Serbia: Setting the Record Straight
As this year is the twentieth anniversary of the attack on Sarajevo, interest in the events of the breakup of Yugoslavia has been revived. This article sheds a fresh perspective on these events.
SERBIA: SETTING THE RECORD STRAIGHT
Colin C M Campbell, PhD
May 21, 2012
This year is the twentieth anniversary of the siege of Sarajevo. This and the recent release of Angelina Jolie’s movie, In the Land of Blood and Honey, set during the war in Bosnia, have reactivated three of the standard myths, associated with the collapse of the former Yugoslavia. They are, first, that the breakup was caused by Serb nationalism and its leader, Slobodan Milosevic; second, that the Serbs employed a policy of ethnic cleansing, using concentration camps, rape and genocide in the pursuit of their goals; and, third, a 79-day bombing of Serbia was necessary to force Milosevic to surrender. None of these statements is true. The myth-busting truth is that, first: the Yugoslav wars were not the result of a Serb expansionistic nationalism; second: ethnic cleansing against their Serb neighbours was carried out by Albanians in Kosovo, nationalists in Croatia and Islamists in Bosnia; and third: the NATO bombing of Serbia was the result of well-publicized hoaxes and a public relations campaign to sell NATO intervention in the conflict.
The first falsehood is that the Serbs were waging a war of expansionism. Western news media routinely characterized the Yugoslav army’s attempts to restore order in the country as being carried out on the “pretext” of protecting the Serbs, whose Albanian, Croat and Muslim neighbours were willing to live with them peacefully. It is true that Tito’s policy of “Brotherhood and Unity’ reduced ethnic friction and created prosperity and political unity. However, there were centrifugal pressures, which exposed the Serbs, after Tito’s death in 1980, to harsh discrimination in Kosovo, Croatia and Bosnia. This discrimination was real. The Yugoslav federal government intervened to deal with this real threat and restore public order. It was not a “pretext” for anything else.
The second falsehood is that ethnic cleansing was distinctively Serbian. It was first employed by the Croats against the Serbs in WWII, when Croatia chose to ally itself with Nazi Germany. The Serbs, who could have appeased Hitler by remaining neutral, chose to ally themselves with the British Commonwealth (and, therefore, Canada), a decision for which they paid a terrible price. The Croatian Ustashe murdered 600,000 Serbs in their concentration camp at Jasenovac, in ways which horrified even the Germans, who prided themselves on using, in their minds, the more humane method of zyklon-B gas. The official policy towards the Serbs was: kill one third; drive out one third; and convert one third (to Roman Catholicism). In 1995, the remaining Serbs were finally expelled from Croatia, or killed.
Similar threats applied to Serbs living in their own province of Kosovo and in the Yugoslav republic of Bosnia. During WWII, Mussolini united Kosovo with Albania, encouraging the Albanian Pritzren League’s desire for an ethnically pure, Greater Albania. The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem visited Bosnia and encouraged the Muslims to support Nazi Germany. Both Albanians in Kosovo and Muslims in Bosnia raised regiments for the Handzar and Skenderbeg divisions of the Waffen SS. After WWII, discrimination against the Serbs in Kosovo resulted in their mass emigration, followed by ethnic cleansing, a process which now has been almost completed.
Finally, during the Bosnian war the Muslim military leader, Brigadier Naser Oric, over three years, performed ethnic cleansing of Serbs in the area surrounding Srebrenica, in eastern Bosnia. In the light of this cumulative evidence, all of which can be verified by anyone who takes the trouble, to label the Serbs as Nazis, embarking on a policy of lebensraum is ludicrous. However, that was not the way in which our press reported the events.
The third falsehood was that Slobodan Milosevic, dubbed the “Butcher of the Balkans,” could only be brought to heel by a 79-day bombing campaign, in which such non-military targets as schools, hospitals and churches were destroyed. NATO even managed to take out the Chinese embassy. (After all, China supported the Serbs.) The fact that no tears were shed over collateral damage was due to a well-publicized public relations campaign by Ruder-Finn, a US public relations company, employed by the governments of Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo. The question to be answered is: What really happened and what was the result of spin imposed on the facts? Answering this question is the purpose of this article.
