My name is Beba Alagich and I live in Sydney, Australia. A few days ago I finished reading your book “The History of Bosnia from the Middle Ages to the Present Day” and I wanted to take the time to thank you for having written this book. It was a book, that was extremely harrowing and truly inspirational reading both at the same time.
Your book had a lot of personal meaning for me as my father and mother were both born (1939 and 1942 respectively) in Bosna in a selo near Velika Kladusa. I first came across your book some 5 years ago when I had borrowed it from my local library. I had only managed to read a small portion of it before I decided I wasn’t quite ready to read it all so I returned it to the library thinking I could borrow it again later. Only a few weeks ago, I saw the exact copy from the library (which had now, been withdrawn) in a Second hand shop in my suburb and I thought it is time now for me to find out about my own Bosnian Cultural background so I purchased the book.
My mother’s memory is deteriorating due to Dementia and my father passed away 4 ½ years ago so finding out about my Bosnian Ancestry in one sense would have been very difficult. I was a year old when my family immigrated to Australia from Austria where they had lived for six years. I grew up very Westernised and disconnected from my Bosnian Ancestry and understanding of it. Bosna was always this alien place to me – somewhere I didn’t relate to at all. My parents never spoke to us about their country of birth in any real depth and I never asked (it wasn’t of much interest to me growing up). I grew up with this real disconnection to my parent’s birthplace and given that, I was 18 years old when I first set foot in that land, that is no surprise I suppose.
Your book has allowed me to draw so much personal understanding about who my parents are, especially in relation to the chapters that discuss the social climate in which my parents were born into. I truly feel it is a miracle that my parents and their families actually survived, even to this day. I can’t explain the depth to which your book has moved me. It was as though something was resonating deeply within my DNA. I cried a lot while reading your book, some reasons were personal and others were just for being human. I have now developed a deep sense of awe and respect about the history of Bosna and some of my own Ancestry there in a broad sense. The richness, tenacity and resilience of the Bosnian people in my view regardless of whether they are Muslim, Croat, Serb or other comes from them being emotionally, mentally, physically and spiritually connected to that land called Bosna. This reminds me somewhat of how the Aboriginal people of Australia view their own connection to their country: Australia. In their time of Dreaming, which is where everything was created, Aborigines say that they came from the land (this is meant quite literally out of the land – like the earth gave birth to them so to speak).
My father’s love for Bosna was unwavering. My father loved Bosna right up to the end of his life, it was a place that was deep within his heart – this was something I just didn’t understand. I now understand where that came from, thanks to your book and your work. Your book has also given me a new sense of acceptance and admiration for my Bosnian Ancestry that I would never have had otherwise. I can even see how some of my own personality traits are actually quite Bosnian. I always hated growing up in Australia knowing we had no extended family here, mainly because I never had the opportunity to fully understand where some of the traits that run through my family actually came from. It was only a few years ago that I found out that my mother’s father was a Partisan and he fought as a freedom fighter to liberate his homeland. I didn’t really know what that term Partisan actually meant until I read your book. I know genetically I carry his fighting spirit (I always wondered where I got that from). I have always had a strong sense of when something is socially unjust that it needs to be righted for all to benefit from and it is one reason I think why I trained as a Social Worker; so that I could help people in their time of need.
I was very impressed with your capacity to be truly unbiased and objective with how you wrote this book. You presented the facts and the facts alone and acknowledged when not enough evidence was available to say outright that such and such occurred. It was evident to me that the 10 years you spent doing research for this book you made sure it was thorough. I’ve never had much interest in Modern History; however, I was totally fascinated by it all because of your book. I was also taken back by the sheer complexity and volume of Bosnian history and especially the Politics of this region (I was quite ignorant to it all, to some degree).
Your passion on this topic is obvious. I understand why you passionately defend your work when it is criticised by others (which I noticed while endeavouring to find an email address for you off the internet). You are obviously a person with a very strong sense of integrity about your work.
I have spent some time myself contemplating what it means to be Bosnian since I read your book. There will never be a neat way of defining what that is but there are definitely many layers to it. For me, in a broad way, what it may mean in its purist sense encompasses a people regardless of nationality, ethnicity or religion (that identify with that land) and who possess a deep soulful quality which is reflected in their capacity to have such open hearts, being unconditional, having altruistic natures and a generosity of spirit that embodies a true sense of humanity. Let something like this be the higher truth for what it means to be Bosnian given Bosna and its people have endured so much pain, suffering and tragedy and for so long.
Humans are capable of much greatness and they are capable of real evil as seen in the atrocities that occurred towards the end of last Century within and around Bosna. These are stark examples of the rawness of what it means to live with being human; it can be bloody ugly and insane at times. I am so grateful that my parents through the way we were raised instilled in us by their example that there is good and bad everywhere in people regardless of where they came from originally. What really matters is being able to be tolerant, kind hearted and compassionate to others.
Before I finish I wanted to share with you a personal experience of mine about growing up in Australia which highlights the type of bigotry that has and most probably stills exists within the former Yugoslavia (as the country my parents grew up in). Bigotry is something that people carry with them when they move to other countries; their cultural baggage goes with them, as I’m sure you are aware.
I had an Elderly neighbour who was a Croat from Croatia (to use your phrasing) living near my family. I have known this neighbour since I was 12 years old. My neighbour was widowed in 1972, never remarried and raised 2 sons alone. My neighbour was a very proud person and was born in 1922 (and will be 91 this year). About 9 months ago, my neighbour had ¾’s of their right leg amputated due to complications from being a Diabetic. My neighbour now lives in a Croatian Nursing Home named after Cardinal Stepinac in Western Sydney (now that I know who he is, this name makes sense to me thanks to your book). Up until 5 years ago, my neighbour was living in their own home with their eldest son (until he got married and moved 2 hours away). With my neighbour’s declining health and pretty much next to no help from the 2 sons, my family and I took upon ourselves out of compassion and our deep sense of feeling towards our neighbour (to help and provide daily care – as much as we could). Sometimes this meant attending on a daily basis even twice a day to see if my neighbour needed help/assistance or medical attention. In February 2012, one evening while I was at my neighbour’s home she turned to me totally out of the blue and said that I would have never believed that your family being Muslim would have ever helped me as much as we had. I could see my neighbour was truly grateful, she then looked at me more intently and her eyes welling up with tears and then said to me that it didn’t matter what faith or religion a person had, what mattered the most is what is in their heart. This really surprised me because my neighbour was not one to talk about their feelings in such an open way. My neighbour was a very reserved person. I’m not sure whether their strong Catholicism contributed to that or not.
In those few sentences my neighbour spoke to me, it hit me like a ton of bricks when it dawned on me something that I had wondered about them for 32 years. Whenever I saw my neighbour especially on my way past their house from school, I would always ask if there was anything that I could help her with? Each time my neighbour said no thank you to me. Regardless I asked again and again and again and each time I got exactly the same response. I knew instinctively that there was something more there than just pride, but I couldn’t put my finger on it so to speak. So that night last year in February, I realised my neighbour’s behaviour over all those years was due to their own Religious and Cultural bigotry. I don’t begrudge my neighbour one bit at all; she is a product of her time, generation and upbringing. Having studied Sociology and Anthropology in my second degree I found my neighbour’s behaviour quite fascinating actually. God bless her, if someone of my neighbour’s age is capable of such a profound internal shift in their consciousness than there is real hope for not only Bosna and its people (and the Former Yugoslavia) but for all of humanity. If only people understood that we are all connected, what happens to one, affects us all as a whole. That is why wars are so absurd, (except for those people who profit from war).
Marko I would like you to know that your Historical research is not only important in an Academic sense, it is invaluable to people like myself. I have gained so much personal insight into my Bosnian Ancestry in a broad way that I would not have been able to obtain in such detail from any other source/s, not even from my own relatives. There are 10s of thousands of people that make up part of the Global Bosnian Diaspora; I think your work should be read by everyone with a cultural connection to the former Yugoslavia – just from an educational perspective. I look at the various Ethnic groups from the former Yugoslavia here in Sydney, especially the younger generations who on the most part have never even been to the former Yugoslav Republic and its states. These young people especially with Croatian and Serbian Ancestry (I notice in particular) have a really intense and rigid Nationalistic mind set, which I don’t understand at all. It can get really violent between these 2 groups, especially when they come together and play soccer and their overly zealous fans – it is not about sport in some cases it is about Nationalistic pride. I don’t know what it is like in the UK? However, this makes no sense to me especially when they are like 3rd and 4th or 5th generation Australians – I can only assume that these individuals have been unable to integrate successfully in to the broader Australian culture and hold onto to some fantasy/ ideal that is in some way a distortion of their own parent’s upbringing. I have always regarded myself as an Australian who happens to have Bosnian Ancestry. Australia is the only country I grew up in, I was socialised here and I identify with that more strongly than with being Bosnian per se.
I’ve opened a new chapter in understanding my own family and Bosnian cultural background. Some of my family members are very keen to read your work as well. I look forward to hearing from them about their thoughts and opinions on your book, especially from the next generation.
Thank you again for having written this book, bless you and good luck for what will obviously be your life’s work studying the Balkans in one form or another.
6TH May 2013
(Published with the permission of the author)
According to the dictum attributed to Edmund Burke, all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing. Yet evil will triumph even more easily if good men help the evil-doers. In the Syrian civil war, with more than 80,000 dead and no end in sight, that is what the European Union has been doing, by upholding an arms embargo on the supply of weapons to all sides.
This in practice assists Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship; freezing in place its military superiority over the poorly armed Free Syrian Army, and enabling the dictatorship better to massacre its own citizens. FSA soldiers, demoralized by their shortage of arms, have been responding by defecting to the relatively well-equipped Islamist militia Jabhat al-Nusra, whose leader Abu Mohammed al-Jolani had pledged loyalty to al-Qaeda.
Meanwhile, Iran systematically violates the arms embargo by sending arms to its Syrian ally.
