Five Sources of the Srebrenica Legend – George Pumphrey, February 2010

Five Sources of the Srebrenica Legend

George Pumphrey


The debate around President Tadic’s resolution on Srebrenica has again focused the spotlight on this Bosnian town of the Drina Valley. Inspired by the ad hoc tribunal set up in The Hague to punish (Serb) war crimes during the Bosnian Civil War, the resolution is causing dissention about whether Serbia should plead mea culpa and beg forgiveness for the crime supposedly committed nearly fifteen years ago. 

There are many aspects to this debate. Whereas Rasim Ljajic, Serbia’s Labor Minister and President of the National Council for Cooperation with the Hague Tribunal, says that he believes it is “important that the resolution on Srebrenica is adopted for moral and political reason(s),” other parties insist that there be a resolution condemning also the war crimes committed against Serbs. 

An appeal to Serbian President Boris Tadic, signed by Serbian and foreign intellectuals, soon to be published, demands that the president reconsider his efforts to put through a parliamentary resolution that “would treat the Srebrenica massacre of July 1995 as a paradigmatic event of the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina and doing so with language that could be interpreted as Serbia’s acceptance of responsibility for ‘genocide’.” 

The resolution of the Serbian government would have wide-ranging negative effects, not only on Serbia. But the appeal of the intellectuals currently in circulation inadvertently also makes a historical mistake. 

It has been nearly fifteen years since Srebrenica was handed over to Bosnian Serb forces to make way for a ceasefire accord.  Those were 15 years of heavy propaganda about an alleged execution of 7,000 to 8,000 Muslims. 

Though the appeal strongly confronts – with very good arguments – the Tadic kowtow, it makes the mistake of opening the backdoor to a similar kowtow later. To date, all those who have claimed that a mass execution had taken place, have been unable to prove it. Yet the appeal gratuitously admits that the alleged mass execution had happened, even seeking – if not to justify – at least to relativize the importance of what they assume to have happened. The second paragraph of the appeal reads in part:

“The execution of Moslem prisoners in July of 1995, after Bosnian Serb forces took over Srebrenica, was a war crime, but it is by no means a paradigmatic event. The informed public in Western countries knows that, at that time, Serbian forces executed in three days approximately as many Moslems as Moslem forces, raiding surrounding Serbian villages out of Srebrenica, had murdered during the preceding three years.”

Fifteen years ago, there was also such a deluge of propaganda that only very few attempted to go back upstream to examine the evidence of a mass execution at the story’s source. 

If one looks back into the history of the legend of Srebrenica, one will find that a “Srebrenica Massacre” has at least five sources of origin. 