The story begins in Kosovo. On Monday, April 20, 1987, Slobodan Milosevic, addressed the Kosovo Serbs. He had been sent by Serbia’s president, Ivan Stambolic, to quell Serbian unrest in the province. Milosevic attempted to do this, chiding the Serbs and reminding them of Yugoslavia’s policy of “Brotherhood and Unity.” When the Serbs requested an opportunity to express their grievances, Milosevic agreed to meet them in four days time. While the meeting was in progress, a fight broke out between the police and the demonstrators. Milosevic went out to address the crowd and, in a fit of impulsive compassion, promised, “You will never be beaten again!”
Stambolic and the Yugoslav federalists were outraged at this departure from party policy and the two men, once firm friends, became political opponents. This eventually resulted in Milosevic replacing Stambolic at the 8th Session of the Serbian Communist Party, on September 22, 1987. Milosevic then sought to restore minority rights in Kosovo by changing the Yugoslav constitution, a process that alarmed the leader of Slovenia, Milan Kucan. At the 14th Yugoslav Party Congress, held between January 20 and 22, 1990, the Slovenian delegation walked out, followed by the Croats. Milosevic was visibly shaken and later commented that he dated the breakup of Yugoslavia from this event. The apparatus of the Yugoslav federal state remained intact but the defection of two of its republics created an opportunity for nationalist extremists in Croatia, led by Franjo Tudjman, to seize power. Tudjman’s campaign was well-financed by the Croatian diaspora ( ex-Ustashe who fled justice afte r WWII) and was covertly encouraged by their wartime ally, Germany. One of the main fundraisers was a naturalized Canadian, Goyko Susak, who lived in Ottawa and ran a pizza shop, before becoming Croatia’s defence minister.
The majority of Croatia’s Serbs lived in the Krajina, an arc of land that hugged Croatia’s eastern boundary with Bosnia. They had lived there for 500 years. Soon after Tudjman’s victory, thousands of Serbs were fired from their jobs and harassed. Within months, over one hundred thousand left for refuge in Serbia. A flashpoint occurred when the Krajina Serb police in Knin refused to wear the Ustashe checkerboard badge, equivalent to asking an Israeli policeman to sport a swastika. Goyko Susak then ordered three helicopters, carrying Special Forces personnel to proceed to Knin. The Yugoslav government intervened by sending MIG jets, with orders to shoot down the helicopters, if they did not return to Zagreb. The helicopters pulled back but the message was not lost on Susak and he began to purchase weapons from arms dealers.
During the run up to the war, one of the early incidents was a mortar attack by the Croats on Borovo Selo, a Serb suburb of Vukovar. It was witnessed by the police chief, Josef Kir, a Croat and a man respected for his integrity and even-handedness towards both Serbs and Croats. Susak found Kir to be an inconvenience and, on his orders, a Croat policeman emptied the magazine of his Kalashnikov into Kir’s car. Kir took 16 bullets to the chest. His wife commented, “That was his reward for all his work and effort.” The Vukovar Serbs appealed to the federal government for help and a 20-mile long column of heavy artillery rumbled towards Vukovar. The war was about to begin.
As the siege of Vukovar continued, both the US and EU became increasingly concerned. James Baker, the US Secretary of State, met with the leaders of Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia and, on June 21, 1991, he stressed that America strongly opposed the breakup of the country. Both Slovenia and Croatia went ahead, however, and, four days later, on June 25, 1991, they declared their independence. On September 7, 1991, Tudjman and Milosevic met with EU representatives in Luxembourg, each blaming the other. Milosevic blamed the Croats for leaving the federal republic without negotiation. Tudjman blamed Milosevic for trying to change the Yugoslav constitution. Peter Carrington, the British Foreign Minister, said that, several times, Milosevic stated that he would agree to secession, if Serb minority rights were secured.
Vukovar finally fell on November 18, 1991, and on December 17, Germany announced that they would unilaterally recognize the independence of their wartime friends. The Germans had been lobbying for this for some time and the fall of Vukovar had given them the excuse that they needed. Germany did this knowing that peace negotiations were taking place under the leadership of Peter Carrington, the EU representative, and Cyrus Vance, the UN Special Envoy. Both of them were furious with Germany’s interference. Carrington pointed out that it would be impossible to give the right to Croatia to secede, without according the same right to Bosnia, and that if you did that, there would be a bloody civil war. Events proved him right.