Continue reading at Left Foot Forward
The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia has acquitted on appeal Momcilo Perisic, former Chief of Staff of the Army of Yugoslavia (VJ), who had previously been sentenced to 27 years in prison for war-crimes in Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina. He was one of only six officials from Serbia-Montenegro ever indicted by the ICTY for war-crimes in Bosnia. He was the only member of the high command of the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) or VJ ever indicted for war-crimes in Croatia or Bosnia, and the only former JNA officer from Serbia or Montenegro of any rank ever indicted over Bosnia. His acquittal means that, to date, no official or army officer of Serbia-Montenegro and no member of the JNA or VJ high command has been convicted by the ICTY for war-crimes in Bosnia. By any standards, this represents a monumental failure on the part of the Tribunal. Precisely what kind of failure, and whether it is a failure of the Prosecution or the judges or both, is open to debate.
Perisic’s acquittal follows the ICTY’s recent acquittals of Croatia’s Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac, and of Kosovo’s Ramush Haradinaj. Those previous acquittals had provoked a veritable paroxysm of fury from Serbia’s politicians such as President Tomislav Nikolic, Prime Minister Ivica Dacic and UN General Assembly president Vuk Jeremic, who condemned them as proving that the ICTY was an anti-Serb and/or a political court. Commentators in the West widely agreed; an ill-informed rant by David Harland, former head of UN Civil Affairs in Bosnia-Hercegovina in 1993-1995, upholding all the old Serb-nationalist stereotypes of the ICTY’s and West’s supposed anti-Serb bias, was published in the New York Times and received wide publicity even from reputable sources. People who had apparently been fairly satisfied with the ICTY’s not entirely glorious performance over the past two decades now emerged from the woodwork to denounce it in bitter terms.
The acquittal of such a high-ranking Serbian official, following the acquittal of two high-ranking Croats and one high-ranking Kosovo Albanian, provides further proof – if any were needed – that the ICTY is not ‘anti-Serb’. Perisic is, in fact, neither the first nor the most high-ranking senior Serbian official to be acquitted by the Tribunal; former Serbian President Milan Milutinovic was acquitted back in 2009 of war crimes against Kosovo Albanians.
Consequently, the Serbian government has now made a rapid U-turn in its view of the Tribunal. Prime Minister Dacic (also leader of the Socialist Party of Serbia founded by Slobodan Milosevic) had responded to the Gotovina and Markac acquittals by stating ‘This confirms the claims of those who say that the Hague Tribunal is not a court and that it completes political tasks that were set in advance’. Yet his reaction to the Perisic acquittal is that it ‘negates accusations about the alleged aggression of the Army of Yugoslavia against Bosnia and Croatia’. The latter conclusion is echoed by the Sense News Agency, which provides detailed overage of the activities of the ICTY and which claims that ‘Momcilo Perisic was the only senior official from Serbia and FR Yugoslavia convicted by the Tribunal and sentenced for crimes in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Slobodan Milosevic was charged with the same crimes, and the judgment can be considered as Milosevic’s posthumous acquittal for Sarajevo and Srebrenica.’
In these circumstances, there is naturally a temptation for those on the other side of the front-lines from the Serb nationalists – those who wanted to see the Serbian perpetrators of war-crimes in Croatia and Bosnia punished, and the victims receive justice – to cry foul, and to carry out a Dacic-style U-turn of their own. A temptation, that is, to say that the supporters of Milosevic, Seselj and Tudjman were right after all, and the ICTY is really just a kangaroo court whose verdicts are political. But this temptation should be resisted, both for pragmatic reasons and, more importantly, for reasons of principle.
Pragmatically, conceding that the ICTY is a kangaroo court whose verdicts are political means handing an enormous victory to those extremists – Serb and Croat, right-wing and left-wing – who supported the elements that carried out the war-crimes and that have always resisted the efforts of the ICTY to punish them. It is not for nothing that – both in the former Yugoslavia and in the West – ethnic cleansers, fascists and extremists have consistently opposed the Tribunal, whereas liberals, democrats and progressives have supported it. To reject the legitimacy of the ICTY and its verdicts means negating not only those verdicts we don’t like, but all the good that has been achieved by precisely this Tribunal, despite its undeniable numerous failures. The ICTY was the first international court to establish that the Srebrenica massacre was an act of genocide, paving the way for the confirmation of this fact by the International Court of Justice.
Immediately following the acquittals of Gotovina, Markac and Haradinaj, the ICTY in December of last year convicted Zdravko Tolimir, Assistant Commander of Intelligence and Security of the Army of Republika Srpska (VRS), for genocide, and in the process established that the group targeted for genocide by the VRS was the Muslim population of East Bosnia as a whole – not just of Srebrenica – and that the genocidal act extended to Zepa as well as Srebrenica. It is a tremendous breakthrough for the legal recognition of the Bosnian genocide beyond Srebrenica. If the Perisic acquittal is to be dismissed as a political verdict, it undermines the Tolimir verdict as well. You cannot have it both ways, and cheer the verdicts with which you agree while denouncing those you don’t like. Either the ICTY is a legitimate court or it is not.
Which brings us to the matter of principle: a genuine, legitimate court must have the right and ability to acquit, as well as to convict. If the ICTY were really a kangaroo court, all those accused would be convicted. Instead of which, we have proof of genuine pluralism, with panels of judges dividing 2-1 and 3-2 over major cases, and the Appeals Chamber reversing the decision of the Trial Chambers. Whatever his political views or personal inclinations, Judge Theodor Meron, presiding judge at both the Appeals Chamber that acquitted Gotovina and Markac and the one that acquitted Perisic, and currently under attack from critics for the acquittals, was in each case only one judge in a panel of five who came from different countries. He was the only judge who acquitted both Gotovina and Markac on the one hand and Perisic on the other, and was not even a member of the Trial Chamber that acquitted Haradinaj. The only other judge who was a member of the Appeals Chamber both for Gotovina-Markac and for Perisic was Carmel Agius, and he strongly opposed the acquittal of Gotovina and Markac but supported that of Perisic. Judge Bakone Justice Moloto was presiding judge both in the Trial Chamber that convicted Perisic and in the Trial Chamber that acquitted Haradinaj. In the first case, he dissented from the majority opinion but was outvoted – something that took place in September 2011, a mere year and a half ago. Hence, I must respectfully disagree with my colleague Eric Gordy, who argues that the acquittals all form part of a consistent policy on the part of the judges in this period.
The conspiracy theorists (among whom I do not include Eric) would either have us believe that the initial indictments of Gotovina/Perisic and their initial convictions were simply elaborate deceptions paving the way for the final, pre-determined acquittals. Or they would have us believe that whenever the ICTY convicts it is acting legitimately and whenever it acquits it is acting politically. But a court that only convicts and never acquits is not a genuine court. Even at the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg that tried the leaders of Nazi Germany after World War II, three of the twenty-four defendants – i.e. one in eight of the high-ranking officials of Nazi Germany who were prosecuted – were acquitted. The whole point of a fair trial is that guilt is not assumed and defendants are assumed to be innocent until proven guilty.
The present author has, in the past, condemned the ICTY for retreating in the face of Serbian obstruction of its activities, citing such instances as the failure to indict most of the leading members of the Joint Criminal Enterprise from Serbia and Montenegro; the acquittal of Radovan Karadzic on one count of genocide; and the censoring of the minutes of the Supreme Defence Council. However, the acquittal of Perisic is not part of this pattern; he had already been arrested and convicted, so any Serbian resistance in his case had already been overcome.
It is one thing to accuse the Tribunal of shabby or unprincipled compromises and retreats, but quite another to accuse it of actually falsifying the guilt or innocence of suspects. Karadzic’s acquittal aside, the present author has never accused the Tribunal either of acquitting anyone guilty or of convicting anyone innocent. I did not, for example, condemn its initial conviction of Gotovina and Markac. Nor did I condemn its acquittal of Milutinovic or of Miroslav Radic (one of the three JNA officers indicted over the Vukovar hospital massacre). I am somewhat amazed that so many people, of all national backgrounds and political persuasions, have so little respect for the principle that it is ultimately for the court to decide who is innocent and who is guilty. Of course, it is entirely possible for a court to get things wrong and for a miscarriage of justice to occur. But a miscarriage of justice needs careful explaining as to how it was arrived at, not mere petulant denunciation.
In the case of Perisic, the essence of the disagreement between the Trial Chamber majority and the Appeals Chamber majority was that the first considered that ‘under the VRS’s strategy there was no clear distinction between military warfare against BiH forces and crimes against civilians/and or persons not taking active part in hostilities’, while the latter argued that ‘the VRS was not an organisation whose actions were criminal per se; instead, it was an army fighting a war’, albeit one that also engaged in criminal activities. Thus, the Trial Chamber considered that there was no clear distinction between the VRS’s lawful and its criminal actions, while the Appeals Chamber considered that there was.
Furthermore, the Trial Chamber ruled that though it could not be proven that the military assistance provided by Perisic to the VRS was specifically intended by him to support its criminal as opposed to its legal activities, nevertheless, since he clearly knew that his assistance would be used for criminal activities at Sarajevo and Srebrenica, as well as for legal military purposes, he was therefore guilty of aiding and abetting its criminal activities. The Appeals Chamber, by contrast, ruled that since it could not be proven that that he intended his military assistance to be used for criminal as opposed to legal military purposes, he could not be held to have criminal intent and therefore be held culpable for aiding and abetting the VRS’s crimes.
In other words, there is little disagreement between the two Chambers regarding facts of the case (so far as the Bosnian part of it is concerned) but principally over what conclusion should be drawn from them. The disagreement is not equivalent to that between the Trial Chamber and Appeals Chamber in the case of Gotovina and Markac, when the two chambers fundamentally disagreed over what the facts were; i.e. over whether the Croatian Army had deliberately shelled civilian targets with the intent of bringing about the removal of the Serb population from the so-called Krajina region. In the case of Perisic, the Appeals Chamber was not throwing out an unsafe conviction based upon a highly spurious interpretation of events, as was the case with the acquittal of Gotovina and Markac. Rather, it was expressing a different judgement on the nature of culpability to that of the Trial Chamber.
