Huffpost WorldPost
Rebecca Tinsley Headshot

Bosnia: Shame on Us All

Posted: Updated:

President Obama has just created something called the Atrocities Prevention Board. Its aim is ambitious to say the least, but it matters because it recognizes that crimes against humanity rarely come out of the blue. The warning signs were there in the case of Armenia, the Holocaust, Bosnia, Rwanda, and currently in Sudan, if the international community had chosen to notice them.

On the twentieth anniversary of the start of the Bosnian war we should feel anger and shame because 'the international order' is still ignoring those warning signs when they occur. We should also acknowledge the human consequences of the West's failure in Bosnia.

For instance, we should remember how peacekeepers stood by as Serb paramilitaries dragged Hakija Turajlic, the Bosnian vice president, ostensibly under their protection, from their Land Rover and shot him in the road like a dog.

Or how peacekeepers looked the other way while Serb accountants and teachers, in Bosnia for a weekend's adventure, looted the homes of the Bosnian families they had killed and raped, loading their vehicles with microwaves and video recorders to take back to their wives in Belgrade, like post-modern war trophies.

Give a moment's thought to the grieving widows and mothers from places less famous than Srebrenica, where 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men were systematically massacred. Or the female lawyer I interviewed who was in a concentration camp for months, raped daily by a Serb who had previously been a neighbor who had sipped beers around the barbeque with her husband.

Worthy of special mention in the hall of shame is the UK's foreign secretary, Douglas Hurd, who insisted that the Serb leader, Slobodan Milosevic, was our partner in the search for peace, a man we could do business with. Hurd wanted the international community to treat Milosevic as an impartial player, even though Milosevic's speeches since 1989 had made his 'eliminationist' racial politics clear. After he left office, Hurd's company, Hawkpoint, made a tidy profit privatizing Serbian utilities for Milosevic.

There were also banal reasons for the deaths of more than 100,000 Bosnian Muslims. A Bosnian woman I met had been at school with Biljana Plavsic, the former president of the Republika Srpska, and the highest ranking Serb politician convicted in the war crimes trials. Where did the Serbian Empress's hatred come from? At school young Biljana had been deeply in love with a Muslim classmate who ungraciously dumped her.

Another Bosnian Muslim remembered a youthful Radovan Karadzic (now awaiting trial in The Hague) arriving in sophisticated Sarajevo, fresh from his village, wearing his felt boots. Karadzic never got over the sniggers, and exacted the ultimate revenge on the cosmopolitan city dwellers by besieging them with snipers and shrapnel, at a cost of 12,000 lives.

Throughout the Yugoslav wars, our leaders cynically framed Bosnia as a humanitarian disaster, like a drought that required the delivery of aid, rather than a political solution. In the words of a Sarajevo resident I met,

"Your aid convoys keep us alive so the Serbs can kill us at their leisure."

This suited the west's diplomats, who had a perfect excuse ("intervention would endanger the aid convoys") not to cast off their moral equivalence or to confront the Serb's ugly political aims.

The shame of Bosnia is also about the vanity of Western diplomats who believed Milosevic and the other Serb leaders would never lie to such important statesmen, and wouldn't dream of leading them a merry dance in endless negotiations, only to disregarding every document they signed.

Our failures did not end with the Dayton Peace Accord of 1995. Evidently, we did not learn the lessons from the deNazification of Germany after 1945. We should have required 're-education' in both Serbia and the Republika Srpska. But we feared appearing imperial: opinion polls show the Serbs continue to believe they were the victims of the war, rather than the aggressors, responsible for 90% of casualties. The current Serbian election is, fittingly, a fight between an unrepentant nationalist and a politician who wants Serbia to make itself more palatable to the European Union.

Equally, militia leaders remain in positions of power in the Republika Srpska as mayors, chief of police or other officials. Local people tell how, after the war ended, the international community funded a 'sensitization' project to teach Serb police to stop terrorizing Bosnia Muslims. Apparently the 'sensitization' caused hilarity among the police, and their chief appeared with a new BMW.

Although the president of the EU Council at time, Jacques Poos, declared "the hour of Europe had dawned," finding a common foreign policy beyond appeasement proved impossible. Hence, it was up to America to tackle the disaster in Europe's backyard. The US was absorbed in the LA riots and then OJ Simpson, but eventually Bill Clinton saw that Milosevic needed to receive an unambiguous message. With the dispatch of only 18 cruise missiles, the Balkan wars ended when the Serbs ran away, as those who had witnessed the Serb militias knew they would. Now, the EU wants to admit Serbia, despite its gangster economy, in a vain attempt to keep it out of Russia's sphere of influence.

And judging from how the international community has responded to nine years of genocide in Darfur, it seems we have learned nothing from Europe's dark Bosnian chapter. Shame on us all.