Slaughter in Yugoslavia

David Rieff, 1995


One of the most tragic conflicts of the latter part of the twentieth century occurred in the former Yugoslavia. Successfully governed as a single state by Marshal Tito until his death in 1980, Yugoslavia thereafter began to unravel along its major ethnic fault lines. Ethnic differences, moreover, were compounded by rival religious affiliations of long standing. The Serbs, who subscribed to Eastern Orthodoxy, were at odds with the Roman Catholic Croats. Moreover, both groups hated the Muslims, whose origins went back to the Ottoman conquest of the late Middle Ages. Two of Yugoslavia's constituent republics—Slovenia and Croatia—opted to leave the federation in 1991 and set up their own independent nation-states. Serbia, the dominant republic from the time of Yugoslavia's founding at the end of WW1, once again sought to realize its territorial ambitions at the expense of neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina. Bosnia was a multi-ethnic microcosm of Yugoslavia, divided between Serbs, Croats, and Muslims; in fact, the Bosnian Muslims are descended from the Slavs who converted to Islam during the Ottoman era and are therefore ethnically related to the Serbs and Croats—but no less despised by them for that reason. The Serbian republic and Bosnian Serbs made common cause in 1992 and began seizing large areas of Bosnia. They also engaged in "ethnic cleansing," brutally expelling the Muslim population from conquered territory. Meanwhile, the Croatian government began to evict Serbs from its territory and seize parts of Bosnia inhabited by a majority of Croats. At the same time, the Muslim government of Bosnia created its own army and fought to preserve its territory from the incursions of both Serbs and Croats. This civil war claimed 100,000 lives by 1994 and turned millions of others into refugees. Only in 1995 did the international community, through NATO, utilize military force to halt Serb aggression. The treaty signed in 1996 reunited Bosnia, if only on paper, and restored peace, but did not dismantle the armed militias of Serbs and Croats. Yugoslavia had long since ceased to exist, but ethnic tensions remained high.

The following selection is drawn from the book Slaughterhouse—Bosnia and the Failure of the West (1995), by David Rieff. The author spent two-and-a-half years covering events in Yugoslavia as the country came apart at the seams and as fighting focused on Bosnia. While Rieff concedes that all sides in the war committed atrocities, he comes down particularly hard on Serb political and military leaders and on Western nations for failing to curb their aggression.

As you read the selection, consider the consequences of nationalism.

The slaughter of Bosnia is the story of a defeat. I say slaughter because to refer to what has happened there as a war is to distort and, more gravely, to dignify the real nature of what has occurred. War, for all its bestiality, has its dignity and its laws, and soldiers, at least when they are faithful to their codes, rightly claim theirs to be an honorable as well as a terrible calling. To think otherwise is to imagine that nothing is worth dying for, and if Bosnia proves anything it is that such a statement is a shameful lie.

But about what the Serbs have done in Bosnia no such claims can or should be made. This is what happened. Two hundred thousand Bosnian Muslims died, in full view of the world's television cameras, and more than 2 million other people were forcibly displaced. A state formally recognized by the European Community, by the United States, and by the United Nations was allowed to be destroyed. This slaughter was led by a group of extreme Bosnian Serb nationalists, well supplied by their allies and mentors in Serbia proper. They succeeded through a combination of skillful propaganda and terror in rallying the majority of Bosnian Serbs to the cause of Greater Serbia.

Ethnic cleansing in Bosnia has been as much about methodically humiliating a people and destroying their culture as it has been about killing them. The Serb assault on the Ottoman and Islamic architectural legacy throughout the country was not a by-product of the fighting— collateral damage, as soldiers say—but an important war aim. For the Bosnian Serb leadership, the Serbianization of areas of Bosnia that had been ethnically mixed before the fighting started could not be accomplished simply by driving out many of the non-Serbs who lived in villages. The massacres at the beginning of the fighting in the spring of 1992 had only been the start. The process and program that was ethnic cleansing of necessity involved the rewriting of the Bosnian past as well.