In this disagreement, my own sympathies are entirely with the Trial Chamber, and I applaud the dissent from the Appeals Chamber majority opinion of Judge Liu Daqun, who argued that by acquitting Perisic, the Appeals Chamber was setting the bar too high for convictions on grounds of aiding and abetting. However, personal sympathies aside and on the understanding that judges are supposed to be wholly impartial, the conclusions of either Chamber could legitimately be drawn from the facts. Unfortunately, the more conservative type of conclusion of the Appeals Chamber is the one I would have predicted judges at the ICTY usually to reach. My colleague Florian Bieber has made the reasonable point that ‘arguing that not all [the VRS's] activities were criminal is about as convincing as stating that the Mafia is not only involved in criminal activities and thus supporting it does not mean that one is “aiding and abetting” criminal activities.’ Following that analogy, Perisic could be compared to a powerful businessman who donates money, vehicles and properties to a charity known to be acting as a front for Mafia activities. Even if he clearly knew the charity’s true purpose, convicting him might not be so easy for the courts. Al Capone was, after all, only convicted for tax evasion.
This brings us to the ultimate reason for Perisic’s acquittal: the Prosecution’s case against him, resting as it did on a model of culpability that was judicially controversial, was not a strong one. The Prosecution was unable to prove his intent to commit crime, or that the assistance he provided to the VRS was intended to further its crimes. It was unable to link him directly to any specific crime. It could merely prove that he aided and abetted an army – the VRS – that he knew was engaging in criminal activities, but which was also engaging in lawful military activities.
The second reason why the Prosecution’s case was weak concerns the question of command responsibility. The Trial Chamber ruled that Perisic had no command responsibility over VRS forces, but that he did have such authority over the ‘Serb Army of Krajina’ (SVK – so-called ‘Croatian Serbs’), and in addition to aiding and abetting the VRS forces engaged in criminal acts as Sarajevo and Srebrenica, it convicted him for failing to punish the SVK perpetrators who shelled Zagreb in May 1995, killing and injuring civilians. But the Trial Chamber recognised that Perisic had ordered the SVK not to shell Zagreb and that it had disregarded his orders, choosing instead to obey the orders of Milan Martic, ‘President of the Republic of Serb Krajina’, to shell the city. This implicit recognition of Perisic’s lack of effective command responsibility over the SVK forces formed the basis for the Appeal Chamber’s overturning of his conviction for the war-crime at Zagreb – and even Judge Liu, who dissented from the majority over Perisic’s acquittal for Sarajevo and Srebrenica, agreed with the majority on this count. In other words, the Prosecution chose to indict someone who had no command responsibility over the Bosnian Serb forces guilty of crimes in Bosnia (Sarajevo and Srebrenica) and only ambiguous command responsibility over the Croatian Serb forces guilty of crimes in Croatia (Zagreb).
Having myself worked as a war-crimes investigator at the ICTY, I am not at all surprised that four out of the five judges (and one out of three in the original Trial Chamber) were not convinced by the Prosecution’s case. Generally speaking, cases involving high-ranking perpetrators far removed from the crime base are complicated to build unless their command responsibility is clear and unambiguous. Thus, it was relatively straightforward to build a case against Milosevic for war-crimes in Kosovo, where his command responsibility (as President of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia) was clear. But more complicated to do so over Bosnia, where (as President of Serbia) it was not. In such cases where evidence of de jure responsibility is lacking, prosecutors need strong evidence of de facto responsibility.
But Perisic was not a Milosevic, Karadzic or Mladic. He was not a member of the top Serbian-Montenegrin-JNA leadership that planned and instigated the wars against Croatia and Bosnia, and his name is not listed among the principal members of the Joint Criminal Enterprise as laid down in the Milosevic indictments. He was commander of the Artillery School Centre in Zadar in Croatia, and in January 1992 became commander of the JNA’s 13th Corps, based in Bileca in Hercegovina. In these roles of less than primary importance, he participated directly in the wars in Croatia and Bosnia. Had the Prosecution chosen to indict him for war-crimes committed by his forces in this period, he would in all likelihood have been convicted. However, it did not.
The three principal phases of mass killing by Serb forces in the Bosnian war were the initial Serbian blitzkrieg of spring, summer and autumn 1992, resulting in the Serbian conquest of about 70% of Bosnian territory; the siege of Sarajevo, lasting from spring 1992 until autumn 1995; and the Srebrenica massacre of July 1995. The first of these claimed by far the largest number of victims; according to the figures provided by Mirsad Tokaca’s Research and Documentation Centre, more Bosniaks were killed in the Podrinje region (East Bosnia) in 1992 than in 1995, the year of the Srebrenica massacre. Moreover, the regular Serb army forces that undertook the initial blitzkrieg, until 19 May 1992, were formally part of the JNA and not only de facto but also de jure under the command and control of Serbia-Montenegro, in the form of the rump Yugoslav Federal presidency made up of members from Serbia and Montenegro, and of the high command of the JNA/VJ.
Had the ICTY Prosecution indicted the top JNA commanders and Yugoslav Presidency members (from Serbia and Montenegro) who commanded these Serb forces during the blitzkrieg, and prior to that the earlier assault on Croatia, they would no doubt have been successful and Serbia’s direct responsibility for the war in Bosnia would have been judicially established. A successful outcome would have been particularly likely, given that a couple of these war-criminals have been obliging enough to publish their memoirs or diaries in which they admit their planning of the war.
On 19 May 1992, however, the newly proclaimed Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY), comprising Serbia and Montenegro, formally withdrew its forces from Bosnia, and a Bosnia Serb army – the VRS – formally came into being. Serbia’s political and military leadership thereby ceased to have de jure command and control over the Bosnian Serb forces. Furthermore, the Trial Chamber that convicted Perisic ruled that, in fact, the Serbian leadership in this period did not have even de facto control over the Bosnian Serb forces either – as did the International Court of Justice, in its own 2007 verdict in the case of Bosnia vs Serbia. The arrangement whereby the Bosnian Serb war-effort would be formally independent of Belgrade was put in place with the deliberate intention by Serbia’s leadership of avoiding accusations of aggression and involvement in the Bosnian war. Of course, Serbia continued to provide extensive financial and military support to the Bosnian Serb forces. But it should have been clear to any war-crimes investigator worth their salt that convicting FRY military commanders of war-crimes in Bosnia after 19 May 1992 would be a much more difficult task.
Momcilo Perisic became Chief of Staff of FRY’s army, the VJ, only in August 1993, and his indictment by the ICTY only covers his activities from this period. The policy of supporting the VRS had been put in place under his predecessors, and though he was a strong supporter of the policy and apparently institutionalised it, he was scarcely its architect. Even as regards the siege of Sarajevo – one of the two crimes in Bosnia for which Perisic was indicted – the Serb killings of civilians peaked in the spring and summer of 1992 and dropped considerably thereafter, dropping particularly from around the time that Perisic took over (according to Tokaca’s figures). Chief of Staff Perisic was therefore a singularly bad choice of individual to indict for war-crimes in the period from August 1993: though he was not a simple figurehead equivalent to President Milutinovic, and enjoyed real authority in a post of considerable importance, he was ultimately just one of Milosevic’s interchangeable officers; little more than a cog, albeit a large one, in the military machine, and moreover in a part of the machine whose culpability for actual war-crimes was secondary at the time, since the Milosevic regime had devolved most of the killing to a different part – the VRS.
Had the ICTY prosecutors ever really understood the chronology and organisation of the Serb aggression against Bosnia, they could have avoided such a poor decision. But it is clear from reading Carla del Ponte’s memoirs that she, at least, never had more than a muddled understanding of it. She nebulously attributes primary and equal responsibility to the war as a whole to two individuals, Slobodan Milosevic and Franjo Tudjman, but is unable to explain how that responsibility translated into the form that the war took. Although she deserves credit for eschewing a narrowly legalistic and lawyerly approach to war-crimes prosecutions and for attempting to view the big picture of the war – and therefore for insisting on genocide indictments in the face of conservative resistance from some of her colleagues – the big picture that she viewed was an erroneous one. Her starting point was not a global systemic analysis of the aggression, but apparently the big crimes with which she herself, as a non-expert on the war, was familiar – the siege of Sarajevo and the Srebrenica massacre.
In her own memoirs, del Ponte’s former spokeswoman Florence Hartmann recalls that del Ponte insisted, among other things, that Milosevic himself be indicted for Srebrenica and Sarajevo, in the face of resistance from Geoffrey Nice and others, who feared that they would not be able to convince the judges of the validity of the charge. Del Ponte was thus motivated by the commendable desire to ensure that Serbia’s leadership would not escape responsibility for the killing in Bosnia, but her analytical confusion ensured her plan would not go well. In light of Perisic’s acquittal, Nice’s caution, as recalled by Hartmann, appears entirely vindicated. That said, it is worth restating that Perisic’s indictment covered only the period from August 1993, when he was Chief of Staff, not the period when the Serbian aggression was actually launched and the largest part of the killings occurred. Thus, the claims made by Dacic and by the Sense News Agency, that the verdict exonerates Milosevic and Serbia of aggression against Bosnia and Croatia and of culpability in the siege of Sarajevo, are unfounded. Furthermore, as noted above, the Appeals Chamber has not actually changed the facts as established by the Trial Chamber: that the VRS was engaged in criminal activity, at Sarajevo and Srebrenica, and that Serbia’s army was aiding and abetting it while it was doing so.
On Twitter, Luka Misetic, the lawyer who successfully represented Gotovina, has succinctly referred to ‘Carla Del Ponte’s dark legacy: Perisic, Haradinaj, Oric, Gotovina, Cermak, Markac, Boskoski, Halilovic all indicted by CDP, all acquitted.’ The failure at the ICTY is that of a Prosecution that has repeatedly failed to secure the convictions of those it has indicted, not of the judges who were unconvinced by its cases.
David Harland, Executive Director of the Center for Humanitarian Dialogue and head of UN Civil Affairs in Bosnia-Hercegovina in 1993-1995, recently published, in the New York Times, a polemic against the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). Responding to the recent acquittals of Croatia’s Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac and Kosovo’s Ramush Haradinaj, he accused the Tribunal of ‘selective justice’ on the grounds that it has essentially only convicted Serb perpetrators, acquitted non-Serb perpetrators and failed to punish crimes against Serbs. This is, of course, the claim that hardline Serb nationalists and supporters of Slobodan Milosevic have been making for about the last two decades. Instead of carrying out any research into the actual record of the ICTY in order to support his thesis, Harland simply repeats a string of cliches of the kind that frequently appear in anti-Hague diatribes by Serb nationalists.
