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Srebrenica and the Horrors of the Balkan War

The break-up of Yugoslavia caused some of the most heinous human rights violations and ethnic mass killings seen in the 70 years since the end of World War II. On July 11-13, 1995 the world stood by as Serbian forces under the command of Ratko Mladic systematically rounded up Bosnian and Croat boys and men and executed them in their campaign of “ethnic cleansing.”

The atrocities committed in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica, in which over 8000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were killed over the period of two days by Serbian forces, were the catalyst for the escalation of American and NATO efforts to end the Bosnian War.

The most heartbreaking aspect of the massacre at Srebrenica was that it could have been prevented:  with better communication between UN peacekeepers and NATO, with UN nations more willing to contribute troops to prevent Serbian forces from murdering Bosnians, and with greater comprehension of the genocide being carried out by Mladic and the rest of the leadership of the Republika Sprska (VRS). Even two decades later, the wounds are still fresh: Russia vetoed a UN resolution that would have called Srebrenica a “genocide.” In March 2016, former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic was convicted of genocide by the International Criminal Tribunal for his role in the Bosnian war massacres.

Ann Sides served as the Chief of the Visa section at the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade from 1991-1992. As Ambassador to Croatia from 1993-1998, Peter Galbraith was on the diplomatic frontline in working to end the killing in Bosnia as Serbian forces overran towns that were under supposed UN protection. George Ward served as Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary in the International Organizations Bureau from 1992-1996; in this capacity he got a firsthand look at the failings of the UN and other international organizations in protecting Bosnian civilians from the predatory forces under Mladic’s command.

As the Director of the Office of European Security and Political Affairs from 1995-1997, Craig Dunkerley notes how Srebrenica resulted in NATO bombing campaigns that helped end of the violence in Bosnia. Thomas Miller served as Ambassador to Bosnia-Herzegovina from 1999-2001. Katherine Schwering was a Former Yugoslavia States analyst at the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR).

Robert Hunter served as Ambassador to the EU from 1993-1998, a time in which he witnessed the need for greater NATO and EU involvement in ending the violence in Bosnia. All were interviewed by Charles Stuart Kennedy. Sides began her interviews in August 2010, Galbraith began his in March 1999, Ward in April 2001, Dunkerley in March 2004, Miller in April 2010, Schwering in September 2005, and Hunter in August 2004.

You can read about Ann Sides’ emotional account of dealing with refugees in Embassy Belgrade and about Richard Holbrooke and the negotiations for the Dayton Peace Accords. Go here to read about the collapse of Yugoslavia beginning in 1991.  You can also read the Washington perspective on the Rwandan genocide.


Prelude to a Massacre — “All they wanted to do was go home”

Ann Sides, Chief, Visa Section, Embassy Belgrade, 1991-1992

SIDES: The Serb forces started with the towns along Bosnian border, like Brcko, Foca, and Visegrad in ‘92. They’d round up the military-age Muslim or Croat men and kill them or put them in concentration camps improvised from schools or factories. Helpless old people were driven out of their villages or murdered.

Some of the worst stuff happened to women. They gathered up the women and put them into camps where they were raped systematically. Tom Mittnacht and John Zerolis, our political officers, did a lot of the reporting. I hope through this oral history project they’ll tell their stories.

Propaganda on all sides was pervasive. The Serbs were the aggressors, no doubt about that, but there were some very bad actors among the Bosnians and particularly the Croats. Zagreb was kind of a creepy place to be because of the government’s relentless, hyper-nationalistic propaganda. Actually it did have rather a Fascist tinge to it.

Franjo Tudjman was the President of Croatia at the time. Although he should have known better, he revived and encouraged the use of language and symbols associated with the Fascist “Ustasha” government, the Nazi puppet regime. In the summer of 1992 the front line was about 30 miles outside of Zagreb. It was terribly sad to see these villages destroyed, houses wrecked and abandoned that people had scrimped and saved to build. You’d see people’s clothes still folded on the shelves, kids’ dresses all ironed. The school books, pictures, things people had gathered through life, who then had to leave it all in a few minutes.

The visa work was very stressful. There were a lot of Bosnian visa applicants at that time who had been driven out of their home towns and had fled to Croatia at the time when Croatia was fighting the Serbs. Although some of the refugees from Bosnia were ethnic Croats, most were Bosniaks, which was the Muslim ethnic group.

By late ’92, the war had evolved into a three-way conflict between the Croats and the Bosniaks, the Serbs and the Bosniaks, and the Serb-Croat conflict. The Croatians were trying to establish power in the areas they dominated, and unite them with Croatia. The Bosniaks went from being allied with the Croats against the Serbs, to fighting each of them. The Bosniak refugees in Croatia therefore found themselves in a very vulnerable situation. They began showing up at the visa window, applying for visitor visas.