  1. Hakija Meholjic, former president of the Social Democratic Party in Srebrenica, who served as police chief, was one of Srebrenica’s delegates in September 1993 to his party’s congress in Sarajevo. After the war he said in an interview to the journal Dani what Alia Itzetbegovic had told his delegation before the congress began: “You know, I [Izetbegovic] was offered by Clinton in April 1993 (…) that [if] the Chetnik forces enter Srebrenica, carry out a slaughter of 5,000 Muslims, (…) there will be a [NATO-US] military intervention. Though the Srebrenica delegates turned the offer down, this provides an indication of what was needed to sway Western public opinion into accepting a NATO intervention in the Bosnian Civil War on the Muslim/Croat side against the Serbs. Even before Serb forces had marched into Srebrenica, the Clinton and Izetbegovic governments had already planned a “Srebrenica massacre” to lock Bosnian Serbs into a strategic position where they could only accept terms dictated by the West. 
  2. August 10, 1995 , in the midst of the Croat Operation Storm, the largest ethnic cleansing operation of the period – carried out with US official and mercenary assistance – US Ambassador to the United Nations, Madeleine Albright, addressed a closed session of the UN Security Council, which was about to open a discussion on the ethnic cleansing taking place in Croatia. Albright showed aerial surveillance photos purporting to show that Bosnian Serb troops “committed wide-scale atrocities against Muslim civilians” in the aftermath of the takeover of Srebrenica. She was not more precise than to say “wide-scale atrocities against Muslim civilians.” When the NY Times, the following day, reported on Albrights peep-show, the journal noted: “Ms. Albright’s presentation today came as thousands of Serbian refugees fled their homes after a Croatian military offensive, carried out with tacit American approval, overran an area of Croatia previously held by rebel Serbs.”While making her presentation to the Security Council, Albright was already preparing political and public opinion for the fact that there would be no evidence to back up her claims. She warned: “We will keep watching to see if the Bosnian Serbs try to erase the evidence of what they have done.” The question today is, where is all that evidence that Albright was keeping her eye on?
  3. August 18, 1995 – also during “Operation Storm” – the Christian Science Monitor (CSM) published an exclusive “eyewitness” account by David Rhode, their young ambitious correspondent working out of Zagreb. He claimed to have been to Srebrenica – “without the permission of rebel Bosnian Serbs, look[ing] into charges by American officials that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Muslims were killed by the Serbs after they overran two UN-protected ‘safe areas.’ (…) The visit by this reporter was the first by a western journalist to the sites of alleged atrocities near the former safe areas of Srebrenica and Zepa,” alleges the journal. In other words he claims to have gone to Bosnia to confirm what Madeleine Albright had claimed, when she hijacked the Security Council meeting on Operation Storm.Journalist and author Peter Brock had long since exposed the working methods of western war propagandists, in his excellently researched trail-blazing “Dateline Yugoslavia” report on the degeneration of the news media to become a party to the Bosnian Civil War. He wrote back in 1993: “Reporters tended to foxhole in Sarajevo, Zagreb, or Belgrade and depend on their networks of ‘stringers’ and outlying contacts. Most arriving correspondents spoke no Serbo-Croatian, and interpreters were often domestic journalists or ‘stringers’ with established allegiances as well as keen intuitions about what post communist censors in the ‘new democracies’ in Zagreb and Sarajevo preferred. Reporters began to rely on aggressive government spokespeople – the government Information Ministry in Zagreb soon acquired scores of English-fluent publicists, and the Bosnian government also mobilized scores of handlers for the Western media.”

    In any case there was nothing in Rohde’s “eyewitness” account that indicates that the author had actually been in Srebrenica. There were no photographs of the things he claimed to have seen. The article is illustrated with archive photos. Did Rohde write the article in a hotel room or a bar in Zagreb?

    After winning the (politicized) Pulitzer Prize for his “Srebrenica reporting”, David Rohde inadvertently admitted in an interview with Newsweek magazine (April 23, 1996) that he had not taken a camera on, what he claims to have been, his first trip to Srebrenica. Is one to believe that the ambitious journalist would travel all the way from Zagreb to Srebrenica to gather proof of mass executions without a camera?

    Two months later, in October 1995, Rohde did go to Srebrenica and was obviously acting so suspiciously that he was arrested by Serb military personnel, who, according to Rohde, thought he was working for the CIA. The Bosnian Serb authorities seemed more than anxious to send him back west.

    In his, above mentioned, Newsweek interview, he answers that his “biggest disappointment” about his October trip to Srebrenica was the fact that he was captured. “I was very frustrated because the Serbs ended up getting the film I had of these graves, which were the first on the ground pictures, pictures of the bones, pictures of the canes taken from old men.” He takes a camera to Srebrenica in October and, from what he reports in the interview, acted in a way that would get him arrested. This allowed him to claim that they took his film “evidence”.

    In his Srebrenica “eyewitness” reports in August and in October 1995 Rohde presented “evidence” of large scale executions, e.g. empty ammunition crates, piles of canes etc all meant to obviously create an image of mass slaughter reminiscent of Auschwitz.

    Given the fact that the ongoing exhumations were not producing evidence that could come anywhere close to the original claims of mass executions of between 7,000 and 8,000, Rohde too began to cover his tracks by using imprecise “ambushes,” “massacres” and “series of ambushes”. In his NY Times article (Jul. 25, 1998) he began referring to “ambushes and massacres” and 2 years later (NY Times July 9, 2000) he writes of “a series of ambushes and mass executions.” He gives no indication of how many were supposedly killed in warfare – “ambushes,” which is no war crime. The term “massacre” is merely an emotionally charged term that says nothing about the circumstances.

    Rohde stands alone with his claims. Whereas David Rohde claimed to have found mass graves, other journalists, who set out on similar expeditions had different results. Mira Beham, a media analyst mentioned in her book “Kriegstrommeln” (War Drums) that,

    “During the months following the fall of Srebrenica, 24 international journalists, among them Mike Wallace of CBS, a BBC team and several CNN journalists attempted to follow the indications derived from the known US satellite photos and all on-the-spot information about known mass graves – to no avail. The results of their fruitless search were not made public.”

