Greater Surbiton

The perfect is the enemy of the good

Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt denies over half the Srebrenica massacre

BildtIn his memoirs of the Bosnian war, Carl Bildt, the foreign minister of Sweden – which took over the EU presidency on 1 July – has this to say about the Srebrenica massacre:

‘In five days of massacres, Mladic had arranged for the methodical execution of more than three thousand men who had stayed behind and become prisoners of war. And probably more than four thousand people had lost their lives in a week of brutal ambushes and fighting in the forests, by the roadside and in the valleys between Srebrenica and the Tuzla district, as the column was trying to reach safety.’ (Carl Bildt, Peace Journey: The struggle for peace in Bosnia, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1998, p. 66 – all subsequent page references are to Bildt’s book).

The Srebrenica massacre, an act of genocide against the civilian population of Srebrenica that claimed the lives of approximately eight thousand victims, including at least five hundred children under the age of eighteen, has therefore been reduced by Bildt to ‘more than three thousand’, all of them ‘prisoners of war’, while four thousand of the victims are portrayed as battlefield deaths. This would be equivalent to claiming that only two and a quarter million Jewish ‘prisoners of war’ had perished in the Holocaust, while the rest of the six million had been killed in battle.

This was not a casual slip on Bildt’s part. At the time of the Srebrenica massacre, Bildt was the EU’s special envoy to the former Yugoslavia. His massive downplaying of the Serb genocide reflects the EU policy of the time, which was to collaborate with Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbia and with Radovan Karadzic’s Bosnian Serb extremists, and to appease their expansionism. Unlike the US, the EU states staunchly supported the international arms embargo against Bosnia, which prevented the country from defending itself from Serb aggression.

In his memoirs, Bildt’s chapter on July 1995, the month when the Srebrenica massacre occurred, is entitled ‘Success and failure: July 1995’. He believes that when describing his record as EU peace mediator in Bosnia for the period of the Srebrenica massacre, the word ‘success’ should appropriately be put before the word ‘failure’. Some might feel that using the word ‘success’ in relation to EU policy that presided over a genocidal massacre of eight thousand people was just a wee bit inappropriate. But not Bildt, who seems quite proud of his record.

Following the Serb conquest of Srebrenica, Bildt records how he attempted in London on 21 July 1995 to dissuade the Western states from intervening militarily to defend a second Bosnian enclave that was being threatened with a similar fate:

‘[British foreign secretary Malcolm] Rifkind was a little taken aback when I started his day by saying that Gorazde was scarcely threatened, and even if this was the case, I did not believe it could be defended by air strikes. We had to focus on getting the political process going. If we left London with a bombing strategy but without a political strategy, we would almost certainly be faced with even more acts of war and suffering. But sooner or later, we would be forced to return to the political track in any case. Bombing strategies were all very well, but we should not bomb our political opportunities to smithereens.’ (p. 67).

When Serb forces based in Serb-occupied Croatia (so-called ‘Krajina’) attacked the Bihac enclave in north-western Bosnia that same month, threatening to overrun it and enact another massacre on the model of Srebrenica, Croatia – which had signed a military agreement with Bosnia on the 22nd for the defence of Bihac – responded in August with a full-scale military offensive (‘Operation Storm’) against the Krajina area. According to his memoirs, Bildt made no effort whatsoever to deter the Serb attack on Bihac – which he barely acknowledges even occurred – but instead attempted to halt the Croatian counter-offensive. As Bildt records,

‘My public statement was clear: The Croatian offensive against areas inhabited by Serbs must be condemned in the strongest possible terms. This attack is occurring after negotiations have commenced, and when the Serbs are clearly willing to make substantial concessions on both economic and political matters. This will cast a long shadow over Croatia for many years to come. The shelling of the civilian population which is now being reported is particularly serious. It should be recalled that Martic, the ‘president of Krajina’, was charged with war crimes after the Serb rocket attack on Zagreb in May. It is difficult to see any difference between this and the bombardment of Knin, for which President Tudjman must be held responsible.‘ (p. 75).

