This article was first published in the Oslobodenje special edition to mark 30 years since the start of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Download it here.
This is a report by a journalist about the most horrible crime against a European nation since the Nazi Holocaust. Serbian authorities and rebel Bosnian Serb leaders call it “ethnic cleansing,” and Western governments and institutions have embraced the euphemism as if they had degenerated it. However, the facts show that this is genocide – a deliberate attempt to exterminate a nation just because of its belonging to a certain religion.
This is what the introduction to the book “A Witness to Genocide” says, written by American journalist Roy Gutman who sent reports from the occupied parts of the Bosnian Krajina to the world about the existence of concentration camps. It was August 1992. As early as 1993, Gutman was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting, won a number of other awards, and in the same year his book was published in New York at the Macmillan Publishers. It first appeared in Zagreb in local languages in 1994 in the Duriex edition, and several publishers printed in Sarajevo in 1995.
The aggressor always invents an excuse
Gutman was born in 1944 in New York City, and in 1966 he graduated in history from Haverford College, graduated from the London School of Economics and in 1968 received a master’s degree in international relations. He worked for Reuters, reporting from Bonn, Vienna, Belgrade, London and Washington. He was head of the Office for Europe, State Department correspondent and chief reporter on Capitol Hill. Since 1982, he has been on Newsday, writing about the fall of the Polish, East German and Czechoslovak regimes, the opening of the Berlin Wall, the unification of Germany, the first democratic elections in the former Eastern Bloc and the break-up of Yugoslavia.
Matea Jerković: You have said many times that Manjača and Omarska were a shocking discovery and changed your understanding of journalism. How?
Roy Gutman: One of the hardest tasks for a journalist at the start of any war is to understand the big picture – what’s really going on and who’s committing aggression. The aggressor always invents a cover story which has the victim provoking the war in the first place. A reporter has to determine the ground truth by checking the rhetoric of both sides and seeing who’s lying and who’s telling the truth. It took months of reporting before I figured out the war in Croatia, and by the time I determined it was a war of aggression carried out by the federal army under Serbian manipulation, my editors and those of many other publications had lost interest in the story.
There was even less interest when war began in Bosnia, and that was profoundly frustrating because we all knew it would be far bigger and far worse than Croatia. I decided that telling the story by quoting government spokesmen would never really interest the reading public. But after determining who was the aggressor in Croatia, it was a small step to focus on the victims of aggression and tell their story in Bosnia. It meant talking to refugees and spending time in the provinces where the aggression was occurring, rather than in the capitals. That is what led me to get on the first bus from Belgrade to Banja Luka after the federal Army opened its “corridor” along the Sava river. I had heard from refugees who reached Croatia that there were detention camps around Banja Luka, and on arriving there I stopped by the military headquarters and asked to be taken to them.
And that’s how I got to Manjača. The Serb-dominated federal army took me to the camp on the day the International Committee of the Red Cross was admitted, and luckily, I had a great photographer with me. My story and Andree Kaiser’s photographs established that civilians were being taken to detention camps, mistreated and often dying. I heard from the local Bosniak and Croat political parties about Omarska, which they described as a death camp, but when I asked to be taken there, the authorities refused.
The knowledge that Omarska existed but was off limits gnawed at me, and I decided to organize a search of Bosnian refugees in Zagreb to see if anyone had been to Omarska or other reputed death camps. After a week of interviewing possibly 60 refugees, I located victims from Omarska and Brčko Luka and wrote my story. It appeared August 2, 1992 and had a thunderclap affect.
The very capable diplomat representing Bosnia at the UN, Muhamed Šaćirbey delivered copies of the newspaper I was writing for, New York Newsday, to the desks of every UN ambassador. The UN organized a fact-finding mission. Reporters in Washington questioned the Bush White House. At first it acknowledged that it was aware of the camps, but that raised many questions about why the White House had remained silent. The administration then withdrew its statement and said it hadn’t known, which added to the public uproar.
From my base in Zagreb, I interviewed survivors of other camps up and down the Sava valley. Each story added to the overall image that a network of concentration camps had been set up systematically. After a UN fact finding delegation went to Bosnia, the Bosnian Serbs had to close down the camps.
The life lesson is that Journalism can make a difference. You have to make every effort to get to the scene even if you’re denied access, you must report in a timely way and you have to get your facts right. The best journalism comes not from quoting government officials but from the testimony of the victims about what happened to them. camps began to close after my story appeared, amplified by Sky News and the Guardian’s visit to camps.
