By Khan Zia

The history of the Balkan states is replete with myths. The telling and re-telling of these, particularly in the western media in recent times, has only helped to muddy the real issues almost beyond recognition. Briefly, the area had been under Serbian rule when the Turks invaded it towards the end of the fourteenth century. Many colourful stories have been written since then, embellished a little more each time, about the heroic defeat suffered by the Serbs at the battle of Kosovo Polje (Field of the Blackbirds) in 1389 in the defence of Christianity.

The truth is that it was fought for little more than imperial expansion and acquisitive purposes. It was neither the beginning nor the end of some epic struggle between Christianity and Islam nor was there any question of Serb nationalism involved. This should be clear from the fact that ethnic Serbs formed a substantial part of the Turkish army. There is no credible proof or record of the Turks engaging in any butchery or forced religious conversions after the battle. As with the other parts of East Europe, they left the Serbs to be ruled over by their Christian masters after the battle, requiring only that they should henceforward pay tribute to the Sultan.

More or less this is how matters remained until the dying days of the Turkish Empire. The European powers that had been waiting in the wings instigated a revolt among the Serbs in 1875. When that failed, Russia invaded Turkey forcing the Sultan to withdraw from the region. Under the treaty signed at San Stefano in 1877 that was modified a year later, the area was taken away from Turkey and split into a number of principalities. These included Serbia, Bosnia-Herzgovina, Macedonia, Croatia, Slovenia, Kosovo, Montenegro and Macedonia that were eventually banded together into a decentralized confederation to be called Yugoslavia.

The Soviet forces liberated the Balkans, including Yugoslavia, from the German rule in 1944. The British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, felt that he could use the Balkans as a trading device in his attempts to secure a better working relationship with the Soviet leader Josef Stalin. At Churchill's suggestion, it was agreed that the U.S.S.R. would have dominant influence in Romania and Bulgaria while the West would enjoy the same advantage in Greece. Yugoslavia and Hungary were to be shared equally, and Albania was not even mentioned. These were the conditions under which the charismatic resistance leader Josip Broz, popularly known as Marshal Tito, kept Yugoslavia together until his death in 1980.

After Tito’s death Serbian nationalism started to reassert itself in a particularly vicious form. In 1986 the Serbian Academy of Sciences released a document whose paranoid and bellicose text talked of ‘historic injustices’ done to the peace-loving Serbs by the other groups such as the Croats, Slovenes, Montenegrans, etc. and accusing them of victimization and threatening genocide. Milosevic, a particularly unscrupulous leader of Serbia’s Communist Party, taking advantage of the increasing uncertainty and unrest, gained power in Belgrade in 1989 with the slogan, ‘To hell with Yugoslavia —- we’ll make a Greater Serbia’. He then unleashed a massive propaganda campaign that portrayed the Serbs as innocent victims of foul play by their villainous neighbours.

One of his first acts was to disband the parliament in the autonomous region of Kosovo that was ninety per cent Muslim and replaced it with an apartheid style government run by Christian Serbs who constituted less than eight per cent of its population. No Muslim was allowed to hold any government office or job, which meant the end of employment for them since there were no private jobs as such under the communist system. The use of Albanian, the language of Muslim Kosovars, was banned in schools, offices and universities. The net effect was that ninety per cent of the population in Kosovo could not hold any job or attend any public school or university simply because they were not Christian but Muslim Slavs. Any mention of these excesses was scrupulously excluded from the western media until the situation boiled over in March 1998 and could no longer be kept under wraps.

The declaration of independence by Roman Catholic Slovenia signaled the break-up of Yugoslavia in the summer of 1991. This was followed shortly afterwards by a similar declaration by the other Catholic Republic of Croatia. Under pressure from Germany, the European Union and USA, both these republics were admitted as members of the United Nations. Encouraged by this Bosnia and Macedonia followed suit. The event passed without any trouble in Slovenia and Macedonia and the fighting that broke out in Croatia was soon brought under control.

It was a different story in predominantly Muslim Bosnia. In April 1992, Serbian Army under General Ratko Mladic occupied northern Bosnia while Radovan Karadzic set himself up as the president of the Serb republic in Pale. One of their first acts was to jam satellite television transmissions and impose censorship on newspapers. The Muslim Serbs were removed from all positions of authority in the administration and the military and replaced with Orthodox Christian Serbs.

