July 10, 2020

In recent years there’s been a glut of nostalgia for the 1990s. On both sides of the Atlantic, it is cited as the decade the public looks back upon most fondly. Contrast it with today, and our seemingly endless procession of tumultuous events, and the Nineties seem enjoyably placid. The Cold War was over, peace and prosperity reigned, and history had reached its liberal democratic conclusion.

There’s a moist sentimentality to these nostalgic reveries that needs to be questioned though. For there’s a particularly persuasive case to be made that the legacy of the fall of communism was wasted in Russia and eastern Europe – it’s particularly true if one happens to be a Bosnian Muslim. While the United States and Britain were basking in post-Cold War triumphalism, Bosnian Muslims were being hoarded into the first concentration camps to be erected on European soil since the Second World War. History had not come to a juddering halt after all. Rather, on Europe’s periphery it was being discovered that communist totalitarianism had merely kept a lid on older resentments that were about to bloodily resurface.

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I travelled to Bosnia — the most ethnically diverse of the new republics following the fall of communist Yugoslavia — five years ago, shortly before the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide. I spent most of my time in Sarajevo, a beautiful multi-ethnic town that 20 years earlier was besieged for 1,425 days (nearly four years) by Bosnian-Serb forces – the longest siege in the history of modern warfare. The pockmarks made by the bullets and shells of forces positioned in the hills around the city were still visible. More than 10,000 residents had died as a result of snipers and the 3,000 shells that fell on the city each day.

The war’s bloody nadir took place 80 kilometres away, in Srebrenica, where between the 11th and the 22nd of July 1995, 8,372 Bosniak men and boys were murdered by Bosnian Serb forces. While there, I visited the Srebrenica gallery, a deeply moving memorial to those killed, and a damning indictment of the international community’s failure to stand up to genocidal chauvinism. The gallery’s walls are lined with photos of some of those who were killed. Men — for it is overwhelmingly men — stare back at you from fly-blown photographs that were taken in another era.

Not all the victims have yet been found, and so the relatives wait. This weekend, another eight Bosnian men and boys will be buried in a cemetery on the outskirts of Srebrenica. A quarter of century after the slaughter, the process of locating, exhuming and identifying the victims of a military operation codenamed ‘Krivaja 95’ goes on.

Back in 1995, the Bosnian Serbs, led by Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, and backed in Belgrade by Serb president Slobodan Milosevic, had decided that they wanted to conclude the war by the year’s end. This meant capturing the three UN-protected ‘safe’ areas of Zepa, Gorazde and Srebrenica. Bosnian Serb forces would henceforth move troops into Sarajevo before the year was out and capture the city they had been lobbing mortars at for four years.

The purpose of the war was to ‘ethnically cleanse’ —a phrase used openly by the Bosnian Serb leadership — swathes of the former Yugoslavia so that Serbs and only Serbs could live there. As the Cambridge scholar Brendan Simms wrote in Unfinest Hour, his book on the Bosnian war, the bloodshed that culminated in the genocide at Srebrenica was not the by-product of war or civil breakdown, “rather, ethnic cleansing was the purpose of the war”.

When the safe zones were initially set up, Philippe Morillon, a French UN general, had told Bosnia’s Muslim population: “You are now under UN protection of the United Nations… I will never abandon you.” Yet Dutch UN peacekeepers stood aside two years later as the Bosnian Serb assault on Srebrenica began. Over the course of three days in the summer of 1995, as politicians and pundits in western capitals basked in a triumphalist post-Cold War glow, those 8,372 Muslim men and boys were pumped full of bullets and thrown into mass graves.

As the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia described it:

“They [members of the Bosnian Serb army] stripped all the male Muslim prisoners, military and civilian, elderly and young, of their personal belongings and identification, and deliberately and methodically killed them solely on the basis of their identity.”

As a result, the Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic are today serving life sentences for war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity. Slobodan Milosevic died while on trial for war crimes at the Hague.

During the trials, a chilling conversation that had been intercepted during the genocide was used as evidence to demonstrate intent on the part of the Bosnian Serb chain of command. A group of Bosnian men had attempted to break through from Srebrenica to the town of Tuzla but were captured by Bosnian Serb forces. “Kill them all, god damn it!” Serb General Radislav Krstić can be heard saying to Colonel Milan Obrenović, the chief of staff of the Bosnian Serb army’s Zvornik Brigade. “Don’t leave a single one alive.”

The massacre at Srebrenica was able to take place partly because western powers had spent the preceding year labouring under the pretence that there was no belligerent party in the conflict. The Serbs controlled the fourth largest army in Europe yet a one-sided arms embargo, imposed on the region by the European Community and its member states in 1991, remained in place until near the end of the war, preventing the Bosnians from protecting themselves.

The British government of John Major played a shameful role in keeping the arms embargo in place, a policy it justified by adopting an obfuscatory tone which stressed that the conflict was a civil war and emphasised “complexity” and “warring sides”. “We should remember,” British defence secretary Malcolm Rifkind told parliament, “that the Serbs in Bosnia are not uniquely guilty”.

Platitudes —rare are there conflicts in which one side is uniquely guilty — stood in place of an ethical foreign policy. Britain’s foreign secretary at the time was Douglas Hurd, a politician whom Margaret Thatcher said would “make Neville Chamberlin look like a warmonger”. Thatcher supported hitting the Serbs and lifting the embargo. Hurd, however, took Thatcherism to mean something altogether different, and said that there was “no such thing as the international community”. As Tadeusz Mazowiecki, the first democratically elected Prime Minister of Poland, observed in 1993: “Any time there was a likelihood of effective action [in Bosnia], a particular western statesman [Hurd] intervened to prevent it.”

