In my last post, I talked about the "explicability of evil." Let me explain what I mean by that phrase. We should all be able to agree that the massacre of thousands of unarmed prisoners at Srebrenica in July 1995 was an evil act for which there can be no possible justification. But that does not mean that it cannot be explained -- both as an act of state policy on the part of the Bosnian Serb leadership and as a rational decision on the part of Ratko Mladic, the man who ultimately determined the fate of the people of Srebrenica.
The Srebrenica massacre belongs to a special category of war crimes so monstrous that it defies the imagination of decent people. It has been described as "genocide" by the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal in The Hague. Whatever you want to call it, there is no denying that it was the most heinous crime of the wars that tore the former Yugoslavia apart between 1991 and 1995, the worst massacre to occur on European soil since the end of World War II. This is why I have paid so much attention to the Srebrenica events in this blog, as a particularly horrifying example of the evil that human beings still inflict on each other.
In the case of former United Nations "safe area," the evil was compounded by the fact that it occurred a short plane ride away from the great European capitals, at the end of the 20th century, on the continent that created the slogan "Never Again."
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My last posting, "In Defense of the Serbs," has prompted a protest letter to Foreign Policy from Hamdija Custovic, Vice President of the Congress of North American Bosniaks. The letter is too long to reproduce in full here, but I will summarize its contents in the spirit of free and open discussion. You can read the letter in full at his organization's website.
Custovic accuses me of "appeasing the Serbs" who have been critical of my coverage of the Ratko Mladic trial by seeking to "spread the blame" for the Serbian "aggression and genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina." He compares Milosevic's project for a "Greater Serbian state" to Hitler's attempts to "consolidate all Germans into a single state." According to Custovic, the Serbian "war of aggression finally prompted a NATO intervention in the fall of 1995 in Bosnia and again four years later in Kosovo." He fears that we are now witnessing a revival of the "same nationalist rhetoric" that caused the Bosnia war in the first place, as evidenced by the election of Tomislav Nikolic to the presidency of Serbia.
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The off-and-on war crimes trial of Ratko Mladic got underway again this week in The Hague after a month-long summer break. As the prosecution outlines its case, I am planning a series of posts that will attempt to explain the mindset of the former Bosnian Serb military commander. By way of introduction, I want to look at the terrible war in the former Yugoslavia from the viewpoint of the Serbs, widely viewed in the West as the aggressors.
My focus in this blog has been the crimes of a single individual, and in particular Mladic's decision to kill or deport the Muslim population of Srebrenica in July 1995, which has become the centerpiece of the genocide charge against him. While I have inevitably talked a lot about Mladic's crimes against Bosnian Muslims, I do not mean to imply that Serbs were the only people committing war crimes in the former Yugoslavia, or that Serbian leaders were exclusively responsible for the war.
In fact, Serbs had some perfectly legitimate concerns both prior to and during the war that are often overlooked by western commentators who have painted an excessively black-and-white picture of the conflict.
One of the primary goals of the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal -- beyond the obvious one of punishing the guilty -- is public education. The tribunal views itself as a kind of "truth commission" in a part of the world where facts are malleable things, filtered through the lenses of rival ethnic groups and political parties. The first step to national reconciliation is an agreement on precisely what happened.
That at least is the theory. In practice, as I discovered by participating in a recent "outreach" session organized by the tribunal in the Bosnian Serb-controlled town of Bijeljina, a more nuanced, elliptical approach sometimes works best.
Remember that Bosnia is a country where children are taught completely different narratives about the fratricidal war of 1992-95. In both school and home and through the media, Muslim students learn that Serbs began the war, and committed terrible atrocities. Their Serbian counterparts are raised to believe that the war was started by Islamic fundamentalists who wanted to control all of Bosnia.
I was intrigued to see how tribunal outreach officer Almir Alic (photographed above) would handle a room full of Serb, Muslim, and Croat law students from different parts of Bosnia who had been invited to attend a week-long "human rights school" in Bijeljina. Situated close to the border with Serbia, Bijeljina had a 34 percent Muslim population prior to the war, but was "ethnically cleansed" and is now overwhelmingly Serb. A Bijelina resident told me that "99 percent" of the population believe that former Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic is a hero.
The photograph above is a picture of me and the man who sheltered Ratko Mladic for a period of nearly five years up until his arrest in May 2011, his cousin Brane. I describe my meeting with Brane in an extended profile of Mladic in this month's Foreign Policy magazine, which has been posted on the website here.