1) Harland writes: ‘More Serbs were displaced — ethnically cleansed — by the wars in the Balkans than any other community. And more Serbs remain ethnically displaced to this day.’
Harland doesn’t provide any statistical evidence to support this claim, but he appears to be conflating being ‘displaced’ with being ‘ethnically cleansed’, and to count all Serbs displaced by all the wars in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo as having been ‘ethnically cleansed’ – as opposed to being evacuated by the Serb authorities themselves, for example, or fleeing Sarajevo to escape the siege. The Appeals Chamber of the ICTY, in acquitting Gotovina, Markac and Haradinaj, rejected the prosecution’s claims that a Joint Criminal Enterprise (JCE) existed, on the part of either the Croatian or the Kosovar Albanian perpetrators, to bring about the removal of the Serb population from either ‘Krajina’ or Kosovo. Harland has not attempted to address the Appeal Chamber’s conclusions. He has simply re-stated a falsehood after two panels of judges carefully explained why the claims on which it was based are false.
2) Harland writes ‘Almost no one has been held to account [for these crimes against Serbs], and it appears that no one will be… Convicting only Serbs simply doesn’t make sense in terms of justice, in terms of reality, or in terms of politics.’
It is untrue that nobody has been convicted by the ICTY for crimes against Serbs, or that no non-Serbs have been convicted. Bosniaks, Croats and Albanians convicted of crimes against Serbs include Rasim Delic, the top Bosnian army commander in 1993-1995; Enver Hadzihasanovic, former commander of the Bosnian army’s 3rd Corps; Amir Kubura, former commander of the 7th Muslim Mountain Brigade; Zdravko Mucic, Hazim Delic and Esad Landzo, former commanders and guard for the Celebici prison-camp; and Kosova Liberation Army camp guard Haradin Bala. Former Croatian Army major-general Mirko Norac was indicted by the ICTY for crimes against Serb civilians in the Medak Pocket in September 1993; his case was transferred to the Zagreb District Court, which convicted him.
3) Harland writes: ‘Altogether, almost all of the West’s friends have been acquitted; almost all of the Serbs have been found guilty.’
Harland appears here to be following the example of the extreme Serb nationalists who divide all former Yugoslavs into ‘Serbs’ on the one hand and ‘friends of the West’ on the other, and who claim that the ICTY ‘persecutes’ Serbs because they are independent of the West. Yet two of the most senior Serb officials to be convicted by the ICTY, former Republika Srpska president Biljana Plavsic and former Yugoslav Army chief of staff Momcilo Perisic, had pursued friendly relations with the West in the second half of the 1990s. On the other hand, being unfriendly to the West is scarcely something of which other prominent Serb indictees can be accused, since Western and Serb officials spent the best part of the 1990s collaborating with one another.
Ratko Mladic and Britain’s Michael Rose
Slobodan Milosevic and the US’s Richard Holbrooke
Ratko Mladic and the Netherlands’ Thom Karremans
Milosevic and Holbrooke again
4) Harland writes: ‘Convicting only Serbs simply doesn’t make sense in terms of justice, in terms of reality, or in terms of politics. The Croatian leaders connived in the carve-up of Yugoslavia, and contributed mightily to the horrors on Bosnia and Herzegovina. I witnessed for myself the indiscriminate fury of the Croatian assault on the beautiful city of Mostar.’
Harland either does not know, or chooses not to mention, that the ICTY is currently prosecuting a group of prominent Bosnian Croat perpetrators for crimes carried out in Bosnia: Milivoj Petkovic, Jadranko Prlic, Slobodan Praljak, Bruno Stojic, Valentic Coric and Berislav Pusic. They are specifically being tried over the Croatian attack on Mostar. The ICTY has already convicted a large number of Croat perpetrators, including Dario Kordic, wartime leader of the Croatian Democratic Union in Bosnia and vice-president of the Croat Community of Herceg-Bosna, and Tihomir Blaskic, former commander of the (Bosnian) Croat Council of Defence (hence equal in rank to the Bosnian Serbs’ Ratko Mladic) and inspector in the General Inspectorate of the Croatian Army. NB Blaskic spent longer in prison than any Yugoslav army officer sentenced over the 1991-1992 Croatian war, except Mile Mrksic.
5) Harland continues: ‘The Bosnian Muslim leadership had deeply compromising links to the international jihahist movement, and hosted at least three people who went on to play key roles in the 9/11 attacks on the United States. I witnessed attacks by foreign mujahedeen elements against Croat civilians in the Lasva Valley.’
The accusation regarding the Bosnian government’s supposed links to the international jihadist movement and 9/11 attackers is sheer Islamophobic defamation. As regards the mujahedin, Harland either does not know, or chooses not to mention, that Rasim Delic, commander of the Bosnian army from June 1993 until the end of the war, was convicted by the ICTY over crimes carried out by the mujahedin against Serb civilians. On the other hand, the ICTY Appeals Chamber found in the case of Bosnian army 3rd Corps commander Enver Hadzihasanovic that he could not be held culpable for the crimes of the mujahedin, since ‘the relationship between the El Mujahedin detachment and the 3rd Corps was not one of subordination. It was quite close to overt hostility since the only way to control the El Mujahedin detachment was to attack them as if they were a distinct enemy force.’
As with the Croatian attack on Mostar, so with the Bosnian government and the mujahedin, Harland’s portrayal of the ICTY as simply having ignored the crimes in question reflects either an extraordinary degree of ignorance regarding the ICTY’s record, or is deliberately deceptive of his readers.
6) Harland continues: ‘And the Kosovar Albanian authorities deserve a special mention, having taken ethnic cleansing to its most extreme form — ridding themselves almost entirely of the Serb and Roma populations. Kosovo’s ancient Christian Orthodox monasteries are now almost the only reminder of a once-flourishing non-Albanian population… Haradinaj has been cleared of the charges brought against him, but the fact remains that hundreds of thousands of Serbs — mostly the elderly, women and children — were ethnically cleansed from Kosovo by the Kosovar Albanians.’
Again, Harland does not attempt to address the ICTY judges’ refutation of the claim that Kosovar Albanians had engaged in a ‘Joint Criminal Enterprise’ to remove the Serb and other non-Albanian population from Kosovo. His claims that the Kosovar Albanian authorities have succeeded in ‘ridding themselves almost entirely of the Serb and Roma populations’ and that ‘hundreds of thousands of Serbs — mostly the elderly, women and children — were ethnically cleansed from Kosovo by the Kosovar Albanians’ are further falsehoods: of the roughly 200,000 Serbs living in Kosovo before 1999, roughly half are still there.
7) Harland concludes: ‘What has happened at the tribunal is far from justice, and will be interpreted by observers in the Balkans and beyond as the continuation of war by legal means — with the United States, Germany and other Western powers on one side, and the Serbs on the other.’
To which one can reply: only by anti-Western Serb-nationalist politicians and ideologues and their fellow travellers.
Perhaps the most disgraceful statement in Harland’s tissue of falsehoods is his claim that ‘I lived through the siege of Sarajevo.’ In fact, as the UN’s head of Civil Affairs in Bosnia from June 1993 until the end of the war, Harland was scarcely a victim of the siege. Following the Markale massacre in Sarajevo of 28 August 1995, when Serb shelling killed 37 civilians, Harland engendered the myth that the Bosnians themselves might have been responsible; as he testified, ‘I advised [UN commander] General Smith on that one occasion to be a little unclear about what we knew about the point of origin of the mortar shell that landed on the Markale market-place in order to give us time, give UNPROFOR time, to get UNPROFOR and UN people off Serb territory so they couldn’t be harmed or captured when General Smith turned the key to authorise air-strikes against the Serbs. That is true. That was less than fully honest.’
Indeed, the UN in Bosnia collaborated with the Serb besiegers of Sarajevo and helped to maintain the siege. It obstructed any possibility of outside military intervention to halt the genocide. It maintained an arms embargo that prevented the victims of the genocide from defending themselves properly. It was complicit in the murder of Bosnian deputy prime-minister Hakija Turajlic by Serb forces in January 1993. It abandoned the ‘safe areas’ of Srebrenica and Zepa to Mladic’s genocidal operations. Romeo Dallaire said of the UN, ‘Ultimately, led by the United States, France and the United Kingdom, this world body aided and abetted genocide in Rwanda. No amount of its cash and aid will ever wash its hands clean of Rwandan blood.’ The same could be said of the UN with regard to Bosnia and Bosnian blood. Yet no former UN or other international official has been prosecuted by the ICTY or any other court for complicity in genocide or war-crimes. That is a real scandal of selective justice about which Harland has nothing to say.
‘The largest single ethnic-cleansing operation of the Yugoslav wars’ – such was the soundbite that was linked to Operation Storm (Operacija Oluja), from soon after the successful Croatian military operation was waged back in August 1995. That atrocities were carried out by Croatian soldiers and civilians during and after the operation has never credibly been disputed. But the attempt to paint Oluja as an ethnic-cleansing operation – indeed as an ethnic-cleansing operation larger in scale than the Serbian assaults on Croatia and Bosnia in 1991-1992 – has always been rightly contested. Yesterday’s acquittal by the Appeals Chamber of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) of Croatian commanders Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac for crimes against Serb civilians between July and September 1995, above all during ‘Operation Storm’, leaves the victims without justice, but represents a defeat for long-running attempts in the West to redistribute guilt from the aggressors to the victims.
Had the ICTY’s prosecution simply sought to indict, prosecute and punish Croats guilty of atrocities against Serbs in the period July-September 1995, it would no doubt have been successful, and the victims would have received at least some justice. Unfortunately, the prosecution attempted something more: to write the historical record of the wars of Yugoslav succession, in a manner that reflected the predominant perception of Western policy-makers. This perception was that, whereas the Serb side was responsible for the largest proportion of the crimes and killing, there was ultimately no fundamental difference in the guilt and actions of each of the sides during the war; it was merely a quantitative difference. In her published memoirs, Carla del Ponte, the Chief Prosecutor of the ICTY at the time when the original indictment against Gotovina was issued, explicitly equalised the blame of Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic and Croatia’s Franjo Tudjman as the two individuals primarily responsible for the war (Carla del Ponte and Chuck Sudetic, Madame Prosecutor: Confrontations with Humanity’s Worst War Criminals and the Culture of Impunity, Other Press, New York, 2008, pp. 37, 87, 125). Del Ponte was less of an equaliser than some others, and did at least insist on indicting some Serb perpetrators for genocide, in the face of resistance from other senior prosecution staff. But she also became inveigled in diplomatic and propaganda games with Serbian government ministers, who put her under pressure to prove that the Tribunal was not ‘anti-Serb’.