A crucial factor in the success of ethnic cleansing was the prevailing belief among Serbs that they were the injured parties, engaged in a defensive war. In interview after interview, Radovan Karadzic, the leader of the Bosnian Serbs, would make this point with varying degrees of eloquence and hyperbole. "We Serbs are only defending ourselves against Muslim attacks," was one of his catchphrases. A fallback was to use the horrors of the war—"It is civil war," he once said, "what do you expect?"—to prove that Serbs and Muslims could not live together in Bosnia, and that, in fact, what the Serbs were trying to accomplish was in the interests of the Muslims as well, whether they realized it or not.

In Karadzic's formulation, Serbian-ness, Croatian-ness, and Muslim-ness were essences— unchanging and immutable.... The savagery of the war he had unleashed made what otherwise might have appeared to be his mad ideas convincing to people; and more than that, made them appear to have been confirmed by their experience. The fact that they had had these experiences because of plans conceived by Karadzic, Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic, and their colleagues did not alter the fact that people were now likely to feel in their guts that the ideas had been true all along. As Zdravko Grebo, a Sarajevo law professor and longtime political opponent of Karadzic, quipped, "Radovan Karadzic is the greatest genius Bosnia has ever produced. He says something that at the time is a complete lie. And two years later it becomes the truth."

Whatever Karadzic might claim, Serbs had not always believed that they could not get on with Muslims and Croats. They had been neighbors for generations. They had gone to school with one another, worked together, and, to a surprising extent, had intermarried—particularly in the urban areas of Bosnia-Herzegovina. It took a lot of propaganda to make them first begin to fear one another—the war started in fear and only ended in genocide— and then slaughter one another. And yet once the killing had begun, the violence was taken by many to confirm the justice of Karadzic's original diagnosis. This was often as true for many of the Bosnian Serb leader's bitterest adversaries as it was for those Serbs who had reluctantly begun to follow him.

Trying to make sense of what was going on in Bosnia by talking to Karadzic was, as the successive waves of United Nations officials both civilian and military who were sent to deal with him all learned eventually, a hopeless exercise. There appeared to be no limits to how far he was willing to go, whether it was claiming, before the imposition of NATO's so-called "no fly" zone over Bosnia-Herzegovina, that no Bosnian Serb Army aircraft were conducting bombing raids or transporting troops; or denying that the Serb shells raining down on Sarajevo were coming from his positions ("It is the Muslims," he said over and over again, "who shell themselves. They hope to gain the sympathy of the world"); or even claiming that there was no such thing as ethnic cleansing, a term Karadzic himself had resuscitated. And why not? What Karadzic and the other Serb leaders learned over the course of the two years in which they conquered Bosnia was that whatever they did, the United Nations and the great powers were not going to lift a finger to stop them. And if their deeds brought no retaliation down on their heads, why should their words have any consequences?

With the world community supine, the Serb leaders knew that the only propaganda war they had to win was among their own people. In this, they were astonishingly successful.

Traveling through Bosnian Serb-controlled territory, it was common enough to meet Serbs who were sick of the war and horrified by the way in which Bosnia had been shattered. But it was all but impossible to find anyone who believed the Serb side had started the conflict, or that the Serbs were anything but misunderstood victims. Ordinary Serbs spoke with genuine bewilderment about the attitude of the Western powers. "I used to love America," a high school teacher told me in the Sarajevo suburb of Ilidza during the summer of 1993, the tears welling up in her eyes. "For a while, I told myself that you American people had been duped, but now I realized that you are all our enemies, and that I must learn to think of you that way—even though I don't want to. I see what you write about us, the lies, and I just don't understand."

I asked her why, if the Serbs were the true victims of the war, they continued to shell Sarajevo pitilessly, and why Sarajevan children had to die at the hands of Serb snipers. She just sighed and shook her head. "It is not true," she said, softly reproving. "If we shell the city, it is only because the Muslims shoot at us first. Don't we have the right to defend ourselves? Don t you think that every human being has that right, even we evil, evil Serbs? I am sure that if they would stop firing, we would stop too, right away. Nobody wants war."

"And the sniper fire?" I asked, the memories of the maimed children of the Kosevo pediatrics ward coming, terrible and unbidden, to mind.