Serb militias, backed by the army, commenced a systematic campaign to exterminate the unarmed and unprotected Muslim population in the villages first. In a typical operation the Serb Army would surround a village or town and bombard it with artillery. The militia would then move in shooting and killing any one they came across. Any survivors that were left alive were herded into one or more houses and hand grenades thrown in among them. Those that managed to escape were either rounded up and shot or herded into Nazi style concentration camps to be molested, tortured and starved to death. The dead were bulldozed into mass graves and their farms and houses taken over by the Serbs. The same grisly and inhuman scenes were enacted in towns and villages that numbered in the thousands. Photographs taken by the United States U2 spy planes have revealed the existence of mass graves in close to 3,000 Bosnian villages. Almost all of the mosques, some of them over five hundred years old, were razed to the ground and the places paved over for car parks. Those left standing were converted into prisons, slaughterhouses and morgues.

It is estimated that in the region of three hundred thousand Muslim men, women and children were murdered and two and a half million forced to flee their homes. The neighbouring European countries, including Germany, Austria, Hungary, Slovenia and Croatia, effectively closed their borders in blatant violation of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, obliging the refugees to seek shelter in Muslim controlled areas within Bosnia that were shrinking by the day as the Serb army advanced (‘A Witness to Genocide’, by Roy Gutman, Macmillan Publishing Company, New York, P. 104). It was the second incidence of genocide, based purely on religious intolerance and hatred, in Christian Europe the cradle of the much touted ‘superior’ culture and civilization, within a short period of fifty years. In each case, the rest of the western powers had watched and allowed the extermination of innocents to proceed without attempting any intervention.

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It is too distressing to narrate all the details of the barbarism and depravity inflicted upon the Muslim population. Any one interested in these may like to refer to Pulitzer Prize-winning author Roy Gutman’s ‘A Witness to Genocide’. Here only one or two incidents, typical of the thousands of such acts committed all over Bosnia in the years from 1992 to 1995, are reproduced.

According to the victims, preparations for the mass rape began early in the morning of June 17 (1992) when Serb soldiers in army uniforms and masks piled out of their minivans and rounded up the Muslims of Brezovo Polje for ethnic cleansing. They loaded the able-bodied men from 18 to 60 onto buses and sent them for interrogation to Luka, a notorious Serb-run detention camp in nearby Brcko where nine in 10 prisoners were slaughtered, according to a survivor interviewed by ‘Newsday’.

Then they packed about 1,000 women, children and old people into eight buses, drove them round the countryside for two days and held them under armed guard for four terrifying nights without food or water in a parking lot in the nearby town of Ban Brdo, the victim said. Serb soldiers returning from the front invaded the buses every night and led off women and girls to an unknown location at knife point, recalled Senada, 17. “They threw them out in the morning, and their clothes were torn, and they were covered in blood”, she said.

Finally the group arrived in Caparde, where about 50 Serb irregulars, bearded followers of a warlord named Zelko Arkan, robbed the mothers and forcibly separated them from their daughters. The mothers were taken by bus and deposited in a war zone. Meanwhile, in the Osnovo furniture house in Caparde, where the daughters were held, the men, mostly with long beards in the style of the World War II Serbian royalist force known as Chetniks, selected what one the rapists said were the 40 prettiest young women of Brezovo Polje and raped them in groups of ten’ (p. 70). According to the European Union’s investigations the total number of Muslim women subjected to mass rape in Bosnia exceeds twenty thousand. This does not include the women who were murdered after being raped which was quite common.

‘————– In Novo Selo, a village near Zvornik, Serb troops rounded up 150 women, children and old people, and forced them at gunpoint into the local mosque. In front of the captives they challenged the local community leader, Imam Memic Suljo, to desecrate the mosque, Akim said, quoting eyewitness accounts. They told him to make the sign of the cross, eat pork and finally to have sexual intercourse with a teenage girl. Asic said that Suljo refused all these demands and was beaten and cut with knives. His fate is unknown.

In Bratunac, about 30 miles south, Imam Mustafa Mojkanovic was tortured before thousands of Muslim women, children and old people at the towns soccer stadium, according to a sworn account by witnesses quoted by the Imam of Tuzla, Efardi Espahic. Srb guards also ordered the cleric to cross himself, Espahic said. When he refused, “they beat him. They stuffed his mouth with sawdust, poured beer in his mouth and then slit his throat,” Espahic told Newsday’ (p. 80). 

All of the thousands of such outrages were in the full knowledge of not only the western governments and the United Nations but also humanitarian organisations like the Red Cross and Amnesty International. None of them made any attempt to protest let aside intervene. The entire western news media blacked out coverage of the genocide pretending as if nothing was happening. The systematic mass murders went unreported for four months before reporters from Britain’s Independent TV Channel Four and ‘The Guardian’ stumbled across the concentration camps set up by the Bosnian Serbs at Omarska and Trnopolje and decided to break the news.

