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Cold Blooded Old Times – The Bosnian War and the Unreckoning

By Max Dunbar.


The War is Dead, Long Live the War – Bosnia: The Reckoning, Ed Vulliamy, The Bodley Head 2012

Now of course the war is over. And we’ve learned our lesson, it won’t happen again. But are you quite sure we’ve learned our lesson? Are you certain it won’t happen again? Are you even certain the war is over?
– Jonathan Littell,
The Kindly Ones

Ed Vulliamy writes that he became a war correspondent by ‘an accident of geography.’ He was stationed in Rome, writing about crime and sport. In June 1991 a call came through from the Guardian‘s foreign affairs desk. ‘Something strange’ was happening in Yugoslavia. As he was within driving distance, could Vulliamy head to Ljublana and check it out? It was a call that altered his life, and the lives of others.

Casting about for something to do after the fall of the wall, the communist politician Slobodan Milošević committed himself to a Greater Serbia. A few years previously, Serbian academic nationalists had launched a manifesto arguing that the communists had separated Yugoslavia on an imperial divide and rule basis to keep the Serbian people in fragmented disarray. The answer was to abolish Yugoslavia altogether and replace it with a Serb state that would cover Bosnia, Montenegro, Macedonia and most of south east Croatia. As with Nazism (not the last time we’ll be making that comparison) there was a mystical element: Milošević and the nationalist academics talked about a ”Celestial Serbia’, whose earthly human task was the gathering of all Serbs into a Serbian nation – both the living and the dead, the macabre disinterment of whom began in 1991 from territory not claimed for ‘Greater Serbia’.’ It was bad news for Europe and bad in particular for Bosnian Muslims (‘Bosniaks’). Greater Serbian rhetoric was full of anti-imperialist resentment for the crimes of the Ottomans.

With this in mind, the Bosnian Chetniks launched a campaign of what Serbian Democratic Party leader Radovan Karadžić called ethnic cleansing – the forcible removal and displacement of Muslims, the torching of villages and the seige of city and town, the seizure of houses and the burning of mosques, the people incinerated in their homes, the corpses wedged head first into crevices of mountains. In a chapter called ‘The Darkest Pages of History,’ Vulliamy writes of the Srebrebnica massacre, where over eight thousand Bosniaks were killed in six days. At one point 1,200 people were rounded up, herded into a warehouse and murdered with machine guns and hurled grenades. By the end of the war in 1995 there were 70,000 killed and 30,000 thousand ‘missing’, the majority of these Bosniaks.

Faced with all this, the outside world did… absolutely nothing. The United Nations slapped down a blanket arms blockade that served only to cement Serb military advantage. Vulliamy remembers ‘soldiers in the pummelled Bihać pocket heading for the front and signing for individual bullets.’ Establishment men of the 1990s Tory government said the same things about Bosnia that the establishment is saying about Syria now: all very complicated… ancient hatreds… nothing to do with us… How delicious moral equivalence can be. How good it feels to stroke your beard and rise above it all. Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd, his Minister of Defence Malcolm Rifkind and the FCO’s political director Pauline Neville-Jones pursued diplomatic policies that made it almost impossible for anyone else to help the Bosnians. As the Polish Prime Minister said: ‘At any time that there was a likelihood of effective intervention, [Hurd] intervened to prevent it.’ Hurd also slammed Britain’s doors to refugees. The logic here was that ‘civilians have an effect on the combatants. Their interests put pressure on the warring factions to sue for peace.’ All this realpolitik is chronicled in Brendan Simms’s Unfinest Hour, a history of the great powers’ shameful indifference on Bosnia. There are apparently people who refuse to shake Douglas Hurd’s hand after reading it. The sentence quoted is reason enough.