The vice consul and I tried to apply the law impartially, but the law requires that the applicant demonstrate ties, like a home, job and so forth, that would compel departure from the USA after a visit. These poor souls weren’t going to America to see Disneyland or attend an academic conference and go back to Bosnia. We refused most of them. We felt we had no choice. It was awful.

I remember one old lady in a headscarf with bright blue eyes; she looked like my grandmother. I reached my hand under the window to get her passport and documents, and she seized my fingers and kissed them. I had to leave the window for a while. We were afraid the people we refused would soon be sent back by the Croatians to Bosnia, perhaps to their deaths.

(Read Ann Sides’ account of how the U.S. then started a refugee program.)

“The way he wanted to win the war was to clean up the enclaves”

 Peter Galbraith, Ambassador, Embassy Zagreb, 1993-1998

GALBRAITH: The UN troops were in there with a mandate to use all necessary means to secure the delivery of humanitarian supplies to the people of Sarajevo. Later, I think, in early ’93, they got a mandate to protect certain so-called safe areas of which the enclaves of Sarajevo, Bihać, Srebrenica and others were safe areas.

These areas where they were supposed to deliver humanitarian supplies were surrounded by the Serbs and under constant attack. This was the mission of the UN peacekeepers, who were wearing blue berets or blue helmets, and in vehicles painted white to demonstrate their neutrality.

The concern was that if the arms were going to be delivered to the Bosnia Muslims, that the Serbs would retaliate by attacking the UN and that the UN wouldn’t have the means to defend themselves. Not only would the UN not have the means to defend themselves, but they hadn’t signed up for that mission….

Anyhow, that was the beginning of May, so it was the first major Serb defeat. In the middle of May, the Serbian shelling of Sarajevo had become more intense. There had been a cease-fire between December and May 1st and then it had been breaking down very much in April. Mid-May the shelling had become fairly heavy and so Michael Smith, the UNPROFOR (UN Protection Force) Commander in Sarajevo ordered air strikes on Serb ammunition depots near Pale.

The Serbs responded by seizing UN personnel as hostages and chaining them to strategic sites. The UN then — General Janvier, who was the UN Force Commander for all of UNPROFOR based in Zagreb — basically met with [Ratko] Mladic, the Bosnian Serb commander, in June and they cut a deal in which the UN agreed not to have more air strikes against the Serbs and all the hostages were released.

Mladic I think at this point saw the handwriting on the wall. Specifically, that the U.S. was becoming more aggressive, more assertive and that pressure was building in the Congress for unilateral lifting of the arms embargo and the training and equipping of Bosnians and unilateral air strikes if necessary. I think basically Mladic decided that the summer of ‘95 was when he had to win the war and the way he wanted to win the war was to clean up the enclaves, particularly those in the east — Srebrenica, Žepa , Goražde….

As the Serb forces began to encroach on Sarajevo in April of ‘95, I began to lobby and others for a robust response because it was violating the agreement that [Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Vitaliy] Churkin had negotiated the year before that had created a safe area around Sarajevo. Finally, the UN had turned the key to permit NATO air strikes. Those NATO air strikes had in turn led the Bosnian Serbs to take UN personnel as hostages.

I must say this was one of the more absurd things that happened because obviously what the UN ought to have done is knowing that there were going to be NATO air strikes, which the UN did know because they had to approve them. They should have before the strikes took place withdrawn all their personnel from Bosnian Serb areas because these people were potential hostages. Indeed, I had conversations with Yasushi Akashi, a Japanese career UN official who was the SRG, the Special Representative to the Secretary General and the head of the UNPROFOR mission about this. I warned him about the danger for hostages and his reply was well, we have to be neutral and what about our mission.

The hollowness of the international community’s efforts

Craig Dunkerley, Director, Office of European Security and Political Affairs, 1995-1997

DUNKERLEY: In early July, the Serbs – the Bosnian Serb forces – shelled and then captured an isolated Muslim enclave around the town of Srebrenica in the eastern part of the country. This had been declared earlier by the UN as a “Safe Area” and was ostensibly protected by a relatively small contingent of Dutch UN military peacekeepers.

The Bosnian Serbs under General Mladic (pictured) took the town, essentially took the peacekeepers hostage, and then, in the days following, undertook systematic killings of hundreds, ultimately thousands of the Muslim men and boys in this so-called safe zone. It took time for the full scope and details to come out, but it quickly became clear something truly horrific had taken place – even by the worsening circumstances of the former Yugoslavia at that time.

Thinking back to that moment: For many of us who had been working European issues, Srebrenica seemed to demonstrate in the most painful way the hollowness of the international community’s efforts up to that point simply to stop the killing in Bosnia. Within the USG [U.S. government], there was also a realization in this general time period that NATO – and that would mean the U.S. in a big way – would be in fact very much on the hook if things really got threatening with the UN peacekeeping effort in the former Yugoslavia.