There was no limit to perfidy and deceit. The US State Department had been receiving volumes of detailed information from dozens of sources but, on Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger’s orders, told the press that ‘it had no information to confirm the existence of concentration camps or the atrocities associated with them’. Eagleburger also dispatched the Assistant Secretary of State to Capitol Hill on 4th August 1992 to tell the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that ‘there was no information of any kind to confirm the existence of the camps or the atrocities’ (‘Bosnia; The Secret War’, by Ed Vulliamy in ‘The Guardian’—- there are a total of twelve articles that cover the entire conflict). Disgusted with the cover-up and the refusal to save innocent Muslim lives a number of honourable men, like Marshall Harris at the US State Department, resigned in protest but it made little difference. 

Eagleburger was by no means alone in refusing to acknowledge what was being done to the Muslims in Bosnia. As early as 15th May, the Bosnian ambassador to the UN Mohammed Sacirby informed the Secretary General Boutros Boutros Ghali but said ‘he was not taken seriously’. Louis Gentile, the head of UNHCR’s Banja Luka office agonized that what the world had allowed to happen in Bosnia could never be forgiven. According to Marrack Goulding, head of the UN peace-keeping operations department, the UN troops in Bosnia (UNPROFOR) were only there ‘to protect humanitarian activities’ —- in a war being waged by Bosnian Muslims wielding a few hunting rifles against the Serb army supported by tanks, heavy artillery and aircraft.

As David Rieff puts it in his book ‘Slaughterhouse — Bosnia and the Failure of the West’ (Simon Schuster, New York, pp. 139, 140). ‘ —— If all the United Nations intended to do was to bring in food and medicine, didn’t this just amount to keeping people alive longer so the Serbs would have more chances to kill them? Wasn’t it incongruous that UN soldiers and UNHCR convoy drivers risked and sometimes lost their lives to bring in food to isolated areas, but steadfastly refused to silence the guns that were causing the emergency? It seemed unimaginable that the United Nations would be content to go on in this way indefinitely.’ Fred Cuny, a veteran UN aid worker from Texas quipped at the time, ‘If the UN had been around in 1939, we’d all be speaking German.’ After this, for any Muslim to repose his faith in the UN, amounts to nothing more than self-delusion.

Yet it was the same UN that a few months earlier had mustered half a million strong army to vacate Iraqi aggression against Kuwait that involved no genocide or any other such crimes against humanity, killing hundreds of thousands of Iraqis in the process. It is twelve years since Kuwait was liberated but the bombing of Iraq continues and UN sanctions against her remain in place while all sanctions against Serbia were lifted and western aid started to pour in the day she signed the Dayton peace accord. The only visible difference between the two situations is that in one case the aggressor was a Muslim Arab state and in the other a European Christian one. It is sad but true that the United Nations no longer stands for the ideals that led to its formation but is becoming more and more an instrument for the establishment of a new form of colonialism in the service of one or two states.   

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The main reason for evasion and cover up in Bosnia was that the United Nations charter calls for intervention, by force if necessary, in cases involving genocide. For domestic political considerations none of the western nations was keen to intervene against fellow Christians who were engaged in clearing out Europe of the Muslims. At first it was attempted to present the affair as a military conflict. When that appeared less and less plausible the genocide was inventively labeled as ‘ethnic cleansing’ to forestall any calls for international action under the UN charter. US Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger heaved and squirmed in his chair before TV cameras in the Charlie Rose Show refusing to accept that it was either genocide or a religious war. Britain and France joined hands in calling it a ‘humanitarian crisis’ as if it was the result of an earthquake and then proceeded to direct more than sixty per cent of the aid to the Serbs who were perpetrating the atrocities.

When procrastination and reluctance to save the victims dragged into months and then years it became clear that they were only waiting for the Serbs to complete their grisly work and then declare it a fait accompli. At one stage, to divert domestic and world attention away from Bosnia, President Bush all of a sudden decided that Somalia posed a more urgent problem and marched in UN troops into the country but then pulled them out in a hurry when a few US marines got killed. Since then Somalia has dropped from the western radar screen, as suddenly as it had appeared, never to be heard of again.