I was introduced to Brane through his kum, a uniquely Serbian institution that is a combination of neighbor, trusted friend, and godfather. The Serbs have a saying "God in heaven and kum on earth." Truth be told, my relationship with the kum was somewhat tenuous, through the friend of a friend. I met the kum an hour before I met Brane. No matter. If the kum vouches for you, that means you are ok.
"An American has come to see you," I told Brane in the now-rusty Serbian that I learned while working as a reporter in Belgrade in the late 70s, waiting for the legendary Marshal Tito to die. "I hope you have nothing against Americans."
It may not have been the most felicitous of introductions, as Brane emitted a stream of curses about the country that bombed Serbia in 1999 and the Bosnian Serb army in 1995.
The trial began -- and then it stopped because of so-called "disclosure" problems. What's up with that?
Prosecutors at the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal today gave their first detailed explanation for the bungled opening of the Ratko Mladic trial. In a 42-page filing to the court, they blamed the fiasco on a computer "operator error" that had led to the non-disclosure of around 5,000 documents, or just over 3 percent of the disclosable trial record. They added that the omissions were largely "technical" in nature, and should not require a lengthy trial delay.
The trial, which began on May 16 with a summary of the prosecution case against the former Bosnian Serb military commander, was due to resume on May 29 with the calling of witnesses. But Judge Alphons Orie ordered an indefinite delay while he investigated "significant errors" by the prosecution in the disclosure process. Lawyers for Mladic have called for a six-month postponement of the trial, alleging "an unprecedented disclosure failure whose scope is without parallel in the history of the Tribunal."
Today was Srebrenica day at the Mladic trial in the Hague. The former Bosnian Serb commander listened intently as prosecutors outlined evidence linking him to the murder of at least 7,000 Muslim prisoners captured following the fall of the United Nations "safe area."
For the most part, Mladic remained impassive, occasionally massaging his temples or stroking his upper lip with his forefinger. But at one point he demonstratively applauded a prosecution videotape that showed him brutally dressing down the commander of Dutch peacekeeping troops in Srebrenica.
Mladic's words from July 1995 echoed around the packed courtroom as he accused Dutch Colonel Thom Karremans of calling in NATO air strikes against Bosnian Serb forces advancing on Srebrenica."Do not fantasize," he growled as the browbeaten Dutch officer claimed that such decisions were taken by his superiors in New York. Mladic smiled and gave a thumbs-up sign to the courtroom to indicate that he was pleased by his own performance.
I will be in the Hague on Wednesday for the long-awaited start of the Mladic trial, almost seventeen years after he was first indicted by the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal. While we wait to hear the prosecutor's opening statement, let's take a look at some more "roads not taken" during the run-up to the Srebrenica tragedy of July 1995, which features prominently in the Mladic indictment.
While primary responsibility for the Srebrenica massacre certainly rests with the Bosnian Serb forces commanded by Mladic, the international community also played a role through a series of diplomatic missteps. Here are three more key moments, selected by the former United Nations civil affairs official, David Harland, that led directly to Europe's worst massacre since World War II.
For three earlier decision points, click here.
Key Moment 4. The Bosnian government's decision to block the evacuation of Srebrenica in April 1993. On April 2, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees reported to the Security Council that non-combatants were "desperate to escape to safety because they see no other prospect than death if they remain where they are." On instructions from the Bosnian government, the Muslim commander in Sarajevo, Nasir Oric, prevented the evacuation of refugees on the grounds that it would pave the way for the takeover of Srebrenica by the Bosnian Serbs, and would facilitate their policy of "ethnic cleansing." A convoy of United Nations trucks was forced to leave the enclave without any refugees on board. Ironically, Oric himself left Srebrenica in April 1995, three months before the town fell.
PASCAL GUYOT/AFP/Getty Images
There is an interesting back story to Barack Obama's call today for stronger action to prevent genocide that directly relates to the subject of this blog. The president's speech at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum announcing new sanctions against perpetrators of mass atrocities was shaped in large part by senior aides with first-hand experience in places like Bosnia and Rwanda.
The key person here is Samantha Power, now a senior foreign policy advisor to Obama, who was a young reporter in Bosnia in July 1995 at the time of the Srebrenica massacre, seething in frustration at the failure of the international community to take effective action against the likes of Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic. As the author of the Pulitzer prize-winning A Problem from Hell: America in the Age of Genocide, Power provided much of the intellectual heft for a growing genocide prevention movement that has sought to pressure the United States government to live up to the slogan "Never Again."
