Selected Longer Reviews

Srebrenica: record of a war crime

By Honig, Jan Willem and Norbert Both

Penguin, London, 1996, 204 pages,
Price: 6.99 Pound Sterling
Shelf mark: 341.949703

The fall of the Muslim enclave of Srebrenica to Bosnian Serb forces in July 1995 and the subsequent massacre of thousands of its male inhabitants - civilian and military - proved to be a turning point in the war. Flushed by their success in eastern Bosnia, Bosnian Serb and Croatian Serb forces turned their attention to the Bihac pocket in the northwest of Bosnia. It was an enclave too far. In early August 1995, Croatian forces - armed and trained with United States assistance - launched a lightning assault and smashed the "Serbian Republic of the Krajina", thus precipitating the flight, though not the massacre, of over 100,000 refugees. At about the same time, the Republican-dominated US Congress, stirred by the harrowing scenes of the survivors of Srebrenica clutching their pitifully antiquated weaponry, voted to repeal the arms embargo against the sovereign state of Bosnia-Herzegovina. It was not least this unprecedented challenge to executive control of US foreign policy which helped finally to propel President Clinton into a campaign of coordinated air strikes against Bosnian Serb communications and arms dumps.

Jan Willem Honig and Norbert Both’s study 1 is an impressive analysis of the circumstances and extent of the massacre. They do not mince their words: Srebrenica is described as "the largest single war crime in Europe since the second world war". Moreover, the executions were not spontaneous but "orchestrated". As the authors painstakingly demonstrate, the efficient and ruthless rounding-up, deportation and murder of such a large number of victims was "preplanned" by the Serb political and military leadership, particularly General Mladic, the supreme commander, who not only organized but oversaw the massacre. In support of their argument Honig and Both have marshalled an unanswerable case, using evidence from an array of witnesses: the Dutch UN troops stationed in the enclave, journalists, satellite photographs, radio intercepts, survivor and even perpetrator testimony.

The also effectively dispose of the notion that the men of Srebrenica were themselves "war criminals" felled by the righteous wrath of the victorious Serbs. Certainly, the Bosnian garrison under Naser Oric had been guilty of atrocities, especially during the winter of 1992/3; and they had undoubtedly not disarmed, as envisaged under the "safe areas" plan. But these crimes were reactive; they are in no sense comparable with the calculated campaign of aggression and ethnic displacement waged by the Serbs. Besides it was only the skill and ruthlessness of Oric which had saved Srebrenica from early extinction at the hands of its Serb neighbours in 1992. Moreover, Bosnian raiding parties violating the ceasefire were a direct result of Serb bad faith in blocking aid convoys, which compelled Oric to forage for food.

Most importantly, Honig and Both are sure about the aim of the massacre, which was part of a systematic programme to "cleanse" the area of Muslims. Hence, they argue: "The Serbs were also guilty of crimes against humanity", in particular genocide, as defined by the UN Convention of 1948, which covered any act "committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such."

Unfortunately, the book is seriously compromised by two pieties. The first is the authors’ desire to explain and exculpate the behaviour of their Dutch compatriots, whom the Serbs shrugged aside contemptuously during the assault and massacre. According to Honig and Both, the Dutch soldiers were "not cowards", but victims of an impossible situation. Yet their own book provides enough evidence to the contrary. Doubtless there were many individual acts of courage, such as the superbly unflappable (female) fighter pilot who participated in the belated air strike. Doubtless, too, the position of the lightly armed Dutch forces was very difficult. But even the most sympathetic reader can easily discern a depressing blend of fear, cynicism, indifference, defeatism and simple racism among the Dutch troops, who had been unambiguously ordered by UN headquarters in Zagreb "to take up blocking positions" against the advancing Serbs. Their battle morale is summed up by one sergeant’s comment: "Everybody got a fright. You could easily get killed in such an operation." There were, in fact, no Dutch fatalities except the bolting private killed in desperation by the Bosnians. They ran away. And in their haste they refused to take many of their Bosnian employees with them, not least in order to avoid "provoking the Serbs": these were left to certain deportation and death. By contrast, other organizations such as M‚decins Sans FrontiŠres, and even the UN High Commission for Refugees, who were less frantically concerned to save their own skins, evacuated many of their Bosnian helpers. But perhaps most seriously, the Dutch forbore to raise a full-scale alarm about the continuing massacre until all their men had been brought to safety.

The second piety is to the whole UN mediation effort in the former Yugoslavia, and in particular Lord Owen, whom Both served as a research assistant. No harsh words are to be found concerning their performance. For example, a bumbling bureaucrat like Yasushi Akashi is decribed merely as "cautious by nature...highly experienced... ever mindful of the importance of compromise", and so on. The Americans, by contrast, are singled out for sharp criticism. US "Serb-bashers" are blamed for failing to secure a compromise settlement before the assault on Srebrenica; for insisting on a lifting of the arms embargo against the Bosnian government; for an unrealistic faith in air power; for failing to commit ground troops of their own; and for vetoing UN withdrawal from the "safe areas". Doubtless the Americans made mistakes, but they were to be proved right on the main points in August to October 1995. It was possible to deter attacks on a "safe area" by air power; this had not only been obvious, as the authors concede, whenever it seemed a likelihood at Srebrenica, but was shown by the successful guarantee of Gorazde, another Bosnian "safe area", once the albatross of its British garrison had withdrawn. It was possible, pace Owen, to turn the military tide by arming the Croatians and Bosnians. And it was possible, pace a dismissive footnote by Honig and Both, to facilitate this by attacking ground targets.

In short, this book must be approached with caution. As a pioneering study of the execution and purpose of the massacre at Srebrenica it can hardly be bettered. But as an interpretation of the baleful role of the international community - and DutchBat’s contribution - it will not do.

Brendan Simms

This article first appeared in the THES, on 17 January 1997

1 Srebrenica: Record of a War Crime, by Jan Willem Honig and Norbert Both, Penguin 1996.

Back to Books on Bosnia

books on bosnia

Books on Bosnia:A database of 379 book reviews and 3741 books held by the Institute:
home | about us | publications | news | contact | bosnia | search | bosnia report | site credits