In all this time the killings went on unhindered in Bosnia under the noses of UN troops. Serbs were by no means alone in this. The Croats were in it as well along with volunteers from other Christian lands. There was a bizarre case in which the Serbs apprehended a Canadian UN soldier, tied him to a pole and threatened to kill him. The man doing the threatening happened to be one of these volunteers also from Canada. While still on Canada, the man in charge of the UN military contingent in Bosnia and now the deputy leader of the Progressive Conservative Party, Major General Lewis Mackenzie, unabashedly sympathized and sided with the Serbs going so far as to suggest that the Bosnian Government was shelling its own people in order to malign the Serbs (see his book ‘Peacekeeper’, p. 293). On investigation it was found that this was a fabrication and Mackenzie had been in Belgrade and nowhere near the scene when the incident happened. Nonetheless, grateful Serbs in the United States quoted him in newspaper advertisements and arranged a generously funded speaking tour for him.

This is what Daniel Kofman, who teaches political philosophy at Oxford, had to say on the subject in ‘The Montreal Gazette’, ‘Given what the Canadian officials and officers were stating in public, one shudders to imagine how they were privately instructing their troops. Would it be any wonder if soldiers, “peacekeeping” during a genocide that their commanders were denying, lacked a serious moral commitment?’ These fears were found to be true not only for Canada but also for Britain, France and the United States on numerous occasions.The attitude of other UN Commanders in Bosnia like Britain’s General Michael Rose and France’s Briquemont was not much different to that of Lewis Mackenzie.

The United Nations had established a number of so called ‘safe havens’ to protect refugees from the marauding Serbs. The one at Srebrenica was run by the Dutch troops. When the Serbs advanced on it, amid cries of protect, two US fighter planes were sent to deter the Serbs. They reported inability to find any targets and returned to base but the US Secretary of Defence William Perry said, ‘That mission was satisfactorily carried out’. Indeed, a few hours later the Dutch handed over the ‘safe haven’ without offering any resistance to the Serbs. In the butchery that followed eight thousand Muslims who had entrusted their lives to the United Nations were slaughtered by Christian Serbs and buried in mass graves around Screbrenica.

As with the Israelis when they entered UN-run refugee camps in Lebanon along with their Christian Philangist allies and murdered thousands of Palestinians, no serious effort has been made to find the perpetrators of crimes against humanity in Bosnia and bring them to justice. Writing in ‘The Washington Post’ of 21st April 2002 under the heading ‘Bystanders to Mass Murder’, Samantha Power describes the attitude in Washington, ‘US officials received hysterical phone calls from leading members of the Bosnian government who pleaded with Washington to use air power to save those in Mladic’s custody. One July 13 classified cable related the alarming news that Serb forces were committing all sorts of atrocities. On July 17 the CIA’s Bosnia Task Force wrote in its classified diary report that refugee reports of mass murder provide details that appear credible. In a July 19 confidential memorandum, Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights John Shattuck described credible reports of summary executions and the kidnapping and rape of Bosnian women.

Yet, despite this knowledge, neither President Clinton nor his top advisers made the fate of the (Bosnian) men and boys an American priority. The president issued no public threats and ordered no contingency military planning. Spokesman Nick Burns told the Washington press corps that the United States was not a decisive actor in the debate over how to respond. The most powerful super power in the history of mankind had influence only “on the margins” in Burn’s words’. When it comes to saving innocent Muslim lives —-, she might also have added. There are no such compulsions or inhibitions when it comes to killing Muslims.

By this time the Serbs were in possession of 72 per cent of Bosnian territory and the European leaders were insisting that since they had ‘won the war’ the Bosnian Muslims should accept whatever they were offered. In the forefront of this appeasement were mediators like President Jimmy Carter, Britain’s Lord David Owen (once described in the US Congress as ‘a de facto proponent of Serb genocidal interests’), Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd and Prime Minister John Major who reportedly once said that he will not accept the establishment of a Muslim state in Europe. One is inclined to believe that their motives were honourable and the bit of news in ‘The Daily Mail’ of 8th April 1999 on page 15 about Douglas Hurd having ‘received at least one million pounds from NatWest Markets, of which he was deputy chairman, for the one billion pounds contract he signed with Yugoslavia’s Slobodan Milesovic (an indicted war criminal)in 1997’ —–, even if true, has no relevance to the case.

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Whatever the case, beleaguered as they were, the Bosnians stuck to their guns. Soon they were getting some help from Muslim volunteers from different parts of the world. This kind of resistance was new to the Serbs and soon they were losing territory and on the run. Before it could get any worse for them the western powers stepped in and pushed through a peace settlement at Dayton that gave 49 per cent of Bosnia to the Serbs who constituted 30 per cent of its population. It was amazing how all the people, like Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, who had crusaded so vigorously against any intervention so long as the Serbs were winning, suddenly forgot the reasons and excuses they had been putting up and now turned in favour of intervention. These arguments had only been valid as long as the Serbs were winning. In a rare acknowledgement the US mediator, Richard Holbrook, went on record to say that but for the help rendered by the 2,000 or so volunteers the fate of Bosnia’s Muslims was sealed. He also told Sky TV on 27th June 1998 if it had been the Muslims killing Christians in Bosnia the western powers would not have remained so passive. NATO should have intervened three years earlier.

