.’

I've already referred to David Irving, the Holocaust denier. In his disastrous libel action against Deborah Lipstadt and Penguin Books in 2000, according to the judgement, ‘Irving radically modified his position: he accepted that the killing by shooting had been on a massive scale of between 500,000 and 1,500,000 and that the programme of executions had been carried out in a systematic way and in accordance with orders from Berlin’ (The Irving Judgment, 2000, p. 116). Note that carefully: Irving was judged to be a Holocaust denier even though he accepted that the Nazis followed a deliberate programme of mass murder.

That's relevant to this issue, because Srebrenica denial is the same approach. I don't mean just that it's ethically the same approach as Holocaust denial. I mean it's the same approach. It will accept (for nobody other than a lunatic can dispute) that there were indeed mass killings at Srebrenica; but it then denies the numbers and the facts of that massacre. It rubbishes the notion that there was a systematic genocide. It claims, with astonishing illogic, that 8,000 victims is an arithmetic impossibility, therefore there were not 8,000 victims. It maintains that those who were killed were not civilians. As Lord Ashdown rightly said of this stuff (when the Bosnian Serb government issued a ‘report’ in 2002 claiming that between 2,000 and 2,500 Muslims died at Srebrenica, and that most of them were soldiers killed in action), it's preposterous and it's an insult.

For we know what happened at Srebrenica. It feels grubby to be citing cadavers in an argument, but I see no alternative against these fantasists. Recall that ‘political construct’, as Herman and Peterson put it, of 8,000 murdered Bosniaks. Well, the bodies, or what remains of them, have been found. The International Commission on Missing Persons reported this summer: ‘Through the use of DNA identity testing, the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) has revealed the identity of 6,186 persons missing from the July 1995 fall of Srebrenica, by analyzing DNA profiles extracted from bone samples of exhumed mortal remains and matching them to the DNA profiles obtained from blood samples donated by relatives of the missing.The overall high matching rate between DNA extracted from these bone and blood samples leads ICMP to support an estimate of close to 8,100 individuals missing from the fall of Srebrenica.’ I've written before of the ICMP. Those who do this distressing, painstaking work are heroes. I spoke recently with one of the organisation's commissioners, Ambassador Rolf Ekéus, a great Swedish social democrat; he's a hero.

There are dark corners of the Internet that I shall never see. But I do see the dark political corners, because I reason that somebody ought to. I can't begin to fathom the mentality that would ignore or scoff at the finding I've just quoted. I've gone in this post for the authors of such propaganda; I'll turn briefly in a second post to its promulgators, who don't merit the attention and whose outstanding characteristic on this subject is cluelessness, but who ought not thereby to escape consequences for the way they're regarded. If, like Media Lens and one or two others, you serve as reliable conduits for denying genocide and whitewashing war crimes, then you'll be called on it.

This comment appeared on the author’s weblog

30 November 2009

Back To News Index
home | about us | publications | news | contact | bosnia | search | bosnia report | credits
bosnia report
Bosnia Report is a bi-monthly magazine which publishes articles and other information about Bosnia-Herzegovina and related issues. Use the links below to access the current issue or archives.


Search our archives: