Sarajevo Daily: A City and its Newspaper Under Siege.
We struggle to learn from the Holocaust, the measure of modern state terror, because we desperately wish to avoid repeating its evil. There's a risk, however, of overlearning. As the saying goes, a man with a hammer sees everything as a nail, even if it's a screw. Full-throated advocates of intervention in Bosnia often dwell on the question of genocide in the hope that the high moral imperative of "never again" may influence policy. As one of the original interventionists, I must confess here, I'm guilty myself of having used the term genocide (rarely, with qualifications) in reference to Bosnia, yet I've never been comfortable with insisting it was taking place--mostly because it distracts from the more urgent policy debate.
David Rieff, the author of Slaughterhouse, unconditionally believes the Serbs perpetrated genocide, and that most of the outside world watched indifferently, the same way it ignored the Holocaust. His book sums up what he saw in more than two years of frequent travel into the Bosnian war. In his first pages, he makes a comparison to Auschwitz, setting the tone for the rest of the book--an extended political tract against Serb efforts to exterminate the Bosnians.
The hollowness of the vague, unsubstantiated accounts of mass murder that appear every few pages dilutes Rieff's outrage to the point where it merely raises faint curiosity in the reader: The narrative does not communicate; Rieff paints no great and terrible picture of genocide. To the contrary, he awkwardly daydreams through a jumbled series of anecdotes, throwing in occasional half-baked theories about policy formation. Unless one subscribes to "the Bosnian cause," Rieff offers thin gruel with few new insights. Slaughterhouse can't live up to its title, because it isn't based on facts.
Where, one might ask, are the bodies? Genocide, of course, can't be merely a question of numbers, but one may use numbers as a rough--a very rough--way to figure out a threshold for declaring that genocide happened. Looking back after three years of war in Bosnia, a review of what we know about the numbers is sobering. How many people died? Rieff says more than 250,000. He never supports that claim, or explains its origins, but 250,000 is a number the press has used for some time. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees has no numbers for dead Bosnians, nor does the UN's peacekeeping office in New York. Sources at the International Committee of the Red Cross in Washington and Geneva tell me their estimates range from 20,000 to 30,000 dead. (They say that the war against the Turkish Kurds has been much deadlier, and in Chechnya the death toll may soon surpass Bosnia's.) Friends in the U.S. intelligence community tell me their best guess for confirmed dead runs to tens of thousands. (It's worth noting that Secretary of State Warren Christopher's office has sometimes demanded the numbers, only to discover they don't exist.) Intelligence sources add that official Bosnian statistics simply "come out of the air." The Bosnian Ministry of Health, for example, reports 200,000 dead or missing. Although we'll never know for certain, the number 250,000 probably evolved out of sloppy reporting of Bosnian government claims, a demonstration of the herd instinct at work among journalists. The question is not whether 250,000 dead is a wildly inflated number, but by how much it is wildly inflated.
There are good reasons not to call this genocide, at least until the bodies turn up. To misuse the word cheapens the memory of the Holocaust and diminishes the power to arouse horror against the real event. Rieff contends that we have a moral obligation to bear witness, but his preoccupation with his feelings, at the expense of factual reporting, obscures what it is we ought to be bearing witness to in Bosnia. As news accounts amply demonstrated, Serb policy was to ethnically cleanse, or violently chase out, all non-Serbs from the areas Serbs coveted.
Reluctance to use the term genocide does not lessen the barbarity of "ethnic cleansing," which resulted in over 2,000,000 refugees. Nor does it diminish the need for a thorough UN war crimes tribunal effort to sort out the guilty from the innocent on all sides. With much smaller numbers of dead, however, differences among the warring sides begin to blur palpably. Yet Rieff builds on his exaggeration of mass murder to heap contempt on the UN for drawing a "false moral equivalence" and falling, he says, into a Munich-like trap of peace at any price.