In her book, Power states that she returned from Bosnia "haunted by the murder of Srebenica's Muslim men and boys, my own failure to sound a proper early warning, and the outside world's refusal to intervene even once the men's peril had become obvious." She noted pointedly that the United States "had never in its history intervened to stop genocide and had in fact rarely even made a point of condemning it as it occurred."
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The Srebrenica massacre offers a prime example of the dangers of what can be called a "feel good response" to mass atrocity. By a "feel good response," I mean action that is designed to look good in the eyes of international public opinion but fails to do anything really effective to protect a threatened population. A feel good response can often wind up making a tragic situation even worse -- as was the case in Srebrenica, where around 7,000 Muslims became the victims of pre-meditated mass murder in July 1995.
Examples of such empty moralism abound -- from Bosnia to Rwanda to Darfur to Syria.
To explain what I mean, let me review the history of the establishment of the so-called United Nations "safe area" of Srebrenica as a result of Security Council resolution 819, adopted on April 16, 1993. The resolution represented the response of the United States and Security Council members to the public outrage engendered by a widely publicized visit to Srebrenica the previous month by General Philippe Morillon of France. The photograph above shows the charismatic U.N. general being besieged by a crowd of Muslim refugees as he tried to leave the town on March 12. Here is a YouTube clip:
A key question for anyone interested in genocide prevention is whether outside intervention can make a difference. In order to address this question, it is necessary to study the mindset of the perpetrators of mass atrocities. Thanks to the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal, we now have a lot of evidence about the Bosnian Serb decision-making process that led to the capture of the United Nations "safe area" of Srebrenica and the murder of around 7,000 Muslim men and boys.
According to Bosnian Serb military documents, and testimony from key participants, General Ratko Mladic did not initially intend to capture the town of Srebrenica when he launched his attack on the enclave on July 6, 1995. His initial goal was to reduce the enclave to its urban core and create "an unbearable situation" for Srebrenica inhabitants, forcing them to leave of their own accord. Meeting no effective resistance from either Dutchbat or the Muslim defenders of Srebrenica, he went for the big prize.
It is now possible to pinpoint the "tipping point" when everything changed: the evening of July 9. A written message was submitted for approval to Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic by a Mladic aide at 23:50 hours on July 9 ordering the final "takeover of Srebrenica". Mladic ordered his forces to move forward the following day, July 10, capturing a U.N. armored personnel carrier as you can see in the photograph at the top of this post. The "safe area" fell on July 11.
The Dutch have rightly come under a lot of criticism for their failure to prevent Europe's worst massacre since World War II in Srebrenica. Apart from a token air strike against Bosnian Serb troops described in my last post, Dutch peacekeepers did not offer any significant resistance to the takeover of the United Nations "safe area" in July 1995. They permitted General Ratko Mladic to forcibly separate Muslim men and boys from their families outside Dutchbat headquarters in Potocari. To put the matter very bluntly, they were bystanders to a terrible atrocity.
On the other hand, it seems unfair that a single Dutch peacekeeping battalion should become a scapegoat for the much broader failures of the international community. Many of the decisions, non-decisions, or fudged decisions that led to the Srebrenica tragedy were taken long before July 1995, at a variety of political and military levels, right up to the United Nations Security Council in New York and the White House in Washington, DC.
The Dutchbat commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Thom Karremans, (photographed above with Mladic) may have been the wrong man for the job, as I described in a previous post. But the evidence shows that he and his men were put in an almost impossible position. They were ordered to protect a "safe area" inhabited by some 40,000 Muslim refugees -- but they were not given the resources and political support they needed to accomplish their mission.
By way of illustration, let me review the history of the week preceding the fall of the "safe area." The record shows that Dutchbat requested close air support on six separate occasions -- but their calls for assistance were denied or simply ignored by their UN superiors. Since the peacekeepers themselves were only lightly armed, NATO air power represented their only means of effective defense.
The bureaucratic procedure for requesting air support was extraordinarily cumbersome. Requests were first submitted to Sector North East headquarters in Tuzla, then to the Bosnia-Herzegovina command in Sarajevo. If Sarajevo approved the request, it was then forwarded to the Crisis Action Team in Zagreb, by which time up to three hours might have been lost. Since peacekeeping was a joint UN-NATO operation, all requests were subject to a so-called "dual key." A military bureaucrat anywhere along the line could delay or even block a request for air support from the Srebrenica peacekeepers because it was submitted on "the wrong form."
