U.N. Officials Denounce Bosnian Serb Barrage; Shelling of Srebrenica Is Called an ‘Atrocity’

The Washington Post
April 14, 1993

SPLIT, Croatia, April 13 – Outraged U.N. officials in Bosnia abandoned their customary diplomatic tones today and bitterly denounced Monday’s Serb nationalist bombardment of the Muslim city of Srebrenica — a daylong barrage that left 56 people dead, including 15 children.

Cedric Thornberry, civil affairs director of the U.N. peace mission in the Balkans, charged in a statement that Serb militia forces surrounding the east Bosnian city had specifically targeted civilians with mortar and artillery fire, and he characterized the shelling as “an atrocity.”

Larry Hollingworth, the senior U.N. refugee official in Sarajevo, the besieged Bosnian capital, was even less restrained, telling reporters: “I hope that the military commander who ordered the firing on Srebrenica burns in the hottest corner of hell. . . . {Those} who loaded the weapons and fired the shells — I hope they have nightmares forever more; I hope their sleep is punctuated by the screams of the children and by the cries of the mothers.”

The bombardment, one of the bloodiest episodes of Bosnia’s year-old Serb Muslim-Croat war, also spurred U.N. officials to take the unusual step of releasing portions of a report from a U.N. observer based in Srebrenica, where more than 60,000 predominantly Muslim residents and refugees have been besieged by Serb forces for nearly a year.

“I personally have seen and counted 14 dead, including seven bodies on the road in front of a schoolhouse used as a refugee center, where it appears most casualties occurred,” the U.N. observer wrote. “Two of the seven bodies I saw in front of the hospital were children, and one was decapitated.”

Even official U.N. spokesmen, normally tight-lipped and even-handed in their public references to Bosnia’s three warring factions, lashed out at the Serbs. “In their apparently pathological drive to acquire territory, the Serbs are willing to kill anybody to achieve their ends,” said John McMillan, Sarajevo spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency.

Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, whose forces also unleashed a punishing artillery bombardment on Sarajevo Monday, said that the shelling of both cities was a response to violations by Bosnia’s Muslim-led government forces of a tenuous cease-fire negotiated by the warring parties two weeks ago.

At the same time, the Reuter news service quoted Gen. Milan Gvero, deputy commander of Bosnian Serb militia forces, as saying that there was no shelling of Srebrenica and that the city’s Muslim defenders had faked explosions in the streets to make U.N. officials believe it had come under Serb attack.

Srebrenica, one of just three Muslim-held enclaves remaining in Serb-dominated eastern Bosnia, has become the focal point of U.N. efforts to protect trapped Muslim civilians from shellfire and starvation as the heavily armed Serb nationalists consolidate their control over 70 percent of Bosnia. But the high-profile aid effort appears far too frail to slow the carnage, as Monday’s shelling seemed to demonstrate, and U.N. officials now say they simply hope to get as many people out of Srebrenica as possible before it is overrun by the Serbs.

About 800 refugees left Srebrenica in U.N. trucks today for the Muslim stronghold of Tuzla, about 60 miles to the northwest. A total of nearly 8,000 — mostly women and children — have been evacuated in recent weeks, with one load squeezed so tightly in U.N. vehicles that several passengers died of suffocation before they reached Tuzla.

U.N. aid officials acknowledge that the evacuation leaves them open to charges of abetting “ethnic cleansing,” the notorious Serb practice of driving all non-Serbs from territory they control. “Everyone hates taking them out, but the alternative is to watch them die,” said one U.N. official. “How much more does the international community need to have its nose rubbed in the mud to know that the Serbs are going to take the areas they want to take?”

Hollingworth, a sharp-tongued U.N. veteran who has defied protocol previously to criticize Bosnian Serb behavior, described the evacuation effort in stark terms. The Srebrenica Muslims, he said, have a simple choice: “Either be transported like cattle or slaughtered like sheep.”

Many U.N. officials who had faithfully supported the world body’s policy of dialogue and diplomacy in Bosnia have come to agree with such assessments and now seem to believe the humanitarian effort has failed and that the only way to protect the Muslims is through some form of military intervention.

U.N. trade sanctions against Serbia and the new Yugoslav state it controls — the sole source of political support and sophisticated weapons for the Bosnian Serbs — have failed to force an end to the war, they say. And NATO enforcement of a U.N.-authorized “no-fly zone” over Bosnia, which began Monday as a largely symbolic counter to Bosnian Serb air superiority, may have served only to provoke the Srebrenica attack as a demonstration of Serb defiance.

“It’s not a failure of the United Nations,” said one disaffected U.N. official. “It’s a failure of the international community to apply the kind of pressure that is needed.”

At the United Nations, meanwhile, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata expressed “deep alarm” about a fall-off in international funding for the Bosnian aid effort. In a letter to major donor countries, Ogata noted that “with very few exceptions, no response has been received” to last month’s U.N. appeal for $817 million to care for hundreds of thousands of civilians trapped by the fighting.

U.N. officials said this week that emergency food stockpiles in Bosnia had been reduced to less than a two-week supply by Serb harassment of convoys, difficult road conditions and suspension of the eight-month-old international airlift to Sarajevo as new fears of antiaircraft attacks arose. Today, U.N. officials said they hope to resume the airlift Thursday.

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.