There had been an earlier commitment to use U.S. troops as part of a larger NATO operation if the UN peacekeepers needed to be extracted under difficult conditions – something that seemed not unlikely given the course of events in early ‘95. All this gave force to an evolving realization in Washington of just how seriously U.S. interests might be damaged if things continued along the current direction. It underscored for some the need for a new course.

“They just massacred thousands of these guys”

Thomas Miller, Ambassador, Embassy Sarajevo, 1999-2001

MILLER: There was a massive battery factory right outside Srebrenica and that’s where they had brought a lot of these people after the Serbs came in. That’s where they separated the women and the men, women and children on one hand and the men in the other. And they sent the women and children in buses to Tuzla and then they basically massacred the men. You know, they divided them up.

A lot of the men tried to escape and they were killed because what they were doing was they were following the power lines between Srebrenica and Tuzla. Tuzla was another real big city in Bosniak territory. They set out to walk about 100 kilometers along the route of the power lines. So the area beneath the power lines was cleared, the ground was clear and it was pretty open.

So these guys started following the power lines and there were Serb paramilitaries in both sides in the woods and they just —it was a turkey shoot. They just massacred thousands of these guys. And then the ones who’d given themselves up, they loaded into trucks and took them to spots and just shot them. And that was many thousands more. Over 8,000 altogether. They are still finding mass graves.

There was a Dutch battalion in Srebrenica when it fell and the Dutch always felt bad about this. I mean the reality is that they had tried to resist. My opinion was they would have gotten massacred. But they didn’t try.

And I think there was a lot of finger pointing at the Dutch and there is a big national debate in the Netherlands. And I think a lot of recriminations and we should have tried to do something. So the Dutch had one of the biggest aid programs per capita. I think they have probably the largest per capita aid program of any of the Western countries in Bosnia. And you know, to this day they feel a special responsibility.

Katherine Schwering, Analyst, Former Yugoslavia States, State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR)  

SCHWERING: Everybody, including INR and every intelligence agency, thought the Serbs would stop there and they wouldn’t dare take on Srebrenica, which had a Dutch peacekeeping contingent.

However, Paul Pickering and I sat there and said, “Well, why wouldn’t they?” If they can take over the whole of Eastern Bosnia, why would they be content to leave these pockets? In other words, neither of us said they were going to do it, but neither of us could see any reason for them not to try and take over these last pockets. Indeed, Paul and I turned out to be correct.

At this point, we were contacted by the Dutch who wanted to see what we knew….Nobody, even the Dutch, knew what was happening until after it happened. In true Serb style, it appears, now, after the fact, that General Mladic, the Bosnian Serb general, didn’t even decide to take Srebrenica until a couple or three days beforehand. That is pretty typical; Serbs don’t tend to plan ahead. So nobody really had any warning. Nobody knew. However, the U.S. administration was absolutely shocked, shocked that the Bosnian Serbs took that over.

GALBRAITH: The fall of Srebrenica was in July…. I was concerned about Žepa, which was another enclave in the east bordering Serbia, and fearful of what might happen there. I mean it was clear that that was the next target. Also, I was concerned about Bihać, which was the big enclave in the west surrounded on the one side by Bosnia and on the south and east by Bosnia. On the north and west by Croatia… and that had 160,000 people, so it was four times larger than Srebrenica so I was very concerned about that.

[Balkans negotiator Richard] Holbrooke had arranged for me to come up and see [Secretary of State Warren] Christopher. I mean he knew that I was a dissident on a lot of this policy. So, I went up and saw him. I made a pitch about Žepa and in general, an argument against the policy that seemed to be in play, which was to offer Milosevic relief from sanctions in exchange for concessions that I didn’t feel were real concessions. I wanted to make a case against that and a case that we shouldn’t write off Žepa because we would be consigning its population to a terrible fate….

I returned [to the Balkans], it must have been around the 19th of July and [met a survivor from Srebrenica]….He then gave a detailed account of what had happened to him of how he had been brought to a stadium, how Mladic had taunted the group of men he was with and how they had been taken to Bratunac and the group had been shot and he had of course had not been killed. He, I think a bullet had grazed his forehead so it had produced a lot of blood without killing him and then when the executioners took a break he had managed to escape and walked through the woods to Tuzla….

I put all of this in a cable to [Secretary] Christopher, a NODIS [No Distribution, tightly held cable traffic], and I said, this…is what’s happened to the men and boys of Srebrenica and this is what has happened to all of those who have disappeared….

It did have an immediate impact in that it Holbrooke took the cable to Christopher and put it in his hands and he said, “Chris, this is the human side of what has happened.” In other words, this man’s account which I had put in the cable. Christopher then dispatched [Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor] John Shattuck to come out and report on what had happened in Srebrenica and the human rights violations that had taken place there.