A blow-by-blow chronology of air support requests from Dutchbat, with links to sources (Dutch and United Nations reports):
First request. July 6, 13:50. This request from Karremans was prompted by the shelling of the U.N. compound at Potocari by Mladic's forces, and preliminary incursions into the "safe area." Forwarded to Sarajevo by Sector North East, but turned down by Dutch general (Kees Nicolai) as premature.
Has Ratko Mladic had a change of heart? Since his arrest last May, and extradition to the Hague, the former Bosnian Serb commander has taken every opportunity to demonstrate his contempt for the tribunal that has charged him with "double genocide." He has refused to stand when the judge enters the courtroom and angrily denounced the tribunal as a "NATO court" that has no right to try him. In his latest pre-trial appearance today, however, he sounded a little more conciliatory.
"I would like to improve my relationship with this court," he told Dutch judge Alphons Orie, at the end of today's status conference, which was called to discuss scheduling matters prior to the start of the trial on May 14. "In [the] future, I will rise when you enter, I will bow, and will sit down when you tell me, not because I respect you so much, but because I would like to take part in this trial."
Mladic has repeatedly tussled with Orie during previous pre-trial appearances and was even thrown out of court on one occasion last year. In addition to his show of cooperation at the end of today's proceedings, he also had a long list of complaints, ranging from inadequate computer time and his demand that witnesses against him should all appear in person in the court. He alluded frequently to his medical problems on the run, including at least two strokes.
International Criminal Court for the Former Yugoslavia
The photograph above is the iconic image of Ratko Mladic sipping wine with the commander of the Dutch peacekeeping forces in Srebrenica shortly after the fall of the United Nations "safe area" on July 11, 1995. Dutch colonel Thom Karremans apologized to Mladic for briefly opening fire in a last ditch attempt to deter the Bosnian Serb forces as they entered the enclave. He depicted himself as a humble "piano player" performing a score devised by others.
"Don't shoot the piano player," the Dutch peacekeeper pleaded, clearly hoping to lighten the atmosphere.
"You're a lousy piano player," Mladic shot back, before offering Karremans a cigarette and a drink.
It now turns out that the unfortunate Karremans was under considerable personal and psychological pressure at the time he was appointed commander of the Dutch peacekeeping battalion, or Dutchbat, in Srebrenica. According to a superior officer, General Hans Kouzy, he was in the process of a messy divorce, and was not fully focused on his military duties.
International Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia
I am planning to shift gears this week and examine the responsibility borne by the United States and other western governments for Srebrenica. While it is clear that primary responsibility for the worst massacre in Europe since World War II lies with the perpetrators, the international community must also bear a share of the blame through its inaction and fecklessness in declaring a "safe area" it was unable -- or unwilling -- to protect.
Before I get into that subject, however, I would like to answer a question raised by some readers. Why Srebrenica? Why pay so much attention to a tragedy in an obscure corner of the Balkans that took place nearly seventeen years ago? After all, Srebrenica was hardly the only war crime committed during the terrible, five year war in the former Yugoslavia. An exclusive focus on Srebrenica also obscures atrocities committed by the Croats and the Muslims, making it appear that the Serbs were the only guilty party.
ANDREJ ISAKOVIC/AFP/Getty Images
Thanks to the online video feed from the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal, I have been watching Radovan Karadzic rebut charges that he ordered the murder of 7,000-plus Muslim prisoners following the fall of Srebrenica. It is a curtain-raiser to the arguments we can expect when the Ratko Mladic trial finally opens in The Hague on May 14. (The date has now been finalized.)
As you can see from the photographs above, Karadzic is a man with many sides-poet, psychiatrist, president, fugitive from justice, New Age healer. His latest role is that of defense attorney, representing himself, in a trial that has been going on for over two years. Superficially at least, he is playing the part with utmost seriousness. In contrast to Mladic, who has become known for his courtroom tantrums, Karadzic treats the judges with great respect, referring to them as "Excellencies," and is polite to prosecution witnesses, thanking them for their testimony.
But when you examine his defense strategy in more detail, you have to wonder about his goal. Again in contrast to Mladic, Karadzic has a plausible defense against the charge that he ordered the Srebrenica killings. He was not on the scene himself, and did not have direct operational control over the executioners, who answered to Mladic as the Bosnian Serb military commander. Furthermore, we know that relations between the two men were extremely strained in July 1995. Karadzic might have followed the example of Drina Corps commander Radislav Krstic in pinning primary responsibility for Srebrenica on Mladic.