    Although based in Zagreb during the largest ethnic cleansing operation of the Yugoslav civil wars, David Rohde never published an article on Croatia’s Operation Storm, while it was taking place.

  4. Srebrenica was handed over July 12, 1995. Two months later, September 13, the International Committee of the Red Cross issued a press statement which affirmed: “The ICRC’s head of operations for Western Europe, Angelo Gnaedinger, visited Pale and Belgrade from 2 to 7 September to obtain information from the Bosnian Serb authorities about the 3,000 persons from Srebrenica, whom witnesses say, were arrested by Bosnian Serb forces. The ICRC has asked for access as soon as possible to all those arrested (so far it has been able to visit only about 200 detainees), and for details of any deaths. The ICRC has also approached the Bosnia-Herzegovina authorities seeking information on some 5,000 individuals who fled Srebrenica, some of whom reached central Bosnia.”When the NY Times reported on this ICRC press release on September 15, one finds a very different count: “About 8,000 Muslims are missing from Srebrenica, the first of two United Nations-designated ‘safe areas’ overrun by Bosnian Serb troops in July, the Red Cross said today. (…) Among the missing were 3,000, mostly men, who were seen being arrested by Serbs. After the collapse of Srebrenica, the Red Cross collected 10,000 names of missing people, said Jessica Barry, a spokeswoman. In addition to those arrested, about 5,000 ‘have simply disappeared,’ she said.”

    Aside from simply adding the 3,000 Muslim men in Srebrenica arrested upon arrival of the Bosnian-Serb military to the 5,000 Muslim men, reported to have left Srebrenica BEFORE the arrival of Bosnian Serb forces – this NY Times (September 15) report makes no mention of the fact that a sizable portion of the 5,000 group had already reached Muslim territory and that the Red Cross was asking the Bosnia-Herzegovina [Muslim] authorities for information about these 5,000.

    The NY Times, on September 15, had not only distorted the statement of the Red Cross, it had also disregarded what it had printed in its own pages two months earlier. A few days after the takeover of Srebrenica the NY Times (July 18, 1995) reported: “some 3,000 to 4,000 Bosnian Muslims who were considered by UN officials to be missing after the fall of Srebrenica have made their way through enemy lines to Bosnian government territory.” Similarly the Times of London also reported on August 2, 1995, that “thousands of the ‘missing’ Bosnian Muslim soldiers from Srebrenica who have been at the centre of reports of possible mass executions by the Serbs, are believed to be safe to the northeast of Tuzla. (…) For the first time yesterday, however, the Red Cross in Geneva said it had heard from sources in Bosnia that up to 2,000 Bosnian Government troops were in an area north of Tuzla. They had made their way there from Srebrenica ‘without their families being informed’, a spokesman said, adding that it had not been possible to verify the reports because the Bosnian Government refused to allow the Red Cross into the area.”

    The NY Times’ distortion of the Red Cross’ statement combining the 5,000 of the one group and the 3,000 of the other is still today – 15 years later – the official count of “missing and therefore presumed dead. “ 

  5. The last origin of the legend of a mass execution is the conviction of Bosnian Serb General Radislav Krstic in August 2001, six years after Bosnian Serb troops marched into Srebrenica, and five years after the ICTY began digging up every molehill in the area to look for bodies. According to the NY Times (August 3, 2001) Gen. Krstic was convicted “of genocide (…) for his role in the massacre of more than 7,000 Muslims by Bosnian Serbs at the town of Srebrenica in July 1995. It was the first ruling of genocide in Europe handed down by an international tribunal.” The NY Times failed to inform its readers that Gen. Krstic was not even present in Srebrenica at the time in question. But the article does give important information about the evidentiary basis of the Bosnian Serb general’s conviction. The article indicates that “Tribunal investigators have exhumed 2,028 bodies from mass graves in the region. An additional 2,500 bodies have been located.”This means that at the time of the verdict, the tribunal had no evidence that the crime Gen. Krstic was convicted of – the summary execution of “more than 7,000 people” – had ever been committed. During the process of exhumation, the tribunal showed neither interest in the identity of the bodies, nor the time and causes of death. The tribunal did not even have evidence that more than 2,028 people were dead – regardless of when or under what circumstances they had died. How then could they convict him of the deaths of “more than 7,000” people?