How much better to ‘engage’. UNPROFOR general Bernard Javier ate suckling pig with Serb commander General Ratko Mdladić three days before Srebrenica. Vulliamy includes a plate of Mdladić joshing with UN Protection Force commander Sir Michael Rose in 1994. Eventually limited NATO airstrikes stopped the killing and the country was split into a Bosniak-Croat federation and a Serbian Republic that gave Karadžić almost half the nation and most of the territory from which the Bosniak untermenschen had been harried. Vulliamy is scathing: ‘Rarely in European history has the palm of mass murder been so bountifully greased at the negotiating table.’ Hurd stood down in October 1995 and went to work for NatWest. The following year, he and Neville-Jones met with Milošević to bid for a contract in the part privatisation of Serbian telecommunications.

The Serbs established a network of concentration camps in Omarska, Karaterm, Trnopolje and Manjača. They were not extermination camps in the Nazi sense (in fact not even all the Nazi camps were death camps) but nevertheless, Vulliamy explains, these places fitted the classical definition of ‘concentration camps’ as devised by the British during the Boer War: men, women and children, noncombatants rather than soldiers, were herded into these places ‘only because of their ethnicity, and where many were murdered, tortured and violated prior to enforced deportation.’

Former inmate Edin Ramulić told Vulliamy that Keraterm was notorious for sexual torture: ‘men were forced to commit sexual acts on one another – not just neighbours, but fathers and sons – forced in various positions.’ In another incident one prisoner was forced to bite off another prisoner’s genitals. Professional women were coralled in Omarska for purposes of rape and servitude, and Serbian housewives from nearby villages would be invited to view the spectacle of these women – former jurists, businesswomen, intellectuals – reduced to sexual slavery. Prisoner Sabiha Turkmanović said, ‘Raping the female elite was their way to abuse what they could not have in their lives physically and psychologically, to extract a piece of us, to belittle us and crush our pride in our achievements. They were little men who wanted to humiliate strong women.’

The world found out about this war when Karadžić invited British journalists to inspect Omarska and Trnopolje. In a letter to the Guardian Karadžić insisted that ‘it is completely false to suggest that Bosnian Serbs have organised concentration camps, or that we hold civilian prisoners.’ We don’t know why the genocidaire took such a big risk. Maybe he thought he could easily pass off the camps as mere ‘holding centres’ or ‘detention centres’. Maybe he was high on power, grandiloquence and pure war-criminal adrenaline.

Vulliamy, along with ITN’s Penny Marshall, Ian Williams from Channel 4 and freelance cameraman Jeremy Irvin, took Karadžić up on the offer. The journalists trundled down a Serbian corridor with a military escort and state TV cameraman. The worst of Omarska was roped off and prisoners got something close to a square meal that day. People didn’t feel like talking to journalists. A skinny fellow called Džemal Paratušić told Vulliamy in the canteen that ‘I don’t want to tell any lies, but I cannot tell the truth.’ Another inmate, Šerif Velić, with ‘fear and rage in his eyes’ had a wound on his face; the result, he said, of a nasty fall. The crew had suspicions and circumstantials but no real proof… until Trnopolje.

Trnopolje was the catalyst. Here were men behind barbed wire with faces like skulls and chests like bowls of chicken bones. Jeremy Irvin’s images from that day in August 1992 went round the world. They were splashed on front pages with headlines like ‘Belsen ’92’. Vulliamy himself thought long and hard before comparing the Serbian attempted genocide to the Holocaust. In consultation with the Holocaust Museum of Washington DC he decided to use the word ‘echoes’ and he used this to Karadžić’s face when testifying against him in The Hague. What happened in the Balkans was not on the same awful scale as the Holocaust but had echoes in methodology and intent.

In 1984 a German holocaust denier, Ernst Zundel – author of such classics as ‘The Hitler We Loved and Why’ and ‘UFOs: Nazi Secret Weapons?’ – was put on trial in Canada for incitement to antisemitism. Zundel had migrant status in Canada, and its Crown Counsel was alarmed by the sheer reach of Zundel’s mailing list, which distributed neo-Nazi material, storm trooper songs, and tapes of Hitler’s speeches to thousands in America and beyond. West German police found his pamphlets in the homes of far-right extremists, along with guns and explosives. The British historian David Irving helped with Zundel’s defence. Hugh Trevor-Roper said that Irving ‘seizes on a small and dubious particle of ‘evidence’; builds upon it, by private interpretation, a large general conclusion; and then overlooks or re-interprets the more substantial evidence and probability against it.’ Zundel’s defence team recruited an oddball Boston charlatan, Fred Leuchter, who made a living building execution paraphernalia for death penalty states. Leuchter was dispatched to Auschwitz to prove that the Holocaust never happened.

