Friday, March 25, 2011

Another Allied Intervention: The Case of Bosnia

A few weeks ago, I was a bit premature in my posting likening the present situation faced by Moammar Gadhafi in Libya to that of Nicolae Ceausescu in Romania at the end of 1989-- and I was premature, too, in relegating Gadhafi, like Ceausescu and other tyrants before him, to the historical, if not actual, graveyard. But history is often about discerning parallels, as imperfect as they may be, and the recent intervention by the United States and several of its European allies in Libya brings to mind a different foray by the Western alliance approximately fifteen years ago.

In spite of the long and tortuous chain of events that had led to the disintegration of Yugoslavia, the international community was unprepared for the vehemence of the ethnic hatred that tore Bosnia-Herzegovina apart. While the European Community had imposed economic sanctions on the new rump Yugoslavia [Serbia and Montenegro], and while the United Nations had sent 1100 troops to reopen Sarajevo airport so emergency supplies could reach the besieged city, there was a wide difference of opinion within the Western alliance as to the proper policy to pursue.
France and Germany favored the use of military force, if necessary, to break the siege of Sarajevo and enforce a cease fire. The British, on the other hand, pushed for continued negotiations among all sides, and adamantly refused to send troops to what they still viewed as a civil war. Within the government of the United States, too, there was a difference of opinion, with the State Department seemingly much more willing than the Pentagon to consider the use of American troops to defend Bosnia.

But in the summer of 1992, revelations of Serbian "ethnic cleansing" and concentration camps began to reach the West. Demands for a more aggressive approach to end the suffering in Bosnia grew louder. "To truly end the nightmare, we must stop ethnic cleansing," President George H.W. Bush declared. But when General Colin Powell, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, pointed out the difficulties of waging war in the Balkans, Bush moved away from an aggressive stance and advocated further negotiations.

While the diplomats talked, the horror within Bosnia continued. By the middle of August 1992, as many as 1 million men, women, and children were refugees. Some survived by living off the land, moving from place to place, desperately trying to avoid the fighting. Many others were held in Serb-run concentration camps, such as Omarska and Trnopolje, or in squalid refugee camps near the Croatian border. Many made their way to areas still under the control of the Bosnian government: the central part of the country around Sarajevo and five pockets of resistance-- Bihac in the west and Srebrenica, Zepa, Gorazde, and Cerska in the east.

Increasingly, foreign powers felt the pressure to "do something" about the situation in Bosnia. In the fall of 1992, the United Nations declared a "no-fly zone" and banned all military flights over the Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina. (However, the U.N. would not start to enforce the "no-fly zone" until more than a year later, following hundreds of violations by Serb aircraft.)

Throughout 1993, the international community continued to search for a solution. But the war continued, as one failed cease fire followed another, and the death toll continued to rise. As 1994 arrived, Bosnia faced its third year at war. Then, on Saturday, February 5, hundreds of the residents of Sarajevo took advantage of unseasonably warm weather and a brief lull in the fighting to visit the large Markelo marketplace, the city's largest outdoor shopping area. Suddenly, the market exploded in a burst of fire and shattering metal: Serb gunners in the hills overlooking the capital had hit the Markelo. The air was filled with confusion, terror, and grief. Sixty-eight people were killed and more than 200 were wounded. Pictures of the carnage were televised around the world.

U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali asked Manfred Woerner, secretary general of NATO, to authorize air strikes to clear Serb artillery from the hills around Sarajevo. "It's time for action," Woerner agreed. "We've had enough words." The Serbs were given until February 21 to withdraw all heavy weapons 12 miles from the city. By February 20, most of the guns had been withdrawn; UN troops assumed control of the remainder. Sarajevo was more secure, but the Serb forces who now controlled more than two-thirds of Bosnia's territory fought on.

By early April, the Serbs had crossed into the "safe area" established by the United Nations in eastern Bosnia, and had advanced to within two miles of Gorazde. Finally, the NATO allies agreed to act. U.S. bombers took to the air over eastern Bosnia, and bombed the advancing Serb forces. It was the first military attack launched by NATO since its founding in 1950. The air attacks had two purposes: to relieve the pressure on Gorazde and to force the Serbs to the negotiating table. But the attacks accomplished neither.

The assault on Gorazde continued and on April 17 Serb tanks rolled into the city center. Then, the invaders suddenly withdrew, burning Muslim villages as they moved back into the hills. They also blew up Gorazde's water purification plant as well, before launching ferocious new mortar attacks aimed at the city center. The central hospital suffered dozens of direct hits, and scores were killed. The building was turned to "heaps of flesh and metal," in the words of one doctor on the scene. Finally, faced with the threat of massive NATO bombing, on April 25 the Serb gunners stopped firing-- for the time being.

On December 31, 1994-- Day 1000 of the war-- following intense negotiations by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter-- a truce was signed. It went into effect the next day, New Year's Day 1995, and was slated to last until May Day. Hopes for peace ran high; there seemed  new willingness on the part of all parties, even the Bosnian Serbs, to talk peace. Almost from the start, however, the truce was plagued with violations. On January 2, a missile hit the Sarajevo Holiday Inn, the same hotel from which the opening shots of the Bosnian war had been fired three years before. Reports of heavy fighting in different parts of Bosnia grew more numerous with each passing week. By April, both sides had rejected the idea of extending the rapidly crumbling cease fire, and at midnight on May 1, it expired. As spring wore into summer, the downward spiral from bad to worse continued.