    Gen. Krstic was sentenced to 46 years in prison, 4.6 times the sentence of Adolf Hitler’s successor, Admiral Karl Doenitz (10 yrs.) and 2.3 times the sentence of Albert Speer (20 yrs.), the Nazi’s head architect. 

There is a second legal aspect closely connected to both the Tadic resolution and the appeal. The starting point of both is the affirmation that “the massacre” had taken place. Neither Yugoslavia nor Serbia was implicated in what was supposed to have happened in Srebrenica, Bosnia. What right do they, President Tadic, the Serbian Parliament, or American and European intellectuals, have to declare for Bosnian Serbs that they should be guilty? 

In September 2002, the Documentation Centre of Bosnia’s Srpska Republic published its “Report About Case Srebrenica (The First Part).” This report was the result of years of research and investigations. Its conclusions were differentiated in spite of the intense pressure on Bosnian Serbs from the US/West European colonial administration represented, at the time, by Jeremy “Paddy” Ashdown. Under pressure of the colonial administration, the report was withdrawn from circulation, because it did not conform to what the ICTY, the EU, and the USA wanted them to proclaim. Some copies had already made it into circulation. Both the Tadic resolution and the appeal of the intellectuals have ignored Republika Srpska’s research and investigative work.

From the very beginning of the civil wars that broke up Yugoslavia, it became clear that these were all anti-Serb wars. At any given stage in the breakup of Yugoslavia, local Serbs were being targeted, as Serbs and because they were Serbs, be they Krajina Serbs, Bosnian Serbs or Serbian Serbs in KosMet or throughout the rest of Serbia. For anti-Serbs “a Serb is a Serb is a Serb …” regardless of what he does, how he thinks, how deeply he bows to the west or how tall and proud he stands as part of the human race. To anti-Serbs it makes little difference if it is Radovan or Marko Karadzic. 

Srebrenica was important for involving Serbia in the Dayton negotiations, representing the Srpska Republic. With the accusation of mass executions in Srebrenica and an international arrest warrant for Bosnian leaders, Karadzic and Mladic, President Milosevic negotiated on their behalf. Remember “a Serb is a Serb is a Serb…”.

History will judge whether this was a political mistake leading to the linkage of Bosnian Serb affairs – and fate – to Serbia. In any case, in public opinion it helped strengthen the strategic design of implicating all Serbs in whatever (wrong) any Serb does. 

Over the past 15 years, the ICTY has been trying to pin a mass execution on Serb defendants with little or no success. Therefore they are putting the government of Serbia under pressure to admit to a war crime, it had nothing to do with. “A Serb is a Serb is a Serb…”. 

There are political forces, particularly in the German-speaking realm, who have sworn vengeance on “the Serbs” not only for having resisted Teutonic conquest throughout history, for being among the victorious in both the First and Second World Wars, but also because it was basically Serb initiatives and interests that united the Southern Slavs across religious lines to create a Yugo–Slavia. 

Germany could only shake off its stigmata as post-Nazi, when it creates for public opinion a new group to be stigmatized as “worse than the Nazis”. Over the past 15 years, some of these forces, particularly in media and politics, have sought to make Serbs “untouchables”, not just Bosnian Serbs or Serbs of Serbia, but Serbs in general. A Serb “guilt” is supposed to replace “German guilt” left in public memory by the Second World War. 

This can only be accomplished in trivializing  German war crimes. Serbs are being accused of having executed up to 8,000 people. German politicians compared this to Auschwitz. That would come to 750 Jews killed by Nazis for each alleged victim of the Serbs! In May (1999) a German court convicted the Gestapo helper Alfons Götzfrid to 10 years – suspended sentence – for “complicity in the murder” of 17,000 Jews, while, in the same month the German Supreme Court upheld the conviction and sentencing of Bosnian Serb, Nikola Jorgic to 13 years (his sentence was not suspended) for “genocide” carried out on 30 Bosnian Muslims. Why is there no outcry at this historical revisionism? Why is the Serbian government participating in it?