The Newsweek headline from November 1996 --"Genocide Without Corpses" -- summed up the mystery confronting international war crimes prosecutors as they began investigating the most serious massacre to occur in Europe since World War II. Based on the number of people reported missing following the fall of the United Nations "safe area" of Srebrenica in July 1995, they had every reason to conclude that as many as 8,000 Muslim prisoners had been executed by Bosnian Serb forces commanded by Ratko Mladic. But the mass graves associated with the execution sites contained the remains of only a few hundred victims.
The answer to the mystery came in 1998, when investigators began excavating a suspected burial site, photographed above, near a village called Cancari in a mountain valley. When they analyzed DNA samples of bones recovered from the Cancari site, along with pieces of rope and articles of clothing, they established a link with the execution site at Branjevo military farm, some thirty miles to the north. They eventually discovered at least eight other sites along the Cancari road that contained the missing corpses from Branjevo.
International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia
In my last post, I published an overhead photograph of several hundred Muslim prisoners in a field at a place called Nova Kasaba in Bosnia, and posed a question: what happened to these people? The answer to that question is contained in the photograph above: the vast majority of the men photographed by an American spy satellite around 14:00 on July 13 ended up in mass graves, like the one above at Branjevo Military Farm.
By coincidence, a survivor from Branjevo testified on Thursday at the Yugoslav war crimes trial of Radovan Karadzic. He appeared as a "protected witness" under the codename KDZ-333. Cross-examined by the former Bosnian Serb president, KDZ-333 said he was somewhere in the middle of the crowd in the American intelligence photo. Before nightfall on July 13, buses arrived to collect the prisoners, who were ambushed by Serb forces after fleeing the United Nations "safe area" of Srebrenica. The prisoners were taken to the town of Bratunac, where they spent the night in the buses.
International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia
Sixteen years after the end of the Bosnia war, a huge amount of work remains to be done in reconciling the opposing ethnic factions. If anything, hatreds are growing -- but at least in one respect, huge progress has been made. Investigators have succeeded in finding the remains of approximately two thirds of the 40,000 people who went missing during the fratricidal wars in the former Yugoslavia.
To put that figure into perspective, a decade after 9/11, more than forty per cent of the people killed at the World Trade Center remain unaccounted for. Primarily using DNA evidence, the New York medical examiner has identified the remains of around 1,630 of the 2,800 people murdered at Ground Zero. That in turn is much higher than the number of missing persons identified in other cases of mass murder or genocide, including Latin America or Rwanda.
Much of the credit for this success in the former Yugoslavia should go to the International Commission of Missing Persons, which pioneered the use of DNA evidence for tracking the victims of war crimes. The organization was founded at the initiative of President Clinton in 1996, as part of the international community's response to massacres at Srebrenica and elsewhere in the Balkans. After focusing initially on simply bringing closure to the relatives of the victims, the ICMP has transformed itself into a kind of forensic truth commission. Its findings have been used to prosecute war criminals in The Hague and establish a basic set of objective facts about events that remain shrouded in mythology.
In the video interview above, ICMP director-general Kathryne Bomberger explains that it would have been impossible to achieve such results without the cooperation of governments of the region, including the Bosnian Serb entity, Republika Srpska. ICMP needed the cooperation of all sides in order to build its database of DNA samples and excavate the remains of the victims, which were scattered in mass graves all over the former Yugoslavia. In the case of Srebrenica, body parts of the same individual were found in as many as sixteen different locations, after the initial graves were bulldozed and human remains transferred to secondary sites.
"Srebrenica was a huge forensic puzzle," said Bomberger. "It is amazing that we have got as far as we have in establishing what happened."
The ICMP database includes matches for some 6,600 Bosnian Moslem men killed near Srebrenica, out of a total of 8,000 suspected victims. It forms a key part of the prosecution case against Ratko Mladic, Radovan Karadzic, and other Bosnian Serb leaders accused of organizing genocide at Srebrenica. It is scarcely surprising then that Mladic and Karadzic have both sought to discredit the work of the ICMP, arguing that it is biased against the Serbs. Karadzic has brushed aside an offer from ICMP to select a sample of 300 Srebrenica victims for detailed study, examining how the bone remains were matched up with DNA profiles.
In fact, the ICMP has been meticulous in collecting bone samples and DNA profiles from all sides in the Bosnian conflict. While it does not compile statistics on missing people by ethnicity, collection patterns suggest that around 10 per cent are Serb and five per cent Croat. The remaining 85 per cent are Muslim. Overall, the ICMP data provides an accurate picture of the course of the 4 ½ year war.
