A Springtime of No Hope; After a Year of Horror, Slavic Muslims Face a Future of Despair

The Washington Post
April 5, 1993

ZENICA, Bosnia – In a crowded office, the human costs of a year of war are being toted up in nervous scrawlings on white sheets of paper.

Bosnian refugees who have been “ethnically cleansed” from their homes by Serb warriors come to the Center for the Investigation of War Crimes in this government-held town and offer a clinical inventory of the misery they have gone through. Polite staff members hand out pens and two-page questionnaires whose answers are to be fed into a computer data base.

“Has any member of your family been tortured?” the survey begins. “If the answer is ‘yes,’ which member of the family suffered the torture, who performed the torture, where was it done, and what kind of torture was it? Was it beating, humiliation, rape, starvation, water deprivation, forced labor?”

The questionnaire, in the kind of dispassionate language that might be used for a marketing survey on deodorants, asks about after-effects from the torture. It provides a list of possibilities: “Nightmares? Fevers? Anxiety attacks? Loss of appetite? Crying? Suicidal thoughts? Desire for revenge? Desire to kill? Paranoia?”

As this spring marks a year of warfare, there’s little that the Muslim-led Bosnian government can do besides tally the losses. It cannot get a “cleansed” person’s home back; it cannot erase the memory of being raped or the scars of torture, and it certainly cannot bring back the tens of thousands of people who have been killed. Worse, it cannot provide much hope that things will improve.

The war is ending its first year much as it started: with Bosnian men, women and children being starved and shot at by besieging Serb forces, with hospitals and kindergartens being shelled indiscriminately, with women being raped and men being imprisoned — and with the international community responding to Bosnia’s pleas for military aid by sending food and medicine and by passing resolutions at the United Nations.

The prospects for change seem bleak: The Serbs have restated that they mean to keep their conquered territory, and the international community has restated its aversion to serious military intervention or the supplying of weapons to the government. The enforcement of a “no-fly zone” over Bosnia, to begin in a week, is expected to have virtually no impact on the war, simply because the Serbs rarely put their planes into the air.

The war crimes center in Zenica is staffed by young Bosnians — mostly Muslims, but some Croats too — who are much more than archivists of atrocities. On the war’s anniversary, they are embittered beacons of the future. If there is one emotion that might match their hatred for the Serb fighters who have allegedly inflicted Nazi-style horrors on their people, it is the sense of betrayal they feel regarding the West, especially the United States.

“How can we believe in your democracy when there are atrocities committed here and you do nothing?” asked Selma Hecimovic. She nodded toward a picture of Iranian spiritual leader Ali Khamenei, whose government has sought to send arms to the Muslims in Bosnia. “At least those people are trying to help us,” Hecimovic said. “If Clinton sends American warplanes against the Serbs, then we will put his picture on the wall.”

Some Bosnians portray their Muslim heritage almost as a curse that has made the West less enthusiastic about coming to their rescue. Muslims here often say that if only they were Christian or had oil, they would have been saved.

In fact, the Muslims here are Slavs, descendants of Serbs and Croats who centuries ago converted to Islam during Turkish rule over Bosnia. Many of them say they are not very religious. Many eat pork, drink alcohol and rarely go to the mosque. Few have been to the Middle East. Their mecca is London or Paris or New York.

The war here has spawned a corps of disenchanted Western diplomats and relief officials who are fed up with what they describe as hand-wringing hypocrisy by the West. One of the few who have spoken on the record is George Kenney, a State Department official who resigned last summer in protest over U.S. policy. “If the situation was reversed and you had a radicalized Muslim regime in Belgrade that was killing thousands of Christians, the West would have reacted,” Kenney said in an interview.

Western governments have resisted using force in Bosnia for fear of being trapped in an endless war. But some diplomats in this region have said the “quagmire” potential is less than their governments portray it. And, such critical diplomats have argued, the price that might be paid in casualties would be worth the effort to stop the worst atrocities in Europe since Nazi Germany. “What are {Americans} paying $280 billion a year for?” asked one such diplomat, referring to the Pentagon budget. “If you define an army as a force that won’t take casualties, then you don’t have an army. You have Boy Scouts.”

On the other side of the rhetorical divide is Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, a psychiatrist-turned-warlord and amateur poet. Like his mentor, Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, Karadzic is a polite man. The Serb warlord is well over 6 feet tall and more than 200 pounds in weight, but speaks with a slight lisp that makes him seem disarmingly inoffensive.

Karadzic’s successful strategy in the past year has been to warn the West of another Vietnam if it intervenes here. He portrays his forces as brave men and women who have valiantly fought off a jihad, or Muslim holy war, and will fight to the death against any foreign invaders.

Karadzic is a night owl. At his headquarters in Pale, in the mountains above Sarajevo, things don’t really get into gear until midday and often reach their peak after dark. This year, a group of Western journalists who had been turned back by Serb soldiers outside a besieged Muslim town showed up at Karadzic’s office at about 11 p.m. to complain. No problem, his aides said, Karadzic will speak to you soon.

At 1 a.m., a beaming Karadzic strode into the room where the journalists had assembled, most of them having fallen asleep with their heads on the table, and he gladly held court. “I don’t see what’s wrong with Greater Serbia,” he said, referring to his goal of uniting conquered land in Bosnia and Croatia with the Serbian motherland. “There’s nothing wrong with a greater Germany, or with Great Britain. So what’s wrong with Greater Serbia?”

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.