Retired Major-General Lewis MacKenzie was the
first commander of the
UN peacekeeping forces in Sarajevo.
The Globe and Mail, Thursday, July
14, 2005 - Comment
This week marked the 10th
anniversary of the United Nations' second greatest
failure since its creation in 1945 -- the genocide in
Rwanda being the undisputed No. 1. With much fanfare, the
ceremonies focused on the massacre of "up to" 8,000
Bosnian men and boys by General Ratko Mladic's Bosnian
Serb army in Srebrenica in July of 1995.
In the vast majority of recent
media reports, the background and responsibilities for
the disaster in Srebrenica were absent. Preferred was the
simple explanation: a black and white event in which the
Serbs were solely to blame.
As someone who played a modest role
in some of the events preceding the massacre, perhaps a
little background will provide some context. In early
1993, after my release from the Canadian Forces, I was
asked to appear before a number of U.S. congressional
committees dealing with Bosnia. A few months earlier, my
successor in the UN Protection Force, General Philippe
Morillon, had --against the advice of his UN masters --
bullied his way into Srebrenica accompanied by a tiny
contingent of Canadian soldiers and told its citizens
they were now under the protection of the UN. The folks
at the UN in New York were furious with Gen. Morillon
but, with the media on his side, they were forced to
introduce the "safe haven" concept for six areas of
Bosnia, including Srebrenica.
Wondering what this concept would
mean, one U.S. senator asked me how many troops it would
take to defend the safe havens. "Somewhere in the
neighbourhood of 135,000 troops," I replied. It had to be
that large because of the Serb artillery's range. The new
UN commander on the ground in Bosnia, Belgian General
Francis Briquemont, said he agreed with my assessment but
was prepared to try to defend the areas with 65,000
additional troops. The secretary-general of the day,
Boutros Boutros-Ghali, went to the Security Council and
recommended 27,500 additional troops. The Security
Council approved a force of 12,000 and, six months later,
fewer than 2,000 additional soldiers had been added to
UNPROFOR for the safe-haven tasks.
Then the Security Council changed
the wording of the safe-haven resolution from "the UN
will defend the safe havens" to "by their presence will
the UN deter attacks on the safe havens." In other words,
a tiny, token, lightly armed UN contingent would be
placed as sacrificial lambs in Srebrenica to "deter" the
Bosnian Serb army.
It didn't take long for the Bosnian
Muslims to realize that the UN was in no position to live
up to its promise to "protect" Srebrenica. With some help
from outsiders, they began to infiltrate thousands of
fighters and weapons into the safe haven. As the Bosnian
Muslim fighters became better equipped and trained, they
started to venture outside Srebrenica, burning Serb
villages and killing their occupants before quickly
withdrawing to the security provided by the UN's safe
haven. These attacks reached a crescendo in 1994 and
carried on into early 1995 after the Canadian infantry
company that had been there for a year was replaced by a
larger Dutch contingent.
The Bosnian Serbs might have had
the heaviest weapons, but the Bosnian Muslims matched
them in infantry skills that were much in demand in the
rugged terrain around Srebrenica. As the snow cleared in
the spring of 1995, it became obvious to Nasar Oric, the
man who led the Bosnian Muslim fighters, that the Bosnian
Serb army was going to attack Srebrenica to stop him from
attacking Serb villages. So he and a large number of his
fighters slipped out of town. Srebrenica was left
undefended with the strategic thought that, if the Serbs
attacked an undefended town, surely that would cause NATO
and the UN to agree that NATO air strikes against the
Serbs were justified. And so the Bosnian Serb army
strolled into Srebrenica without opposition.
What happened next is only
debatable in scale. The Bosnian Muslim men and older boys
were singled out and the elderly, women and children were
moved out or pushed in the direction of Tuzla and safety.
It's a distasteful point, but it has to be said that, if
you're committing genocide, you don't let the women go
since they are key to perpetuating the very group you are
trying to eliminate. Many of the men and boys were
executed and buried in mass graves.
Evidence given at The Hague war
crimes tribunal casts serious doubt on the figure of "up
to" 8,000 Bosnian Muslims massacred. That figure includes
"up to" 5,000 who have been classified as missing. More
than 2,000 bodies have been recovered in and around
Srebrenica, and they include victims of the three years
of intense fighting in the area. The math just doesn't
support the scale of 8,000 killed.
Nasar Oric, the Bosnian Muslim
military leader in Srebrenica, is currently on trial in
The Hague for war crimes committed during his "defence"
of the town. Evidence to date suggests that he was
responsible for killing as many Serb civilians outside
Srebrenica as the Bosnian Serb army was for massacring
Bosnian Muslims inside the town.
Two wrongs never made a right, but
those moments in history that shame us all because of our
indifference should not be viewed in isolation without
the context that created them.
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