The questions left unanswered

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 October, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 05 October, 1997, 12:00am

This account of the fall of Srebrenica makes you wonder if there is any point having the United Nations.

The message in A Safe Area - Srebrenica: Europe's Worst Massacre Since the Second World War is so forcefully conveyed that at times it detracts from what should take precedence: the atrocities that took place in this Bosnian town.

Historians have argued that the Balkans will always be the Balkans: a melting pot of different peoples and cultures at the crossroads of Europe that is inherently unstable and which has a natural predisposition to war.

But what is staggering is how paralysingly ineffective the UN was as the enclave was about to fall, and how it continued to be so as Srebrenica capitulated to the advancing Serb army.

Clinton dithered, Major hesitated and Chirac wavered. And in their wake, thousands of people - perhaps 7,000 in all, according to semi-official estimates - died.

Meanwhile, the Dutch peacekeepers' appeals for NATO airstrikes against the invading Serbs were apparently ignored. Of course, there is a fine dividing line between peacekeeper and war-promoter, but one cannot help but feel Dad's Army might have fared better in the former Yugoslavia.

The sad fact that surfaces time and again is that, as is often the case, the person in the street did not want war and bore the brunt of it.

I was surprised to learn that Bosnia's Muslims, Serbs and Croats are racially identical.

All three groups are white Eastern European Slavs, the only difference being their religion.

Most co-existed peacefully until the war, many intermarrying as well.

And yet a few extremists, such as Serbia's President Slobodan Milosevic and Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, were allowed to prey on historic fears - of Serbs pursuing territorial expansionism and of the Bosnian Muslim population's high birth rate - and blew them out of all proportion.

We are told that each side could differentiate each other only by name. So what sprang to mind at the outset was how the terrible killings, given the clinical but terrifying phrase 'ethnic cleansing', could take place based on so few visual clues. It is something which, irritatingly, this book does not clear up.

Rohde, who covered the war in Bosnia for The Christian Science Monitor and spent weeks searching out mass-execution sites, conveys the shocking scenes of war graphically, without straying into sentimentality.

His descriptions are based on eyewitness accounts which he has extensively checked and cross-referenced. Where he is unsure of the authenticity he has added a footnote to explain why.

There is no need to dress up the brutality of events: the random executions, the horrific scenes of misery that repeatedly follow one another, each sinking lower into the depths of depravity, are sufficient enough.

There is the experience of Hakija Husejnovic, a 51-year-old Muslim farmer from outside Srebrenica, who with perhaps 2,000 others was rounded up by Serbs and marched to the town of Kravica.

They were led into a warehouse where they were told they would be safe: moments later the Serbs shot at them and threw grenades.

The Serbs then finished off any that were left alive. Meanwhile, Husejnovic feigned death.

Hours later, as night fell, and only when the executioners were unable to get an earthmover through the door to remove the bodies, did Husejnovic judge he could escape, becoming one of the lucky ones who managed to do so.

Such episodes are repeated relentlessly and are difficult to single out.

Yet one feels that the finger is pointed at the Serbs, when we know atrocities were committed against them by the Muslims as well. Rohde would have added to the book's credibility had he addressed this angle more.

In his conclusion, he writes of rumours that Srebrenica was the victim of a secret deal between the Serbs and Muslims.

That would explain the lack of NATO airstrikes, the Serbs all but walking into the town and the Muslims putting up virtually no defence.

However, as always with such scenarios, there is much surmising with little evidence to support it.

With the convening of the war crimes tribunal in the Netherlands, perhaps there is at last some sign that justice will be done - even if the main perpetrators are still at large.

Overwhelmingly, one cannot help but wonder whether more could have been done to avoid such atrocities on a continent that witnessed the executions of Jews, gypsies and other minorities little over 50 years ago.

This is particularly so in an era of sophisticated communications and bearing in mind the former Yugoslavia's status as one of Europe's most popular holiday destinations.

Sadly, the fact remains that while the former Yugoslavia inescapably lies at Europe's front door, it is, at least psychologically, a world away.

A SAFE AREA by David Rohde Pocket Books, $150