Late in the book, tucked in as almost an afterthought, Rieff quotes a UN Protection Force commander who explains that politics drove a UN mission concerned more with appearance than with results. Rieff expresses repeated disillusionment and bewilderment; like many analysts outside government, particularly in academia, he takes UN statements at face value to derive a pristine theoretical explanation of policy, when the political dynamics behind UN actions are as, if not more, important. I agree with much of Rieff's colorful critique of UN operations in Bosnia. But a worm's-eye view of UN results that ignores UN officials in New York and elsewhere misses much of the relevant story, as well as an opportunity to understand why international security institutions are failing.
To his credit, Rieff condemns as simpleminded the notion of lifting the arms embargo against the Bosnian Muslims (Senator Dole, take note.) It's obvious if you do some arithmetic: There are more than 1,000,000 Muslims in central Bosnia, 500,000 Serbs, but around 9,000,000 other, sympathetic Serbs in the neighborhood. With what kind of arms exactly could the Muslims win a protracted war? Neutron bombs? Rieff is inconsistent, because he favors the efforts of arms smugglers, but he honestly recognizes that for the West to meaningfully aid the Bosnian Muslims it would require going to war, suffering many Western casualties, and killing many Serbs, including noncombatants. It's a valid question whether such an intervention might kill more people than were already killed, or more than it might save.
No matter, since Rieff has given up his hopes for intervention. And he believes Bosnia is now irrevocably divided. It's unclear where he thinks the war is going, or whether he ever thinks about the future apart from his more general, apocalyptic passages about blood, fire, and the sword for Europe--notions that, like his genocide claims, need further analysis and evidence to persuade.
Self-absorbed in his musings on genocide, Rieff sometimes descends to caricatures of the horrors of war, with scant sensitivity to real Bosnian individuals. Comparing traveling in Bosnia to visiting a friend with AIDS, he brings an inappropriately surreal psychology of victimhood to bear. Although Rieff indignantly rejects charges that Bosnia provides much of the Western press corps, visiting entertainers, and various glitterati a mildly dangerous, titillating exploration, he offers no serious reflection on the irony of his being able to enter freely and leave what is truly a prison for its inhabitants. That freedom was among the most disconcerting emotional experiences I had in my travels to Sarajevo and through central Bosnia in 1992 and 1993.
Thankfully, Tom Gjelten provides a corrective. Gjelten details his experiences covering the former Yugoslavia for National Public Radio between 1991 and 1994. To tell the story of the war, he looks at it through the eyes of the staff of the Sarajevo newspaper, Oslobodjenje, in unvarnished personal detail. His elegant writing contains a wealth of context with cool, understated judgements. It's the right starting point for deciding how to handle the crisis. Unlike Rieff, Gjelten refrains from making charges of genocide, using the word in only one passage, where he characterizes the war as having "genocidal aspects" in which over 100,000 Muslims died (though he, too, gives no basis for that figure).
Gjelten reveals the Sarajevans' awful personal humiliation, their heartbreaking realization that normality was irrevocably shattered and that only a lucky few could escape. His book is less about the politics of war than the human and philosophical dilemmas of professionals struggling with conflicting duties. Despite disclaimers of sympathy for the Bosnians, Gjelten submerges his personality into a neutral observer; that's a difficult and rare achievement in writing about the tragedy of Bosnia. His moral lesson is a reprise of Conrad's Heart of Darkness: Nobody should imagine he is immune to the lure of hateful depravity or to a weakened sense of depravity as one fights it. Sarajevo becomes, as Sarajevans like to say, a vision of the future--not because the world is doomed to experience ethnic violence, but because Sarajevo proves the veneer of civilization is paper-thin. The abhorrent has a way of shading into acceptable social practice. Sarajevo, site of the 1984 Winter Olympics, in its gritty way symbolizes modern anxiety about civilization's tendency toward collapse.
