Against “Leftist” Revisionism on the Srebrenica Massacre
by Bill Weinberg
With all of the current horrors in the headlines, the world has paid little note to the tenth anniversary of the July 1995 massacre of 8,000 at the eastern Bosnian town of Srebrenica after it was overrun by besieging Serb rebel forces. The town’s women, children and elderly were put on buses at gunpoint and expelled to Bosnian government-held territory. But the adult men were separated out and kept by the Serb forces for “interrogation.” Their whereabouts became the subject of an international investigation which is now bearing grim fruit–thousands of corpses exhumed from mass graves, held in Bosnia’s morgues, where international teams are conducting the lugubrious work of DNA identification, matching genetic material from the bones with samples provided by relatives of the missing. Some 2,000 of the dead have now been thusly identified, the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) reports. The massacre is rightly called Europe’s worst since World War II.
The leadership of the Bosnian Serb Republic (which now has de facto independence under a peace deal brokered by the US shortly after the massacre) has also formally investigated, confessed to and apologized for the crime. A total of 19 people have been charged by the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia (ICTY) in the Srebrenica massacre, and 16 are currently being held at The Hague. Three Bosnian Serb soldiers have pleaded guilty to many of the charges against them.
But the supposedly “progressive” Z Magazine, and its online extension ZNet, mark the anniversary of Srebrenica by running a lengthy piece by Edward S. Herman (one of the American left’s official darlings and a one-time Noam Chomsky co-author) arguing that the massacre never happened–or that it was exaggerated, or that the victims deserved it. Like most genocide-apologist propaganda, the piece never makes its arguments explicit: it just leaves the uninitiated reader with the vague but strong impression that anyone who believes that there was a massacre at Srebrenica is a dupe of imperialist propaganda.
The piece, entitled “The Politics of the Srebrenica Massacre,” spends its first half arguing that the affair must be placed in the “context” of the “convenience” of the massacre to the Bosnian Muslims, who sought Western military intervention against the Serb forces. Herman notes a string of “convenient” atrocities attributed to the Serbs, such as the deadly rocket raids on Sarajevo’s market, suggesting that they were “planned and executed by Bosnian Muslims.” Ironically, the suspicions (not facts) Herman cites in support of this speculation come almost entirely from US military and government sources. Herman does not point out the obvious “convenience” of such charges to a Pentagon that was reluctant to intercede as the Serb rebel army attempted to strangle in its birth Europe’s first Muslim-led nation.
One footnote for the claim that the Bosnian government bombed its own people in Sarajevo is an Internet link for a 1997 report from the US Senate Republican Policy Committee–so heartwarming to see leftists making common cause with their domestic enemies. This page, at least, cites some mostly European media accounts claiming secret UN studies had determined that the shells that hit Sarajevo’s market came from Bosnian government lines. But the studies themselves are not cited, and in any case these attacks account for but a handful of the 10,000 Sarajevo residents killed during the three-and-a-half-year siege of the city by the Serbs. Furthermore, even if these attacks were faked, it says nothing about whether the far more massive Srebrenica massacre was faked–and not even Republicans have dared to assert that. Yet that is implicitly (not explicitly, which would require more courage) what Herman argues. This line of reasoning (if we may so flatter it) is akin to arguing that My Lai didn’t happen because it was “convenient” to the NLF.
Most bizarrely, this pseudo-thinking fails to consider that in the post-Srebrenica peace deal brokered by the Clinton White House, the Bosnian government was forced to cede effective control of the majority of its national territory to the Serb and Croat rebel zones, which then gained a cover of legitimacy. A more accurate reading of the situation would suggest the atrocities were far more “convenient” to the Serbs, helping to force the Bosnian government to accept these harsh terms. Crime, it seems, does pay.
When Herman finally turns to the actual mechanics of the massacre, the results are even worse. Herman’s principal argument seems to be that the supposedly UN-protected “safe areas” such as Srebrenica weren’t disarmed, so (again, implicitly) the Serbs were justified in overrunning them and slaughtering 8,000 mostly civilian war captives. (He expresses no outrage that the Dutch UN peacekeepers offered no resistance as the Serbs overran the city.) He claims that Srebrenica was being used as a staging ground for raids on Serb villages in which up to a thousand civilians were killed in the three years prior to the massacre–an assertion footnoted to a report from Yugoslavia’s UN ambassador, without the slightest suggestion that this might be a dubious touchstone for veracity. This is especially ironic given that all pronouncements from the Bosnian leadership are summarily dismissed as lies. Herman regales us with horror stories about atrocities committed by Nasir Oric, a Muslim commander at Srebrenica. These are footnoted to more credible sources, but Herman seems pretty oblivious to the overwhelmingly obvious “context” (to use his favorite word)–Serb rebel armies had overrun some 70% of Bosnia by that point, expelling the Muslim inhabitants, leaving Srebrenica and a few other towns besieged pockets. This doesn’t let Oric off the hook, but it does point up Herman’s hideous double standards.
Herman’s secondary argument (more explicit if no more honest) is that the bodies said to be those of the Srebrenica victims have been unearthed from several mass graves around eastern Bosnia rather than “huge grave sites” at Srebrenica. A look at the ICMP website would tell Herman this was due to Serb commanders ordering bodies exhumed and reburied at scattered sites to hide evidence of the crime. This finding is backed up by the Serb Republic’s own investigation into the massacre–which, it emerges, actually took place at several different locations, with reburial in secondary graves intentionally adding to the confusion. Herman, who is now more intransigent on the question than the Bosnian Serb leadership, dismisses the reburial findings as “singularly unconvincing.”