During this trip, which was also his honeymoon, Leuchter stole bricks from the camp and had them analysed in Massachusetts. Leuchter found that his samples from the gas chambers held far less Zyklon-B residue than those from non-lethal delousing chambers. Therefore the death camps couldn’t have been because why would the Nazis use less gas for humans than for lice? Irving seized on this and was still citing Leuchter in the action against Deborah Lipstadt that exposed him forever as a racist falsifier of history. Before the Zundel trial, Irving had been a respected historian edging towards holocaust denial. The Leuchter report pushed him into the abyss.

Despite Leuchter’s claim to be an engineer, he didn’t seem to know that humans are far more susceptible to hydrogen cyanide than lice are, so much less of it is needed to kill human beings, particularly when they are packed together in an enclosed space. In denial mythology, an outsider can look at a scene and recognise one crucial detail, that no one else has seen, that reveals an alternate reality. But at least Leuchter went to Auschwitz. The German pro-Chetnik crank Thomas Deichmann based his denial of the Serb camps on a chance remark made by his wife, who saw him studying the Trnopolje footage and asked why the barbed wire was tied down on the side of the fence where the prisoners were standing. ‘As any gardener knows,’ Frau Deichmann is supposed to have said, ‘fences are, as a rule, fixed to the poles from the outside, so that the area to be enclosed is fenced-in.’ Aha! That was it! The prisoners were not inside facing out, but inside facing in! They could leave at any time!

On the strength of this revelation, Deichmann’s findings were taken up by Serbian ‘parish-pump sadist’ Duško Tadić, by then fighting war crimes charges, and the magazine Living Marxism, house journal of the Revolutionary Communist Party. The RCP was a far left cult that adapted and survived through good media knowledge and training. Its writers got attention by arguing for contrarian positions in a swaggering libertarian style. A typical column would praise McDonalds or call for the legalisation of child pornography. LM published Deichmann’s wire theory under the headline ‘The Picture That Fooled The World’ and another Deichmann piece called ‘Karadžić: War Criminal Or Whipping Boy?’

ITN sued for libel and won. A Trnopolje doctor called Idriz Merdžanić appeared as a witness for ITN. He spoke of the ‘Laboratory’. ‘We heard the screams and the beatings. Some of the people that were beaten, they would bring to us… some of the women were raped, and rapes most often happened during the night… and some of those women would come to me for examination.’

LM didn’t produce any witnesses from the camps.

LM had no witnesses at all.

After Merdžanić’s testimony, the judge turned to LM‘s counsel and asked if there were any questions.

‘No, my Lord.’

LM folded after the trial, but its writers are still active in the Institute of Ideas and the Spiked Online website, and have no problem finding media work. Denial continues to coalesce around the totalitarian left. Reviewing the book The Politics of Genocide, by Chomsky acolytes Edward Herman and David Petersen, the antiwar writer George Monbiot found that the book ‘seeks to downplay or dismiss both the massacre of Bosniaks at Srebrenica in 1995 and the genocide of Tutsis committed by Hutu militias in Rwanda in 1994.’ Following an angry response from its authors, Monbiot consulted academic specialists in genocide. The Kingston scholar Dr Marko Attila Hoare responded that ‘The extent of Herman’s and Peterson’s cynicism in their misuse of source material is simply breathtaking… they continue both to deny the Srebrenica massacre and to parrot the myth that Bosnian Muslim forces themselves massacred thousands of Serbs in the Srebrenica region.’ The intent behind LM was attention seeking. With the hard left it was more that they had an ideological interest in minimising the atrocities of NATO enemies. So the far left, which now claims to speak for Muslims everywhere, abandoned Muslims and denied their oppression… although perhaps Vulliamy’s Bosniak friends are too friendly and fun loving to qualify as ‘authentic’ Muslims.

