Letting Bosnia Die

Against the Current, No. 46, September/October 1993

The Editors

LET BOSNIA DIE: The great Western democracies had reached that decision long before they made their intentions unmistakably and all but officially clear in the summer of 1993. By July, the endless rounds of meaningless announcements—proclaiming cease-fires that were never implemented, peace conferences that never convened, protection promised (but almost never actually provided for) aid convoys—could no longer hide the ultimate reality of both European and U.S. policy.

That policy was to end the war by simply compelling what remains of the Bosnian resistance to abandon hope of salvaging any vestige of a multi-communal democratic republic. The unspeakable horrors of the starvation of Sarajevo, the systematic destruction of homes, mosques and hospitals, the depopulation of Muslim villages and the creation of vast refugee slums in UN-proclaimed “safe areas” that are really killing grounds for Serb artillery, all played their part in forcing the surrender of that hope.

The first week in August brought NATO “threats” of limited bombing of Serb positions. True to Western policy throughout the carnage in the former Yugoslavia, these warnings were issued after the Serb militias had achieved all their strategic military goals. Plenty of time was allotted to all manner of warnings, consultations among allies, UN-NATO wrangling and idle chatter, which served only to ensure that the Serb army could consolidate its conquests. The bombing threat in any case couldn’t and was never intended to preserve Bosnia, but only to “deter” the Serb leadership from something they didn’t really need anyway—the physical occupation of Sarajevo, now a destroyed city with an almost starved population, about to be overrun with thousands upon thousands of new refugees for whom there is no shelter, no food, and virtually no hope.

As Against the Current goes to press in mid-August, the situation looked like this: The Serb army was said to be withdrawing from two strategic mountains around Sarajevo, while United Nations forces took over these positions—to maintain the chokehold on the last supply lines for the Bosnian army to get ammunition for the defense of the city. Based on this “solution” the peace negotiations would resume in Geneva for the final dismemberment of the republic. The bombing option remained officially open, but was very unlikely to be used except as some kind of token in the event the Serb leadership in its overconfidence committed some Saddam-like double-cross against the United Nations on the ground.

How to Kill a Country

The key obstacle to completing the carve-up of Bosnia has been the remarkable resistance of the civilian population. Even when forced to boil grass for nutrition, even standing in line for water when this meant imminent risk of being blown to bits by shells or snipers, for a year and a half the people of Sarajevo maintained their struggle and their dignity. To a degree rarely matched by any population under siege, even by the anti-Nazi resistance movements of an earlier European generation, they refused to turn on each other in intercommunal pogroms and reprisals.

There have been some tragic exceptions, especially recently as it became clear that each community would be left only with the territory it could grab by force. This appears to be the logic of the last-ditch Bosnian army offensive in central Bosnia. The despair attending the last stages of the war, especially on the part of Muslim refugees from shattered villages, has reportedly also shaken the intercommunal solidarity of the defenders of Sarajevo and its outskirts. None of this, and no criticisms (no matter how justified) of some strategies of the Bosnian government should be allowed to obscure the authentic heroism of Bosnia’s popular resistance.

In part, of course, the heroism of this population rested in part on a grand illusion, the expectation of decisive political-military intervention by the so-called “world community of nations” to save Bosnia. Despite the arms embargo that crippled their defenses, Bosnian Muslims, the multicommunal Bosnian civilian and military resistance, and the government in Sarajevo refused to believe they would simply be abandoned by the West The illusion amounted simply to this: Bosnians believed that the Western powers actually take seriously the declarations of human rights, the right of self-determination and condemnations of racism and genocide, which these powers ceaselessly proclaim and which Bosnia was actually fighting to uphold. How then, the reasoning went, can they ultimately ignore us?

In reality, the great democratic powers, collectively a/k/a Western imperialism, have no more concern for the lives of the Bosnians than they have for a quarter million refugees of Israel’s latest bombing of Lebanon or a hundred thousand Central American peasant victims of military exterminators, The same is true of the impending slaughter and mass starvation of the made-in-America holocaust now unfolding in Angola, where Washington’s long-time client Jonas Samvibi, after failing to win power through an election, has resumed his military offensive, now controlling eighty percent of the country’s territory. In the case of Bosnia, these powers have no particular interest in the survival of the Bosnian republic or its people. Any settlement is acceptable so long as it seems, from their point of view, “stable.”