A host of institutional failures, led the way to Srebrenica, along with a pernicious narrative of false equivalences and a widespread indifference to the plight of the Bosnian Muslims. This unfortunately extended beyond the moral turpitude of the British government. Sounding more like a resentful humanities student than the leader of an international organisation, the General Secretary of the UN at the time, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, brushed off the conflict in the former Yugoslavia as a “white man’s war”.

In October 1994, Boutros-Ghali even flew into the besieged city of Sarajevo and lectured the city’s residents, who were being shot at by snipers when they ventured out to collect water, about the plight of black Africa. Boutros-Ghali’s point was clear: the residents of Sarajevo, undergoing the longest siege in the history of modern warfare, should think themselves lucky that they were not wallowing in mud and rags in the ‘global south’.

It was in August 1995 that Nato finally decided to act against Serb forces, launching Operation Deliberate Force, a massive bombing campaign which consequently brought Serb leaders, fearful of further American bombardment, to the negotiating table. Predictably, pseudo-humanitarians who had said nothing as tens of thousands of Muslims were being slaughtered, suddenly found a cause to rally behind, and rushed to denounce the bombing.

Since the Soviet Union had disappeared, misguided sections of the Left had looked hopefully upon Slobodan Milosevic (and by extension his proteges in Republika Srpska, the proto-Serb state inside Bosnia) as a benevolent guardian of the established order – that order being communist Yugoslavia. The Serbs were thus cast as plucky anti-imperialists engaged in an intransigent last-ditch struggle against capitalism. In actuality, the Serbian leaders had long-ago sloughed off any remnant of Tito’s liberal Stalinism and replaced it with blood and soil nationalism. What the Serb leadership had inherited from Tito’s regime was a vast army and a repressive state apparatus – assets which they used to wage a genocidal war against Bosnia’s Muslim population.

In this vein, Labour Party national treasure Tony Benn blamed everyone but the Serbs for the bloodshed. This included the International Monetary Fund, Germany and Nato. When the White House finally decided to act following the massacre at Srebrenica, Benn pompously declared that the “main enemy is Nato”, and called for the arms embargo against the Bosnians to be “strictly enforced”.

A short time later, the celebrated American professor Noam Chomsky — along with others including Tariq Ali — signed an open letter to an obscure Swedish magazine defending a book which claimed that the genocide at Srebrenica was a fabricated hoax. Elsewhere, the contrarian magazine Living Marxism (later renamed Spiked), the mouthpiece of the British Revolutionary Communist Party, claimed in print that the Guardian’s Ed Vulliamy and ITN’s Penny Marshall — two journalists who had witnessed first-hand the Serb concentration camps in Trnopolje in northern Bosnia — were telling lies. Living Marxism was subsequently sued by ITN and lost, incurring vast damages.

War is never a glorious thing and the loudest cheerleaders for it are usually those who know they will be somewhere else when the first rounds are fired. But as any credible account of events during the Bosnian war demonstrates, pacifists and ‘realists’ do sometimes end up on the wrong side of history. During the Bosnian war of the early 90s, thousands of people were rounded into concentration camps and exterminated based on their ethnicity in a continent where a few decades earlier the words ‘never again’ had been piously recited following the obscenities of the Holocaust.

We’ve grown accustomed to hearing lectures on the ‘lessons’ contained in the rush to war in Iraq in 2003. Regrettably, we hear less about the things we might learn from the racist murder of 8,372 innocent men and boys on European soil a quarter of a century ago. While the conflict raged in Bosnia politicians brandished words like ‘complexity’, or else shrugged and pointed to incomprehensible ethnic resentments as a device to excuse indifference and inaction. The fashionable doctrine of ‘realism’ engendered a worldview in which smaller states were the mere playthings of larger entities; the human victims of this brutal statecraft were ignored as the mere flotsam of history.

This goes some way to explaining the failures on the part of the British state. Among the activist class, it was a different set of doctrines at work. As the Serbian armies went on the rampage, Bosnian Muslims were looked upon as not quite victims to those whose worldview came marinated in stale ‘anti-imperialist’ dogmas. In their failure to identify the genocidal intent implicit in Serb imperialism, pseudo-humanitarians proved a point once made by Arthur Koestler: ideology is apt to make a person believe that a goldfish is a racehorse. A procession of leftist grandees — Tony Benn, Noam Chomsky, Edward Herman and Tariq Ali — all filtered events in Bosnia through this narrow and distorting ideological lens. As a consequence, each lent credence to a grotesque pack of lies that was used to slander those who had lost the ability to answer back.

One of the lessons of Srebrenica is surely that doing nothing can come at its own terrible cost, even if the bill is settled years later in the bureaucratic and anodyne atmosphere of international courts and tribunals. It was once said that Bosnia would be written on Douglas Hurd’s tombstone. A quarter of a century after that sorry episode and one wonders what posterity will see fit to inscribe as the epitaph of our own era. Syria I am sure. And unless something alters about our current trajectory, perhaps the enslaved Uighurs of China too.

This lesson has been lost in the fallout from Iraq, but the responsibility to protect — a principle enshrined in the United Nations since 2005 — is not something that ought to be sloughed off lightly, even if the UN itself is a rather toothless instrument when it comes to enforcing the principle. Moreover, do we really want democratic nations to sit out fights with the Slobodan Miloševićs of the world?

Perhaps we do. But then, we must at least be honest about what that entails. Staying on the side-lines is not, and never has been, the same as bringing an end to war and killing.You may not be altogether interested in fascism, but its victims deserve more than mere pity after the fact. Or, as Primo Levi wrote of the Holocaust,

“If understanding is impossible, knowing is imperative, because what happened could happen again… For this reason, it is everyone’s duty to reflect on what happened.”