Next Herman turns to the old genocide-denial trick of fudging the numbers. He guides the reader through arithmetic somersaults to “prove” that if 8,000 were executed Srebrenica’s population would have had to have exceeded its actual 37,000. Yet the ICMP has a database of 7,800 listed as missing from Srebrenica. Were these names simply invented? (Fans of such pseudo-demographic sophistry will have lots of fun at the Holocaust revisionist websites.)
Next he turns to another standard of the genocide-denial set: arguing that the majority of the dead were not executed but killed in combat. This is contradicted by the testimony of the accused at the ICTY. Momir Nikolic, former chief of intelligence in the Bratunac Brigade, one of the Serb units at Srebrenica, has pleaded guilty to his role in the massacre, stating openly that “able-bodied Muslim men within the crowd of Muslim civilians would be separated…and killed shortly thereafter. I was told that it was my responsibility to help coordinate and organize this operation.”
Nikolic’s testimony is called into question by admissions that he perjured himself following his plea-bargain, the massacre-denial crowd is quick to point out–although why he would do so is still mysterious, and he did not contradict himself on what the basic orders were, only his own role in carrying them out. But there are numerous other examples untainted by any such contradictions. Nikolic’s co-defendant Dragan Obrenovic states that he received orders that prisoners were to be shot, and describes the slaughter in intimate detail in his official confession. He notes at one point that a commander “was angry as the last group of prisoners were not taken to the dam to be executed, but were executed right there at the school and that his men (the 6th Battalion Rear Services) had to clean up the mess at the school, including the removal of the bodies to the dam.” Bosnian Serb Army infantryman Drazen Erdemovic (who first volunteered his guilt to foreign journalists and pleaded for their help in fleeing Bosnia) tearfully told the court of his participation in the killing. “I had to do it. If I’d refused, I would have been killed together with the victims.”
These accounts are also backed up by forensic evidence: tribunal investigators exhumed hundreds of blindfolds and ligatures along with the bodies, and in many cases hands were still tied behind the back. Foresnic specialists also found evidence of reburial, such as parts of the same body in separate graves. This may not be conclusive proof that all 8,000 were killed in cold blood–but it is certainly suggestive of this, and it shows Herman’s bad faith that he doesn’t even mention it.
That Herman is getting his information overwhelmingly (and his analysis exclusively) from the Serb extremists is evident from his terminology. He routinely uses the acronym BMA, for “Bosnian Muslim Army,” to refer to the Bosnian goverment’s military. The official name was the Army of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina (ARBiH), and (in contrast to the self-declared “Bosnian Serb Army” of Bosnia’s “Serb Republic”) it was explicitly multi-ethnic, not “Muslim.” BMA is a propaganda term, and capitalizing it as if it were a proper noun is extremely misleading.
Finally, Herman makes much of what he calls Bosnian President Alija “Izetbegovic’s close alliance with Osama bin Laden,” how the Bosnian government provided “Al Qaeda a foothold in the Balkans.” Now isn’t this funny. The same ZNet which asks us to believe (in a Jan. 13 piece by Robert Scheer–whose name ZNet mis-spells) that “Al Qaeda [is] Just a Bush Boogeyman” prints shamelessly lurid propaganda about the Islamic menace in Bosnia. I guess al-Qaeda is just a “boogeyman” when it slams jets into New York skyscrapers or blows up trains in London and Madrid, but suddenly becomes real when it loans a few mujahedeen to protect the legitimate government of multi-ethnic Bosnia from a lawless fascist rebellion. Herman offers not a word about how Izetbegovic was driven to this alliance (if, in fact, it existed) by the West’s betrayal of Bosnia’s legal government into the hands of the Serb rebels who, with superior firepower thanks to their patrons in Belgrade, quickly subsumed the majority of Bosnia’s territory. Herman dismisses this version of events as a mere “narrative”–a word which has been subject to such abuse at the hands of the “post-modernists” that it should now be purged from the English language. Herman, who is not bothered by the use of the Islamic terrorist image to justify this illegal usurpation of power, calls the “‘Srebrenica massacre'” (in quotes of course) the “greatest triumph of propaganda” for the “colonial occupations in Bosnia and Kosovo” by NATO. One wonders if Herman is himself aware of the cognitive dissonance.
This is but the latest in a whole string of such articles Z has run by Herman and others in the decade since the climax of the Bosnian horror show, all minimizing Serb war crimes and essentially arguing (as Reagan said about the genocidal Guatemalan dictatorship) that the Serbs have been given a “bum rap.” And Z still seems to think it has any moral ground to stand on to oppose US-backed genocide in Guatemala, Colombia and so on. It is both demoralizing and terrifying that this is the level to which the supposed “left” press has sunk in this dumbed-down age.
NOTE: This article started out as a post on our weblog, and was expanded as Ed Herman (and others) weighed in with retorts. If Herman (or anyone else) has any further responses, they can be posted there: /node/757
“The Politics of the Srebrenica Massacre,” by Ed Herman
“Debating Srebrenica”: responses to Herman on ZNet
“Srebrenica: Anatomy of a Massacre,” Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR)
Dragan Obrenovic statement to ICTY
Momir Nikolic statement to ICTY
IWPR story on Momir Nikolic perjury, from FreeRepublic
ICMP press release on identification of bodies
Open Democracy report, “Srebrenica: ten years on”
Radio Netherlands report on the Tribunal ten years after Srebrenica
BBC story on Serb Republic apology for massacre
“Serbia Struggles to Face the Truth about Srebrenica,” by Tim Judah, Crimes of War Project
“Is Al Qaeda Just a Bush Boogeyman?” by Robert Sheer [sic], ZNet
Deniers of Serbia’s War Crimes, Balkan Witness
“Did Six Million Really Die?” Holocaust-denial numbers-fudging
Special to WORLD WAR 4 REPORT, Aug. 1, 2005
Reprinting permissible with attribution