She looked at me coldly. "I think you are mistaken," she said. "Sniping is a coward's weapon. Serbs are incapable of behaving in this dishonorable way. I come from Sarajevo. I was thrown out of my home by Muslims. Our soldiers, many of them, come from the city also. They would not kill children. If kids are being killed, it must be the Muslims who are doing this to blame the Serbian people."

Anyone who had spent time in the bowl of Sarajevo, where the snipers can see and pick out their victims, and where, throughout the siege, even to stand at your window was to risk your life, might have been tempted to question her sanity. But here sincerity was beyond question. Perhaps it should not have been surprising. The only information about the fighting this woman had received in more than a year, except through chance encounters with foreign journalists and aid workers whom she already had written off as being pro-Muslim, was what was dished out each night on Bosnian Serb television and radio. Her only source was what the fighters returning from the front chose to tell her.

And the fighters themselves were capable of similar leaps of faith and fancy. In a sandbagged revetment on a hill above Sarajevo, not too far from the no-man's-land of the city's Jewish cemetery, a bearded Serb fighter said to me, "Before this summer ends we will have driven the Turkish army out of the city, just as they drove us from the field of Kossovo in 1389. That was the beginning of Turkish domination of our lands. This will be the end of it, after all these cruel centuries."

Like the woman I had met in Ilidza, he too had been a high school teacher in a Sarajevo suburb, and later that evening he would ask me what I thought of the novels of John Updike. But when this man looked down at the city of Sarajevo, into which he had been shooting his 50-caliber machine gun for the better part of a year, he did not see what had once been a rich city by world standards, the Balkan capital of rock'n'roll, but rather the campsite of the Turkish army that had conquered the Balkans in the 14th and 15th centuries. Somewhere he must have known that the people he was shooting at were civilians—already, after a year of the siege, thirty-five hundred of the dead were children—but imaginatively he could not see anyone in that urban bowl below except armed invaders. His job was not to murder them. One cannot murder invaders; one defends oneself against them, repels them. "We Serbs are saving Europe," he boasted, "even if Europe does not appreciate our efforts, even if it condemns them." . . .

Getting individuals to kill is not that difficult. There is savagery in every civil war, and rarely any moral bottom. (Paradoxical though it may appear, the Bosnian conflict has been both a civil war and a war of aggression; it has been as ruthless as the former and as one-sided as the latter.) Once the blood has flowed, the individual fighter thirsts as much for revenge as for victory. And since in the former Yugoslavia atrocities have been committed by all sides, the desire for vengeance has taken the form of further atrocities. But, from the beginning, such excesses were also a Serb war aim. The more terrified the Muslims could be made to feel, the more likely they were not simply to flee but to resist ever returning to lands the Serbs had taken.

On reflection, atrocities were one logical consequence of ethnic cleansing. If you keep repeating on television and radio and in every address to your troops, as the Serbs have done, that the enemy is not human; that you may have grown up with the man, and you may think you know him, but in reality you don't; in short, that you are confronting a devil, then the results are all but foreordained. It is no longer a question of whether there will be killing, only of how long the bloodletting will go on.

Thus not only propagandists insisted that the Muslims were less than human. Those who carried out the ethnic cleansing almost invariably behaved as if the atrocities they perpetrated were somehow justified. The aggrieved innocence so commonly and unaffectedly displayed by individual fighters made it clear that they felt themselves and not those they were killing or displacing to be the real victims of the war. And like victims everywhere, they thirsted for what they usually called justice but were sometimes willing to categorize as revenge. When Serb forces took possession of conquered lands, houses, and farm animals, they were likely to burn the houses and slaughter the livestock, even though they obviously realized that their actions made it impossible for their fellow Serbs to start farming them themselves. But they thought the price worth paying, so deep-seated was the Serb feeling of being the injured party.

In the villages, radical military operations were often accompanied by equally radical cognitive ones. "We've liberated Radovac," a Serb fighter in Banja Luka told me one afternoon....

"We've liberated Radovac," he repeated, practically bellowing at me, apparently believing that I hadn't heard him the first time. He then flashed a thumbs-up. I nodded. "It was a hard fight," he shouted, "but we got it back." Only later would I learn that Radovac had always been an entirely Muslim village. For the Serb, though, such considerations were secondary. For him, the Muslims of Radovac were not and could not be the village's real inhabitants. However long their tenancy, it could never be long enough, in the Bosnian Serb version of history, to justify their presence.