The UN set up a commission of inquiry, leading to the ICTY, and my interviews (and those of my colleagues) with victims and officials responsible for the atrocities later provided evidence in the war crimes trials.
That experience drove me to report the war in Syria and the crimes committed against the Syrian people. Syria was like Bosnia, a war crime masquerading as a war.
How do you see the war in Ukraine today?
The wars in the former Yugoslavia were launched by Milošević and his ethnic Serb allies in other republics to fulfill the nationalist fantasy that history has chosen one ethnicity to rule all the others. That was exactly the opposite of the design that Tito created for a federation of equals with rotating leadership. Milošević’s timing was at the end of the cold war, a decade after Tito’s death, just as Communism was sinking as a one -party rule. Milošević had no alternative to offer the population of Serbia such as a western-style system of open markets, constitutional checks and balances and multiple parties, so he turned to nationalism, pandering to the worst instincts of the Serbian population. Nationalism has been defined as promoting a misunderstanding of the history of your ethnic or religious group for political gain. It relies on the big lie, on reinventing the past, and it inevitably leads to war.
This was the path Milošević took in Yugoslavia, and Putin has followed his footsteps. The only way Putin can achieve his aim of creating a single unified nation of Russia and Ukraine is by expelling the population of Ukraine or destroying the country. Putin’s scheme is as mad as Milosevic’s. Putin so underestimated Ukrainian resistance and overestimated the strength of the Russian military that I don’t see how Putin can conceivably win.
And if he doesn’t, he should look to Milošević to see where he’ll wind up. Rump Yugoslavia came apart, with Kosovo becoming an independent country, and Montenegro as well. Now it’s rump Serbia.
Could that happen to the Russian empire as well? It all depends on how much damage the Ukrainian army manages to inflict on the Russian army.
There’s one big difference between Bosnia and Ukraine: I think the lesson was learned from Bosnia that people trying to defend their country against an aggressor have to be provided with the weapons they need to survive. The U.S. and its western partners withheld weapons in Bosnia, an enormous mistake that wasn’t repeated in Ukraine.
Can you draw a parallel with Bosnia and Herzegovina?
Ukraine was much better prepared for the Russian invasion than Bosnia could have been for the war in 1992, but the main reason is the Russians organized only a partial incursion into Ukraine in 2014, in which Russian proxies seized the Donbass region and Crimea. Ukraine had eight years to prepare for the next battle, acquiring arms and training, revamping its military, holding elections, addressing corruption and building a society. Bosnia didn’t have the advantage of time, and it had Yugoslav troops stationed in the major cities and towns that turned into the enablers of genocide.
What strikes me is that both Bosnia and Ukraine were internationally recognized states when war broke out, with seats at the UN and an apparatus that could deal with major powers. I reported the war in Syria from 2012 to 2018, where the regime’s brutality was identical to that experienced in Bosnia and in Ukraine. But in Syria the opposition, even though it represented more than half the population, was never united, had no constitution, no parliament and no state.
Has the world learned the lesson from Bosnia and Herzegovina?
In the period after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the United States abandoned humanitarian law, pulling away from international tribunals and staying silent in the face of crimes against humanity. I wrote several journal articles bemoaning this very real setback.
But the war in Ukraine has revived interest in humanitarian law. In Syria, the U.S. government was almost silent during the Russian bombing that led to the fall of Aleppo, but in Ukraine, the President of the United States and European leaders suddenly are clamoring to denounce the Russian assault as war crimes and a crime against humanity. The U.S. and its European allies are putting the spotlight on the war crimes in real time and labeling them for what they are. So perhaps the lesson of Bosnia-Herzegovina was learned after all — after a 20 year pause.
What are you doing today?
About three years into the war in Syria, the U.S. government stopped paying attention to the atrocities occurring daily and stopped supporting the rebels trying to protect the civilian population. Instead, it decided to fight a new group called the Islamic State or ISIS that sprang out of nowhere and took over vast tracts of territory. But I kept on hearing from defectors from the Syrian regime that ISIS had been doing this with the support of the Syrian government.
One chapter short of completion
It is something the U.S. government never acknowledged and to the best of my knowledge, never even investigated. I’ve spent the past five years researching and writing a book on the relationship between the regime and ISIS. I am one chapter short of completion.
But recently I was approached by the trustees of the Baltimore Council on Foreign Affairs, who were looking for a new president for the group. I began the job March 1. It’s a great organization which tries to define and discuss the major issues in foreign affairs. I commute to Baltimore (from Washington) several days a week.
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