Michael Dobbs

What did we know — and when did we know it?

The photograph above is a unique historical image. It captures a massacre actually in progress near the United Nations “safe area” of Srebrenica around 17:15 on July 13, 1995. What makes this image even more remarkable — and worth studying by anyone interested in the subject of genocide prevention — is that it became a ...

The photograph above is a unique historical image. It captures a massacre actually in progress near the United Nations “safe area” of Srebrenica around 17:15 on July 13, 1995. What makes this image even more remarkable — and worth studying by anyone interested in the subject of genocide prevention — is that it became a public document one day after the massacre, on July 14. It was part of a video reportage on events in Srebrenica aired by a Belgrade television station.

Granted, the photograph is initially difficult to interpret. If you look closely, however, you can identify bodies piled outside a warehouse, guarded by a soldier. In the video from which the image was taken (shown below), you can hear shots, and a reporter talking about “dead Muslim soldiers.” Combined with overhead reconnaissance collected by the United States, intercepts, and eyewitness accounts, the fleeting image displayed on Belgrade Studio B was clear evidence that terrible events were taking place in eastern Bosnia.


Of course, it is easy to pull all this evidence together now and analyze exactly what it means. The challenge for the American intelligence community back in 1995 was the same as it was during the run up to 9/11: “connecting the dots.” An additional problem, in the case of Srebrenica, was that preventing genocide in a faraway country ranked low on the list of U.S. intelligence priorities. At the time, the U.S. government was more interested in the military/strategic aspects of the three-and-a-half-year Bosnia war.

The July 13 massacre at the Kravica warehouse was one of the bloodiest in a series of incidents that followed the capture of Srebrenica by Bosnian Serb forces commanded by General Ratko Mladic. The Yugoslav war crimes tribunal concluded that a thousand Muslim men and boys were slaughtered after their Serb captors threw M75 hand grenades into the warehouse. Those who attempted to escape through the front entrance were mowed down with automatic rifle fire — accounting for the pile of bodies that you can see in the photograph above.

Before describing the corroborating information that was available to U.S. intelligence analysts, I would like you to take a look at snippets from the video shot by Serbian cameraman Zoran Petrovic that was shown on Belgrade TV the day after the massacre. The first part of the video (repeated subsequently in slow motion) shows prisoners gathered in a field, guarded by soldiers in uniform. The second part was taken by Petrovic as he drove back toward Srebrenica through the village of Kravica while the massacre was underway. You hear shots ring out, mingled with the throbbing beat of music from the car radio. In addition to the crumpled bodies (more visible in the slow motion part of the video that begins at 0.50′), you see the bullet-spattered façade of the warehouse and empty white buses (used to transport the prisoners).

It should be noted that Petrovic, who was escorted by a senior Bosnian Serb policeman, may have been unaware of the full significance of his video footage. He was trusted by the Bosnian Serbs, and did everything he could to paint a sympathetic picture of what was happening. He described the crumpled bodies as “dead Muslim soldiers” and suggested they had died in combat. After visiting Srebrenica, he rushed back to Belgrade and aired his video report without considering the possibility that it might be used against his own side in a war crimes trial.

The significance of the Petrovic video was, however, immediately understood by Robert Block, Belgrade correspondent for the London Independent, who wrote a report published on July 16, under the headline “Bodies pile up in horror of Srebrenica.” Block visited the television station and analyzed the video frame by frame. His report, available here, included the following passage:

There it was in freeze frame: the horror of Srebrenica in piles two feet high. The bundles were clearly not empty clothes. They had heads, arms, and legs. The fit body of a young man in the foreground filled out a white T-shirt. The bodies up against the wall looked to be three deep in places…[The Petrovic report implied] that these were Muslim soldiers killed in combat. The scene, however, looked more like a place of summary execution than of combat.

If a lone reporter was able to reach such conclusions on the basis of examining a few seconds of video footage, think what a powerful intelligence agency would have been able to do had it been explicitly tasked to gather evidence of war crimes. We now know that the CIA had additional imagery of the Kravica events that was captured in real time, but not analyzed for many weeks. Signals intelligence could have provided further information, but the United States government has been unwilling so far to release this evidence.

What the government has released (and provided to the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal in The Hague) is damning enough, when combined with the Petrovic video and various forensic evidence. A U.S. reconnaissance satellite was above the area at the time and captured a series of images that would have enabled analysts to locate the site of the massacre very precisely, had they been instructed to do so. The first image below (taken around 14:00 on July 13) shows a group of prisoners under guard at Sandici meadow (visited by Petrovic a short time later.)

In this photograph, you can see a group of Muslim prisoners assembled near the side of the road following their surrender to Bosnian Serb forces. (See more Petrovic video here.) Buses are lined up along the road, waiting to transport the prisoners. Two buses (on the right hand side of the photograph) appear to be already in motion.

The photograph below shows the agricultural warehouse at Kravica, a mile or so down the road. Two white buses are visible, similar to the buses in the Petrovic video. It is still around 14:00, three hours before the images captured in the Petrovic video. It is reasonable to draw the conclusion that prisoners are in the process of being transported to the warehouse from Sandici meadow. There is no sign of the bodies piled up outside at 17:15.

The final photograph below (prepared for the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal) compares the Petrovic Studio B image with later photographs of the front of the Kravica warehouse, taken in 1996 and 1997. The bodies are now gone, of course, but in the 1996 shot there is a gaping hole around the entrance. Investigators have since established that the hole was created by a mechanical excavator smashing into the warehouse to remove the bodies piled up inside. The bullet holes from the Petrovic video are still clearly visible. The door has been sealed up again by 1997.

While all this intelligence arrived too late to prevent the Kravica massacre, it might have been possible to forestall further rounds of killing in the Srebrenica area had the analysts got to work immediately. The Petrovic video aired on the evening of July 14. We now know that the murders of Bosnian Muslims captured following the fall of Srebrenica continued until July 22 in some areas.

As a footnote, I should mention that the Serbian authorities went to considerable lengths to cover up the evidence of the massacre following the airing of the Petrovic video. After Block’s report was published, the original footage aired by Studio B mysteriously disappeared. Petrovic made a sanitized version of his video (without the Kravica warehouse material) available to the war crimes tribunal in The Hague. It was not until many years later, in 2003, that an enterprising Dutch reporter managed to track down the original footage aired by Studio B, and confronted Petrovic with the omissions.

I will be examining the use of intelligence in genocide prevention, and posting other reconnaissance imagery, in future posts.

 Twitter: @michaeldobbs

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