Asked to explain how people could commit such terrible atrocities, Bomberger says that the killing spree in Bosnia got to the point where it became "part of everyday life." Even today, however, it is impossible to fully explain what took place. "It is inexplicable, irrational. Propaganda brainwashed people, creating absolute hatred of the other."
Talk to the players in any major ethnic conflict -- Bosnia, northern Ireland, Israel-Palestine -- and you quickly run across a phenomenon that I call the "chain of victimhood." The other side did something horrible to us X years ago, forcing us to defend ourselves. This led to a new atrocity in Y years ago. They provoked us, and we responded, and so on, ad infinitum.
The constant in the "chain of victimhood" is that it was always the other side that committed the first crime. Talk to a Bosnian Muslim, and he will describe the terrible spate of ethnic cleansing, mass killing, and house burnings, initiated by Serb militia groups in March 1992. Talk to a Serb, and he will date the start of the conflict to Bosnia's secession from Yugoslavia earlier the same month, rekindling memories of the massacres of Serbs in Nazi-controlled Bosnia in World War II. Follow the chain back and you quickly end up in 1389 when the Serbian Prince Lazar was killed in battle against the Turks.
It is a similar situation in the Middle East. Every month seems to create new links in a chain of victimhood that stretches back into the mists of time. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu feels that he is justified in ordering new Jewish settlements in occupied Palestinian territory in response to unilateral Palestinian moves to gain international recognition for a Palestinian state. The Palestinians complain about earlier settlement activity. The Israelis cite the threat posed by Palestinian terrorists. And so on, back to biblical times. Each side is convinced the other side started it.
So how do you break this chain of suffering, and the sense of historical grievance and victimhood that goes along with it? After spending the last few weeks talking to all sides in the Bosnia conflict, I have a modest proposal for encouraging a more reasonable, productive debate. It boils down to the following, very simple idea from the Gospel of Saint Matthew: first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye.
I am inspired to make this suggestion by reading a book by the Croatian writer Slavenka Drakulic, entitled They Would Never Hurt a Fly, about war criminals from the former Yugoslavia. Although she is Croatian ("a bad Croat," Croatian nationalists would argue), Drakulic goes into painful detail about Croatian crimes against Serbs, before describing Serbian crimes against Croats and Muslims. Her willingness to talk about Croatian misdeeds first gives her the credibility to talk about the misdeeds of others.
Some might object to my proposal on the grounds that the three sides in the Bosnia conflict -- Serb, Muslim (or Bosniak), Croat -- were not all equally bad. It is true that the Muslims suffered disproportionately in the most recent war, in large measure because they were less well armed than either the Serbs or the Croats. Nevertheless, there are plenty of examples of war crimes committed by Muslims against Serbs and Croats. To talk only about Serb and Croat crimes against Muslims is a recipe for merely prolonging the chain of suffering, and strengthening feelings of victimhood.
If Americans have any moral claim to lecture the rest of the world on human rights abuses, it is because we are willing to air our own dirty linen in public. While it is painful to read about shameful episodes such as the My Lai massacre, Abu Ghraib, and waterboarding, in the U.S. media, it is also necessary. Criticizing your own society is viewed by some as unpatriotic. In fact, it is the highest form of patriotism. If all sides in the Bosnia could display that kind of civic duty, the conflict would become much easier to resolve.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
For a project exploring the "origins of evil," what could be more evil than the genocidal regime of Pol Pot in Cambodia? My talented, adventurous intern at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Sarah Collman, recently visited the Cambodian killing fields. I invited her to contribute a guest blog post:
By Sarah Collman
Perpetrators of genocide use different methods to kill and maim. In Bosnia, Serb forces lined up Muslim men and boys at mass execution sites, and shot them through the head. In Rwanda, Hutu gangs hunted down their Tutsi neighbors with knives and machetes. In Cambodia, the Khmer Rouge tortured their fellow Cambodians with farming tools and bamboo sticks in prisons, before dumping their bodies in mass graves in the countryside. .
It is an eerie feeling to follow in the footsteps of the executioners and their victims, and stand in places that have witnessed so much pain, horror, and death.
I began my tour of the Cambodian "killing fields" by visiting Tuol Sleng, the death prison known as S-21, in Phnom Penh. I walked through each of the tiny rooms and cells in buildings A, B, C, and D, which were used for extreme torture and interrogation, detention, and extermination from 1975-1979. Guards at S-21 beat prisoners until they were nearly dead, pulled off their fingernails and toenails, forced them to eat human excrement, and poured salt water over their wounds -- in order to force confessions of non-existent crimes.