The other thing is thanks to this man’s report, the survivor’s report — he gave very precise details about where the killings took place. The CIA was then able to go back and look at overhead satellite and aircraft pictures, looking at those specific places on those days and were able to find the bodies.

People have the idea that because we have extensive satellite coverage of an area that we see everything, but of course that’s not the case. We’re quite good at locating missile silos, but to find evidence of bodies, that’s something you’ve got 10,000 pictures of Bosnia on a particular day, it’s not something you’re going to find unless you know where to look for them. Having located those pictures then [Ambassador to the UN Madeleine] Albright was able to use them at the United Nations….

Q: So you had come back and you were talking to Christopher. Did the policy change?

GALBRAITH: I think there was great uncertainty as to what to do. There was a lot of passivity and just I would just say uncertainty or confusion. Nobody had any good ideas except Holbrooke, who was repeating a mantra of we should be bombing, but that was not immediately acceptable to or thought of as realistic by Christopher and some of the others at that time.

I think there was a lot of frustration on the part of the people who were working this issue, Holbrooke, [Deputy Assistant Secretary] Bob Frasure, myself and I think probably the Secretary was pretty unhappy as well. I had some very specific policy ideas one of which was that we should be, we should be actively encouraging other countries to and particularly Muslim countries to provide weapons to the Bosnians, not doing it ourselves, but making clear that we wouldn’t object if they did it….

At that point, people were basically wishing to lift the arms embargo and to end the UN presence and come to the aid of the Bosnians. So, that was where Congressional sentiment was at that point in time. Not send in U.S. troops, but provide arms and enable the Bosnians to defend themselves….

The [Croats] were getting increasingly nervous about what was happening in Bihać. This really was the turning point of the war….Around around July 21st there was a meeting in London which produced NATO’s London declaration, which basically drew the line at Bihać, drew the line at Goražde which was another of the enclaves, and said that NATO would use force to protect Goražde….

“NATO military action took a long time, and this is the tragedy — tens of thousands of people died”

Robert Hunter, Ambassador, European Union, 1993-1998

HUNTER: The Brits [in 1993-94] were kind of leading the other people who had some trouble with NATO air strikes. The Canadians were often the last to make a decision, in part because they had a lot of troops on the ground, and about the only thing they did at NATO was, first, at UNPROFOR, and then later the Implementation Force….The Canadians never held out when the other Allies were ready to act.

I found in the negotiations that, as I would line up a number of the Allies who were deeply concerned about the American commitment to Europe and to their security, and if the United States were prepared to take action in Bosnia, that was sufficient. Then if I could get the French split off from the Brits and get the French being willing to do something, and then tee up the Canadians to come along, at that point the Brits got isolated and would have to fall off on opposing an actual NATO decision. Then they would have to find some other way to mess it up, by going to the UN, for example, hence [UN Secretary General Boutros] Boutros Ghali’s comment about “some of your Allies speak with forked tongues.”…

He was saying, in effect, “I have five Permanent Members of my Security Council, I’ve got two who don’t want this at all, the Russians and the Chinese are out there watching the play and taking advantage. You’ve got the United States, who’s in favor of this, at least so it seems, and then you’ve got one who is ambivalent, the French, and then you have one dead set against it. Why should I get out in front of my guys here?”

In fact, it was only when both Britain and France finally came on board in the summer of 1995, after Srebrenica, that Boutros Ghali was prepared to release his key [give authority] to his local guy, with orders to do what he had to do. You can understand what I’m saying was very frustrating. Here was the market bombing [in Srebrenica in February 1994]. Here was NATO taking this firm decision about safe areas, here were the violations that continued. The NATO Commander was ambivalent about it and telegraphed his ambivalence about putting people at risk. Then you had the British who were actively opposed to it. It meant that NATO didn’t use its air power and looked stupid….

This took a long time, NATO military action, and this is the tragedy, and tens of thousands of people died, or thousands, anyway. The first NATO decisions were taken in August of ’93, and then the marketplace bombing in February of ’94, followed by the first big NATO decision. The next big decision was about three months later….Then there were various incidents and various ratcheting up of the decisions, until Srebrenica, which took place in July of ’95.

There was a whole series of incidents in between, and we had the NATO Council meetings. At every one…we were able to negotiate harder lines in terms of exclusion of weapons, triggering devices, whittling away the limits on what the UN was prepared to do, getting more commitments by the Allies….

200,000 people died in Bosnia before this war got stopped. How were we going to be able to structure security in Europe, in general? How were you going to build security, and get what you were doing taken seriously, if you didn’t stop it?

This was the big thing that finally led to decisions to use NATO air power to stop the war. Not just the enormity of Srebrenica, the worst slaughter of its kind in Europe since World War II, but also the understanding that NATO wouldn’t have a future if it couldn’t stop fighting in its own backyard.