Using Srebrenica

The deafening din of propaganda surrounding the eastern Bosnian town of Srebrenica reached its crescendo Monday, on the 10th anniversary of its fall to Bosnian Serb troops during the 1992-95 war, as an ostentatious ceremony was held at the memorial site in nearby Potocari, with reportedly 50,000 people and dozens of domestic and international government officials in attendance. Media throughout the U.S. and Europe editorialized on the "genocide" that purportedly took place there (though in their view, this is an established and unchallengeable fact) and the need to provide "justice" by arresting the alleged culprits already tried in the court of public opinion.

Condemnations of all war crimes, including any that may have taken place in Srebrenica, by the Serbian government fell on deaf ears. President Boris Tadic, who went to the ceremony even though Muslims clearly did not want him there, did not even get a chance to yet again issue a futile apology; according to one Belgrade daily, he was relegated to the back of the official stand, where bodyguards shielded him from the angry Muslim mob.

Meanwhile, the Empire has used the furor over Srebrenica to obscure its accelerating machinations in occupied Kosovo, and to set the stage for a grand comeback of Clinton-era policies and policymakers to the region. They are using Srebrenica as a bloody shirt that would justify "finishing" the job they wanted to do back in the 1990s, while hoping to pave the way to a return of "neo-liberal" imperialism after the Age of Bush.

An Echo Chamber

The mainstream media coverage of the ceremony involved yet another round of repeating the already established lore: over "8,000 Muslim men and boys" were "slaughtered" by evil Serbs in July 1995, in what was the "greatest atrocity in Europe since World War Two." These phrases can be found in every report concerning Srebrenica. In Cold War days, that would have been considered proof of propaganda. Today, it is considered just proof; everyone important agrees, therefore it must be so.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the emotional features about "massacre survivors;" the Independent, the Guardian, and the Daily Telegraph all quoted one Mevludin Oric, a man related to the notorious Srebrenica warlord Naser Oric and a "professional survivor." In addition to giving scores of emotional interviews, Oric has also appeared as a witness at the Hague Inquisition. However, his story kept changing depending on whom he talked to and when.

There is little hope that anything can be learned about what actually took place in Srebrenica from these media reports. But much can be learned about the media themselves, and how they chose to cover the anniversary. The Guardian used the occasion to engage in more Natasa Kandic-worship, lagging somewhat behind its American counterparts. A Boston Globe editorial carried by the IHT on Tuesday went so far as to assert that "A video shown recently on Serb TV of Mladic at the scene of cold-blooded executions in Srebrenica." If they are referring to the snuff video from last month, it does not show Mladic, and the executions of six men take place nowhere near Srebrenica. But artistic license goes a long way when Serbs need demonizing. And the Christian Science Monitor, whose David Rohde became a celebrity reporter by peddling stories of a massacre in Srebrenica without a shred of evidence, pontificated that "The Balkans may not feel full peace until Serbs acknowledge this past" – meaning that Srebrenica was an "orchestrated crime… in a league by itself."

One anomaly was a Sunday Times article on fierce hatred between Muslims and Serbs in Srebrenica, which avoids most clichés and, surprisingly, mentions that the "genocide" victims actually belonged to a military column. At its end was a list of "facts" about Srebrenica, which unwittingly revealed all the absurdity of Official Truth. The numbers cited simply don’t add up.

Trapping the UN

Also interesting were the comments of two former UN officials, Alexander Ivanko and Edward Joseph. Ivanko mouthed off in the International Herald Tribune on how the UN failed in Srebrenica and shamefully appeased Serb aggression, making sure he called for some sort of permanent UN peacekeeping/intervention/intelligence bureaucracy to prevent such occurrences in the future.

Ed Joseph, who gained notoriety as International Crisis Group’s director in Macedonia, also ruminated on the UN’s failure in Srebrenica in Sunday’s Washington Post, focusing on the organization’s lack of "will to act to prevent the tragedy." He blames the UN for its unwillingness to condone a NATO military intervention, and argues that "a sense of guided outrage, of empathy for the victims of abuse" is necessary for proper decision-making. He unwittingly provides the perfect catch phrase for the product peddled by "advocacy journalists" during the Bosnian war, and later in Kosovo. "Guided outrage" is what Imperial propaganda is all about.