It was a variant of the same story each time the Serbs attacked somewhere. If the area in question was not full of Serbs being oppressed or killed by Muslims, the Serbs were only trying to protect Serb parts of the area. This was how Karadzic justified the shelling of Sarajevo throughout the war, when, with a straight face, he insisted that there was no siege, only Serb forces trying to protect Serbs who just happened to live in all the neighborhoods that ringed the city. Karadzic said more or less the same thing when the city of Gorazde in eastern Bosnia became a major target in April 1994. And when neither of these claims would do, the Serbs would fall back on history, and insist that the area in question had once been Serb, until some Muslim or Croat massacre had upset its proper demographic future.

The Bosnian Serb forces tailored their tactics to the kind of area in which they were operating. It was one thing to lay siege to Sarajevo, but in the ethnically mixed villages of Bosnia, the fighters could not pursue ethnic cleansing successfully on their own. They had to transform those local Serbs who were either still undecided about joining the fight or frankly opposed to it into their accomplices. The natural impulse for self-preservation was the fighters' greatest ally, providing they could summon the necessary ruthlessness.

One common method was for a group of Serb fighters to enter a village, go to a Serb house, and order the man living there to come with them to the house of his Muslim neighbor. As the other villagers watched, he was marched over and the Muslim brought out. Then the Serb would be handed a Kalashnikov assault rifle or a knife—knives were better—and ordered to kill the Muslim. If he did so, he had taken that step across the line the Chetniks (Serb soldiers) had been aiming for. But if he refused, as many did, the solution was simple. You shot him on the spot. Then you repeated the process with the next Serb householder. If he refused, you shot him. The Chetniks rarely had to kill a third Serb. But in most places, this kind of raw terror was not enough. More than killing or making people accomplices to murder, it was engendering a deep fear that was required. From the start, fear had lain at the heart of the Bosnian catastrophe. The fear of the future that the collapse of the Yugoslav economy in the late '80s began to produce in ordinary people had made them lose faith in each other. Only the old atavistic notions of identity seemed to offer any sanctuary from this fear. It was not that people had only felt themselves to be Serbs, or Croats, or Muslims before—or that Tito's slogan, "Brotherhood and Unity," had been only an imposed sham—but rather that the failure of cosmopolitanism, of Yugoslavism, or, more properly, its murder at the hands of political leaders like Slobodan Milosevic, had breathed such new energy into the old national feelings and national grievances. Ethnic nationalism was no more inevitable in Germany in the 1930s. It was one possibility—inevitable only in the sense that everything that happens is inevitable in hindsight.

In reality, the victory of the ethnic nationalists was not inevitable. They won in Serbia because of what they did, and because of what others did not do—particularly in the West— not because history was on their side. They won because Slobodan Milosevic was far and away the ablest politician in the former Yugoslavia, because the idea of Greater Serbia was coherent in a way that the idea of the Bosnian state never succeeded in becoming, and because the Serb fighters in Bosnia had a hundred heavy guns for every one the Bosnian side had. They won because they knew how to take old fears and old complaints, repackage them, and cause otherwise decent Serbs, people from a national community with no more of an innate predilection for murder than any other national community, to commit genocide.

Once that genocide began, however, the fear had to be fed. Had the Bosnian Serb leadership not put a particular effort into propaganda, it is at least possible that ordinary Serbs, having defeated the Bosnian government forces and seized most of the territory they had been taught to covet in the first half year of the fighting, might have been less eager subsequently to go along with the seemingly endless further rounds of killings and displacements. But if every living Muslim remained a threat, then the ethnic cleansing had to go on. What began as a tactic of pure massacre and terror in villages had evolved within six months into a sophisticated system for the destruction of a people, by Serb fighters who believed themselves to be retaliating for Muslim atrocities. If you are told over and over again that your comrades are being castrated, roasted alive on spits, and drowned in their own blood, and you have no sources of information from which you might learn a different story, it is a foregone conclusion that before too long you will, as you imagine it anyway, reply in kind.