The half alive prisoners were often taken to Choeung Ek, the most notorious ‘Killing Field' just seventeen kilometers south of Phnom Penh. Here you can still see some fifty pits marking the mass graves where more than 8,000 bodies were found. There is a Buddhist stupa filled with 5,000 skulls. One mass grave is marked with a sign that reads "MASS GRAVE of 166 VICTIMS WITHOUT HEADS." The most disturbing spot is the "Killing Tree," used by executioners as a stump to batter babies.
Despite the different methods used in Cambodia, Bosnia, and Rwanda, the outcome was the same. Mass graves filled with thousands of skeletons. The extinction of an entire generation. A gaping hole in the lives of millions of people. There is no need to determine which genocide was worst. All were horrific, and all left dark stains on the history of mankind.
Few matters are more fraught with emotion in Srebenica, and Bosnia as a whole, than the question of whether the cold-blooded executions of around 8,000 Muslim men by Bosnian Serb forces in July 1995 should be qualified as "genocide." I experienced this myself when I referred to the event as a "massacre" in a conversation with a Srebenica survivor. "It was not a massacre," Hatidza Mehmedovic shouted at me angrily. "It was a genocide."
I must admit that I find it difficult to use the word genocide, which conjures up images of the Holocaust. The word appears to have been invented by the Polish-born American jurist, Raphael Lemkin, in 1944 in relation to Hitler's campaign of extermination against European Jewry. The word derives from the Greek genos, meaning "race," and the Latin suffix -cida, meaning "killer." In the popular culture, at least, when we talk about "geno-cide," we think about the killing of an entire race or ethnic group. Genocide is the most horrific of crimes.
My reluctance to use the word genocide, particularly in casual conversation, stems in part from the way in which the expression has been abused by all sides in the former Yugoslavia. Muslims, Serbs, and Croats accuse each other of genocide on a routine basis when talking about alleged war crimes committed against them. It is important that outsiders avoid the inflammatory rhetoric that has become so poisonous and commonplace in this part of the world. When we employ terms like "genocide," we need to be careful to explain exactly what we mean, and use the words in a very specific context.
So what exactly did the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal mean to say when it found that "genocide" had been committed at Srebrenica in July 1995? Fortunately, there is a wealth of case law defining the term very precisely. As used by the tribunal, the term has a narrower meaning that the intent to destroy an entire race. It can also be employed to mean the intended destruction of a "substantial part" of an ethnic group in a given location, specifically eastern Bosnia in the case of Srebrenica. Article Four of the tribunal's statute draws directly on language from the 1948 U.N. Convention on Genocide to define genocide as:
any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
(a) killing members of the group;
(b) causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its
physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
Exactly what constitutes an ethnic group is the subject of a lengthy discussion in a 2001 judgment involving one of Ratko Mladic's subordinate commanders, Radislav Krstic. The judgment defines the term "ethnic group" in this case as "the Bosnian Muslims of Srebrenica." The court concluded that the systematic massacre of 7,000 to 8,000 Muslim males from this community plus the forcible transfer of some 25,000 women and children to other parts of Bosnia constituted genocide within the meaning of the Genocide Convention:
The Bosnian Serb forces knew, by the time they decided to kill all of the military aged men, that the combination of those killings with the forcible transfer of the women, children and elderly would inevitably result in the physical disappearance of the Bosnian Muslim population at Srebrenica ... The Chamber concludes that the intent to kill all the Bosnian Muslim men of military age in Srebrenica constitutes an intent to destroy in part the Bosnian Muslim group within the meaning of Article 4 and therefore must be qualified as a genocide.
The original court found Krstic guilty of genocide. In 2004, an appeals court modified the verdict to "aiding and abetting genocide" on the grounds that it had not been proven that Krstic himself had the intent to commit genocide.
ODD ANDERSEN/AFP/Getty Images
The shelves of the missing person "identification facility" in Tuzla are stacked with plastic body bags containing the remains of victims of the July 1995 Srebrenica massacre. On the shelves above are brown paper bags packed with whatever they had on them at the time of their execution -- a bloodstained t-shirt, a pair of sneakers, handcuffs made out of rough white string, a wallet, perhaps a crumpled identification card. Assembling the bones, the belongings, and linking them to named individuals has been a protracted, painful process that has already taken fifteen years, involving a small army of forensic anthropologists, genetics experts, and international investigators.
