Are we ever going to cry 'enough'?

The catastrophe in Bosnia begs the question of what atrocities it takes to arouse Western outrage; One supposes that there is a kind of exchange rate for a human life
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The Independent Online
Shortly before the fall of Srebrenica last week it was possible to hear reporters saying: "We don't know how desperate the situation really is" - with the implication that there might be some Muslim wolf-crying going on. And quite a while after the fall, one heard our new Foreign Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind, saying that the belligerent noises from France were essentially misguided and that the thing to do now was to aim for a demilitarisation of Srebrenica and the other safe havens in line with the original policy under which they had been set up.

By Saturday, the Ministry of Defence was saying anonymously: "We have written off Zepa, and Gorazde is likely to fall as well." In the space of a few hours, a stunning amount of wisdom has gone out of the window, as the consciousness of the West, caught in full hectic retreat, tries to stop, turn round and say something to the advancing Serbs, only to find that the thing it was about to say, the clever thing it had thought up, is wildly, spectacularly out of date.

One looks at a headline in the Sunday Telegraph: "Generals meet to avert Bosnia bloodbath" and thinks - is this today's paper or last week's? Was it on Thursday that Mr Rifkind "acquitted himself most convincingly in the House" or was it on some other planet in some other dimension?

Or again, when the leaders of the great powers looked at their desk diaries and decided they could "make a window" next Friday, were they thinking that the curiosity of the Serbs about the outcome of next Friday's meeting would be so overpowering that they would say: "Hold it boys, let's just play things down until next Friday - you never know what those great powers are going to come up with"?

Do you measure such catastrophes in some kind of unit? I have a mental habit of comparing things with the number of American dead in Vietnam - 60,000 during the course of a long war. But the number of refugees missing from last week's actions alone is put at anything up to 25,000. Only 15,000 out of 40,000 arrived in Tuzla. Of the most vulnerable group to massacre, the men of military age, there are supposed to be 10,000 missing, and although there are reports that the Bosnian Serbs may allow the Red Cross to reach them, these reports appear to be mere rumours of intentions.

In any case, these unfolding events do not lack scale. They can hold their own among the great catastrophes. And then, beside the speed and the scale of the events, there is their nature. It is in the nature of these events not, as it were, to introduce us to something worse than we have known before, to show us something new. They show us something old. They open up a chamber in the heart, one we should have wished forever shut.

Murder, mutilation, rape - old words that have always clustered around the notion of war - jump out at us with an invigorated meaning, a new actuality. And for those in the "safe areas" that new immediacy was enough to drive them to suicide. Soldiers shot themselves. Some newspapers ran a memorable photograph of a woman who had hanged herself in a forest, an image that got past the usual taste-censors, those who spare us the worst of the visual record, because, I suppose, it seemed to get to the heart of the moment - this dread of surrender. Better this suicide, it said, than what they would have done.

I can't say I have ever entirely understood the association of rape with war - at least I do not think it self-evident. Soldiers in battle are, typically, exhausted, filthy, thirsty and most often hungry. They are also, in the nature of things, vulnerable, and you might think that rape might make them for a while more vulnerable. The capacity for sexual arousal in the heat of battle has no doubt something to do with the generally high level of adrenalin in the system, and it seems that, in some primitive part of the brain, rape is considered the proper way for a soldier to kill a woman.

But then this has been the war in which rape appears to have had its symbolic ramifications. The Serbs rape the Muslim women as a further way of humiliating the men, because mutilating the men and slitting their throats wasn't enough. The people as a whole must be humiliated.

And again, according to one radio report yesterday, the rapings and mutilations are not necessarily something that happens in the heat of battle, but rather the product of a drinking session, a reheated afterthought. They fight the battle once, but once is not enough. They want to give it a re-run.

So the 25,000 people who have not come out of Srebrenica are either dead or at the mercy of this cut-and-come-again vengeance. The 30,000 people currently under attack in Zepa know that it's their turn next. And Gorazde can wait perhaps until next Friday.

Asked yesterday about Anglo-French relations, Mr Rifkind used words to the effect that the unpleasantnesses of the past two days are behind us. I have to admit I'm sorry that that is the case. I wish those unpleasantnesses had continued for long enough to stir something more decisive by way of an answer to the Bosnian Serbs.

When people say, as they have been, "Look, this is happening in Europe," what they are pointing out is that in their mental scale of things it is unacceptable that 10,000 or 20,000 people simply die over a couple of days, that this is an unacceptable number of Europeans. Just as 60,000 Americans was, in Vietnam, an unacceptable number. It was an enduring tragedy for the United States, a traumatic war whose effects continue to be etc, etc...

One supposes, though, that there is a kind of exchange rate for a human life, where an American is worth so much, a European so much, and a Bosnian Muslim much, much less. In other words, this turns out not, actually, to be happening in Europe. The human exchange rate is different.

One watches in the face of Muhammed Sacirbey, the Bosnian foreign minister, a struggle between contempt for us, rage at the latest events and the knowledge that the next thing he says must be articulate and in the diplomatic interest of his cause and in the interest of those suffering civilians. And it is hard not to feel the justice of the contempt.

The Serbs had threatened what they were going to do. They had had 50 of their men killed around Srebrenica since January, and that was unacceptable. And in the revenge they took against the starving enclave, the revenge which continues now, they are revealing their own exchange rate of Bosnian against Serb. It is an exorbitant rate, and we are far from knowing the final figure.