Multi-ethnic republics run counter to the German “Blut und Boden” ethnic concept of nation and national entity. Though German policy was discrete, appearing even more cosmopolitan during the 1945 – 1990 post-war period, with the annexation of the German Democratic Republic, some in German leadership saw a chance to regain the old status as a European – and therefore as a world – power, dictating its own conditions and rules. German European policy includes a consolidation of German-speaking “Germandom” regions throughout Europe, while fomenting ethnic dissention, even secessionist strivings, among the ethnic minorities of its rivals. One need only note that all of the multi-ethnic nations that evolved on the basis of German defeat in WW I – the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia – have disappeared from the map. 

At the 6th Fürstenfeldbrucker Symposium for the Leadership of the German Military and Business, held September 23 – 24, 1991, the former CDU Minister of Defense, Rupert Scholz (who is an expert in constitutional law and the spokesperson for the legal policy section of the right-wing Christian Democratic Party) explained why Germany should promote the breakup of Yugoslavia by recognizing the Slovenian and Croat secessionist Yugoslav republics. He explains: 

“(…) the Yugoslav conflict undeniably is of fundamental pan-European significance. (…) We believe that we have overcome and dealt with the principle sequels (…) of the Second World War.[By this he is referring mainly to the annexation of the GDR, the German “unification” and regaining full sovereignty from the victorious WW II powers.] But in other areas we are today still confronted with overcoming the consequences of the First World War. Yugoslavia is, as a consequence of the First World War, a very artificial construction, having nothing to do with the right of self-determination. (…) In my opinion, Slovenia and Croatia must be immediately recognized internationally. (…) When this recognition has taken place, the Yugoslavian conflict will no longer be a domestic Yugoslav problem, where no international intervention can be permitted.”

The anti-Serb propaganda used to create this image, though widespread in the USA, did not originate in the United States and served no strategic purpose for US interests. In this case US-Americans were duped as much as West Europeans. Most US-Americans have no idea who the Chetniks, Handschars, Ustashi or Skandebergs were. 

When one looks in the direction of The Hague, one can easily understand why the President of the National Council for Cooperation with the Hague Tribunal, Rasim Ljajic, is so supportive of the government’s resolution. 

The Hague Tribunal has built its entire reputation on the thesis that Serbs – it doesn’t matter WHICH Serbs – committed genocide in Bosnia. Srebrenica is their “proof”. Now that the ICTY is about to expire, they would like to “go out with a bang.” That possibility was handed them on a silver platter when Dr. Radovan Karadzic was abducted to The Hague. Throughout the 15 years since Srebrenica, the ICTY has not assembled enough evidence to support either a charge of genocide – under the UN Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide – nor one that summary executions of up to 8,000 people had occurred in Srebrenica, so they have put pressure on the Serbian government to make an official public mea culpa declaration. In exchange for its “cooperation” the Serbian government will be “taken into consideration” for eventual membership in the EU and/or NATO. But there is only one hitch: once the declaration is made one cannot take it back and the nebulous promises being given the government in Belgrade are just that: promises and nothing concrete. 

This all leads to a last very unfortunate aspect of the appeal. Many of those who have already signed, are long-term activists for justice in the Balkans; some are among the few who have continued to criticize the travesty taking place in the inquisitions at the ad hoc tribunals both in The Hague and in Arusha. Some are authors, who have come under heavy attack and been slandered by the anti-Serb camp because they have placed the official Srebrenica version into question.

It is easily understandable that they would be among the first to recognize the grave multiple dangers posed by the Tadic resolution. Unfortunately they overlooked that the second paragraph of the appeal is also a historical error. Signing their names – and to some degree, their reputations – to a document that unequivocally claims that mass executions had taken place in Srebrenica is a setback to the years of work that they individually have invested. 

The appeal also points to existing skepticism in one of its later paragraphs, which reads in part: “More importantly, the issue is still not settled what really happened in Srebrenica in July of 1995, why, and who was behind it. The accepted version of events, shaped mainly by war propaganda and hyperbolic media reports, is becoming increasingly obsolete because it is being vigorously questioned and reassessed by critical thinkers in the Western world. Much reliable information on these events is still unavailable and needs to be researched, but without it responsible conclusions on the nature and scope of the Srebrenica massacre cannot be drawn.” The appeal should have maintained this skepticism throughout.