Defense lawyers representing the former commander of the Bosnian Serb army, General Ratko Mladic, have announced their intention to challenge the prosecution claim that "over 7,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys" were killed at Srebrenica during the final, gruesome stage to the four-year war in Bosnia. They argue that the indictment against Mladic lacks specifics on individual cases, and have requested complete DNA evidence on the victims. The defense argument is based on the assumption, "no body, no crime," but it is a line of reasoning that is very unlikely to hold up in court.
The fact is that the Srebrenica massacre -- or "genocide," as it is described in the indictment -- is probably the best-documented war crime in history. Thanks to the efforts of the International Commission on Missing Persons, founded in 1996 as part of the international response to Srebrenica, we now know a vast amount about the logistics of the mass execution. By tracing the bones of individual victims to secondary gravesites all over eastern Bosnia, ICMP has shown how Mladic's men attempted to cover up the crime after the original burial sites were discovered by American spy satellites. The original sites were bulldozed. In some cases, the remains of a single individual ended up scattered across as many of three or four secondary sites, all over eastern Bosnia.
According to ICMP project manager Emina Kurtalic (see video above), investigators have now confirmed with families the identities of more 5,600 victims through their DNA samples. (The mass burial site at Srebrenica contains 5,137 graves so far.) The identities of another 1,000 or so "missing persons" from Srebrenica have been confirmed through DNA, but the cases remain open, pending the discovery of further remains. (Families will often wait until most of the remains have been recovered before making a formal "identification" as they do not want to have to go through the anguish of burying their loved ones multiple times.)
Interviews with relatives suggest that the total number of Srebrenica victims is in the region of 8,100. In addition to the 6,600 already identified through DNA, this figure includes others identified through traditional means (recognition of the body, clothes etc), and other individuals reported missing but not yet found.
At first glance, The Hague seems a strange choice of location for a war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. The capital of the Netherlands is a model of tranquility and tolerance, a world away from the vicious bloodletting of the Balkans. The main complaint one hears from inhabitants of The Hague is that life is too boring and predictable. Visitors are impressed by the cleanliness of the streets and the fact that everything seems to work -- from the high-speed rail system to the automobile-free lane that make Dutch cities a bicyclist's paradise.
Amidst all this peace and prosperity, it is easy to forget that this part of Europe was consumed by ethnic hatred and violence within the lifetimes of some of its older inhabitants. The house where Anne Frank hid out from Dutch (not German) policemen hunting down Jews is just around the corner from the placid canal scene in Amsterdam photographed above. It has now become the third most popular tourist destination in the city, after the Van Gogh museum and the Rijskmuseum, attracting a constant throng of tourists snaking around the bloc.
More recently, the Dutch have been engaged in a bout of very public soul-searching over the failure of a Dutch peacekeeping battalion to prevent the massacre of 7,000 to 8,000 Muslim men in Srebrenica in July 1995. The Dutch soldiers were humiliated when the Bosnian Serb forces commanded by Ratko Mladic occupied the United Nations "safe area" that they had been entrusted to their supervision. In August, a Dutch appeals court ruled for the first time that the government of the Netherlands bore at least some responsibility for the failure to protect the Muslim population.
Like Americans, Europeans are experiencing a period of soul-searching about whether they are on the right track. The crisis over the Euro has undermined the confidence of many Dutch, Germans, and French -- not to mention Greeks and Italians -- in the benefits of a unified European economy. Yet in one, often overlooked, respect, the European project remains an extraordinary success. Even if the economy slips back into a full-scale recession, it is very difficult to imagine a resumption of the pogroms and strife that tore the continent apart just sixty years ago.
For all its faults, a unified Europe remains the best model for the squabbling nations of the former Yugoslavia. Eventual membership of the European Union has served as a powerful inducement to the governments of Serbia and Croatia to cooperate with the war crimes tribunal, and arrest and hand over suspects like the Bosnian Serb leaders Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, and the Croatian general, Ante Gotovina. The Hague and Amsterdam may seem a long way from Sarajevo and Zagreb and Belgrade -- but they are all part of the same continent.
This week, I am travelling to Sarajevo and Srebrenica, in an attempt to understand the "sources of evil." I will keep you posted.
Ratko Mladic has been described as "one of those lethal combinations that history thrusts up occasionally-a charismatic murderer." What drove the Bosnian Serb military commander to order Europe's deadliest massacre since World War II? Could it have been prevented? Michael Dobbs, a U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum fellow, investigates.