Political platitudes that allow genocide

There is no moral equivalency between the refugees of Krajina and the victims of Srebrenica; Where are the men and boys of Zepa and Srebrenica? Where are all the missing women?
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The Independent Online
It is hard to have sympathy for the mentality which, when the Americans publish their aerial photographs of apparent mass graves near Srebrenica, says: "Hang on - what are the Americans up to? Aren't they just trying to distract attention from the inconvenient fact of ethnic cleansing in Krajina?" The massacres in Bosnia deserve a little more consideration than that airy dismissal.

Thousands of people are missing. If they are alive, they are bound to be in urgent need of help. But reports indicate they are not alive. The Americans believe they know where they are buried, and so they have published their evidence. The question of American motives is piddling in comparison with establishing the brute facts.

Where are the men and boys of Srebrenica and Zepa? Where are all the missing women? If the Americans were indulging in black propaganda, nothing would be easier than to give them the lie by producing the missing thousands. Four weeks is rather a short time in which to write these massacres off. Rather fast for the policy-touters to start saying, "Okay, here's our new deal for Bosnia - Bosnia gives up all claim to Srebrenica, Zepa and Gorazde, while in return ..."

These words trip rather too easily off the tongue. Sources at the UN call attention to the immense human tragedy of the exodus of the Krajina Serbs, and we watch their pathetic procession into Bosnia and Serbia. They have cars, tractors and carts. They are desperately short of water, and they keep running out of petrol. Some of them have been beaten up, and some shot. But in the scale of things, the scale set by the Serbs themselves, this is not an immense human tragedy. It would be more accurate to describe it as a lucky escape.

The Krajina Serbs have a future. The missing Muslims of Srebrenica do not. The Krajina Serbs are on their way to carve out a new life for themselves, and already it is apparent that many of them will be doing this at the expense of someone else, in Serbia or in Kosovo, and that many of them have written off Bosnia. They do not want to hang around and fight for Greater Serbia, and the conscripts among them will only do this under compulsion.

There has been an open rift between British and American official perceptions. Michael Portillo said that the Krajina Serbs were victims of ethnic cleansing. Peter Galbraith, the US ambassador in Croatia, said this was nonsense. I thought Galbraith made more sense than Portillo, but, even if you take the view that it was ethnic cleansing, you have to admit that it wasn't genocide. Krajina fell. Bihac was saved. Bihac escaped the fate of Srebrenica. This was the salient fact, the outcome to be applauded.

One does not have to buy the official Croatian line, or argue that the Krajina Serbs were given no reason to leave when they did. They saw that they could not hold the territory against an advancing army, and therefore they told their people to get out. Whether they were right or wrong in their assessment of what would happen when the Croatians arrived, they left rather than risk the consequences of defeat. And it is the Serbs who, hitherto, have defined what the consequences of defeat are.

Some of these points were put to Robin Cook yesterday. Mr Cook could easily have said that Croatia is a country and that every country has a right to control and defend its own territory, and that as long as the Croatian army confines its activities to the pursuit of these aims, nobody can object. But Mr Cook was concerned instead with the affront to European values represented by the evacuation of the Krajina Serbs.

Surely genocide is an affront to European values. Surely the Bosnian Muslims face and are enduring genocide, not in some remote metaphorical sense but in the here and now. Before the attack on Krajina, the situation was that, with Srebrenica and Zepa out of the way, a large number of Bosnian Serb soldiers had been freed to turn their attention to other enclaves. After the fall of Krajina, and as a direct result of it, Bihac has been relieved, and a blow has been dealt both to the idea of Greater Serbia and to the notion of Serb invincibility. It has even become possible to speculate about a complete reversal of Serb fortunes on the battlefield.

That this development is not welcomed by either the British Government or the Opposition is somewhat odd. It is as if there has already developed an expectation that the Bosnian genocide will be completed - that it is regrettable but inevitable. The move by the Croatians is unwelcome because it upsets the progress of a tragedy for which our minds have been prepared. It gives the Muslims a chance.

David Rieff, in his book Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West, describes what was for him an emblematic moment in the war. President Clinton was opening the Holocaust Museum in Washington, and speaking of the extraordinary vigilance that was required to prevent the recurrence of the genocide of the Nazi period. "We must deploy memory," said Clinton. Rieff comments: "That President Clinton could speak of memory as if it were something like a moral antiballistic missile was the least of it. The real moral solecism was to speak optimistically about the future when, as he knew perfectly well ... another genocide was taking place in Europe."

Rieff concludes: "To utter words like `Never again', as Clinton did at the opening of the Holocaust Museum, was to take vacuity over the border into obscenity as long as the genocide in Bosnia was going on and Clinton was doing nothing to stop it. His words were literally meaningless. For if there was to be no intervention to stop a genocide that was taking place, then the phrase `Never again' meant nothing more than `Never again would Germans kill Jews in Europe in the 1940s'. Clinton might as well have said, `Never again the potato famine,' or `Never again the slaughter of the Albigensians'."

One gets this same sense of vacuity and obscenity from the platitudes of our politicians, which usually turn on the trope that we can do nothing to stop the genocide, because to do so would be to compromise the UN's humanitarian effort in Bosnia. As if the genocide were the price we had to pay for the splendours of the humanitarian effort. How many people are missing in eastern Bosnia? Six thousand? Twelve thousand? "A bloody feast", as General Mladic promised to his victims.