Edward S. Herman: The Politics of the Srebrenica Massacre

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“Srebrenica” has become the symbol of evil, and specifically Serb evil. It is commonly described as “a horror without parallel in the history of Europe since the Second World War” in which there was a cold-blooded execution “of at least 8,000 Muslim men and boys.” [1] The events in question took place in or near the Bosnian town of Srebrenica between July 10 and 19, 1995, as the Bosnian Serb army (BSA) occupied that town and fought with and killed many Bosnian Muslims, unknown numbers dying in the fighting and by executions. There is no question but that there were executions, and that many Bosnian Muslim men died during the evacuation of Srebrenica and its aftermath. But even though only rarely discussed there is a major issue of how many were executed, as numerous bodies found in local grave sites were victims of fighting, and many Bosnian Muslim men who fled Srebrenica reached Bosnian Muslim territory safely. Some bodies were also those of the many Serbs killed in the forays by the Bosnian Muslims out of Srebrenica in the years before July 1995.

The Srebrenica massacre has played a special role in the politics of Western treatment of the restructuring of the former-Yugoslavia and in Western interventionism more broadly, and it is receiving renewed attention and memorialization at its tenth anniversary in July 2005. It is regularly cited as proof of Serb evil and genocidal intent and helped justify a focus on punishing the Serbs and Milosevic and NATO’s 1999 war on Serbia. It has also provided important moral support for the further Western wars of vengeance, power projection, and “liberation,” having shown that there is evil that the West can and must deal with forcibly.

However, there are three matters that should have raised serious questions about the massacre at the time and since, but didn’t and haven’t. One was that the massacre was extremely convenient to the political needs of the Clinton administration, the Bosnian Muslims, and the Croats (see Section 1 below). A second was that there had been (and were after Srebrenica) a series ofclaimed Serb atrocities, that were regularly brought forth at strategic moments when forcible intervention by the United States and NATO bloc was in the offing but needed some solid public relations support, but which were later shown to be fraudulent (Section 2). A third is that the evidence for a massacre, certainly ofone in which 8,000 men and boys were executed, has always been problematic, to say the least (Sections 3 and 4).

  1. Political Convenience

The events of Srebrenica and claims of a major massacre were extremely helpful to the Clinton administration, the Bosnian Muslim leadership, and Croatian authorities. Clinton was under political pressure in 1995 both from the media and from Bob Dole to take more forceful action in favor of the Bosnian Muslims, [2] and his administration was eager to find a justification for more aggressive policies. Clinton officials rushed to the Srebrenica scene to confirm and publicize the claims of a massacre, just as William Walker did later at Racak in January 1999. Walker’s immediate report to Madeleine Albright caused her to exult that “spring has come early this year.” [3] Srebrenica allowed the “fall to come early” for the Clinton administration in the summer of 1995.

Bosnian Muslim leaders had been struggling for several years to persuade the NATO powers to intervene more forcibly on their behalf, and there is strong evidence that they were prepared not only to lie but also to sacrifice their own citizens and soldiers to serve the end of inducing intervention (matters discussed further in Section 2). Bosnian Muslim officials have claimed that their leader, Alija Izetbegovic, told them that Clinton had advised him that U.S. intervention would only occur if the Serbs killed at least 5,000 at Srebrenica. [4] The abandonment of Srebrenica by a military force much larger than that of the attackers, and a retreat that made that larger force vulnerable and caused it to suffer heavy casualties in fighting and vengeance executions, helped produce numbers that would meet the Clinton criterion, by hook or by crook. There is other evidence that the retreat from Srebrenica was not based on any military necessity but was strategic, with the personnel losses incurred considered a necessary sacrifice for a larger purpose. [5]

Croatian authorities were also delighted with the claims of a Srebrenica massacre, as this deflected attention from their prior devastating ethnic cleansing of Serbs and Bosnian Muslims in Western Bosnia (almost entirely ignored by the Western media), [6] and it provided a cover for their already planned removal of several hundred thousand Serbs from the Krajina area in Croatia. This massive ethnic cleansing operation was carried out with U.S. approval and logistical support within a month of the Srebrenica events, and it may well have involved the killing of more Serb civilians than Bosnian Muslim civilians killed in the Srebrenica area in July: most of the Bosnian Muslim victims were fighters, not civilians, as the Bosnian Serbs bused the Srebrenica women and children to safety; the Croatians made no such provision and many women, children and old people were slaughtered in Krajina. [7] The ruthlessness of the Croats was impressive: “UN troops watched horrified as Croat soldiers dragged the bodies of dead Serbs along the road outside the UN compound and then pumped them full of rounds from the AK-47s. They then crushed the bullet-ridden bodies under the tracks of a tank.” [8] But this was hardly noticed in the wake of the indignation and propaganda generated around Srebrenica with the aid of the mainstream media, whose co-belligerency role in the Balkan wars was already well-entrenched. [9]