Since then warrants of arrest have been issued against some of the perpetrators of genocide in the Balkans. Among the prominent names only Slobodan Milesovic has been apprehended and put on trial. The primary villains, Radovan Karadzic, president of the Bosnian Serb Government and his military chief Ratko Mladic cannot be found despite six years of ‘intensive’ search and all the means and powers at the disposal of the United Nations, USA, the European Union and NATO. If some people can believe this then they must also believe that fairy tales are true as well. Significantly, no one in the West calls for ‘bombing Serbia into the Stone Age’ for not handing over these indicted criminals to the International War Crimes Tribunal in stark contrast to the shrill cries raised against Afghanistan which only asked to negotiate the surrender of Osama bin Laden. Again, there is truth in the words of George Orwell’s pig in his ‘Animal Farm’ when it proclaimed, ‘Some animals are more equal than others’ —– at least in the eyes of the West.

Another equally disturbing aspect of the Balkan tragedy is that, with a few honourable exceptions, all one heard from the Christian church luminaries at the time was deafening silence. If there were any cries of protest, condemnation and calls for action against the abomination by Reverend Jimmy Swaggert, Pat Robertson, Franklin Graham and other champions of western civilization these must have come in very faint whispers for most of us never heard them. Pope John Paul II, when he did speak, did so only to advise the twenty thousand or more Muslim women, who had become pregnant as a consequence of being gang-raped by the Serbs and survived, not to abort their pregnancies. The concern was touching and one only wished that it had been extended to stopping the grotesque and brutal tragedy while it happened in the first place. The photo ops of John Major visiting a couple of wounded Bosnian children under treatment in a hospital on British TV day after day were just as hurtful knowing that he was a major obstacle to bringing equitable peace to the hapless nation and the saving of lives of thousands of other Muslim Bosnian children.

Worst of all was, perhaps, the indifference and inaction on the part of the Muslim states, barring a few like Turkey, Iran and Malaysia, to the plight of the Muslims in the Balkans. This was particularly galling considering that some of them had so readily agreed to send large army contingents to join the war against Iraq but did so little to alleviate the suffering of fellow Muslims in Europe. 

The tragedy of the Balkan Muslims is by no means over. Millions of refugees who had fled their homes to look for safety in other areas have returned to find their homes destroyed and jobs non-existent. Both the Red Cross and the Red Crescent organizations have reported that there is very little aid forthcoming from donor countries. The killing may have stopped but the humanitarian crisis resulting from the ‘ethnic cleansing’ continues to cast a dark shadow over the region.

The situation in Bosnia was not provoked by the United Nations but it could certainly have ended it much sooner than it did and saved hundreds of thousands of innocent lives. The killing need not have been allowed to go on and on. There was also a systematic attempt at misleading the world as to the full extent and nature of the tragedy involving not only the western governments but also the Red Cross, Amnesty International and various UN organizations like UNHCR and UNPROFOR. In the words of David Rieff, ‘—– the UN was providing the world community with a fig leaf both for the inability of some states, like the United States, to muster the will to act, and for the failure of others, like Britain and France, to come clean to their own publics about their decision to allow the murder of Bosnia to proceed’ (‘Slaghterhouse’, p. 192).

To that extent the UN was guilty of moral dereliction. If it could act with such admirable zeal and alacrity to protect the strategic interests of a few member states in the Persian Gulf it should also have done more, in the name of humanity, to save hapless Bosnian Muslims from genocide. The same goes for all the permanent members of the UN Security Council and the Secretary General, Boutros Boutros Ghali. There is a valuable lesson in this for the Muslims in places like Palestine and Kashmir in particular. It would be a folly for them to pin their hopes on either the UN or the West to help find an equitable solution to their problems. Burying their heads in sand and pretending that the UN or any one else will help to restore their rights will get them nowhere. Ultimately, they will have to rely on their own united efforts without which there can be no hope.

Khan Zia is a retired Pakistan Naval officer now living in Canada. His interests are history and geo-politics and has written several papers. Published works include The Pathans of Jullunder, Muslims and the West: A Muslim Perspective and Pakistan: Roots, Perspective and Genesis.