Arithmetic of death that does not add up

Missing in Bosnia: Casualty figures vary, but blame has to be allotted, writes Emma Daly
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The Independent Online
Sarajevo - "History starts now," said Admiral Leighton Smith, the Nato commander, shortly after the Dayton peace deal was signed in December. "We don't want to go back in time or dig up old wounds." In the months that followed, that reluctance to address the past has become a standard Western line. There is a sort of peace in Bosnia today, but those charged with implementing the peace frequently seem eager to draw a line under what came before.

In some respects, the news and images that have emerged from Bosnia have echoed Nazi Germany: the emaciated prisoners gazing through wire fences, the organised busing of Muslim prisoners to killing sites, the charges of genocide against members of the Bosnian Serb leadership.

But there is one big difference in the conflict that has produced the first war-crimes trials since Nuremberg. On this occasion, unlike in 1945, the winners are not trying the losers. This was a draw, imposed by international referees.

But, as Dayton can be read as the foundation of a united, multi-national Bosnia or as the acceptance of ethnic partition, the agreement has not answered the question that sparked the war: one country or two? (Or even three, if one factors in the Bosnian Croats).

The attitudes and policies that fuelled the conflict continue; an assessment, therefore, of the rights and wrongs of the war is necessary to aid the implementation of the peace. British officials, in particular, have long been keen to fudge the issue: to present the Bosnian war as an internal conflict in which good and bad, right and wrong, have played no part. "They're all bastards," said one officer, reflecting the implied official sub-text.

It is notable, however, that most Western civilians working in Bosnia throughout the war, on both sides of the line, have concluded there is a significant difference between the government side and the separatist Serb leadership in Pale. (The Bosnian Croat leadership, sharing Pale's desire for union with a neighbour, shared many of its sins.)

"It's not black and white," said a diplomat involved in the negotiations. "They [the British] tried to make it all grey and it isn't - there are significant shades involved." The fact that the indictments issued by the war-crimes tribunal are disproportionately addressed to Serbs is testimony to the facts on the ground and the bodies below ground.

The Bosnian government claims 156,827 dead and missing in the war for their side and 175,286 wounded on its territory. It estimates 70,000 to 80,000 Serb dead. Pale does not release its figures. These totals are probably high; the foreign official estimated the figures to be around 60,000 government dead and perhaps 15,000 to 20,000 Serb dead.

When it comes to implementing the peace, the government side is undoubtedly guilty of many violations, of duplicitous tactics. "They're all liars," said another British officer. This may be true. But not all have practised genocide.

This is not to say either that Muslim soldiers did not kill civilians or harass minorities, nor to say that the Serb people are evil. But it is indisputable that the Pale leadership openly sought to expel or exterminate all non-Serbs on its territory, and the Bosnian government, by contrast, sought to hold the country, and its people, together.

As one Serb, a former university lecturer (and no lover of the Bosnian government), noted: "It's not the same. Really, that's a joke. It's not the same. The comparison between a fascistic regime and one that wanted to be declared democratic is not a good one."

There are two principal views espoused by those who say "they're all the same". The first is that the Bosnian government was restrained by opportunity, not by policy. But this does not appear to hold true. "If you take actual numbers of war crimes committed, the Serbs are the worst by a long way," said a foreign official with long experience in Bosnia. "If you adjust the figures for opportunity, for example comparing villages taken by the Serbs with villages taken by the Muslims ... you get a picture where the Serbs are still worse."

The second view is that the Bosnian government fooled us all by telling us what we wanted to hear - that all Bosnians should be able to live in one state, regardless of nationality. As it happens, that sentiment is more or less upheld by policy.

But even if Sarajevo is merely spouting off to keep us happy, one should perhaps be grateful that at least one side knows what the civilised, liberal view is. The Bosnian Serbs and many Croats are openly racist in their contempt and disgust for the Muslims, or "Turks", as they are known.

Unfortunately for those trying to implement the Dayton accord, the Pale leadership (which did not sign the plan but was forced into submission by President Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia) is clearly clinging to the old philosophy.

There are officials in the Serb entity who are working for a resolution, who see a future in a post-war Bosnia - but they are not in charge.

Dayton will only succeed in an atmosphere as free as possible of mutual recrimination, but drawing a diplomatic veil over the recent past will not change it. "Blame is for God and children," said one Nato spokesman. None the less, without any attempt to apportion blame, it may prove impossible to move towards a juster future. Only if we remember the way things were, can we help to shape the way things should be.