In other words, the same Bildt who had made no such threat against the leaders of Serbia and the Bosnian Serbs when they were attacking Srebrenica, nor when they attacked Bihac, was now threatening the Croatian president with a war-crimes indictment for launching a counter-offensive against the Serb forces; a counter-offensive made, moreover, on the basis of an agreement with Bosnia-Hercegovina’s legitimate government for the purposes of defending part of its population from conquest and genocide. Bildt described the Serb-occupied areas of Croatia – defined as ‘occupied’ by the UN General Assembly – as ‘areas inhabited by Serbs’, forgetting that these areas had had a substantial Croat population before being ethnically cleansed by the Serb forces in 1991. He found it ‘difficult to see any difference’ between the Krajina Serb extremists’ wholly gratuitous act of civilian terrorism against Zagreb’s civilians in May 1995 and the legitimate Croatian government’s bombardment of Knin, made in the course of a military offensive against the same Serb extremists who were using Croatia’s territory to attack the territory of a neighbouring state, with the likely aim of perpetrating an act of genocide.

We can compare the way in which Bildt attempted to halt the Croatian offensive against Krajina with the way he had responded to the previous month’s Serb offensive against Srebrenica:

‘I had no way of knowing who was responsible for what was happening around Srebrenica, but it was hard to imagine that Milosevic, at any rate, was unable to influence the course of events. Before going to Geneva that afternoon, I therefore sent a clear letter of warning to Milosevic. There was a clear risk, I wrote, that our talks would be completely overshadowed by what was happening around Srebrenica. The entire situation could take a turn for the worse. If the enclave were attacked and overrun, this would be a very serious provocation which might well lead to an escalation of hostilities throughout much of Bosnia. I thus urged him to do everything in his power to prevent this.’ (p. 56).

So whereas Bildt threatened Tudjman with a war-crimes indictment – a threat he was wholly unauthorised to make – he threatened Milosevic with the possibility that ‘our talks would be completely overshadowed’ !

Bildt goes on to describe how, at the time of Operation Storm, he told the press:

‘I said it was regrettable that the attack meant that Croatia had chosen war, not peace, and said that I assumed that The Hague Tribunal would examine the question of the shellfire against Knin sooner or later, in the same way that it had considered the question of responsibility for the missile attacks on Zagreb.’ (p. 77).

Bildt did not accuse the Serb leaders who had just conquered Srebrenica and Zepa, and who were now trying to conquer Bihac, of ‘choosing war, not peace’; nor did he threaten them with indictment for war crimes. Rather, his threats were directed solely against Croatia. He ends his chapter on the Croatian offensive against Krajina with the following complaint:

‘For me, the conclusion from Srebrenica was not that we should blind ourselves to atrocities committed by others, but that we had to react strongly and clearly against all atrocities. In November 1995, The Hague Tribunal indicted Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic for war crimes committed in and around Srebrenica. However, as this book goes to print, the Tribunal has so far not considered anyone responsible for the massive and brutal ethnic cleansing of the Krajinas in August 1995.’ (p. 80)

Bildt, in pointing out that the Hague Tribunal indicted Karadzic and Mladic over Srebrenica, omits to mention that he did not call for such indictments at the time, in contrast to his call for an indictment against Tudjman over Operation Storm – and this despite his claim that his ‘conclusion from Srebrenica’ was that ‘we had to react strongly and clearly against all atrocities’. He does not complain that ‘as this book goes to print’, neither Milosevic or anyone else from Serbia’s leadership had been indicted for conquering and ethnically cleansing the Krajina region of Croatia in the first place.

Bildt was, in other words, an arch-appeaser, who actively opposed every attempt to resist the Serb forces militarily, whether by the international community or by Croatia. He denies over half the Srebrenica massacre, and describes its child and other civilian victims as having been ‘prisoners of war’. He describes the month in which the Srebrenica massacre occurred as a month of ‘success and failure’. Following the fall of Srebrenica, he attempted to block NATO air-strikes to defend Gorazde. He tried to deter the Croatian offensive against Krajina by threatening Tudjman, but made no equivalent threat to deter the Serb assault on Srebrenica. He called for Tudjman to be indicted for war-crimes, but not for Karadzic, Mladic or Milosevic to be indicted. He complained in 1998 that Tudjman had not been indicted, but he did not complain that Milosevic had not been indicted.

Some things never change. On behalf of Sweden’s EU presidency, Bildt has claimed that ‘Serbia is fully cooperating with the Hague Tribunal’. He pledged that ‘Sweden would take a pragmatic stand on the Kosovo issue, taking into account the fact that several EU member-states had not recognized the independence of Kosovo.’ Also: ‘We want to liberalize the visa regime with Serbia, but not Kosovo, as a dialogue on visa liberalization is being conducted with Serbia, not Kosovo’.