Consequently, the ICTY prosecutors pursued a policy of indictments that would result in judgements that would support their politics. As I have written before, these indictments thus disproportionately targeted Croatians, Bosnians and Kosovo Albanians; the forces of the Serb side were responsible for well over 80% of the killing of civilians during the whole of the wars of Yugoslav succession, but their officials made up only 68% of indictees. Only six officials of Serbia or the rump Yugoslavia, as opposed to Bosnian Serbs, were ever indicted for war-crimes in Bosnia. The top Yugoslav military commanders and presidency members who led the assaults on Croatia and Bosnia in 1991-1992 (Borisav Jovic, Branko Kostic, Veljko Kadijevic, Blagoje Adzic, Zivota Panic and others) were never indicted. Conversely, the ICTY prosecutors indicted such high-ranking and prominent Croatian and Bosnian officials as former Croatian Army chief of staff Janko Bobetko, Bosnia’s two most important military commanders Sefer Halilovic and Rasim Delic, and Bosnian commander in Srebrenica Naser Oric. When Alija Izetbegovic died in 2003, del Ponte indicated that he might have faced charges had he lived. Unfortunately for the prosecutors, however, the courts stubbornly refused to uphold the picture the prosecution sought to paint: Halilovic and Oric were acquitted, and Delic was sentenced to a mere three years in prison, after the prosecution had sought fifteen. Bobetko was already near death when he was indicted, and died before being extradited.
The sorry story of the Operation Storm indictments and trials should be seen against this background. In Operation Storm, the Croatians were not trying to conquer anyone else’s territory; they were engaged in a defensive operation to free their own territory from occupation by troops controlled by a foreign state (Serbia); troops that were engaged at the time in armed aggression against a neighbouring state (Bosnia) and threatening to carry out a further genocidal act against its population, following the genocidal massacre at Srebrenica a month before. As I have written, Operation Storm was a successful case of genocide prevention that saved the Muslim population in the Bihac enclave of north-west Bosnia from experiencing the fate of the people of Srebrenica. Yet for those seeking to equalise, as much as possible, the guilt of the sides in the former-Yugoslav war, Operation Storm had to be presented as a gratuitous act of ethnic-cleansing by Croat perpetrators against Serb victims – equivalent to the Serb crimes of 1991-1992.
The indictees, Gotovina, Markac and Ivan Cermak were accused of being part of a ‘Joint Criminal Enterprise’ (JCE) whose ‘common purpose’ was ‘the permanent removal of the Serb population from the Krajina region by force, fear or threat of force, persecution, forced displacement, transfer and deportation, appropriation and destruction of property or other means.’ This accusation therefore paralleled the prosecution’s accusations of a JCE levelled against the top Serbian leadership, whose goals were ‘the permanent removal of a majority of the Croat and other non-Serb population from a large part of the territory of the Republic of Croatia’ and ‘the forcible and permanent removal of the majority of non-Serbs, principally Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats, from large areas of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina’. But Operation Storm had not involved the acts previously associated with ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia: the rounding up of civilians; their being made to sign away their property to the authorities; their imprisonment, torture and killing in concentration camps; their being bussed out of the area. Instead, at the time of Operation Storm, the Serb authorities themselves organised and ordered the evacuation of the Serb civilians in the face of the Croatian offensive; whatever their intentions, the Croatians never had the chance to organise their removal.
To attribute the exodus of Serb civilians to Croatian actions therefore required the prosecution to develop a new model of how ethnic cleansing occurs. The ICTY prosecutors therefore argued that the Croatians aimed and succeeded in bringing about the removal of the Serb population from the so-called Krajina by artillery bombardment. This was already a dubious proposition – towns in Bosnia had been shelled for years by Serb and Croat forces without their entire population fleeing overnight. The prosecution nevertheless argued – and the original ICTY Trial Chamber accepted – that the exodus of Serb civilians was caused by the bombardment, not by the orders given by the Krajina Serb authorities to evacuate. However, attributing the cause of the exodus to the bombardment was not enough to establish the existence of the JCE, in the absence of evidence that this had been the intent behind the bombardment. Since only the most ambiguous support could be found for the thesis in the statements of the Croatian leadership – above all, the minutes of the Brioni meeting of 31 July 1995 – the intent had to be deduced from the character of the Croatian artillery fire, and whether it appeared accurately to be directed at civilian targets. So the prosecution argued that the existence of a JCE could be deduced from the fact that the Croatian artillery had targeted civilian areas in the so-called Krajina, and that this bombardment succeeded in bringing about the exodus of the Serb population. But since the Croatian forces were engaged in a lawful military operation against enemy armed forces in control of those same civilian centres, the prosecution had to show that Croatian artillery fire was not simply a part of those operations. The existence of the JCE therefore stood or fell on an analysis of the accuracy of Croatian artillery fire. At The Hague on Friday, it fell like the house of cards it essentially was. Most of the judgement of the Appeals Chamber consists, somewhat surreally, of a lengthy analysis of Croatian artillery fire.
ICTY prosecutors have long demonstrated a confused understanding of the wars in the former Yugoslavia. Their indictments have tended to target ‘famous names’ and acts people in the West had heard of; hence the notorious Zeljko Raznatovic Arkan and Vojislav Seselj were indicted, instead of Serbian leaders less well known in the West, but whose responsibility for crimes was much greater. The accusation that the Croatian bombardment of Knin, the capital of the ‘Republic of Serb Krajina’, was a ‘war crime’ originated with the arch-appeaser Carl Bildt, who was the EU’s special envoy for the former Yugoslavia at the time of Operation Storm. It was made in the context of an EU strategy that opposed any military action against Serb forces – either on the part of the international community, or on the part of the Croatians and Bosnians – and that sought instead to achieve peace in the former Yugoslavia through collaboration with the regimes in Belgrade and Pale. Bildt’s loud condemnation, at the time, of the Croatian bombardment of Knin, and his suggestion that it was a war-crime for which Tudjman himself should be held responsible, may have stuck in the minds of ICTY investigators as they considered how to pick Croatians to indict. Yet Knin had suffered minimal damage and civilian casualties as a result of the bombardment, made in the course of a legitimate military operation to recapture the town. This was in stark contrast to Vukovar, which was wholly destroyed by Serbian forces in 1991, and for whose destruction nobody was indicted by the ICTY (though some were indicted for atrocities carried out against the patients at Vukovar Hospital after the town fell).
Seventeen years later, Bildt’s red herring regarding the bombardment of Knin has met its ignominious demise. Since the Appeals Chamber ruled that the existence of a JCE could not be deduced from the pattern of Croatian artillery fire, the central premise of the prosecution’s case was thrown out. And since Gotovina and Markac had been selected for indictment on the basis of this premise, the rest of the case against them collapsed with it: the Appeals Chamber ruled that they had either attempted to prevent crimes against Serb civilians and property, or had not had effective control of those Croatian forces that had committed them. Had the prosecutors not focused on a supposed JCE, but instead sought to indict Croatian perpetrators who could actually be definitely linked to actual killings, they would no doubt have succeeded.
The Appeals Chamber’s verdict has not exonerated the Croatian side of crimes carried out during and after Operation Storm; on the contrary, it explicitly refers to crimes against Serb civilians in its acquittal of Gotovina and Markac. These victims have not now received justice, and critics are right to point out that the ICTY has failed them. The failure should be attributed, however, to the prosecution’s flawed indictment, not to the decision of the Appeals Chamber.
Not all these critics have been ready to point out the converse: that long before this verdict, the ICTY had already failed the victims of Serbia’s aggression and ethnic cleansing against Croatia. Almost no official from Serbia, Montenegro or the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) has been prosecuted and seriously punished for crimes against Croatian citizens in 1991-1992. Of the three relatively minor JNA officers tried over the Vukovar Hospital massacre, one was acquitted (Miroslav Radic) and one freed after serving six and a half years in prison (Veselin Sljivancanin), while only the third received a lengthy punishment of 20 years (Mile Mrksic). Of those JNA officers or admirals indicted over the shelling of Dubrovnik, Miodrag Jokic received a seven-year sentence and was granted early release after three years; Pavle Strugar received seven and a half years and was released on compassionate grounds less than a year later; the indictment against Milan Zec was withdrawn; and Vladimir Kovacevic had his trial transferred to the Serbian courts. Yugoslav Army Chief of Staff Momcilo Perisic was sentenced to 27 years – not for his actions in Croatia in 1991-92, but in part for the rocket attack by the Krajina Serbs on Zagreb in May 1995. Otherwise, the ICTY’s punishment to date has spared Serbia and fallen on Croatia’s own ethnic-Serb citizens who collaborated in the aggression (Milan Babic and Milan Martic). No official of Serbia or the JNA has so far been convicted over the Serbian conquest and ethnic cleansing of the so-called Krajina in the first place – the crime that made Operation Storm necessary.
With the quashing of the Operation Storm sentences, the ICTY can be accurately said to have failed seriously to punish the officers on either side in the war between Serbia (including Montenegro and the JNA) and Croatia of 1990-1995. Whether, having failed to punish the Serbian officers who occupied Croatian territory, justice would have been better served had the ICTY at least succeeded in punishing some of the Croatian officers who defeated the occupation, is a moot point.
Michael Dobbs of Foreign Policy and of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) appears upset at criticisms of his article ‘In defense of the Serbs’. He had claimed that the international community in 1991-1992 had treated the Serbs in an unfair and contradictory manner, on the grounds that ‘Croats and Muslims were given the right to secede from Yugoslavia, but Serbs did not have the right to secede from Croatia or Bosnia.’ Responding to the accusation that he thereby ‘legitimizes the aggression and genocide committed by Serbs’, Dobbs has responded that ‘to explain evil is not to justify it’.
