Mess in the Bosnia and Hercegovina – Edward Pearce

Mess in the Bosnia and Herzegovina

Reprinted without permission, for “fair use” only


The Guardian, 28 January 1995

Lies, damned lies and statistics


Edward Pearce

THE EVIDENCE offered to John Simpson and Panorama on Monday night by Sir Michael Rose was surely one of those news stories which change all previous news stories.  All wars have both atrocities and atrocity stories and discrimination helps.  

One atrocity outraging everyone was the dreadful bombing of Sarajevo market place.  More of that later.  But Sir Michael’s testimony demands a response . 

On Gorazde, the received view was that it had been devastated by the Serbs because Sir Michael failed to intervene more.  As he and the Government keep saying, it is not his or the UN’s job to intervene so as to fight a war for the Sarajevo government against the Bosnian Serbs .

Peace-keeping intervention is governed by ground rules and field judgments .

Sir Michael’s view that Gorazde was, by the standards of a hard time, not suffering exceptional damage looked nonsensical from the pictures ofgreat numbers of roofs clean off the houses.  It looked so until the general pointed out that taking a roof off is the sure sign of ethnic cleansing – here, the ethnic cleansing of Serbs by Muslims, something known to have happened long before the siege .

The American media, clamouring for intervention – aka bombing the Serbs – had seen satellite pictures.  These told them all they needed to know and it was wrong.  Finally, the people still running Gorazde were the Muslims – apparatchiks from outside trying to stop filming and the local mayor, relaxed and friendly to UN commander and film crew.  So the UN, raged at by the American and British media for abandoning Gorazde,had by their calibrated action, headed off the siege .

Bihac has also filled the papers, as the central point of a general damning of Sir Michael, Mr Akashi, David Owen and the useless UN.  The term employed by the shrilling William Safire was “Neville Chamberlain” . (I recall Patrick Cormack bullfrogging himself in the Commons to deliver the same message.  The betrayers of Bihac were like NevilleChamberlain.)  From all hands the argument was pushed:  this was another Munich.  Always disregard anyone using the term “Munich”, an idiot’s Day-Glo slogan at the best of times .

The source of that hysteria was set out by Simpson, as scrupulous a journalist as there is.  Here were the clips of Haris Silajdzic, prime minister of the Bosnian state, proclaiming 70,000 dead to television cameras.  He did so like a true professional, in a series of well-judged optional bites, upping the ante as he went along.  By the end, General Rose stood accused of personal responsibility for 70,000 dead.  The general was shown in the same pictures – tight-lipped, furious, unable to intervene, obviously a killer-bureaucrat . As clearly, the wretched British were anti-Muslim, Sir Michael was pro-Serb, America must be told.  And instantly, a bawling Ginger Rogers-lookalike newscaster on an American news bulletin was shown relaying the full Silajdzic story.  Now nobody knows outside the highest levels of government how near we came to war on that – real,heavy-bombing interventionary war on behalf of the Muslim authority in Sarajevo against the Bosnian Serb forces .

The barely secret agenda of the war party has been that the Serbs must be bombed either to the conference table or submission.  That this would be a lunatic commitment to killing and getting killed in a conflict we did not make has been the government’s position throughout .

Historically the Major government will take very high credit for keepingout of such a bloody undertaking – for being grown up!  But Mr Silajdzic’s sound-bites went round the world.  There was a real risk that the imperial American media might have harrumphed Bill Clinton intoa crusade.  Incidentally, the Crusades and the hysteria preceding them are better instruction to statesmanship across 800 years than Munich over 50 .
 For the story of Bihac, as Rose would reveal, was a thorough-paced lie .
There were not 70,000 deaths there but around 1,000, and not women and children, but mostly troops defending it.  And Bihac when reached, and its citizens talked to, proved not conquered .

It will be a long time before one sees anything to equal the psychological scoop of Simpson’s subsequent interview with Silajdzic. The body language was at a Ciceronian level of eloquence, buttocks slithering over leather, head averting itself, eye contact fled as he shouted that he did not want to talk about this and why was Simpson pursuing him?  It was a taking of the Fifth Amendment by twitch .

The man was revealed, by Rose’s evidence, but more devastatingly by his own gestures, as a sound-biter soundbitten, a brilliant false portrayer of an unreachable scene garlanded with uncheckable detail.  But a great part of the world media had bought the original story, publishing it to the accompaniment of thundering calls for war .
Had ministers cringed at the cat-calling of “Neville Chamberlain” we should have gone to war on behalf of hand-out journalism .

For Mr Silajdzic and his office have been a good source for stories. There is natural sympathy among reporters for the Muslims as those attacked in the first place.  But good sources can also grow comfortable.  The thought occurs reading Francis Wheen’s spat with the Spectator that the one point of agreement between them is that John Zamatica, as a known lieutenant of the Bosnian Serb leader, should not be published as an objective journalist.  Indeed not, but how much Silajdzic-originated material has appeared in the last three years under far more respectable bylines?

And a final reflection:  Francis Wheen mentions as part of Zamatica’s outrageousness a story blaming that market place bombing on the Muslims .
It should be said that there is a study by David Binder in the eminent Foreign Affairs saying, tentatively and on only a preponderance of argument, that the marketplace bombing might indeed have been an insidejob!  It is only one scholar’s judgment, but one cannot ignore another piece of evidence from General Rose .

The sound of mortars fired during ceasefire had been taken for Serbian weaponry until the British Cymbeline tracking equipment demonstrated them to be from Muslim emplacements.  They were fired (in hope of Serbian retaliation?) the day before the Bosnian President’s highly publicised departure for the United States .