On May 26, faced with the threat of further NATO air strikes, the Bosnian Serb army seized 370 UN soldiers. The peacekeepers would be held as hostages, the Serbs announced. Should NATO attack, they would be killed. But by early June, following a visit by two Greek diplomats to the Bosnian Serb headquarters at Pale, the Serbs released all of the UN troops. Even while UN spokesmen were vehemently denying that there had been any kind of deal, the Bosnian Serb vice president was boasting that his side had secured a commitment of "no more air strikes, no more hostile acts against Serbs." On June 9, a UN envoy announced that, henceforth, UN forces in Bosnia would no longer engage in offensive operations, and would now only operate "strictly by peacekeeping principles." Some began to question whether the United Nations would even defend the "safe areas" in the east any longer.

In May 1993, Srebrenica had become the first "safe area" established by the UN. On July 11, 1995, in spite of NATO air strikes and the condemnation of the international community, it became the first to fall to the Serbs.

As clouds of dark smoke rose from neighboring villages, thousands of Srebrenica's men, women, and children streamed in confusion and fear toward a UN outpost at Potocari, three miles to the north. Not long afterward, Bosnian Serb troops entered Potocari and ordered the Muslims out. As UN peacekeepers stood by helplessly, all men over the age of 16 were taken away to, in the words of Serbian General Ratko Mladic, investigations for "war crimes". There were 8000 of them in all; most of them were never seen alive again. Later, after the war, mass graves were uncovered, showing the extent of the slaughter at Srebrenica.  

The Muslim women and children of Srebrenica were loaded onto buses and driven west to the government stronghold at Tuzla. Tuzla's population had already swollen to more than 200,000-- ten times what it had been before the war. Now, once again, hundreds of buses, compliments of the Bosnian Serb army, carried thousands more refugees toward Tuzla down what aid workers called the "ethnic cleansing corridor".

To the south of Srebrenica was Zepa, long acknowledged as the most vulnerable of the "safe areas". Within a week, Zepa, too, had fallen to the Serbs. The Bosnian army now seemed intent. In spite of blockades, threats, and world condemnation, it would not stop until all of eastern Bosnia was under its rule, or until the dream of a Greater Serbia had been made real through struggle.

But then, overnight it seemed, the face of the Yugoslav conflict changed radically.

After the fall of Srebrenica and Zepa, the government of the Republic of Croatia had threatened rebel Serbs, both in Bosnia and in the breakaway Krajina region within Croatia, that it would take military action if the western "safe area" of Bihac were to fall. As pressure on Bihac mounted, Croatian president Franjo Tudjman decided not to wait any longer. By July 28, a massive force of the Croatian army had swept across the Bosnian border and had cut off the "Serb Republic of the Krajina" from its supply lines in Serb-held Bosnia.

The Bosnian Serbs struggled to regain momentum. But the territory they held began to shrink rapidly under the Croatian onslaught, and the Serb army was forced back toward its stronghold at Banja Luka in central Bosnia. Soon, nearly 200,000 Serb civilians were forced onto the road toward Banja Luka.

Many surmised that, behind the scenes, the United States and its European allies had subtly supported the Croatian drive to break the back of the Serb military machine. Secretary of State Warren Christopher denied that the American government had advance knowledge of Croatia's actions. "We didn't urge it," Christopher said. But, he added, the "new strategic situation" might serve as a basis for a negotiated settlement of the conflict.

Soon, the State Department was working feverishly to bring together the warring parties in the Yugoslav conflict. In August, Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke flew to the Balkans to try to persuade Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic and President Tudjman of Croatia, as well as Alija Izetbegovic, president of Bosnia-Herzegovina, to enter into negotiations.

But when another mortar attack demolished the Markelo marketplace in Sarajevo on August 28, it seemed as though Holbrooke's efforts would go for nought and another round of escalated violence would ensue. But the international response to the second Markelo attack was quick-- and massive. By the middle of the next day, there would be more than 200 raids against Serb positions all across Bosnia. The Western alliance, at last, seemed determined to use force, not just to protect Sarajevo, but to force the Serbs to the negotiating table. On August 30, Bosnian Serb commander Ratko Mladic agreed that "It is time to talk about peace."

On September 7, the foreign ministers of Bosnia, Croatia, and Yugoslavia [Serbia and Montenegro] met in Geneva-- the first time in 18 months that representatives of the three governments had sat together at a negotiating table. A tentative agreement was announced. There would be a complete cease fire, followed by further negotiations in the United States to work out the details.

On October 31, Izetbegovic, Tudjman, and Milosevic arrived at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio, where the negotiations would be held, moderated by American diplomats Christopher and Holbrooke. "The world can and will help you make peace," Christopher implored them.

For more than three weeks, the three presidents or their representatives sat around a small table at an isolated American air base, searching for ways to end the conflict. The task they faced was immense, and the details that needed to be worked out often seemed overwhelming. But when they concluded their sessions on November 21, an agreement somehow had been reached. The world held its breath, and the people of Bosnia dared to hope for peace.

Jeffrey B. Symynkywicz is the author of six books, including Civil War in Yugoslavia. Copies are available from, or directly from the author at

1 comment:

  1. We forget how vicious the conflict in Bosnia was. And how complicated these things get.