It is an accepted article of faith in the mainstream, as much as that Serbs were guilty of genocide, that Srebrenica was a failure of the UN that made it necessary for NATO to step in as a peacekeeping force. No one has pointed out that this perception was awfully convenient for people – such as Richard Holbrooke, for example – who wanted to assert U.S. power over both Europe and the UN

Bosnia was the perfect venue, and NATO the perfect tool; from the "no-fly zone" enacted in 1992 based on spurious charges against the Serbs, through the "safe areas" and air support, up to the "rapid reaction force" supposedly deployed to "protect" UN peacekeepers that turned into an intervention force as soon as NATO bombs started to fall, NATO has taken over the UN mission bit by bit. The ultimate humiliation of the UN was when its peacekeepers were simply transferred under NATO’s command, as part of the occupation force (IFOR). Srebrenica was the key to this, a breaking point when the UN could be accused of "inaction" and "lack of will." Washington, as everyone knows, is all about will – especially if it gets to bomb something.

Behind the Curtain

Meanwhile, as the media space is being carpet-bombed with declarations of Serbs as genocidal criminals, Washington is working on carving out the Serbian heartland as an ethnically pure Albanian state. Last week, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited the occupied Serbian province of Kosovo, where she was greeted as a hero by the ethnic Albanian Provisional Government. After an impassioned speech before the parliament, where she claimed she "shared Kosovo’s dream" of independence, Albright received a "Golden Medal of Freedom" from Ibrahim Rugova.

Albright’s visit was an indication of the direction in which Washington’s policy is headed. Nicholas Burns, her former spokesman, and now the undersecretary in charge of Bush II’s "new" Balkans policy, can claim all he wants that "any possible solution [for Kosovo] must be one that promotes regional stability and allows all minorities to live in a multiethnic society," but it is extremely unlikely that Burns, Albright, Holbrooke, Hill, and others who consider the intervention in Bosnia and Kosovo "a diplomatic triumph" would hang their Albanian protégés out to dry.

Confirmation that the UN is rolling over yet again came from the envoy charged to assess the situation in the province before "final status" talks later this year. Kai Eide, a Norwegian diplomat whose report on the March 2004 pogrom did absolutely nothing to prevent the complete abdication of decency on the part of the UN toward the non-Albanian communities in Kosovo, joined viceroy Jessen-Petersen in calling for Kosovo Serbs to participate in the institutions of provisional government. Eide knows all too well that the provisional government lacks legitimacy, and that Serb participation would provide it.

Albanians, for their part, are sending clear messages to both Serbs and the UN what will happen if they don’t get their way.

Imperial Metaphor

Finding out how many people actually died, and under what circumstances, in Srebrenica – or Bosnia and Kosovo in general – is absolutely irrelevant to the Empire, or the officially designated victims. The perception reinforced daily by repetitious propaganda serves to validate their political agendas and justify Imperial intervention in the Balkans. One could even argue that without Bosnia, without Srebrenica, there would be no American Empire as it is today, asserting the right to attack anyone, anywhere, on any pretext it sees fit. What goes without saying in today’s world politics would have been unimaginable just a decade ago. The Balkans made it so, much more than 9/11.

Unlike the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, which were justified by appeals to vengeance and fear, the Balkans interventions were pitched to appeal to Americans’ sense of moral superiority: Serbs were evil, the Muslims and Albanians good, but the effete Europeans were unable to recognize this; only when the courageous United States, the world’s foremost purveyor of moral clarity, stepped in with righteous violence the wars ended, the evildoers were punished, and the victims were given justice. This picture has been painted by countless hawks in Washington, including Albright and Richard Holbrooke, two key policymakers at the time. It was reiterated this past weekend by Nicholas Burns.

To make it stick, it was necessary to come up with overwhelming quantities of atrocity porn, painting the Serbs as evil incarnate. Events surrounding the fall of Srebrenica lent itself to hyperbole more than most, and were picked up accordingly. The reams of lies from the 1990s – "death camps" and "rape camps," or "250,000 dead" in Bosnia and "100,000 killed" Albanians in Kosovo – now gather dust, replaced by a one-note message of perfectly distilled hatred: Srebrenica, Srebrenica, Srebrenica, Srebrenica…

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.