In other words, Bildt is saying that the policy of Sweden’s EU presidency will be: ‘Stuff Mladic’s Bosniak victims. Stuff the relatives of the people killed by him at Srebrenica, who still want him brought to justice. Stuff Kosovo and its people. I’m going to go on appeasing Belgrade, just as I did in 1995.’

No doubt, with Sweden at the helm of the EU, we can look forward to another glorious episode in the illustrious history of this heroic institution.

Update: Owen Beith has pointed out to me that Bildt’s Srebrenica revisionism is actually worse than I originally indicated: not only has he reduced the number of Srebrenica massacre victims to ‘more than three thousand’, but he describes them all as having been ‘prisoners of war’; i.e. captured soldiers. In fact, the Srebrenica massacre was perpetrated against the Bosniak civilian population in general, not simply against captured soldiers, and those killed included at least five hundred children under the age of eighteen. This post has been updated accordingly.

Update no 2.: Daniel of the Srebrenica Genocide Blog has posted a refutation of Bildt’s Srebrenica revisionism in full, which I strongly recommend reading.


Tuesday, 21 July 2009 Posted by | Bosnia, Croatia, Former Yugoslavia, Genocide, Serbia, Sweden | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

The persecution of Serb civilians in wartime Gorazde

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Review of Savo Heleta, Not My Turn to Die: Memoirs of a Broken Childhood in Bosnia, AMACOM, New York, 2008

It is a truism that there were victims among all national groups in Bosnia-Hercegovina during the war of 1992-95. Though Serb forces were guilty of most of the killing and persecution during the war, and Bosniaks made up the great majority of its civilian victims, yet Serb civilians, too, were victims at the hands of Bosnian and Croat forces. It should not need saying that their suffering was no less real or worthy of recognition than that of other Bosnians. Unfortunately, all too often, accounts of Serb suffering have been instrumentalised by propagandists for the Great Serbian cause, who will for example, highlight the killing of Serb civilians by the Bosnian Army at Kravica in January 1993 and in virtually the same breath deny the Srebrenica massacre. Such abuse of victimhood adds to the sensitivity with which any discussion of Bosniak atrocities against Serbs must be treated. In these circumstances, eyewitness accounts of such atrocities by enlightened Serb witnesses are particularly valuable.

In Savo Heleta’s book Not My Turn to Die: Memoirs of a Broken Childhood in Bosnia, we have one such eyewitness. Heleta has provided a gripping, harrowing account of his family’s suffering in wartime Gorazde. He describes the intimidation, murder attempts, vandalism of property and other abuses to which he, his family and other Serb civilians were subjected at the hands of local Bosniak thugs, as well as lengthy arbitrary incarceration without food, dismissal from employment, humiliating forced labour such as street-sweeping, and enforced virtual starvation at the hands of the authorities. Some Serbs fared worse, and were beaten or murdered. In the words, of Heleta’s father, as quoted here: ‘Everyone in this city is suffering, but we are also seen by Muslims as the enemy. Muslim extremists, hit squads, and even the police and government officials have threatened to kill us. The only reason we are oppressed is because we are Serbs. Many innocent people have already been killed just because they were Serbs and remained in their homes.’

Yet Heleta also describes the support and kindness extended to his family by Bosniak neighbours and friends, including the provision of food and shelter that may have saved their lives; he does not portray the persecution as the work of Bosniaks in general. The official persecution of Serb civilians he attributes to segments of the Bosnian authorities, including the city mayor and senior police officials, but mentions that other Bosnian officials, including senior army officers, disagreed with the persecution and tried to stop it, or intervened to protect Serbs. There is much nuance in this account, though this should not be allowed to overshadow the suffering to which the Heleta family and other Serb civilians were subjected. In one graphic passage, he describres the impression created when his parents, emaciated after months of semi-starvation and abuse, swam in the River Drina: ‘When they took off their clothes, the entire beach turned toward us and stared at them. People whispered in disbelief, asking if anyone knew who the two skeletons were.’