EU recognition followed a few days later and it became clear, over the next few weeks, that the US was about to reverse the earlier position, expressed by Secretary of State Baker. In 1990, the Berlin Wall had fallen and the US favoured the integration of the countries of Eastern Europe into Western Europe’s economic and political structures. German support was key to accomplishing this, due to its economic power and strategic position at the heart of Europe. As a consequence, the US quickly adopted the German view of the Yugoslav conflict and the US ambassador to Germany, Richard Holbrooke, expressed America’s new-found disfavour with the words, ” The Serbs started this war. The Serbs are the original cause of the war.” Holbrooke’s prejudice stuck with him. It was he, who strong-armed the Serbs, in 1995, to “negotiate” away their land and sign the Dayton Peace Accord. Meanwhile, in January 1992, Cyrus Vance persuaded the Croats and S erbs to sign a ceasefire. The Croats needed some time to build up their armed forces and the Yugoslav army had secured the Serb areas in Croatia; so both signed. UN peacekeepers, including the 2nd Battalion of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry, were sent to monitor the ceasefire. In September 1993, the Croats broke the ceasefire and attacked the Medak Pocket, defended by the Princess Pats. Unlike most UN peacekeepers who melted away at the first sign of trouble, the Princess Pats stood their ground and drove off the Croats forces in order to protect the Serb villages. Their commanding officer, Col Jim Calvin, is a true Canadian hero, yet few of us have heard of him or his battalion.
Carrington and Vance’s misgivings that Bosnia would follow Croatia’s lead came to pass on March 3, 1992, when the Islamist party of Alija Izetbegovic declared Bosnia’s independence. Because of their memory of the 500 year long, brutal occupation by the Muslims, the Serbs withdrew from the government in Sarajevo and set up their own government in Pale. To try to prevent Bosnia from sliding into civil war, the EU held a peace conference in Lisbon. The representatives of all three of Bosnia’s ethnic communities, all signed the Lisbon Agreement: Tudjman for the Croats, Milosevic for the Serbs; and Izetbegovic for the Muslims. The Agreement was signed on March 18, 1992. Ten days later, on the advice of Warren Zimmermann, the US ambassador to Yugoslavia, Izetbegovic reneged. Once again, just as in the attack on the Medak Pocket, the Serbs adhered to the peace agreement and their enemies did not. These facts are all in the public domain and can be checked out . It is absurd, therefore, to label the Serbs as the aggressors in the Yugoslav wars.
The civil war in Bosnia began shortly after the failure of the Lisbon Agreement, and the Bosnian Serb army began to defend the Serb suburbs of Sarajevo and to shell the Muslim areas. This received wide coverage in the Western press. Faced with the Serbs’ overwhelming military advantage, the Muslims responded with the tactics of hoax, propaganda and illegal arms drops.
The least savoury of the hoaxes were three attacks on their own people in Sarajevo’s market: the first on May 27, 1992, in which 16 people were killed; the second on February 5, 1995, in which 68 were killed and 144 wounded; and the third on August 8, 1995, in which 37 were killed and 90 wounded. The Muslims asserted that, in each attack, a mortar shell had been fired from the Serb lines, causing the carnage. Evidence against this accusation included the facts that: the trajectory of the shells did not support this conclusion; the depth of the “shell” hole was inconsistent with a mortar; a single mortar was unlikely to be able to kill 68 people; and, since most of the injuries were to the legs, the attack was more likely to have been the result of a planted explosive device, detonated remotely.
While it is not possible to prove that these incidents were hoaxes, it is significant that all of them occurred immediately prior to a significant international meeting and the result was always contrary to Serb interests. The May 1992 incident immediately led to crippling sanctions by the UN against Yugoslavia. The February 1994 incident led to the bombing of the Bosnian Serb army; and the incident of August 8, 1995 created, in the minds of the American public, wild enthusiasm for further bombing.
Fortunately, not all the UN peacekeepers were taken in by the hoaxes. For example, when Muslim forces, entrenched in Gorazde, began to ethnically cleanse the surrounding Serb villages, the Serbs attacked back. The press releases, supplied to reporters by Sarajevo, portrayed this as an unprovoked act of typical Serb aggression and NATO air strikes were authorized. Realizing that he was being manipulated, the UN commander, Michael Rose, called off the air strikes. When he was confronted by an outraged reporter who pointed out that every house in Gorazde had been shelled, Rose replied, “That is quite true. The damage was done two years ago, when the 12,500 Serbs, living in Gorazde were all driven out.”
