Srebrenica Revisited

Following the publication of a 42-page report by the Srebrenica Commission of the Bosnian Serb government, media around the world carried a variation of this headline on Friday, June 11: “Bosnian Serbs Admit Srebrenica Massacre!” Many saw this as the final and incontrovertible proof that what happened in Srebrenica in July 1995 was a planned, systematic genocide of Bosnian Muslims – just as Sarajevo, the Western press and the Hague Inquisition have asserted all along.

As with so many things concerning the Balkans, the media was wrong yet again. The “June 11 Report” was a sham, a coerced confession with a Stalinist flavor. It was a result of viceroy Ashdown’s personal fixation, and in great part simply repeated the unproven assertions of the Hague Inquisition. The only tangible good it produced was the existence of several previously unknown graves with bodies of the Srebrenica dead. It did not, however, cast a new light on the events of July 1995 – only on those today who continue to wave them about like a bloody shirt.

There They Go Again

Here are the opening lines of a BBC news story on June 11, typical of the general tone of reporting about the Commission’s “findings”:

“An official Bosnian Serb investigation into the Srebrenica events of July 1995 has found that several thousand Muslims were murdered by local Serb forces.

“It is the first time the Bosnian Serb authorities have admitted the killings which The Hague war crimes tribunal has declared an act of genocide.”

Framed this way, it sounds straightforward: many Muslims were killed; this was ruled to be genocide; Serbs confessed; end of story – which is doubtless the way viceroy Ashdown had in mind when he established the Commission and ordered it to produce a conclusion he would accept, “or else.” What any of that has to do with truth is an entirely different matter.

The full text of the report is not widely available yet. Though substantial excerpts were published by regional media, the Western press remained content to offer its own interpretation, mostly along the lines of the above-mentioned BBC story. One notable exception is Nicholas Wood of the New York Times, who provides the most meaningful quote from the report:

“[S]everal thousand [Bosnian Muslims] were liquidated in a manner which represents a heavy violation of international human rights.”

This is clearly an admission that Serb forces executed POWs, something the Serbs never really contested. It is not an admission of genocide, or even a confirmation of the infamous number of “8,000.” Those who have trumpeted both over the past ten years obviously didn’t consider in their interest to note the distinction – but it was there, nonetheless.

Ashdown’s Private War

Crucial for understanding the June 11 report is the role Bosnia’s viceroy Paddy Ashdown played in its creation. Namely, the Commission was established by Ashdown in October 2003, after the Serb Republic was forced to fund the building of a Muslim “genocide memorial” in Potocari. The memorial was opened by Bill Clinton last September, prompting a rehash of all the propaganda about Srebrenica. A month later, Ashdown gave the eulogy at the funeral of Muslim leader Alija Izetbegovic, making no secret of his sympathies in Bosnia.

In April this year, Ashdown vented his anger at the Commission’s apparent inability to follow simple orders and sacked the Bosnian Serbs’ top general as well as one of the key Commission members, Dejan Miletic. However, Ashdown’s vendetta ruffled the wrong feathers.

According to a Washington-based intelligence newsletter, Defense and Foreign Affairs, SFOR officials intervened, claiming that the sacking of Miletic “dealt a major blow to counter-terrorism intelligence in Bosnia-Herzegovina at a critical time.” As a result, Miletic’s dismissal was reversed, and he was in fact promoted – the first time anything like that happened to anyone proscribed by the viceroy. Commenting on the affair to DFA, one SFOR official said:

“[Ashdown’s] only concern is to protect his own reputation and his old Muslim friends who have turned out to be radical Islamists and not the democratic moderates he thought them to be.”

Ashdown ended up getting his “Srebrenica confession,” but he already had a new demand in store: arrest Radovan Karadzic! And while the bumbling Serb officials try to appease him but complain that Karadzic is awfully hard to find (after all, NATO occupation troops have failed to seize him for over eight years), Ashdown is already scheming to use this impossible demand as an excuse to further centralize Bosnia. News from Sarajevo is that Izetbegovic’s heir Sulejman Tihic is demanding the abolition of the Serb Republic altogether.

Echoes of Inquisition

Because of Ashdown, it was virtually impossible for the Commission to produce an objective report. They went a step further, though, and simply copied crucial sections from the Hague Inquisition. Here is a quote from the report, printed in the Belgrade daily Vecernje Novosti on June 12:

“Because of time limitations, and to rationalize the proceedings, the Commission copied the historical context and statement of facts contained in the verdict ‘Prosecution vs. Radislav Krstic,’ in which the accused was convicted by the Appeals chamber of the Hague Tribunal of aiding and abetting genocide committed in Srebrenica.”