The Bosnians’ illusion about the West’s intent was not only understandable but, perhaps, even necessary to sustain their struggle against hopeless military odds. It must be admitted, however, that the Serbian leadership—the Stalinist/nationalist Slobodan Milosevic and the nazi-like Radovan Karadzic—had a more acute understanding of the real European and American intent So long as the Serb militias maintained their military momentum, they knew, all the rhetoric about stopping their aggression would mean nothing.

On a Serb-controlled radio station, the announcer joked, “What’s the difference between Auschwitz and Sarajevo?” Answer “Sarajevo has no gas.” By August that kind of psychological as well as physical terror against the Bosnian population was reaching the end-game stage. As for the Vance-Owen Plan, the debacle dissected by Branka Magas in our precious issue, it served—and was probably intended by its great-power sponsors—as little more than a bridge to the “final solution of the Bosnian problem,” a full-scale ethnic carve-up of the republic. To facilitate this crime, the great democracies ensured that the arms embargo remained in place, strangling Bosnia’s possibility of long-term self-defense against the forces of Greater Serbia and Greater Croatia.

There could hardly be doubt that this policy would sooner or later achieve its aims. Sarajevo’s will to survive has surpassed all expectations; yet even if its half-starved population could somehow last the summer and fall it could not conceivably withstand another winter. In one form or another, the surrender of Bosnia’s central government was inevitable. The reason it continued a war against insurmountable odds, in the face of the cynical and murderous inter-national inaction, isn’t blind fanaticism or pride but rather, we would suggest, that the Bosnian resistance recognizes what will follow the surrender.

The ethnic partitioning of Bosnia will not put an end to the cycle of murder, quite the opposite. It will entail the wholesale butchery and expulsion of all Bosnian Muslim communities outside the designated “safe areas.” Muslim populations who survive inside these areas will be refugees, hostages and wholly dependent on international charity. And with less publicity but no less brutality, the Bosnian Serb and Croat communities will be purged of real and suspected “traitors,” i.e. those ordinary people who have been marked by their refusal to participate in the rape and killing of their neighbors during the ethnic-cleansing process.

Secretary of State Warren Christopher, in his capacity as official spokes-man of U.S. imperialism, was certainly correct in stating that the United States (i.e. its capitalist ruling class) has “no national strategic interest” in Bosnia. Indeed, Bosnia has no oil. It is irrelevant to the baffles over trade and interest rates among Washington, Bonn and Tokyo. There is no longer a rival global superpower against whose (actual or invented) threat of incursion Washington will spring to the “defense of plucky little Bosnia.”
Bosnia and its people can be sacrificed without a ripple in the stock, bond or commodities markets. Nor has it been deemed a suitable arena for the testing of new U.S. smart bombs.

For the international left, the destruction of the Bosnian republic is a deep tragedy on several levels Simply put, the destruction of this integrated multi-communal republic is a bitter defeat for the democratic principles which must be the bedrock of any left-wing, let alone socialist, politics and a triumph for those forces everywhere who uphold the politics of racism, apartheid and fascism as the basis for “stable” states. Its repercussions will be felt not only in the Balkans, Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, but as far away as the Middle East and Africa. Regrettably, some on the left apparently fail to recognize these implications.

To be sure, the left in the West, which witnesses imperialism’s daily crimes against humanity, could not share the Bosnians’ illusory (however natural) hopes of a progressive or humanitarian Western intervention. We couldn’t advocate imperialist military intervention, which in any case wouldn’t have had anything to do with preserving the integrity of Bosnia.

In this horrible situation, however, some of our friends on the revolutionary left—in the name of anti-imperialism—have chosen to simplify the question by denying what has been lost in Bosnia’s defeat They argue as if this were just “another squalid war among reactionaries,” as if Bosnia’s war for survival represented nothing different from the Serb and Croat ethnic cleansers. Such a formula serves only as an excuse to write off Bosnia’s struggle as unworthy of left attention.

This stance comes garnished with plenty of revolutionary and anti-imperialist rhetoric. In substance, however, the “plague on all houses” formula merely feebly echoes the Western powers’ cynical indifference to the fate of a small embattled republic and of its people who fought literally to the end of physical endurance. Such a stance is normal and to be expected from the imperialist statesmen; but for the left it contradicts our bedrock democratic values and squanders priceless moral capital.

September-October 1993, ATC 46