Dobbs is simply putting forward a general principle, since he is incapable of responding to the concrete arguments. In my last response to Dobbs, I refuted his claim that the international community had treated the Serbs unfairly. I pointed out that Serbia was not treated differently from the other former-Yugoslav republics, in terms of its right to seek international recognition, and that the Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia were not treated differently from minority groups in other republics (e.g. Croats in Bosnia, Bosniaks in Serbia, Albanians in Macedonia) in terms of being denied the right to secede from their respective republics. Dobbs was unable to challenge this point.
Dobbs is right that ‘to explain evil is not to justify it’. Unfortunately, he does not explain evil; he merely parrots the evil-doers’ own excuse for the evil, taking it as face value. Had he said ‘Serb nationalists opposed the international recognition of Croatia and Bosnia within their existing borders, and argued that the Serb minorities in these republics should have the right to secede from them’, then he could have reasonably claimed to be explaining the Serb nationalists’ point of view (or at least the point of view that they gave in public). But he went further than this, and effectively said that the Serb nationalists were right; that though they may have carried out the bulk of the atrocities, their view of the break-up of Yugoslavia was the correct one.
As has been suggested by bodies such as the Institute for the Research of Genocide Canada (IRGC) and Congress of North American Bosniaks (CNAB), this does not explain evil; it justifies it. Dobbs is claiming that the aggression and genocide unleashed by Serb leaders against Bosnia was merely a response – albeit an illegitimate and disproportionate one – to their legitimate grievances at the anti-Serb policy of the international community. As if the Serb leaders had not been planning or waging war and genocide prior to the international community’s recognition of Croatian and Bosnian independence in late 1991 and early 1992, and would not have embarked upon this war and genocide if the international community had not treated them unfairly.
Thus, Dobbs claims that as a result of the international recognition of Croatia and Bosnia within their existing borders, ‘The delicate ethnic balance sanctioned by the Great Powers after World War I and enforced by Marshal Tito (a Croat) in the four decades after World War II was upset.’ As if this ‘delicate ethnic balance’ had not already been ‘upset’ by Belgrade’s crushing of Kosovo’s autonomy, raising of a Serb rebellion in Croatia, full-scale military assault on Croatia and destruction of the city of Vukovar ! All of this having occurred, of course, prior to the international recognition of Croatia or Bosnia.
Dobbs continues: ‘To use a phrase attributed to the French statesman Talleyrand, leaving two million well-armed Serbs in other people’s republics was “worse than a crime.” It was a gross error of political judgment.’ He is accusing the international community of being guilty of something ‘worse than a crime’ because it rejected Serb-nationalist demands to dismember Croatia and Bosnia. It is a statement that is erroneous at several levels. Croatia and Bosnia were not ‘other people’s republics’; Croatia was the state not only of the Croatian nation but of all its citizens and minorities, among which the Serbs were explicitly listed in the Croatian constitution; Bosnia was the common homeland of Muslims, Serbs, Croats and others. In the free elections of 1990, most Croatian Serbs voted for the Social Democratic Party of Croatia, which supported a sovereign Croatia, rather than the nationalist Serb Democratic Party. In Bosnia, too, although the great majority of Serbs voted for the Serb Democratic Party, significant numbers voted for non-nationalist parties that supported Bosnian unity. Dobbs speaks of ‘two million well-armed Serbs in other people’s republics’, as if every single Serb civilian – woman, child, elderly, invalid, anti-nationalist, etc. – were ‘well armed’, and ready to burst spontaneously into armed action the moment Croatia’s and Bosnia’s independence were recognised. The very title of Dobbs’s original post, ‘In defense of the Serbs’, is patronising and offensive; he is not defending ‘the Serbs’, but merely the Serb nationalist arguments. He certainly isn’t defending the brave anti-nationalist Serbs who opposed the war and genocide: Bogic Bogicevic, Jovan Divjak, Gordana Knezevic and many others. I wonder if he even knows their names ?
Dobbs appears to treat as some sort of vindication, the fact that his commentary has offended Bosniak survivors along with Serb nationalists: ‘Judging from the comments on this blog, I have succeeded in antagonizing champions for both sides.’ One of the most consistently offensive aspects of the West’s involvement in Bosnia, has been the propensity of even the most ignorant Western observers to feel they have the right to patronise the natives ‘on all sides’.
I wonder if Dobbs would have been equally pleased with himself, if he had written something about the Holocaust that had succeeded in offending equally both Germans and Jews ? His argument about Bosnia is equivalent to saying ‘Yes, the Nazis did start World War II and murder six million Jews and millions of Poles, Ukrainians, Gypsies and others, but on the other hand, the international community was wrong to have imposed the Treaty of Versailles that left millions of Germans in other people’s countries – Czechoslovakia, Poland, etc. – so things are not really black and white, and Jews should try to understand the Germans’ point of view.’ Yet every student of German history knows that the Treaty of Versailles, and the ‘unfair’ borders imposed on the Germans, are not sufficient reasons to explain why the Nazis embarked upon total war and genocide.
To put it differently: Dobbs is right that Serbs had ‘perfectly legitimate concerns’ about how their rights would be protected in an independent Croatia or Bosnia. But people with ‘perfectly legitimate concerns’ don’t normally slaughter tens of thousands of people in genocidal campaigns. Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement in the US had ‘perfectly legitimate concerns’ about the treatment of black Americans, but they did not organise a genocide.
Contrary to what Dobbs claims, I do not think he is an idiot; merely extremely naive. I do not think he is a ‘Mr Bean’; merely that he has as little to say about the Bosnian war as Mr Bean had to say about the painting ‘Whistler’s Mother’. I am not familiar with his work in other areas; for all I know, he may be an excellent journalist. But I remain unable to comprehend how someone with so little knowledge and such a superficial understanding of the Bosnian war and genocide should be given so much space to write about them by Foreign Policy and the USHMM.
There is a scene in the film ‘Bean’, in which Rowan Atkinson’s Mr Bean, mistaken for an expert, is forced to give a speech about a painting in an art museum, about which he knows nothing. Trying to think of something to say, he points out that the painting is ‘quite big, which is excellent, because if it was really small, you know, microscopic, hardly anyone would be able to see it’. That scene sometimes comes to mind when reading Michael Dobbs, a Fellow at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) who blogs for Foreign Policy magazine. For reasons that are beyond me, Dobbs has been tasked by these two bodies with investigating and writing about the Bosnian war, Srebrenica massacre and Ratko Mladic trial – despite apparently having no prior knowledge or expertise about these topics, or about the topic of genocide.
Dobbs is a well intentioned individual who tries hard to be balanced and objective. He writes frankly about the horrors of the Bosnian war. He consequently comes under regular vicious attack from the creepy-crawlies of the Srebrenica genocide-denial lobby and has been forthright in confronting them. He responds to criticism in a fair and measured way. Yet it’s as if the USHMM and Foreign Policy had simply walked into a random bar, pulled out a random Joe Bloggs, and told him to write about Bosnia and genocide. In October 2011, he wrote ‘I must admit that I find it difficult to use [in relation to Srebrenica] the word genocide, which conjures up images of the Holocaust… In the popular culture, at least, when we talk about “geno-cide,” we think about the killing of an entire race or ethnic group.’ That a Fellow of the USHMM should be guided by ‘popular culture’ when considering the meaning of genocide – instead of by expertise in the history and literature of the study of genocide – is incredible. It is, on the other hand, not in the least incredible, but wholly predictable and understandable, that his comment should have caused enormous offence among Bosniak people, prompting a letter of protest to the USHMM from the Congress of North American Bosniaks, Institute for the Research of Genocide Canada and Bosnian American Genocide Institute and Education Centre.
Now, Dobbs has put his foot in it again, with an article entitled ‘In Defense of the Serbs’, containing his pearls of wisdom regarding the international recognition of Bosnian and Croatian independence in 1991-1992:
‘Looking back at the start of the Yugoslav wars two decades later, I am struck by a contradiction in western policy to the former Yugoslavia. Europe, supported by the U.S., recognized the independence of the breakaway republics. In other words, the borders of the multi-ethnic state that resulted from the Versailles conference decisions of 1919 (see photograph above) were not inviolate. On the other hand, the international community (in the form of the Badinter commission set up by the European Union) also decreed that the borders of Croatia, Bosnia, and the other republics could not be changed simply because a minority wished to secede.
The practical effect of these decisions was that Croats and Muslims were given the right to secede from Yugoslavia, but Serbs did not have the right to secede from Croatia or Bosnia. The delicate ethnic balance sanctioned by the Great Powers after World War I and enforced by Marshal Tito (a Croat) in the four decades after World War II was upset.
For what it is worth, my own personal view is that the breakup of Yugoslavia was inevitable, just as the breakup of the Soviet Union was inevitable. On the other hand, the United States and Europe (the nations that created Yugoslavia in the first place) should have been much more vigorous about establishing and enforcing rules for the breakup that guaranteed minority rights.
To use a phrase attributed to the French statesman Talleyrand, leaving two million well-armed Serbs in other people’s republics was “worse than a crime.” It was a gross error of political judgment.’
Two decades since the start of the Bosnian war, and a Fellow of the USHMM and writer for Foreign Policy can do nothing better than trot out the same, tired old sophistry that was being peddled by the Serb nationalists back then. It’s as if all the scholarship on the subject of the break up of Yugoslavia and recognition of new states, written in the interval by Richard Caplan, Michael Libal, Josip Glaurdic and others, simply did not exist. Dobbs is making a point that has been extensively addressed and refuted by real experts on the subject over a period of twenty years.
It would take a lot of space to refute all the misconceptions in Dobbs’s small passage above, so let me pick just one. There was, of course, no ‘contradiction’ in the policy of the international community as regards the right to secede of Serbs and of non-Serbs in the former Yugoslavia in 1991-1992. Dobbs claims that ‘The practical effect of these decisions [by the international community] was that Croats and Muslims were given the right to secede from Yugoslavia, but Serbs did not have the right to secede from Croatia or Bosnia’. This is false: ‘Croats and Muslims’ were not given the right to secede from Yugoslavia. Yugoslavia was recognised as being ‘in the process of dissolution’, and the six constituent republics were recognised as the entities that inherited its sovereignty. Thus, it was the six republics – including Serbia – not the ‘Croats and Muslims’, whose right to independence was recognised. Serbia was not treated differently from Slovenia, Croatia or Bosnia in this respect, and was entirely free to seek and receive international recognition of its independence, just as they did.