One of the most successful hoaxes perpetrated against the Serbs was the charge that they were running concentration camps in Bosnia. The famous concentration camp picture taken by British reporter, Penny Marshall, was later revealed to be the product of carefully staged camera angles. A moment’s reflection reveals the claim’s absurdity. Penny Marshall asked us to believe that the Serbs ran concentration camps and invited British camera crews to film them. Were the Serbs complete idiots? Meanwhile, the damage had been done. Richard Harff of the public relations firm Ruder-Finn boasted how he had used the picture to manipulate American public opinion. He said, “The situation was complicated. Most Americans were asking themselves in what part of Africa Bosnia was situated. We were able to equate the Serbs to Nazis in the public mind. We had a job to do and we did it. We are not paid to moralize.”
Thanks to the success of the propaganda, Western press reports were totally distorted. Not reported was the ethnic cleansing of Serb villages, surrounding Muslim-held enclaves. The Muslims were armed with weapons, usually from Iran, dropped from US Hercules C-130 aircraft. The most virulent aggressor was Brigadier Naser Oric, who operated from the Muslim enclave of Srebrenica. Over a three-year period, Oric used the policy of ethnic cleansing to destroy 50 villages and torture and kill 1,300 Serbs. He filmed his atrocities, parading them before Bill Schiller of the Toronto Star, who later spoke of them as “Naser Oric’s Greatest Hits!” Naturally, the Serbs counter-attacked the Muslim-held enclaves.
By April 1993, the attacks and counter-attacks had become a nightmare for the civilian population and the Muslim general, Sefir Halilovic, and the Serb general, Ratko Mladic, accepted a UN plan to set up demilitarized zones for the protection of refugees, to be monitored by UN peacekeepers. At the same time, in September 1993, the EU negotiator, David Owen, and the UN negotiator, Towald Stoltenburg, met with the warring parties aboard HMS Invincible and were able to achieve a peace agreement. Bosnia would remain unified but contain three mini-states: a Serb entity with 52% of the country; a Muslim one with 30%; and a Croat one with 18%. To the deep disappointment of everyone, the Americans found the agreement to be unacceptable. Bill Clinton, a victim of his own anti-Serb propaganda, felt that the agreement “would reward aggression.” Ironically, this division of Bosnia corresponded almost exactly to the the one in the 1995 Dayton Peace Accord. If the Owen-Stoltenb urg Plan had been accepted in 1993, the country would have been spared an immense amount of suffering. And so, the war continued.
Srebrenica was one of the zones that was supposed to have been demilitarized. Refugees streamed there, believing that it was a safe area. It was not. Naser Oric, with a force of 4,500 soldiers continued to attack the surrounding Serb villages and top secret weapon drops, in the NATO-controlled airspace continued to supply them, despite the protests of the Bosnian Serbs. Finally, the Serbs had had enough and decided to take Srebrenica.
Recognizing that Srebrenica could not be successfully defended, Izetbegovic decided to turn the situation to his advantage. He summoned the Srebrenica police chief, Hakija Meholjic, to Sarajevo. Hakija later testified that Clinton had informed Izetbegovic that, if there were about 5,000 civilians killed by the Serbs, then American moral outrage would be sufficiently great for him to be able to authorize air strikes against them. Meholjic was very scrupulous, saying, “I do not know if Clinton said this but that is what Izetbegovic told me.”
On July 11, 1995, General Ratko Mladic led an attacking force of 4 tanks and 4,000 men into an undefended Srebrenica. There were 500 more Dutch peacekeepers than Serb soldiers. Naser Oric and the Muslim high command had been ordered out so that the town would fall, leaving 15,000 Bosnian Muslim soldiers to fend for themselves. At midnight on the same day, they fled making a run for the surrounding Muslim territory. The Serbs bused the women and children to safety and then pursued the fleeing Muslim army, in what to them was a regular military operation. No doubt, there were summary executions of Oric’s war criminals, perhaps without sufficient evidence. What is certain is that it was not genocide, as has been (and still is being) claimed. Nor did 8,000 innocent refugees suffer premeditated execution.
