Wednesday, July 06, 2005

The Story of the Fall of Srebrenica

On July 11th, it’s a decade since the fall of the Bosnian Muslim enclave of Srebrenica in Eastern Bosnia to the Bosnian Serb forces. Important in itself, the fall of the enclave was followed, after the evacuation of all women and children, of the deliberate mass executions of several thousand men.

It was the worst war crime in Europe since the Second World War.

Few things have inspired so much confused debate and conspiracy theories as the fall of Srebrenica.

In reality, the fall itself was a fairly straight-forward and limited military event. What started as a fairly limited VRS operation to reduce the size of the southern part of the enclave, perhaps primarily in order to cut some Bosnian Army supply routes, quickly developed into the successful attempt to capture the entire enclave.

It seems likely that this shift of emphasis of the VRS operation to a large extent was caused by the perceived absence of any coherent attempt to defend the enclave. In the end it was a very small VRS force that entered the ancient mining town by mid-day on Tuesday July 11th 1995.

Often this is all blamed on the UN force there. But this force was neither equipped nor mandated to militarily defend the enclave. Earlier proposals by the UN Secretary-General for a more robust force that could have done this had been rejected by the members of the Security Council.

As the small attack against the southern portion of the enclave started, the estimate also by the UN forces was that the Bosnian Muslim forces in the so called 28th Division would be able to fend off most attacks for some time to come.

But it was when these suddenly abandoned the defence, withdrew to a remote corner of the enclave and started the ill-fated attempt to break out in the direction of the 2nd Corps area around Tuzla that the entire thing just collapsed and the VRS forces with General Mladic could literally promenade into the town.

The order to the so called 28th Division not to defend Srebrenica evidently come from Sarajevo.

Why this happened has been the subject of much open and less open discussion in Sarajevo.

An interesting accoun is given in a book published by in association with The Bosnian Institute in London last year. In “How Bosnia Armed”, Marko Attila Hoare writes as follows:

The counterpart to the Sarajevo offensive was the abandonment of the besieged enclaves of Srebrenica and Zepa in East Bosnia to Serb forces in July. Izetbegovic, Ganic and other SDA leaders had discussed handing over Srebrenica and Zepa to the VRS on several occasions, in exchange for Serb abandonment of the occupied Sarajevo suburbs of Vogosca and Ilijas that separated the capital from the rest of government-held territory. In March 1995 Naser Oric, commander of the 28th Division in Srebrenica, and fifteen of his officers were withdrawn from the enclave for ‘retraining’ and never returned; yet in June the defenders of Srebrenica were required to launch diversionary attacks on the VRS in support of the offensive around Sarajevo, a tactic General Divjak condemned as ‘insane’ since it provided justification for the Serb counter-offensive and occupation of the ‘safe area’. The order to launch diversionary attacks was for this reason resisted by the commander of the ARBiH’s 28th Division in the enclave. While insisting on diversionary attacks from Srebrenica, the Staff of the 2nd Corps moved its elite units away from Srebrenica and towards Sarajevo, a mere four days before the enclave fell. 2nd Corps commander Sead Delic resisted all calls from his officers for a military push to link up with soldiers and civilians fleeing from Srebrenica. On 11 July, the day VRS occupied the town, Rasim Delic devoted only five minutes of his twenty-five minute military report to this imminent military catastrophe. The SDA leadership also ignored the latter, preoccupied as it was with finding a replacement for ‘Vice-President’ Ganic who had been injured in a road accident. This was despite the fact that the VRS’s conquest of Srebrenica was followed by the cold-blooded massacre of at least 7 000 Muslim men and boys. The ARBiH General Staff made no military effort whatsoever to assist Srebrenica, for whose survival the regime chose to rely solely on the international community. Delic subsequently blamed Srebrenica’s fall on the incompetence of its defenders. Izetbegovic admitted that the town could have been held out for a further month had it received the support of the Army. Naser Oric accuses the Bosnian regime of having deliberately sacrificed the enclave; his own prior power struggle with the SDA for control of the town might help to explain the failure of coordination between him and the commanders of the General Staff and the 2nd Corps. The fall of Srebrenica was followed by the VRS’s conquest of Zepa on July 25, an event that received even less attention from the Bosnian leadership and from Western powers.

This account of courses blames a considerable amount of blame for the sequence of events that lead to the fall on the military and political authorities of Sarajevo.

Irrespecive of the veracity of this account, I can testify to the fact that their level of concern over the issue both prior to the fall of the enclace and immediately thereafter was distinctly low. They certainly did not ring any alarm bells.

The VRS attack was of course a violation of the 'safe area' that had been established around Srebrenica. But it was a regrettable fact that respect for UN resolutions had already started to deterioate seriously. In early May, Croat forces had attacked and overrun the UN 'protected area' in Western Slavonia without much of a reaction from the international community.

As the situation around the enclave deteriorated during that weekend, some attempts to relieve the situation were however made.

A number of combat air support missions were flown by NATO fighter-bombers from their bases in Italy. But once over the target area after the elaborate attempts to assemble a so called “strike package” over the Adriatic, the pilots in the fighters found it very difficult to locate any targets of substance, and the strikes that eventually were carried out had virtually no effect. More of them would in all probability have made no difference whatsoever.

Air power in situations like these - small-scale fighting between infantry units in forested terrain - is a myth. In particular when the lead time is so long as it has to be when bases are very far away.

But the myth nevertheless remains alive. A particular form is that there was some plot whereby the UN command in Zagreb refused to use air power to defend the enclace due to some sort of deal. But this myth bears no resemblance to the thruth. Air power was used - and proved ineffective.

Other UN forces were available in Bosnia, but the more potent of these – the recently arrivede combat-capable Rapid Reaction Force – was around Tomislavgrad far away from Eastern Bosnia due also to the numerous restrictions put on their deployment by the Sarajevo government.

And - as said - there was hardly a sense of urgency since the estimate by those doing these things was that the fall of Srebrenica wasn't imminent.

After the fall of the enclave, there was a brief discussion on whether force could be use to retake it. French President Chirac wanted to do this, and asked the US for help with helicopters to move the forces towards the area. The US considered this far too risky and declined the request.

The fall of the enclave is thus a story which is far more complicated than generally perceived. Piece by piece we are also learning more through the work of the UN tribunal ICTY in The Hague. So far, what we have learnt confirms what I have written above.

But there are still pieces to the puzzle that at the least I'm not fully aware of. Large amounts of VRS documents have been secured, and there also remains to be heard the story of Nasir Oric, who's also in The Hague indicted for other war crimes around Srebrenica.

What followed after the fall of the enclave – the carnage along the way of the break-out column as it made its way towards 2nd Corps area as well as the systematic massacre of those captured – is another story entirely.

Here, there is no doubt that the massacres were organized by the security branch of the VRS forces under the command of general Mladic. It is thus imperative that he is apprehended and brought to The Hague in order to answer for these horrendous crimes.

The question that still requires an answer is however why it was done. The war in Bosnia was a brutal one with gross violations of humanitarian law by all sides, but even by the standards of this brutal war what happened after the fall of Srebrenica went beyond everything else.

Was it something decided ad hoc due to something that happened - or did not happen? Was it pre-planned during a longer time? There is no doubt that there was much bad blood around Srebrenica after previous rounds of fighting in 1992 and 1993 - as well as longer back - but is this enough to explain what happened?

Responsibility for the massacres and the war crimes is clear. But we still don't know the full historical truth of why it happened.

The crime after the fall of Srebrenica was unique in Bosnian war history – and in modern European history.