The right of the Serbs of Croatia and Bosnia to secede from their respective republics was not recognised; neither was the right of the Croats of Bosnia. Nor of the Muslims/Bosniaks of Serbia’s Sanjak region. Nor of the Hungarians of Vojvodina, within Serbia. Nor of the Albanians of Macedonia and Montenegro. Nor, at the time, of the Albanians of Kosovo. In fact, the only group on the territory of the former Yugoslavia whose carving out of a wholly new entity has ever been recognised by the international community is the Bosnian Serbs. Thus, at Dayton, the ‘Republika Srpska’ was recognised, whereas the Bosnian Croats’ ‘Croat Republic of Herceg-Bosna’ has been dissolved, and the right of the Bosnian Croats to establish their own entity within Bosnia has been consistently denied.
It is difficult to believe that anyone could think about this for even a few minutes before realising that the ‘contradiction’ Dobbs posits is no contradiction at all. But I’m not suggesting he’s being insincere; merely that he hasn’t bothered to think seriously about this, let alone read anything much – if at all – on the subject. Hamdija Custovic, Vice-President of the Congress of North American Bosniaks, has quite rightly written another letter of protest to Foreign Policy about Dobbs’s article. What saddens me about this is not that Dobbs’s views are particularly outrageous – as I said, I believe he is a well intentioned individual trying hard to be balanced and objective. It is that respectable bodies like the USHMM and Foreign Policy consider it acceptable to provide a lot of space and opportunity for someone with no expertise on the former Yugoslavia or the Bosnian genocide to write about them, as if the subject wasn’t important enough to recruit a proper expert who actually has something informed to say.
The victims of the Bosnian genocide deserve better than this.
The Trial Chamber of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia has acquitted Radovan Karadzic, wartime president of the Bosnian Serb nationalist rebels’ ‘Republika Srpska’, of one count of genocide, relating to crimes committed in municipalities across Bosnia in 1992. According to its press release:
The Chamber’s oral ruling was delivered pursuant to Rule 98 bis of the Tribunal’s Rules of Procedure and Evidence which provides that at the close of the Prosecutor’s case, the Trial Chamber shall, by oral decision, and after hearing the oral submissions of the parties, enter a judgement of acquittal on any count if there is no evidence capable of supporting a conviction.
The Chamber found that whilst the evidence it had heard indicates that the circumstances in which the Bosnian Muslims and/or Bosnian Croats in the Municipalities were forcibly transferred or displaced from their homes were attended by conditions of great hardship and suffering, and that some of those displaced may have suffered serious bodily or mental harm during this process, this evidence does not rise to the level which could sustain a conclusion that the serious bodily or mental harm suffered by those forcibly transferred in the Municipalities was attended by such circumstances as to lead to the death of the whole or part of the displaced population for the purposes of the actus reus for genocide.
This represents a 180-degree U-turn from the Trial Chamber’s decision eight years ago over Slobodan Milosevic. On 16 June 2004, in ‘Prosecutor v. Slobodan Milosevic: Decision on Motion for Judgement of Acquittal’, the Trial Chamber refused to acquit Milosevic on the same grounds, and ruled:
246. On the basis of the inference that may be drawn from this evidence, a Trial Chamber could be satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that there existed a joint criminal enterprise, which included members of the Bosnian Serb leadership, whose aim and intention was to destroy a part of the Bosnian Muslim population, and that genocide was in fact committed in Brcko, Prijedor, Sanski Most, Srebrenica, Bijeljina, Kljuc and Bosanski Novi. The genocidal intent of the Bosnian Serb leadership can be inferred from all the evidence, including the evidence set out in paragraphs 238 -245. The scale and pattern of the attacks, their intensity, the substantial number of Muslims killed in the seven municipalities, the detention of Muslims, their brutal treatment in detention centres and elsewhere, and the targeting of persons essential to the survival of the Muslims as a group are all factors that point to genocide.
247. Having examined the evidence, the Trial Chamber finds no evidence of genocide in Kotor Varos.
323. With respect to the Amici Curiae submissions concerning genocide, the Trial Chamber, except for its holding in paragraph 324, DISMISSES the Motion and holds that there is sufficient evidence that
(1) there existed a joint criminal enterprise, which included members of the Bosnian Serb leadership, the aim and intention of which was to destroy a part of the Bosnian Muslims as a group, and that its participants committed genocide in Brcko, Prijedor, Sanski Most, Srebrenica, Bijeljina, Kljuc and Bosanski Novi;
(2) the Accused [Slobodan Milosevic] was a participant in that joint criminal enterprise, Judge Kwon dissenting ;
(3) the Accused was a participant in a joint criminal enterprise, which included members of the Bosnian Serb leadership, to commit other crimes than genocide and it was reasonably foreseeable to him that, as a consequence of the commission of those crimes, genocide of a part of the Bosnian Muslims as a group would be committed by other participants in the joint criminal enterprise, and it was committed;
(4) the Accused aided and abetted or was complicit in the commission of the crime of genocide in that he had knowledge of the joint criminal enterprise, and that he gave its participants substantial assistance, being aware that its aim and intention was the destruction of a part of the Bosnian Muslims as group;
(5) the Accused was a superior to certain persons whom he knew or had reason to know were about to commit or had committed genocide of a part of the Bosnian Muslims as a group, and he failed to take the necessary measures to prevent the commission of genocide, or punish the perpetrators thereof.
324. The Trial Chamber finds no evidence that genocide was committed in Kotor Varos.
The contradiction between the Trial Chamber’s rulings over Milosevic in 2004 and Karadzic in 2012 indicates that it is not operating on the basis of consistent legal principles, and suggests a change of policy. A full analysis of the reasons behind this shift will have to await the Tribunal’s publication of the text of its decision.
I have been arguing since 2005 that the ICTY has been retreating in the face of international and Serbian resistance to its pursuit of justice. The list of failures, retreats, betrayals and unethical compromises has only grown over the years: the failure even to indict most of the principal members of the Joint Criminal Enterprise from Serbia and Montenegro – Veljko Kadijevic, Blagoje Adzic, Momir Bulatovic, Borisav Jovic, Branko Kostic and others; the failure to indict anyone at all for the destruction of the Croatian town of Vukovar; the indictment of only six officials in total from Serbia and Montenegro for war-crimes in Bosnia, and the conviction to date of only one of them; the sentencing of Republika Srpska vice-president Biljana Plavsic to only eleven years in prison, without making her testify, and her release after serving only seven years, despite her withdrawal of her acknowledgement of guilt; the censoring of the minutes of the Supreme Defence Council, preventing their use by Bosnia in its case against Serbia at the International Court of Justice; the prosecution of the ICTY’s own former chief prosecutor’s spokeswoman, Florence Hartmann, for having the temerity to reveal its dubious underhand dealings.
The ICTY’s U-turn over genocide in Bosnia is therefore par for the course. The people of the former Yugoslavia have not received justice from this tribunal.
This September, my latest book, ‘The Bosnian Muslims in the Second World War: A History’, will be published by C. Hurst and Co. According to its blurb: ‘The story of the Bosnian Muslims in World War II is an epic frequently alluded to in discussions of the 1990s Balkan conflicts, but almost as frequently misunderstood or falsified. This first comprehensive study of the topic in any language sets the record straight. Based on extensive research in the archives of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia and Croatia, it traces the history of Bosnia and its Muslims from the Nazi German and Fascist Italian occupation of Yugoslavia in 1941, through the years of the Yugoslav civil war, and up to the seizure of power by the Communists and their establishment of a new Yugoslav state. The book explores the reasons for Muslim opposition to the new order established by the Nazis and Fascists in Bosnia in 1941 and the different forms this opposition took. It describes how the Yugoslav Communists were able to harness part of this Muslim opposition to support their own resistance movement and revolutionary bid for power. This Muslim element in the Communists’ revolution shaped its form and outcome, but ultimately had itself to be curbed as the victorious Communists consolidated their dictatorship. In doing so, they set the scene for future struggles over Yugoslavia’s Muslim question.’
(NB I refer in the book to ‘Muslims’ rather than to ‘Bosniaks’, since before the 1990s, the term ‘Bosniak’ applied equally to all native Bosnians – Orthodox/Serbs, Catholics/Croats and Muslims alike).
In completing this book, I have concluded the research project I began fifteen years ago as a doctoral student, and continued as a postdoc, and which previously gave rise to my books Genocide and Resistance in Hitler’s Bosnia: The Partisans and the Chetniks, 1941-1943 (Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2006) and The History of Bosnia: From the Middle Ages to the Present Day (Saqi, London, 2007). Since this marks, for me, the end of a personal era, I should like to say a few words about the big questions I was raising in these books.
I began my research project against the backdrop of the war in Bosnia-Hercegovina of the 1990s. This war involved the destruction of the multinational Bosnian state as a result of the aggression and genocide waged by the regime of Slobodan Milosevic in Belgrade and the Bosnian Serb rebels under Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic. The government and majority population of Bosnia-Hercegovina made an unsuccessful bid for independence in the face of this assault, but the war ended in 1995 with Bosnia’s statehood and multinational society effectively destroyed.
Although my own views of the rights and wrongs of this conflict are no secret, my motivation for embarking on my research project was intellectual rather than political. Back in the 1990s, as today, students and scholars interested in the Bosnian war had focused on the short-term and all-Yugoslav causes of the war, above all the period from the rise of Milosevic in the second half of the 1980s. The topic was, and is, most frequently approached from the perspective of contemporary politics and human rights rather than of history. This is fine as far as it goes, but it has meant that the medium- and long-term historical background of the conflict has remained hidden; accounts of the break-up of Yugoslavia tend to have Bosnia appearing only in the final chapters, and almost out of the blue.
My contention was then, and remains today, that you cannot understand how and why the modern Bosnian state was destroyed in the 1990s unless you understand how and why it was created in the first place. And it was created in the period 1941-1946, by the Yugoslav Partisan movement which, under the leadership of Josip Broz Tito and the Communist Party of Yugoslavia, waged a successful campaign of resistance against the Nazi and Fascist occupiers of Bosnia and of Yugoslavia. This resulted not only in their liberation from Axis occupation, but in the revolutionary overthrow of the old Yugoslav monarchical order, and the establishment of a new Yugoslavia as a federation of six republics. One of these republics was the People’s Republic of Bosnia-Hercegovina.
