Perhaps the most enduring memories of the Bosnian war are the various events, particularly the fall of Srebrenica, which prompted international outrage.
At the beginnings of conflict media coverage increased markedly when pictures of columns of displaced people filled the front pages and television news programmes.
In late 1992, it was the refugee camps that held the focus. Alone among the warring factions, the Bosnian Serbs allowed Britain’s ITN and The Guardian to see their camps. The ensuing reports , dominated by pictures of one extremely thin man, caused a worldwide storm.
Subsequently it became clear that the reality was very different. The camps, run by all sides, were not ‘death camps’ or anything close to that. Trnoplje and Omarska, the camps filmed by ITN, were not enclosed by wire fences, merely places where refugees were housed when they had nowhere else to go for food and shelter. Conditions were hard, there were some abuses, but the UN concluded that they were a modest problem and there was no significant difference between the three sides in the way the camps were run. The very thin man at Trnoplje was tracked down after the war at his new home in Scandinavia. He confirmed that his condition was the result of a pre-existing illness which had subsequently been cured. Even Bosnian Muslim President, Alijah Izetbegovic, admitted on his deathbed that there had been no death camps in Bosnia.
But the horror stories kept on coming. Summer 1992 brought allegations that 50,000 Bosnian Muslim women had been raped in a chain of rape camps set up by the Bosnian Serbs. Journalists from Europe and the USA descended on Bosnia in large numbers and many worked energetically to find victims to tell them their stories. Weeks passed and little or nothing was printed. The journalists returned home empty-handed but kept their silence. This however did not prevent the Badinter Report, commissioned by the European Union, from concluding that 20,000 women had been raped. Later a commission member, the celebrated French humanitarian and politician, Simone Veil, revealed that the figure was extrapolated from interviews with just 4 people, one of whom was the notorious Croatian propagandist, Jadranka Ciejgl, who claimed that she herself was a rape victim. The UN finally concluded that there had been a total of 130 rapes, committed almost exactly in population proportion by people from all sides, and that this was slightly lower than the average figure for all conflicts since WW2.
1992 also saw the infamous Markale market massacre in Sarajevo. Some 60 people were killed by mortar shells. Blame was immediately placed on the Bosnian Serbs, but it later emerged that a report prepared by the UN, that had been kept secret, had concluded that the Bosnian Muslims were responsible.
A further mortar incident in Sarajevo in 1995 was again blamed, instantly and without investigation, on the Bosnian Serbs. It was used by the US as a pretext to launch immediate bombing of Bosnian Serb military assets, designed to greatly degrade their fighting power.
The fall of Srebrenica to the Bosnian Serb Army just a few weeks later was similarly proclaimed a genocidal massacre, with first claims coming even before the BSA had taken he safe area. World outrage about this acted as very effective distraction from Croatia’s invasion of Krijina, the biggest single act of ethnic cleansing of the Balkan conflicts in which some 400,000 Krijina Serbs were driven off the land that their families had lived on for 400 years. The US had provided massive air support for the Croatian attack, “Operation Storm”, and detailed tactical assistance from more than 100 senior ex-US army officers provided by Military and Professional Resources International (MPRI) – more than was necessary to overcome a poorly-resourced and armed mainly agricultural community.
These events combined to give the US the pretext to call the Dayton conference, having first ensured that the ICTY had issued indictments against Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic to prevent them from attending to represent Bosnian Serb interests.
When it came to the Kosovo war, an alleged atrocity at Racak was instantly seized on as a pretext for the United States to summon the warring parties to the Rambouillet conference. Racak was dubious in the extreme.