Lessons of Forgotten Wars

This column has claimed before, not so long ago, that what happened in the Balkans had significant implications for events elsewhere in the world. From the International Criminal Court based on the Hague Inquisition, to advocates of overt imperialism emboldened by the "success" of Balkans interventions, waves generated by Yugoslavia’s violent implosion are reaching the farthest shores – sometimes as a slow, steady tide, sometimes as a tsunami.

"Dr. Massacre" Returns

One such example is the recent appointment of a Finnish pathologist, Dr. Helena Ranta, to the UN team that is supposed to investigate the allegations of a massacre in Jenin. Dr. Ranta played a major role in fabricating the "massacre" in Racak, which served as a pretext for NATO’s aggression in Kosovo three years ago.

In February 1998, a battle between Serbian police and Albanian separatists in Racak was witnessed by OSCE monitors and an AP television crew, who traced the police force’s every step. Dr. Ranta’s team of forensic pathologists, which conducted an investigation at the behest of NATO, claimed the Albanians killed in the battle were really victims of a massacre by Serb forces – just as US diplomat William Walker and the Albanian KLA had accused. Soon thereafter, NATO attacked Serbia.

Yet the full report of Dr. Ranta’s team was not released until two years after the war, in 2001. It parroted the claims of NATO, the Hague Inquisition and Ambassador Walker, but most of its contentions have been roundly refuted. That is definitely something to keep in mind if and when Dr. Ranta ever reaches Jenin.

Recipes For Success – Or Disaster?

Perfected in the course of the 1990s Balkans wars,
claims of atrocities, mass rape, siege of civilians, ethnic cleansing and genocide have all been used as weapons of war ever since, with considerable success. (Since Black Tuesday, they were joined by an all-encompassing excuse of "fighting terrorism," but the verdict is still out on whether that will prove as effective.) It is forgotten, though, that many such easy victories turned out to be recipes for disaster, or at least fell considerably short of their intended goals.

Two such events, whose anniversaries occurred this week, are perfect examples of policy decisions which helped shape the Balkans tragedy of the past decade, and proved less than welcome for their initiators. Now largely forgotten, they were crucial developments in the wars in Croatia and Bosnia.

Croatia’s Blitzkrieg: A Devil’s Bargain

On May 1, 1995, Croatian forces launched a blitzkrieg operation (codenamed "Blitz," no less) against the UN-protected Serb area of Western Slavonia. It turned out to be a general rehearsal for the attack (codenamed "Storm") that would destroy virtually all Serb presence in Croatia a few months thereafter.

Overwhelming Croatian forces – tanks, air force and infantry – rolled over the surprised Serbs and the UN monitors with ease, facing only token resistance. Within 24 hours, Operation Blitz was over and Western Slavonia was in Croat hands. Its Serb inhabitants sought refuge across the Sava river, in Bosnia.

Tactics used in Blitz were very different from anything the Croatians had used before. Soon it became obvious that stories of American advisors training Croatian troops were no mere rumors. MPRI, a Virginia-based mercenary outfit that works for the US government, admitted involvement but claimed to have been instructing the Croatian military about democracy.

What was meant by that became evident by late July, when the Croatian Army launched an all-out assault on Serb-inhabited areas, brushing aside the UN and killing hundreds. Official reports spoke of 250,000 civilians fleeing for their lives into Bosnia and Serbia, some of them shelled and strafed as they trudged along the roads. Here and there, reports of Croatian atrocities managed to get through. But they were drowned in the din of propaganda about Serb atrocities, and claims of "Serb aggression" against their own homes.

Franjo Tudjman’s regime thus managed to realize the dream of a Serbenfrei Croatia, something even the fascist regime of Ante Pavelic failed to do in World War Two, and not for the lack of trying. Ethnic cleansing and genocide were proven possible, if one had the right patrons. But everything comes with a price…

In 2000, after Tudjman’s death, the Hague Inquisition charged several Croatian generals with war crimes – some in relation to Operation Storm – in an effort to boost its credibility and "impartiality" in preparation for demanding the surrender of indicted Serbs. Croatian masses were furious, but the government welcomed a chance to purge Tudjman loyalists from the military and score points with the Empire.