Why had the Communists decided to establish Bosnia as a separate republic in its own right ? How had they been able to mobilise their Partisan soldiers – who in Bosnia were, at all times, majority Serb – to accept Communist leadership and fight for this goal ? How had they been able to persuade Serbs, Muslims and Croats to fight alongside one another in a common, all-Bosnian Partisan army ? How and why did they defeat their enemies – the Croat Ustashas, Serb Chetniks and Muslim autonomists – and win the war ? How did they organise the new Bosnian state ? These were some of the questions I attempted to answer.
I also had a secondary reason for wanting to study this topic, that was not directly related to the Bosnian war of the 1990s: the desire to understand the Yugoslav Partisan movement and revolution of 1941-1945. The neglect of this topic by Western historians is astonishing. There have only been two successful, indigenous Communist revolutions in European history: the revolution in the Russian Empire of 1917-1921 and the revolution in the Western Balkans (Yugoslavia and Albania) in 1941-1945. The first has received enormous scholarly attention in the West; the second almost none. The orthodox Titoist narrative of the Partisans and the Yugoslav Revolution is an oversimplification that conceals as much as it reveals. The anti-Communist counter-narrative advanced by authors like David Martin and Nora Beloff is a politically motivated conspiracy theory.
To oversimplify somewhat, my book The History of Bosnia originally began as an attempt to trace the long-term causes of the revolution in Bosnia of 1941-1945. It explains in detail why the Yugoslav Communists supported the goal of a unified, self-ruling Bosnia-Hercegovina as an entity separate from both Serbia and Croatia. My book Genocide and Resistance in Hitler’s Bosnia focuses on the early phase of the revolution and on the Bosnian Serbs. It explains in detail how the Communists were able to attain leadership over the Bosnian Serb rebellion that broke out in the summer of 1941 against the anti-Serb genocidal Ustashas and the puppet ‘Independent State of Croatia’. It explains how the Chetnik movement emerged in Bosnia-Hercegovina as a Serb conservative and nationalist reaction against Communist leadership of the anti-Ustasha rebellion, and how the rebellion divided into two opposing wings. On the one side, there was the Communist-led Partisans – a multinational resistance movement directed against the German and Italian occupiers, embracing Serbs, Croats, Muslims, Jews and others, whose goal was a self-ruling, multinational Bosnia. On the other side, there was the Chetniks – a purely Serb movement that collaborated with the Italians and Germans and that aimed to exterminate or expel Muslims, Croats and Jews, and whose goal was an ethnically homogenous Great Serbia. Hence the title ‘Genocide and Resistance’: the Partisan-Chetnik conflict was between on the one hand those rebels who wanted to resist the occupiers and opposed genocide; and on the other, those who wanted to collaborate with the occupiers and carry out genocide. I outline this book in more detail in my article ‘Author’s Perspective’, World War II Quarterly, vol. 5, no. 5, 2008, pp. 52-58.
During the second half of 1941, the Partisans in Bosnia were a predominantly Serb movement focusing on the struggle against the Ustashas. During 1942, however, the emergence of the Chetnik counter-movement in Bosnia turned the latter into the Partisans’ principal enemy. The Partisans effectively won the war with the Chetniks in Bosnia by the autumn of 1943, largely because they were able to expand beyond their Serb and peasant base to embrace Muslims, Croats and the population of the towns in general. Having secured their base among the Bosnian Serb peasant population by breaking the Chetniks, the Partisans could then move on to the next stage of their struggle: the liberation of Bosnia from the Ustashas and Nazis. For this stage, the role of the Muslims, and to a lesser extent the Bosnian Croats, was crucial – in a manner not properly acknowledged in the orthodox Titoist narrative. Bosnia was also a crucial springboard for any Partisan push eastward to liberate Serbia and the rest of eastern Yugoslavia from the Nazis and Chetniks; the role of Bosnia and the Muslims was critical for the outcome of the entire Yugoslav civil war.
Thus, just as my first book about the Bosnian Partisans, Genocide and Resistance in Hitler’s Bosnia, focused in particular on the Bosnian Serbs, so its sequel, The Bosnian Muslims in the Second World War, focuses in particular on the Muslims and Croats (the Croats were very much smaller and weaker as a community in Bosnia than either the Serbs or the Muslims, so their importance for the outcome of the struggle was correspondingly lesser). Of course, every title is an oversimplification, and both books tell the story of a multinational resistance movement and revolution, in which Serbs, Muslims, Croats, Jews, Poles, Ukrainians, Gypsies and others participated together.
As regards the war and revolution in Bosnia, some of the points I make in The Bosnian Muslims in the Second World War are the following:
1) That the Axis powers’ incorporation of Bosnia in 1941 within the puppet ‘Independent State of Croatia’, the re-erasing of Bosnia’s borders and identity by the Ustasha regime, and its brutal and murderous policies, provoked two, parallel movements of resistance that supported Bosnian self-rule: the People’s Liberation Movement (Partisans) and the Muslim autonomist resistance (which was not anti-fascist or anti-occupier, but merely anti-Ustasha).
2) That the Communist-led revolution in Bosnia that triumphed by 1945 did so because one section of the Muslim autonomist resistance went over to the People’s Liberation Movement – it did not simply involve a ‘pure’ triumph of the Partisans, as proponents of the orthodox Titoist narrative tend to imply.
3) That the People’s Liberation Movement on the one hand and its anti-Communist opponents, the Ustashas and the Muslim autonomists, did not comprise rigidly separate camps – as proponents of the orthodox Titoist narrative tend to imply. Rather, the three camps overlapped, with many individuals collaborating with two or three of them, and with members of each linked to members of the others through family and personal connections. These family and personal connections formed a major tool in the Partisan victory and Communist seizure of power; a conduit by which quisling soldiers and supporters of the Ustashas and Muslim autonomists could be recruited for the revolution.
4) That the Partisan victory was the product not simply of a successful guerrilla campaign, but also of political agitation by the Communists and their collaborators among the population of the occupied Bosnian cities and towns, and within the quisling armed forces – in particular, the Croatian Home Guard and Muslim legions.
5) That the Communists’ agitation on a Bosnian-patriotic basis, using Bosnian-patriotic slogans and arguing for Bosnian self-rule, allowed them to win over a substantial section of the Bosnian Muslim population, including of the elite.
6) That a major catalyst in bringing a large section of the Muslim population over to the People’s Liberation Movement, was Italian and German collaboration with the Chetniks, at the expense of the authority of the Ustasha puppet-state, and in particular Nazi Germany’s apparent turn in autumn 1943 toward an alliance with Great Serbian forces, posing an existential threat to the existence of the Muslims.
7) That the Partisan/Communist conquest of Bosnia in 1943-1945 represented not simply a military triumph – as presented in the orthodox Titoist narrative – but occurred through the wholesale defection to the People’s Liberation Struggle of elements of the quisling and collaborationist armed forces, including parts of the Chetniks, the Muslim legions, the Croatian Home Guard, the Bosnian SS Handzar Division and even some Ustashas. Hence, there are parallels between the Communist seizure of power in Bosnia in 1945 and the Bolshevik seizure of power in Petrograd in November 1917, which also succeeded through the winning over of the military units of the old order.
8) That the mass mobilisation and emancipation of women – a previously politically untapped section of the Bosnian population – was crucial for the success of the revolution, and conditioned the nature of the Bosnian state and society that emerged from it.
9) That the Partisan movement was itself heterogeneous and subject to a myriad of internal contradictions that, as it expanded, posed increasing problems for the Communist leadership.
10) That the above process constituted a specifically Bosnian revolution that was distinct from, albeit part of, the wider revolution in Yugoslavia; and that the outcome of this process was the establishment of a Bosnian republic within the new Yugoslav federation. This was not enacted top-down by the new Communist rulers of Yugoslavia, but was the natural outcome of the Bosnian revolutionary movement, led by the Communists in Bosnia, but embracing a much wider and more diverse section of the Bosnian population.
The last quarter of my book deals with the first year and a half after the end of World War II in Bosnia; i.e. with the period from mid-1945 to the end of 1946. Here, I discuss the establishment of the People’s Republic of Bosnia-Hercegovina, set against the formation and organisation of the Yugoslav federation. I then discuss the weaknesses and problems faced by the new Bosnian Communist regime; its approach to reconstructing and governing Bosnia; and its attempts to deal with the rising opposition. I show how the broad, diverse coalition that was mobilized behind the Communists, to free Bosnia from the occupiers and quislings and to establish the Bosnian republic, subsequently had to be brought to heel by the new Communist regime, and how this involved its suppression of former allies and the imposition of a new political hegemony.
Thus, after many thousands of Muslims had fought for the Partisans or been active in the People’s Liberation Movement, there was a brief flowering of Muslim national and cultural freedom after World War II, and the Muslims were virtually, if not formally, recognised as a nation equal to the other five recognised Yugoslav nations (Serbs, Croats, Slovenes, Macedonians and Montenegrins). But as the Communists consolidated their dictatorship, this freedom was curtailed, and many Muslims began to feel disillusioned with the new order. There was a resurgence of the radical ‘Young Muslim’ organisation in response, with a youthful Alija Izetbegovic, among others, figuring prominently in its dissident activities. Though they were suppressed, they would become, under the Communist regime, what the Communists themselves had previously been: a persecuted, radical sect, ready and able to lead the next revolutionary upheaval in Bosnia-Hercegovina.
Part of the pleasure in writing this book was to tell in detail the exciting story of this great revolution. I have tried to avoid either idealising or demonising it, but to expresses its diverse, contradictory nature; to discuss both the high politics of the Communist leadership and the character of the revolution at the grass-roots level, and the many colourful characters it involved. The antics of Huska Miljkovic, the Muslim warlord of Cazinska Krajina in north-west Bosnia, were particularly fun to write about.
The Communists and Partisans succeeded in what must have appeared to many at the time an impossible task: of reuniting Bosnia, re-establishing its statehood and reintegrating its divided population. It is a story that has lost none of its relevance for the present day.
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