Vlado Mrkic, Oslobodjenje's senior Serb reporter, paints an impressionistic picture of how the war hurts all innocents, but he finds himself increasingly embittered, on the wrong side of political correctness. The newspaper censors his criticism of the Bosnian government. It can't, for example, bring itself to report on organized crime in Sarajevo until after it's (partially) cleaned up. Nor can Oslobodjenje explore who's to blame for Muslim-Croat fighting in central Bosnia raging from early 1993 to early 1994. Gordona Knezevic, a Serb who returned from Cairo in 1991 to become a political reporter and then deputy editor, takes an increasingly pro-Bosnian government line, until she too realizes the paper must oppose hardline Muslim fundamentalists in the government, despite the risks for Oslobodjenje's access to resources (fuel, newsprint) and political independence. Finally fed up by the war, Gordana devotes all her energy to getting her son out of Sarajevo and out of Bosnia. Having succeeded, she also flees. Kemal Kurspahic, the Muslim editor who keeps the paper going in its darkest hours, moves to Washington, DC, worried that his fight for a non-political Bosnian free press may already be lost.
Multicultural, sophisticated Sarajevo wakes up when the shooting stops (Western threats to bomb Serb siege guns produced a tenuous calm from February 1994 to the present) only to find that while it defended itself from Serb nationalists, its society was turned over to coarse Muslim refugees who cared little for pluralistic values. This drama captures precisely a continuously evolving Sarajevan sense of surprise at the war. The Sarajevans fail to see the war coming as the first shells began to fall. They fail, at each step, to see that the West won't intervene. They fail to see when they have lost the war. They largely fail to see, or admit, how much they have been changed.
Sarajevans, like Americans, believe that while sometimes bad things happen to good people, ultimately good will triumph. Thus they reject compromise with injustice. Their thirst for justice inexorably transforms under pressure into a thirst for revenge. Gjelten puts this in more nuanced terms. "The Serb nationalist forces," he says, "did not conquer Sarajevo," but they "weakened Sarajevo enough to change the balance of political forces in the city and strengthen the hard-line Muslims who had nationalist designs of their own. Those Sarajevans who were struggling for a civil state slowly gave up."
About two-thirds of Sarajevo Daily concerns the war; one-third is background. Gjelten's gloss of Balkan history up to the eighties is better, and more readable, than any available academic or journalistic treatment. Yet even his description of the events that resulted in Yugoslavia's violent disintegration remains incomplete.
It's correct to argue, as Rieff, Gjelten, and most Western commentators do, that the war did not spring from "ancient ethnic hatreds," that it is rather an essentially modern political phenomenon of evil, petty opportunists creating hatreds and false histories from whole cloth. (Gjelten notes that Radovan Karadzic, the leader of Bosnian Serb nationalists, failed chicken farmer, sometime poet, and convicted embezzler argued with apparent sincerity, only a short while before the war, that relations were excellent between Bosnia's Serbs and Muslims. Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic also opposed nationalism until he discovered its power as a political vehicle.
The Croats and the Slovenes, however, also played their part, frightening and goading Serbs of all stripes to support extreme nationalists in what they, perhaps understandably, felt were defensive measures. Despite the Serb nationalists' intention to wage a violent war, the Croats and Slovenes shouldn't have guaranteed that outcome by backing the Serbs into a corner. Some fighting was probably inevitable, but the carnage we have seen was not.
A minimalist historical gloss should also question the West's role in adding strains to the crisis through ill-considered international recognition of secessionist states like Bosnia and Croatia. Since the West was never willing to guarantee their independence, recognition confers at best artificial conventions such as seats at the UN and embassies abroad. Yet the idea of Croatia and Bosnia as legitimate states focuses grievances much more sharply among combatants, making a settlement infinitely harder to reach. Enamored of ratifying the notion of a state system, Western leaders turned a blind eye to "anomalies" from fixed interstate relations.
Although Gjelten doesn't discuss international issues or intervention, the contrast of his work with Rieff's points out as plainly as anything can what mires the interventionist debate: We have no common agreement on a definition of the problem. Complicating matters, the problem changed and evolved over time, so that solutions that might have worked at earlier stages became inappropriate later. Because Gjelten's book opens the door to a fresh discussion of definitions, it's a tremendously important inspiration to rethink the West's stalled policy. That the book doesn't cover all the issues is not a fair complaint. In the shelf of books that has appeared on the war in the former Yugoslavia, none presents a complete picture, and none will, until we see the end to the war, or even the beginning of the end.
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|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Mar 1, 1995|
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