Perhaps believing Croatia could hold the Empire to its end of the bargain, the attorney representing Croatia’s former top general at the Hague Inquisition recently said the US shared the blame for any crimes in Operation Storm. The Inquisition, as expected, brushed off the accusation and furthermore claimed there was no evidence of US involvement – as shocking a blatant lie as any in its history. They should have but read the memoirs of US envoy Richard Holbrooke (To End A War), where he openly calls Croatians America’s "junkyard dogs," hired to do Empire’s dirty work in the Balkans.

Both the attorney and many in Croatia seem to have forgotten that there can be no bargaining with the Empire; it cannot be held to a contract, as it has the global monopoly on coercion. Worst of all, this latest misfortune cannot be blamed on Serbs. There aren’t any left to speak of.

Decision at Dobrovoljacka Street

On May 2, 1992, the war in Bosnia took a fateful turn thanks to a decision by the Muslim leadership to escalate the conflict. For a month since Bosnia was recognized as an independent state, following an unconstitutional referendum, Serb and Muslim militias had skirmished throughout the republic, staking claims on towns and villages – often in blood. Serb militias blockaded approaches to Sarajevo, while the disintegrating Yugoslav Army was pulling out all personnel native to Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia, while skirmishing with Croatian troops that entered Bosnia from the north and south.

About that time, Macedonian leaders negotiated the Army’s withdrawal from their republic and declared independence without firing a shot. Alija Izetbegovic, chairman of Bosnia’s presidency and self-styled "President of Bosnia" as the Presidency lapsed into dysfunction, made the same arrangement. Then he changed his mind.

As Izetbegovic’s militia blockaded Army bases in several Bosnian cities, he landed at the Sarajevo airport and was detained by military police. Army commanders agreed to release him, in exchange for the safe passage of their troops trapped inside Sarajevo. The arrangement was mediated by the ranking UN officer on the ground, Canadian Major-General Lewis MacKenzie, and the account of the events was well-detailed in his memoirs (Peacekeeper: The Road To Sarajevo).

Izetbegovic rode in one of the Canadian armored vehicles as they escorted the Army convoy out of the city. They were stopped at a roadblock in Dobrovoljacka Street, manned by militiamen loyal to Izetbegovic but taking orders from his deputy, Ejup Ganic. With live TV coverage of the standoff, they demanded Izetbegovic’s release. As soon as that was done, the Army convoy – now detached from its UN escort – was ambushed. Several soldiers were killed, many captured. The militia were drunk with victory, but their joy was short-lived.

That evening, the Yugoslav Army in Bosnia ceased to exist. Angry at Izetbegovic’s betrayal, humiliated by the Muslims, and with most Serbian-born personnel already evacuated, it swore loyalty to the Bosnian Serb leadership. In retaliation for the attack on the convoy, the now Bosnian Serb Army sealed off Sarajevo and launched a three-day artillery barrage. The siege of Sarajevo had begun, the Bosnian War escalated, and the rest is history.

There are theories that Izetbegovic himself was innocent, and that his deputy was really behind the Dobrovoljacka ambush. Perhaps, but the decision to blockade the Army in the first place was Izetbegovic’s alone, and it abrogated the agreement he had signed in Macedonia.

Maybe he thought the Army would be as impotent as it was in Croatia the year before, when faced with blockades of its bases. Maybe he thought it would surrender its weapons, as it had done on several occasions in Croatia. Maybe he was hoping the international support he relied on for recognition would protect him from the Army’s wrath. He was wrong on all counts, and the people of Sarajevo – and the rest of Bosnia – paid the price.

A Crime of Ignorance

Unfortunately, few in the Balkans nowadays are capable of rationally analyzing the events of the past decade. The wounds are still fresh, the emotions still run high. Individuals, actions and policies are defended or attacked by fiat, not through serious argument.

Though the people of the Balkans themselves seem unwilling or unable to learn from their experiences, there is no reason for the rest of the world to ignore them. Both these policies and Empire’s subsequent interventions in the Balkans reveal patterns that can easily be replicated elsewhere. Given the manifestly tragic consequence of Yugoslavia’s wars of secession and succession, however distorted they might have been in the media, ignoring their lessons would not only be stupid – it would be a crime.

Author: Nebojsa Malic

Nebojsa Malic left his home in Bosnia after the Dayton Accords and currently resides in the United States. During the Bosnian War he had exposure to diplomatic and media affairs in Sarajevo. As a historian who specializes in international relations and the Balkans, Malic has written numerous essays on the Kosovo War, Bosnia, and Serbian politics. His exclusive column for Antiwar.com debuted in November 2000.