Chomsky provided a foreword for the book and his name was emblazoned on its cover. Monbiot wrote to him to ask a hard question: ‘Do you accept the accounts it contains of the Rwandan genocide and the massacre of Srebrenica? If not, in what respects do you reject them?’ After a long correspondence with Chomsky, during which the great man indulged in evasions, tangents, and pomposity to the point of self-parody, Monbiot gave up: ‘At this point, faced with Professor Chomsky’s repeated and apparently wilful failure to grasp the simple points I was making or answer the simple questions I was asking, I almost lost the will to live. I have not replied.’

Reading over what I’ve written, it’s all very ‘maps and chaps’, whereas Vulliamy’s book is personal to an intense degree. He gives much less space to the deniers, proportionately, than I have in this article. His chapter on them, simply entitled ‘The Lie’, is just six pages long. A few knockout blows and the RCP and Chomskyites are dealt with. Vulliamy is far more interested in the fighters and survivors, with whom he has maintained long and close relationships. It is a human story about people who have experienced terrible suffering, and the impact of suffering upon the survivor. It is about rage, forgiveness, compassion and the struggle for the sense of an ending.

A point that recurs time and again is that there is no closure, no reckoning. The survivors formed a Bosniak diaspora that stretched to Holland, Germany, the US, Australia, and even Bolton, Greater Manchester. Senad Joldić was just a child when the Chetniks began shelling his village: ‘there were two groups of us, A and B, and they shelled one of the groups so I saw all that, man – I was a kid of eight – bodies and wounded lying around.’ His family fled to California. They worked, prospered, bought a home. Senad’s brother Ernad went to the state university. In 2008 he was shot by gangsters, for a breach of meaningless turf etiquette. ‘It especially doesn’t make sense,’ Senad says, ‘because he was wearing red in MS-13 territory and their colour is red, so that makes it treble weird.’ His family returned to their home town of Korazac. But home is over the rainbow for Senad now. He tells Vulliamy that ‘when I’ve sorted out some of this shit, and my parents have settled, I can use this US passport of mine and get my ass back over there.’

Other deportees returned to their homes. But things had changed. Half their communities had been swallowed up by the Republika Srpska. Although this was no problem for some deportees, like Senad (‘Man, I’ve got a Bosnian Lily tattoo and I go to their bar in Prijedor and take my shirt off and dance with the girl on the pole, and they don’t touch me’) many other survivors were infuriated to find their houses occupied by Chetnik rampagers, denial chants sung at football matches, memorials defaced, and alternate history taught in schools. Survivor Edin Karadić knew ‘a lady in my village who lost all seven sons. A Serb lives across the road, and I will not speak to her. I am not going for coffee with that Serb while she can see me doing it, and the Serb has not even apologised to her for her seven sons.’ What’s striking about the war is that the combatants on both sides grew up together. Imagine if half your home town suddenly went crazy and killed the other half.

Perhaps Vulliamy is too pessimistic when he writes that ‘This is not reckoning; this is irresolution, an expulsion of people not only from their land but into a narrative void – refugees not only geographically, but also in history.’ The Holocaust did not dominate memory in the years immediately after the Reich. Many of its operatives finished light sentences and set up respectable new lives in Germany and Austria. Veteran Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal complained in the 1950s that ‘The dumbest Nazis were the ones who committed suicide after the fall of the Third Reich.’ So maybe there is a hope that time will bring the recognition that any survivor deserves (and not many ask for much more). Horror takes a while to sink in.

That is easy for me to say though, and it is an outrage that the ArcelorMittal corporation, which now part owns and operates Omarska, refuses to put up a simple memorial. People owe it to truth and memory to bear witness to the strange and terrible things that happened in the Balkans. At least the Bosnians have one of Europe’s greatest journalists on their side, and a book that may be his crowning achievement.

Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals. He is reviews editor of 3:AM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, June 10th, 2012.