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Gorazde, the British Government and the Serbs

Noel Malcolm

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Earlier this year I published an article in The Spectator (10 June), entitled 'The Whole Lot of them are Serbs', which commented on the way in which both UNPROFOR and the British Ministry of Defence (MoD) were acting as conduits for Serb propaganda. One of the claims I focused on was about 'ethnic cleansing' in Gorazde. The claim was not only made by General Rose in a BBC Panorama programme; it was also being repeated in a special briefing given to politicians and visiting dignitaries at the MoD, the main purpose of which was to show that 'The Muslims' were more to blame for the situation in Bosnia than the rebel Serbs. Since that article was published, I have obtained some further details which help to confirm and strengthen the case I was making about this particular piece of black propaganda.

The exact words used by General Rose in the Panorama broadcast of 23 January 1995 (according to the BBC's own transcript) were as follows. 'Yes, practically every house in Gorazde has been damaged, but most of the damage to Gorazde was done in the fighting that had taken place here two years before, when the Bosnian Government Forces drove the Serbs from this town, and there were twelve and a half thousand Serbs at that time living there and they were all driven off.'

Commenting on this, I noted that Calum Macdonald MP had searched through all the UN's own human rights reports on Bosnia without finding any reference to this alleged forcible expulsion of 12,500 Serbs. (See Calum Macdonald's own article, 'Rose-Tinted Spectacles', in Bosnia Report no.9). I also wrote:

'My own suspicions were aroused by the figure of 12,500 Serbs, which seemed improbably large for what I remembered, from visits before the war, as a small, predominantly Muslim town. So I looked up the figures in the 1991 census. In the whole administrative district of Gorazde (covering 380 square kilometres) there were only 9,840 Serbs. Many of them lived in the villages outside the town; it is doubtful whether more than 5,000 can have lived in Gorazde itself. So where did General Rose get his bogus figure of 12,500 from? The answer must be that it came, directly or indirectly, from Serb propaganda.'

My own suggested figure of up to 5,000 Serbs for the town of Gorazde was, as I indicated, a rough estimate. Since that article was written, I have been able to consult a fuller set of statistics from the 1991 Bosnian census, recently published in Croatia, which includes the figures for every town and village. The population of the towon of Gorazde consisted of 9,568 Muslims, 5,584 Serbs, 663 'Yugoslavs', 62 Croats and 396 others (Stanovnistvo Bosne i Hercegovine; narodni sastav po naseljima, Zagreb 1995, p.119).

Two conclusions follow from these statistics. First, General Rose believed in an extra population of almost 7,000 phantom Serbs. And secondly, given that the Serbs were 34.4 per cent of the real population, it is highly unlikely that the forcible 'cleansing' of them from Gorazde, even if it had actually taken place, would have produced 'most' of the damage which, as General Rose admitted, had affected 'practically every house in Gorazde'.

How were those houses damaged? A clue can be found in a book by the British journalist Alec Russell, who, together with Maggie O'Kane, managed to visit Gorazde for one day in mid-August 1992. They were the first Western journalists to have set foot in Gorazde since the beginning of the war - and the last for a long time. As Russell reports, the town had been under constant bombardment by Serb artillery for more than three months. The bombardment continued during their visit.

'We spent 24 hours in Gorazde, running, scrambling, dodging amd trying not to think what would happen if either of us was hit. Death was at hand on all sides. Wooden crosses littered the back gardens... Dada Tatarevic, a French teacher, took us on a guided tour of her apartment block. Every floor bar Dada's had lost someone in the siege. While we were dozing in Dada's sitting room, her neighbour slipped into the garden to pick some plums. A shell hit the tree. He was killed outright.' (Prejudice and Plum Brandy: Tales of a Balkan Stringer, London 1993, p.279). Perhaps General Rose believes that the Serbs have perfected a new type of 'smart' weapon, which hits only gardens, not houses.

A further clue as to the cause of damage to buildings in Gorazde can be found in the latest Annual Report of the International Helsinki Federation, published in September. Describing the Serb offensive against Gorazde in early 1994, and basing its comments on the Situation Reports produced by the UN's Human Rights Rapporteur in June and November 1994, it says: 'Some 700 people were killed during the offensive and some 1,970 wounded. During this and previous offensives, the town suffered damage to 80% of its buildings.' (Annual Report 1995, Vienna 1995, p.34).

We have some idea, then, about what happened to the buildings. But what happened to the Serbs? Many, it seems, left the town during the first weeks of the war, crossing into Serb-held territory when it was still easy to do so. Some moved to Serb-held villages outside the town. On 27 August 1992, following a pledge made at the London Conference to withdraw Serb front lines 10 miles from the town of Gorazde, they were told by the Bosnian Serb political leaders to leave those villages and travel beyond the 10-mile radius. On this occasion, 2,500 Serbs are believed to have moved; the move received wide publicity in world media because of an incident in which Bosnian government forces fired on a column of vehicles. This exodus was the only mass-movement of Serbs from the Gorazde area reported in the press; and, as each press report pointed out, the move was ordered by Bosnian Serb politicians (see The Times, 3.9.92; The Daily Telegraph, 4.9.92; International Herald Tribune, 19.9.92).

Finally, one intriguing item of quasi-information can be added. It comes from Srpska vojska, the magazine of the Bosnian Serb Army, which carried a sequence of articles on Gorazde in its issue of 9 May 1994. According to one of these, Serbs in Gorazde began to feel threatened after two of them were murdered on 4 May 1992. 'The Serbs began to flee to villages on the outskirts of the town, and to the surrounding hills. In this way, immediately after the outbreak of the war, Gorazde became, for the most part, ethnically clean.' Another article states: 'From that miserable August 1992 [i.e. from the withdrawal discussed above] until April 1994, Gorazde had only a few hundred Serbs, half-way between lif and death...' (pp 29,33).

Few sources could be less objective, of course, than the propaganda magazine of Ratko Mladic's army. Nevertheless, this evidence has at least a negative significance. Nowhere in this article is there any attempt to claim that 12,500 Serbs had been driven out of Gorazde by 'fighting', during which 'most' of the damage had been done to the buildings of the town. Such claims were obviously thought too gross for a domestic audience; they would strain the credulity of ordinary Bosnian Serb peasants. Only British Army officers, it seems, were considered credulous enough to be fed such outright lies.