There is a major problem with the “facts” from the April 28, 2004 Krstic judgment, hailed as “historic” by the pro-Tribunal press. Even a cursory analysis reveals that Krstic was never given a fair trial, and that the judgment was based on assumptions that were (among other things) self-contradictory. Furthermore, the verdict “established” genocide in Srebrenica through subterfuge: not only was the concept of genocide defined so loosely it could encompass just about any number of people, but:

“[N]o evidence was presented to substantiate the prosecutor’s claims that between 7,000 and 8,000 Muslim men were ever executed in the first place. The failure of Krstic’s defense team to adequately contest that assertion doesn’t by any means prove that it’s true.”

It would be interesting to compare the Krstic verdict with the text of the June 11 report, and see how much of it was actually original…

Unfinished Work

In late 2002, eminent Balkans scholar Alex Dragnich wrote a roundup of various reports on Srebrenica in the South Slav Journal, warning that “before we can have a final verdict on Srebrenica, a great deal of arduous work remains to be done.” Dragnich argues that a “steady beat” of propaganda has drowned out actual research on the subject.

There are certainly many unknowns about Srebrenica that are still to be addressed. The Dutch have done some in-depth work concerning the presence of their peacekeepers; their 2002 report treats the allegation that Serbs massacred Muslims as established fact, but it is otherwise solid. One of the major issues they raise is the incongruity of having a “safe area” that has never been demilitarized, and is indeed home to an entire division of the Bosnian Muslim army.

How is it that nearly all commanders of the 28th Division were evacuated by the Sarajevo government prior to July 1995? Who decided to conduct a fighting retreat to Tuzla, instead of surrendering and hoping for an exchange? Why was the Second Corps of the Bosnian [Muslim] Army sitting idle, when it could have at least launched a spoiling attack? Did Izetbegovic purposefully let Srebrenica fall and its people suffer, to score propaganda points? These are the questions asked by several Bosnian weeklies and a few politicians, as well as war veterans.

There are other questions no one is asking. What of the Srebrenica Serbs, ethnically cleansed in 1992? What of the great Muslim offensive that collapsed in April 1993? What about Naser Oric’s videotaped atrocities? One report that tried to put Srebrenica in the wider context of the war, published in September 2002 by a Bosnian Serb commission, was harshly denounced by both Muslims and Ashdown. There has yet to be another.

So, What Happened?

It has been established beyond reasonable doubt that a number of Bosnian Muslims died in July 1995, between Srebrenica and Tuzla. But while most media conjure images of unarmed civilians lined up and shot or slaughtered, most of the dead belonged to the 28th Division of the BH Army, and were therefore not civilians. While there are civilians among the bodies exhumed and identified so far, they were among those who chose to join the 28th in its ill-fated fighting retreat. According to most sources, anywhere between four and six thousand people made it to Tuzla; others fell prey to firefights, artillery, landmines, exhaustion and starvation (it’s a 50-mile hike over bad terrain) – and yes, some were captured and executed by the Bosnian Serbs, Malmedy-style. The real question is, how many? Forensic experts examining the exhumed bodies should be able to determine the cause of death easily – yet their voice has been conspicuously absent.

Bosnian Serbs never denied that their forces killed many Srebrenica Muslims; indeed, they’ve admitted killing several thousand in combat. What they have always contested – and still do, even in the June 11 report (though not explicitly) – was the allegation that they massacred some 8,000-plus unarmed civilians, and with genocidal intent at that.

So far, the accusation of genocide relies on assertions and conjectures of the Sarajevo government and the ICTY prosecution. Such a serious charge demands strong and overwhelming evidence, and there simply isn’t any. If there were, would Ashdown have tried to extort a confession?

Though issues of the victims’ identity (POW or civilian) and the manner of death are entirely legitimate, quibbling about whether 14-year-olds were combatants is simply in bad taste. Fact is, thousands of families suffered a grievous loss, and that tragedy is being cruelly manipulated to achieve political ends. Truth may be the first casualty of war, but these people are very real victims, too. Not that the list stops there.

Muslims, believing themselves the virtuous victims of “aggression” and “genocide,” find themselves blinded to Izetbegovic’s hateful ideology of domination that tore Bosnia apart. Serbs, targeted by propaganda of unprecedented proportions accusing them of Nazi-like evil, refuse to acknowledge any of the atrocities they may have actually committed, rightly afraid it would be considered an admission of the fabrications as well. The population of the Empire, deluded by lies of their governments and media to believe in “humanitarian” and other interventions, increasingly lose their lives, liberty and property as Bosnia has led to Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, and God knows where else. All victims: of war and politics.

The only truth about Srebrenica that no one can contest is that war is a crime against humanity. Trying to present such state-organized murder as a fight against “evil” by putting enemies on trial for “war crimes” is simply an attempt to mask that fact.

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 debuted in November 2000.