The International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia (ICTY) and UN also had an important role to play in the consolidation of the standard Srebrenica massacre narrative. From its inception the ICTY served as an arm of the NATO powers, who created it, funded it, served as its police arm and main information source, and expected and got responsive service from the organization. [10] The ICTY focused intensively on Srebrenica and provided important and nominally independent corroboration of the massacre claims along with citable “judicial” claims ofplanned “genocide.” The UN is less thoroughly integrated into NATO-power demands, but it is highly responsive and in the Srebrenica case it came through just as the United States and its main allies desired. [11]

This political interest in the Srebrenica massacre hardly proves that the establishment narrative is wrong. It does, however, suggest the need for caution and an awareness of the possibility of falsification and inflated claims. That awareness has been entirely absent from mainstream treatment of Srebrenica.

  1. The Serial Lying Before and After Srebrenica

At each stage in the dismantlement of Yugoslavia, its ethnic cleansing, and before and during the NATO war over the Kosovo province of Serbia in 1999, propaganda lies played a very important role in forwarding conflict and anti-Serb actions. There were lies of omission and lies that directly conveyed false impressions and information. An important form of lie of omission was the regular presentation of Serb misbehavior as unique to the Serbs, not also characteristic of the behavior of the Muslims and Croatians or of the conflict overall. In case after case the media would report on Serb attacks and atrocities, having neglected to report the prior assaults on Serbs in those same towns and making the Serb behavior seem like unprovoked acts of aggression and barbarity.

This was evident from the very start of the serious fighting in 1991 in the republic of Croatia. In their treatment of the Eastern Croatian city of Vukovar, for example, the media (and ICTY) focused exclusively on the federal Yugoslav army’s capture of the town in the fall of 1991, completely ignoring the prior spring and summer’s slaughter by Croatian National Guard troops and paramilitaries of hundreds of ethnic Serbs who had lived in the Vukovar area. According to Raymond K. Kent, “a substantial Serb population in the major Slavonian city of Vukovar disappeared without having fled, leaving traces of torture in the old Austrian the spring catacombs under the city along with evidence of murder and rape. The Western media, whose demonization of the Serbs was well underway, chose to overlook these events…” [12] This selective and misleading focus was standard media and ICTY practice.

Lies of omission were also clear in the attention given Bosnian Serb prison camps like Omarska, which the media focused on intensively and with indignation, when in fact the Muslims and Croats had very similar prison camps—at Celebici, Tarcin, Livno, Bradina, Odzak, and in the Zetra camp in Sarajevo, among other sites—[13] with roughly comparable numbers, facilities, and certainly no worse treatment of prisoners; [14] but in contrast with the Serbs, the Muslims and Croats hired competent PR firms and refused permission to inspect their facilities—and the already well-developed structure of bias made the media little interested in any but Serb camps.

Wild allegations of Auschwitz-like conditions in Serb “concentration camps” were spread by “journalists of attachment” who lapped up propaganda handouts by Muslim and Croat officials and PR hirlings. Roy Gutman, who won a Pulitzer prize jointly with John Burns for Bosnia reporting in 1993, depended heavily on Croat and Muslim officials and witnesses with suspect credentials and implausible claims, and he was a major source of inflated, one-sided, and false “concentration camp” propaganda. [15] John Burns’ Pulitzer award was based on an extended interview with Boris Herak, a captured Bosnian Serb supplied to him and a Soros-funded film-maker by the Bosnian Muslims. Several years later Herak admitted that his extremely implausible confession had been coerced and that he had been forced to memorize many pages of lies. Two of his alleged victims also turned up alive in later years. In reporting on Herak, John Burns and the New York Times (and the Soros-funded film) suppressed the credibility-damaging fact that Herak had also accused former UNPROFOR commandant, Canadian General Lewis Mackenzie, of having raped young Muslim women at a Serb-run bordello. [16]These scandalous awards are symptomatic ofthe media bias that was already overwhelming in 1992 and 1993.

In a recent development of interest, on a visit to the dying Alija Izetbegovic, Bernard Kouchner asked him about the Bosnian Serb concentration camps, whereupon Izetbegovic, surprisingly, admitted that these claims had been inflated with the aim of getting NATO to bomb the Serbs. [17] This important confession has not been mentioned in the U.S. or British mainstream media.

One of the most important propaganda lies of the 1990s featured the Serb-run Trnopolje camp, visited by Britain’s ITN reporters in August 1992. These reporters photographedthe resident Fikret Alic, showing him emaciated and seemingly inside a concentration camp fence. In fact,Fikret Alic was in a transit camp, was a sick man (and was sick wit