Shortly after the events in Srebrenica, there was yet another ethnic cleansing of the Serbs in the Krajina, this time one with complete success. On August 1, 1995, the Croatian army launched Operation Storm with massive American support from Military Professional Resources Inc (MPRI). Two hundred thousand Serbs were expelled, three quarters of their homes were dynamited and thousands were killed (most sources estimate 2,000 but some sources cite 14,000). The Western press reported this crime with the words, “Serbs them right.”
Desperate to end the crippling sanctions against his country, Milosevic persuaded the Bosnian Serbs to allow him to represent them at the peace conference, soon to be held in Dayton, Ohio. The Dayton Peace Accord was signed on November 21, 1995, signaling, in American minds, the end of the bloody Yugoslav war. It was not to be. First, the Peace Accord was wildly unpopular in Serbia. The Serbs had lost west Slavonia, the Krajina and one third of their share of Bosnia; and thousands of Serbs were dead. Second, the festering wound of Kosovo had not been addressed at Dayton.
When a well-armed terrorist group of Albanians, called the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) began killing Serbs and moderate Albanians, Milosevic dispatched the Yugoslav army to restore order. This appeared as a case of deja vu to the Clinton administration. Milosevic had still not learned his lesson. One unnamed source said, “Milosevic needs a good bombing and a good bombing is what he is going to get.” In order to preserve the niceties of diplomacy, NATO presented him with the Rambouillet Agreement, containing terms which it knew that he could not possibly accept. Helped by yet another staged atrocity, the Racak “Massacre,” NATO began a 79-day bombing campaign against Serbia.
In General Wesley Clark’s words, the aim of the air war was to “demolish, destroy, devastate, degrade and ultimately eliminate the essential infrastructure” of Yugoslavia. Centuries ago, in his doctrine of the just war, St Augustine permitted retaliation for an offence, but only in proportion to the damage inflicted. NATO “retaliation” was a 79-day bombing campaign. All oil refineries were destroyed. In one place, when 20,000 tons of crude oil were burned in a bombardment, smoke hung in the air for ten days. Hundreds of bridges, schools, hospitals, and churches were destroyed. Banned weapons were used, such as depleted uranium-tipped weapons and cluster bombs. NATO had accomplished one purpose. It had turned a prosperous, socialist-run economy into a cheap labour country, ripe for capital penetration and colonization. It had not achieved its stated objective: the defeat of the Yugoslav military. A report, that was suppressed, stated that at the e nd of the bombing, 14 Yugoslav tanks had been destroyed, 18 armoured personnel carriers and 20 artillery pieces and mortars. The Yugoslav army pulled out of Kosovo almost intact.
To add insult to injury, the Serb leaders, Radovan Karadzic, Ratko Mladic and Slobodan Milosevic, were indicted for war crimes by the ICTY. No such indictments were served on Franjo Tudjman or Alija Izetbegovic. Naser Oric was indicted but acquitted. He retired to Tuzla, where he now runs a disco. No indictments were served on the American generals responsible for Operation Storm in Croatia. As Bernard Shaw once remarked, “History is lies.” As for Milosevic, he died in captivity of a heart attack, after (it is said) refusing aid.
As a footnote to this disgraceful and disgusting period, part of a disgraceful and disgusting century, the Yugoslav wars have provided us with a case study of the failure of a state’s policy towards its substate, national minorities. When Tito framed the Yugoslav constitution, under the slogan of “Brotherhood and Unity,” he assumed that the Croat, Serb, Slovene, Macedonian, Albanian and Muslim substate national minorities would disappear in time, through assimilation. This did not happen, as it has not happened elsewhere. Second, the desire of a people to return to the land of their cultural roots, such as the Serb desire to recover Kosovo, cannot be discounted; the establishment of Israel being an obvious example. Third, Western democracies, particularly the United States, must face their naivete. They assume that democratic ideals are “self-evident.” In their minds, all that has to be done to fix a country’s problems is to write a Western -style constitution and hold free elections.
As for the Serbs, it is now clear that they were the innocent victims of: 1) The premature recognition of Croatia, Slovenia and Bosnia, begun by the expansionist policy of the newly-united Germany; 2) Ethnic cleansing from their traditional homelands by other substate national minorities, the Croats and Muslims; 3) The muddle-headedness, ignorance and gullibility of NATO countries, particularly the United States. The Serbs deserve our support and compassion. They have been put through a very great deal.