After the Bosnian town of Srebrenica, which had been declared a United Nations safe haven, fell to the attacking Serbian forces 20 years ago this weekend, the Serbs separated the men and boys from the women and young children. The women and children were put on buses to Tuzla, where they ended up on a UN-run airbase. The Bosnian Serbs promised the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) access to the men and boys, but they never provided it.
By July 1995, I had been following the Bosnia War for more than three years, first as a staffer for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and then as the U.S. ambassador to Croatia. In both jobs, I had spoken at length with survivors of Serb ethnic cleansing and with family members of those missing.
I knew that people who disappeared in this war did not end up in hidden prisons. If the ICRC, the local governments, and the intelligence community did not know where the missing men of Srebrenica were, they were dead.
Meanwhile Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic had moved on from Srebrenica to attack the adjacent Bosniak enclave of Zepa. I was urging the Clinton administration to act to save Zepa, but without proof of what happened in Srebrenica, it was not an easy case to make.
Then, on July 24, Tone Bringa, a Norwegian anthropologist working for the UN mission in Bosnia and Croatia, told me an extraordinary story. She had been at the Tuzla airbase listening in as UN human rights officers interviewed refugees from Srebrenica.
All of a sudden, an intense 35-year old man showed up and demanded to speak to the UN officers.
He had managed to flee Srebrenica as the Serbs took it over, he said, but then was captured the next day in a forest with several thousand other men. The Serbs held him and hundreds of others overnight in a packed warehouse and then the next day took them by truck to a stadium at Bratunac. On the way to the stadium, soldiers fired into the truck, killing many.
Mladic showed up at the stadium. He taunted the prisoners about the Bosnian Government’s impotence and said they should have stayed in Yugoslavia. However, he promised to return them to their families if they cooperated. At the stadium, Serb soldiers tied the men’s hands behind their backs.
The survivor said that Serb soldiers took him and other men to a farm in nearby Konjevic Polje. The men were forced to lie down and then an execution squad sprayed them with machine-gun fire. A bullet grazed the man’s temple, making a bloody mess, but otherwise leaving him unharmed. After the soldiers left, that man and another survivor hid in a ditch while the Serbs bulldozed the bodies. The two men then made a 10-day trek to Tuzla. Bringa saw the mark where the bullet grazed the man’s temple and the marks on his wrists from where they were tied tightly together.
For the UN human rights officers, this seemed to be another in a series of atrocity stories. The Bosnian-speaking Bringa was, however, impressed by the man’s very precise language and the details included in his account. She pressed her UN colleagues to highlight the story in their report. Instead, the account was just one of many in the UN report and bracketed by such cautious language (an “unconfirmed report” amid “rumors” of mass executions). Bringa knew it would have no impact. Yasushi Akashi, the Japanese diplomat who headed UN mission, would not clear the report without the cautionary language.
I had dinner with Bringa on the night of July 24, 1995.. Frustrated by what she saw as a UN effort to minimize the tragedy, she asked if I could do something. As an ambassador, I controlled my own cables. I sent the survivor’s story “NODIS” to the State Department with a further plea to save Zepa. “The implications are obvious,” I wrote. “Undoubtedly they [Zepa’s defenders] realize the fate that awaits them. They should not be abandoned.”
My cable contained a specific place—Konjevic Polje—where the man said the massacres took place. On their own initiative, a couple of CIA analysts had looked through the satellite imagery from Konjevic Polje on July 13, the day of the massacre. They found bodies and disturbed earth.
The cable circulated among the top ranks of the State Department and the Clinton White House. While my recommendation to save Zepa was quickly dismissed (it was in the process of falling by July 25), Secretary of State Warren Christopher dispatched John Shattuck, his assistant secretary for human rights, to the region to prepare a report. UN Ambassador Madeline Albright used the satellite images found by the CIA analysts as part of a devastating presentation to the Security Council.
And, U.S. policy shifted. Up until the fall of Srebrenica, the United States and the Europeans had cautioned the Croatians (and, sometimes the Bosnians) against any step that would widen the war. A week after Srebrenica fell, the Bosnian Serbs launched an attack on Bihac, an enclave in western Bosnia with four times the population of Srebrenica. If Mladic treated Bihac like Srebrenica, the number murdered would exceed 40,000. When the Croatians told us that they were willing to take military action to save Bihac (and to retake Serb-held Croatian territory), we did not object.
In August and September, the Croatian Army pushed into Bosnia, and together with the Bosnian Army, started to inflict real damage on the Serbs. In late August, NATO responded to a Serb attack on Sarajevo with weeks of punishing airstrikes that had the effect—although not the stated intent—of helping the Croatian/Bosnian offensive.
A Bosnian Serb Army that specialized in killing unarmed civilians turned out to be not very formidable on the battlefield. In a few weeks, the Bosnian Serbs lost one-third of their territory and were ready for peace negotiations.
General Mladic saw Srebrenica as a turning point in the war. And, so it was. Just not as he intended.
Peter W. Galbraith was the United States Ambassador to Croatia from 1993 to 1998. He married Tone Bringa in 1996.