Heleta does not shy away from describing the wider context of the persecution of the Serbs: the Serb shelling and sniper attacks on the town; the arrival of large numbers of Bosniak refugees who had been expelled from their homes elsewhere in the region by Serb forces; and the fear that the town would be overrun by the Serb army, as all other Bosnian towns in the region were. He describes how, in response to NATO airstrikes against Serb forces in the spring of 1994, ‘the Serbian forces, incensed by the NATO attack, went on to brutally and indiscriminately bomb the city.’ And elsewhere: ‘The Serbian snipers often shot at everyone – women, children, and old people – even though they were located on the hilltops not far fromt he city center and could probably distinguish between civilians and soldiers. I saw with my own eyes old women getting shot while scurrying across the street with water canisters in their hands.’ Faced with this existential threat, some Bosniaks looked upon Gorazde’s Serbs as spies or as the enemy within, though as the Serbs often pleaded, they were not responsible for the Serb assaults and were themselves at risk from Serb shelling. The agony of the Gorazde Serbs, caught between a rock and a hard place, is starkly portrayed by Heleta.

Tragically, it was the very Serb civilians who stayed in Gorazde and endured the Serbian assault alongside their Bosniak neighbours who were inevitably likely to end up most wholly alienated from their once multiethnic town. As Heleta relates: ‘After thugs and the police had terrorized my family so many times over the course of the previous months, I didn’t feel I was living in the same city. I no longer felt safe anywhere. I didn’t know most of the people in my neighbourhood anymore. Most of them were refugees. Those people I did know I didn’t feel like I knew anymore. I knew many of them hated my family. They lied that my parents were spies, that they should be killed. Some talked about this even in front of us. I started seeing my city and the majority of the people in it in a different light than before the war. They were now a source of degradation, forcing me to lose all connections to the world outside my circle of family and close friends.’

Though the narrator generally comes across as a sympathetic individual in difficult times, he is not uncritical of himself; he confesses that his anger at his family’s wartime treatment drove him, among other things, to throw rocks at Bosniak cars that drove between Gorazde and Sarajevo after the war, sometimes smashing windscreens and windows: ‘It hardly crossed my mind at the time that perhaps those people in the buses and trucks had not done anything bad to my family. Some of them could even have been those who had helped us. Maybe even the man who gave us his last loaf of bread. I was completely blinded by fury.’ This book is valuable reading for anyone wishing to understand how a multiethnic society can be pulverised by war; it was not simply a question of the authorities destroying multiethnic coexistence from above, but of ordinary people – Serbs and Bosniaks alike – responding to suffering and injustice at the hands of officials or thugs from the opposing side by adopting a generalised hostility to the entire other nationality.

Unlike nationalist Serbs who responded to the Bosnian war by embracing the crackpot politics of genocide-denial and anti-Western conspiracy theory, Heleta has, to his credit, spoken out against instances of persecution and injustice in other parts of the world in the years since his ordeal. I do not agree with all of his politics, but he has, in his blog and elsewhere, genuinely attempted to be consistent in his condemnations of killing and human rights abuses, and has spoken out against the regimes in Iran, Zimbabwe and Sudan – and in particular over Darfur – while being strongly critical of US and Israeli policy as well. If he has a weak spot, it is in his readiness somewhat to gloss over Serbian wrongdoing; his book makes no mention of Serbia’s role in engineering the Bosnian war, which he blames vaguely on ‘nationalist politicians’ and ‘bad leadership’. He also rather unfortunately describes the Nazi-collaborationist Chetniks of World War II as having ‘fought against the Nazis’.

On his blog, Heleta downplays the killing of Kosova Albanians by Serbian forces in the late 1990s, and complains of the fact that the Western alliance intervened in Kosova but not in Darfur: ‘Western governments are eager and ready to send troops, equipment, aid, and money to stop conflicts in Europe, while conflicts in Africa are ignored. They have done this in the case of Bosnia in the early 1990s, while ignoring the Rwandan genocide in 1994. They are doing this again in Kosovo since 1999, while ignoring the Darfur conflict and suffering of millions since 2003. Whether it is due to skin color, geographic location, natural resources, or effective lobbying, it seems that some people do matter more than others.’ Critics of Western policy are often fond of making this sort of point, though it begs the questions: Should the West intervene neither in Kosova nor in Darfur, or should it intervene in both ? And if it intervenes to stop the persecution only in one place and not the other, is this not better than intervening in neither ? The answer one gives to these questions reveals if one is genuinely opposed to persecution and injustice, or whether one is merely exploiting it opportunistically to score points against the West. I believe that Heleta is sincerely opposed to injustice, but there are a couple of wrinkles in his political ethics that he needs to address. But this does not detract from the value of his moving memoir.

Monday, 25 May 2009 Posted by | Balkans, Bosnia, Former Yugoslavia | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment