Selected Longer Reviews

Des brasiers mal éteints: un reporter dans les guerres yougoslaves 1991-95

By Heller, Yves

Le Monde, Paris, 1997, 340 pages,
Price: 120.00 French Francs
Shelf mark: 949.703 [testimonies]

There are two sorts of experts on the recent history of the wars in Yugoslavia. One consists of decision-makers, or people who regard themselves as such: diplomats and politicians. The memoirs of Lord Owen, for example, give the impression that the whole drama of the Balkans was played out in Geneva, London and Washington, in the form of discreet negotiations between civilized if somewhat Machiavellian characters.

The other sort are the people on the ground who, day after day and sometimes at the risk of their lives, have trudged through the battlefields and ruins, seeing and talking to the victims and front-line actors, whose fears and anxieties they have understood and reported. This approach enables them to grasp as it were from within the internal logic of the drama, and sometimes even to predict future developments.

Yves Heller, who died recently, was a representative of the second category: he followed the whole conflict as a senior reporter for Le Monde, and this book is a collection of the resulting articles. In fact the subtitle, setting the chronological limits as 1991-1995, does not really do justice to the scope of the work: the earliest pieces, dealing with the first Kosovo crisis, date from 1990, while the last ones, covering the post-Dayton Accords period, were written in 1996. Heller thus emerges as one of those who saw the crisis coming some time before it exploded into public awareness; as early as 7 February 1990 - a year and a half before the guns started to speak - his researches in Prishtina and Belgrade led him to warn of the threat posed to the stability of the Yugoslav federation by the "Serbian daydreams" being stirred up by Miloševic.

After Kosovo, Heller travelled widely through the former Yugoslavia. From Croatia in 1991, he gives a very concrete account of an atrocious war that passed almost unnoticed in France, with the sudden unleashing of Serbian military power and "irregulars" against the unarmed and helpless population of Croatia, and the dramas of Dubrovnik and Vukovar; but also the mistakes and hesitations of the Zagreb government.

In 1992 he was in Bosnia, describing the confused beginnings of the war in that country and the horrors of the siege of Sarajevo. The following year, in central Bosnia, he witnessed at close quarters the birth of the Croatian-Bosnian conflict in all its complexity, reporting the disarray of both populations, the anxiety in Vitez and other Croatian enclaves, and massacres like the one carried out in the Muslim village of Ahmi_i by the Croatian HVO. Behind the factual reportage there is always political analysis, throwing light on the background to the conflict, the Croatian wish to seize territory by jumping the gun on the Vance-Owen plan, and the military reversal that led to the Croatian defeat in central Bosnia at the hands of Bosnian forces.

In 1994-95 he was again in Bosnia, producing numerous striking snapshots of Sarajevo, Mostar and other places, but also (on 23 June 1995) a premonitory analysis of the new tactics adopted by the Croatians and Bosnians (now reconciled, willingly or unwillingly, by American diplomacy), which were to lead to their victories later that summer. Then came Dayton, which brought the fighting to an end but included an "extravagant constitutional arrangement concocted in the big capitals" whose fictitious nature the author has no difficulty in exposing.

There are some events that Heller did not witness directly: the "ethnic cleansing" of northern Bosnia in spring 1992, with large-scale massacres, concentration camps, rapes and expulsions, was carried out in regions to which journalists had no access. But this serious reporter brought it to his readers’ attention very early on, citing statements collected from refugees. One example is the massacre committed by the Serbian police at Zaklopa_a, in the commune of Vlasenica, on 16 May 1992: ‘Aida Hodi_, aged sixty-three, recalls: "It was five in the afternoon when the policemen, accompanied by militia reservists, got out of their cars and started firing. Half an hour later a hundred and fifty villagers were dead or dying in pools of their own blood... the corpses of men, women and children lay where they had fallen for three days, until the Serbs buried them in a common grave"’. This piece appeared in Le Monde of 10 June 1992, a fortnight before François Mitterrand’s visit to Sarajevo. Is it possible that our President, who believed that the Bosnians’ only urgent need was for humanitarian aid, was not a Le Monde reader? Heller notes elsewhere (30 November 1992) the opinion of the Serbian general Momir Tali_ that Mitterrand’s visit "prevented an international military intervention against the Serbian forces".

The author returns to the massacres in northern Bosnia in articles published on 21 June 1995, covering the report submitted to the UN in May 1994 by the commission of experts chaired by Cherif Bassiouni. He underlines the systematic and premeditated character of these massacres. His reading of this report also enables him to criticize the policy applied by the international community - promoted especially by diplomats like Lord Owen - consisting of being "inflexible on the concept of impartiality" and treating all the "warring parties" as morally equal.

Of the many concrete observations with which this work is crammed, I have a particular interest in experiences I share, more or less, with the author, whose accounts of them I find strikingly true: the long bus journey to Sarajevo in the winter of 1994-95 (A bus called Sarajevo, 15-16 February 1995); or the passage through Croatia’s "Krajina, accursed land" (26 February 1995), a region twice "cleansed" - by the Serbs in 1991 and the Croats in 1995 - and now utterly devastated and almost empty. The absolute and unarguable legitimacy of this Croatian reconquest certainly cannot justify the reprisals that followed it.

Humanity vividly sketched from life, and penetrating political analysis: the combination of these two approaches gives Yves Heller’s book a special value.

Paul Garde

This review, translated here by John Howe, was first published in Le Monde 7Winter 1993-94

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