Thanks to Casablanca for allowing me to reproduce the following


'Aren't they all as bad as each other?' In the teeth of the British media, Lee Bryant explains why not.

Public opinion in Britain has always been confused by the wars in former Yugoslavia, and particularly by the strange constellation of international powers lined up behind the armies on the ground. The way that the main news media have chosen to present the conflict as a generalised bloodletting between equally culpable 'warring factions' has served to obscure any real idea about what is going on.

Two kinds of approach are particularly important in generating emotional responses without action. The first is the tendency, especially prevalent in television, of zooming in on the horror or the killing to such an extent that any political analysis is out of the frame. The second has been dubbed the 'victimological approach' - identifying victims and quantifying their victimhood as a means of apportioning blame and guilt.

Bosnians, we can all agree, have been the biggest victims of the war, and Serbs the most guilty party. Croats were victims in 1991 when they were ethnically cleansed from occupied areas of Croatia, but then they became aggressors in Bosnia and, most recently, completed a full cycle on the victimological wheel of fortune when they re-took the Krajina region by force.

Croatia's 'Operation Storm', completed in just over three days, has probably done more to confuse public opinion here than anything else. The 'Serbs as victims' story had such novelty-value for our media that we were able to follow hour by hour the flight of 150,000 Croatian Serbs from their ancestral homelands into Serb-occupied Bosnian territory and ultimately to Serbia. We were told this was the biggest population movement of the war - because nobody now remembers the brutal cleansing of half a million Bosnians in 1992 - and that it was a humanitarian catastrophe despite the fact that the Krajina Serbs fled in cars, with possessions, and without any systematic campaign of rape, torture or killing waged against them.

However distasteful the increasingly dictatorial regime of Franjo Tudjman may be, the fact remains that Croatia sought a peaceful re-integration of the Krajina, offering substantial autonomy, for four years. The Krajina leadership held out, hoping for Belgrade to intervene. At the point when it became clear they would lose militarily, Krajina Serbs were ordered to flee by their leaders in Knin. It is to be hoped that as many Krajina Serbs as possible can be persuaded to return to Croatia, and in this respect American and German pressure on Zagreb could play a key role in assuaging the justified fears of Krajina Serb civilians. In many ways Croatia (heading for a monocultural backwater) needs them more than they need Croatia.

Revenge killing, burning of houses, and looting has taken place in Krajina. There is evidence that the Croatian officer corps, stiffened by American and German advisers, prevented the killing of civilians but turned a blind eye to acts of individual revenge. Since many of the front-line troops had been expelled from the Krajina themselves in 1991 and knew exactly where to go, stopping individual acts of vengeance was almost impossible. [The Nuremburg Trials were set up after the Second World War partly to lift the burden of individual revenge from the survivors of genocide; for the same reason strengthening the International War Crimes Tribunal in the Hague is essential to prevent a cycle of revenge killing in former Yugoslavia. Casablanca Editor ]


Though horrible, the rout of the Krajina Serbs had not yet turned into the 'ethnic cleansing' that British ministers were quick to allege. For a reminder of what the term means, we should look to the evidence which emerged at the same time as the flight of Krajina Serbs: a mass grave in Nova Kasaba, near Srebrenica, where between two and three thousand Bosnian civilians were apparently executed and their bodies buried in shallow graves. Six thousand men from Srebrenica are still unaccounted for.

Unfortunately, victimology is not a precise science. A long column of cars and tractors meandering along the roads into Bosnia looks good on TV, whereas a black and white aerial photograph of a field does not; besides, Krajina Serbs are newcomers to the victimological league table which has for so long been dominated by the Bosnians. Some of the British media even suggested that the release of evidence about mass graves was a US government ploy to shift our focus away from the fascinating new picture of Serbs as victims. The fact that this story, which originated in the Foreign Office, could seriously be repeated in our newspapers speaks volumes about the cynical mindset of British 'opinion formers' for whom anti-Americanism takes precedence over war crimes. A mass grave is still a mass grave, even if it is American intelligence who release the information. Bear in mind that the British would not even pass on war crime testimonies from Bosnians evacuated from the camps in 1992, until publicly embarrassed into doing so.

