- By Michael Dobbs
Michael Dobbs is a prize-winning foreign correspondent and author. Currently serving as a Goldfarb fellow at the Committee on Conscience of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Dobbs is following legal proceedings in The Hague. He has traveled to Srebrenica, Sarajevo and Belgrade, interviewed Mladic’s victims and associates, and is posting documents, video recordings, and intercepted phone calls that shed light on Mladic's personality.
The Srebrenica genocide — as the massacres-cum-ethnic cleansing of July 1995 has been described by the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal — did not happen just like that, out of the blue. It was an avoidable tragedy predicted well in advance. While the organized murder of 7,000 unarmed Muslim and boys took the world by surprise, there were numerous warning signals that Western governments failed to take seriously.
I have assembled a partial list of warnings/predictions that a mass atrocity was in the works in Bosnia, and specifically Srebrenica, which was declared a United Nations "safe area" in April 1993. The warnings came from representatives of institutions as diverse as the United Nations, the United States government, and the World Court. Most striking of all, the authors include the same Bosnian Serb leaders, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, who are now defending themselves against charges of genocide in the Hague. They, better than anyone else, understood the horror of ethnic cleansing.
Pay attention to the dates on these quotes — 1992 and 1993, more than two years before the Srebrenica tragedy. Some quotes, such as the one from Clinton, relate to the general situation in Bosnia, but most are prompted specifically by events in Srebrenica. (I have omitted the numerous warnings of genocide from Bosniak leaders.)
- We cannot cleanse, nor can we have a sieve to sift, so that only Serbs could stay, or that the Serbs would fall through and the rest leave…That would be genocide. — General Ratko Mladic, speech to Bosnian Serb assembly on his appointment as military commander, May 12, 1992
- I think we cannot afford to ignore what appears to be a deliberate, systematic extermination of human beings based on their ethnic origin. The United Nations was set up to stop things like that, and we ought to stop it. — Bill Clinton, Democratic candidate for president, August 5, 1992
- If we don’t watch out, this could become a slow-motion genocide. –– United Nations special envoy to Srebrenica Diego Arria, April 25, 1993
- Today, Srebrenica is on the verge of falling, in part because we have failed to take forceful action against Bosnian Serb forces…We are only attempting to end the genocide through political and economic pressures such as sanctions and intense diplomatic engagement. — Letter from twelve State Department officials to secretary of state Warren Christopher, April 1993
- We used to say, ‘never forget, never again. Now the same thing is going on in Bosnia because people are Muslims…We are legitimating genocide. — Senator Daniel P. Moynihan, May 23, 1993
- If we had entered Srebrenica, those people entering would be those whose families were killed. 1,200 Serbs were killed (allegedly by Srebrenica Muslims). There would be blood to the knees, and we might lose the state for that. — Republika Srpska president Radovan Karadzic, speech to Bosnian Serb assembly, July 20, 1993
The likely consequences of war in Bosnia were evident long before hostilities erupted in April 1992. "Bosnian Republic Resembles Tinderbox Waiting to Explode" was the headline on a front-page article I wrote for the Washington Post following a brief visit to Sarajevo in September 1991. One of the people I interviewed was Bosnian president Alija Izetbegovic who said the following:
It would be a catastrophe if the war was extended here. There would be neither victors nor vanquished, only victims. Every second person in this republic has a weapon. All of Yugoslavia would be drawn into the conflict. Muslims in Serbia would rise up. Europe would not be able to keep out of such a war.
The politicians were correct in their grim forebodings, although that did not prevent them from leading their country to disaster. There was indeed "blood to the knees" after Karadzic ordered Bosnian Serb troops to capture Srebrenica.
So my question is simple: If so many people had predicted exactly such an outcome, why was it permitted to happen?