The improvised army

Not only is the repeated media statement that 'all sides are guilty' a meaningless mantra at the best of times, but it is now being followed by the assertion that all people are victims. The latter proposition at least has some truth in it ultimately everybody is a victim of the politics of Greater Serb nationalism which Milosevic unleashed in the 1980s. But we are not much closer to understanding what is now going on in the war.

The Bosnian government has always had to steer between a rock and a hard place - Bosnia's president Izetbegovic has described choosing between Tudjman and Milosevic as akin to choosing between leukaemia and a brain tumour. But survival dictates a strategic alliance with Croatia, especially as Croats and Bosniaks still live side by side within Bosnia- Herzegovina. With Croatian military assistance, the Bosnian Army can re-take territory and allow some of the displaced people presently crammed into central Bosnian towns to return home.

In the near future we can expect more 'Serbs as victims' stories as the Bosnian army begins pushing towards the terrorist Serb heartland around Banja Luka, with its twice- cleansed villages and its slave labourers. The 5th Corps in Bihac, the 7th Corps in Travnik and the famous 17th Brigade (consisting entirely of the ethnically cleansed) will soon be in a position to move on the Bosnian Krajina region. These units are now among the most experienced and innovative infantry forces in the whole region, and their goal is simple: to return home.

The 5th Corps are legendary in Bosnia for the skill with which they resisted three years of siege, under attack from Croatian and Bosnian Serbs as well as the forces of the quisling tycoon Fikret Abdic (who joined rebel Serbs after his attempted coup against the legal authorities was crushed in early 1994). The 17th Brigade is the Bosnian army's only truly mobile unit, because all its fighters were expelled from their homes in Bosanska Krajina in 1992. Ask any soldiers from these units about partition maps, and they will laugh. They are fighting a classical war of liberation, using guerilla tactics against an enemy more adept at shelling towns and civilians than at face-to-face combat.

The Bosnians have emphasised their victim status over the past three years of war, in the naive belief that Europe would not tolerate the destruction of a multi-ethnic state by means of expulsion and genocide. But victimhood breeds Western contempt. Among UN forces on the ground the Bosnian government is scorned, perhaps because its often shambolic diplomatic and military resistance is a constant reminder to the UNPROFOR soldiers of their own impotence.

The traditionally 'soft' Bosnians have finally learned that force is all that counts in the international arena. It seems unlikely that just when the Bosnian Army has reached a position of strength it will capitulate and allow the international community to legalise Serbia's occupation of at least half the country.

Fighting for the rest of us

Whatever the outcome of the battles to come, one thing remains certain: preserving a bastion of collective living in the Balkans is the only way to halt the murderous onward march of the politics of ethnic separation. The international community, by championing the cause of ethnic division for so long, has foreclosed on its own options. Now the task comes down to the Bosnian army, who have learned the hard way that the only true victim is a dead one.

The victimological wheel of fortune may spin further before peace is in sight, but the issues remain the same. The Bosnians, not the international community or anybody else, are fighting against the politics of neo-fascism in the Balkans. They are also fighting for their own survival, surrounded by two powerful states who wish to divide Bosnia between them.

The interesting question for Britain is whether people here are capable of supporting the Bosnians in their struggle for survival on the basis of principles - because of what they are fighting for - rather than because of their position in the victims' league table of suffering. Can we still support victims who fight back?

Lee Bryant has been researching Britain's role in the Bosnian war since 1992, and is co-editing a comprehensive report on UN Peacekeeping in former Yugoslavia to be published by Media East-West in the autumn.

He worked from 1993 until 1995 as an information officer for the Bosnian government, in London, Geneva and Sarajevo.

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