Tracing the Causes of a Massacre

A reporter returns to Bosnia and puts a human face on the tragedy in Srebrenica

ENDGAME: The Betrayal and Fall of Srebenica, Europe's Worst Massacre Since World War II.

By David Rohde

Farrar, Straus & Giroux

440 pp., $24

I approached this book with foreboding. Who can forget the Bosnian War, and especially the "ethnic cleansing" symbolized by the slaughter of 7,000 Muslim men in the town of Srebrenica in July l995? Hasn't there been coverage enough? Who wishes to relive all that brutality, the massacres, mass rapes and examples of Western failure?

Yet "Endgame: The Betrayal and Fall of Srebrenica, Europe's Worst Massacre Since World War II," by David Rohde, offers something entirely new. A calm, straightforward report, it is small in scale but broad in vision and conclusions. It offers telling details mixed with broad perspectives.

The book recounts the day-by-day experiences of specific individuals who lived through those fateful summer days, contrasting them with the actions and policies of officials - Serb, Muslim, UN, or NATO - who might have prevented the massacres. It is a sharp, compelling mixture of narrative and analysis.

Rhode saw it at close range as a reporter for The Christian Science Monitor. He faced extreme risks from Serb forces and was jailed for 10 days after becoming the first Western reporter to find evidence of mass graves. He won the 1996 Pulitzer Prize for international reporting on the tragedy.

His eyewitness narrative of events is balanced by a sophisticated assessment of the underlying factors, the how and especially the why motivating the officials in the United Nations chain of command, and in the Western governments behind them.

The result is masterly: a chilling account of how good - but conflicted and weakly held - Western intentions were swept away by the racist imperatives of the Serb leaders.

These were aggravated by Srebrenica's isolated position in eastern Bosnia, hard against Serbia but distant from the Muslim heartland around Sarajevo. The Srebrenica enclave, with its 60,000 Muslim inhabitants, was thinly defended by a few hundred Dutch peacekeepers and an equivalent number of Muslim fighters, the latter being lightly armed, short of ammunition, and poorly led.

The Serbs were not much stronger numerically, but their handful of heavy weapons - tanks, artillery pieces, and armored personnel carriers - ruled the day. The narrative begins with Serb shelling of Dutch outposts on July 6. No retaliatory aerial bombardment came from UN forces; indecisiveness reigned. By the 11th, Srebrenica had fallen, thousands of Muslim civilians had begun trudging north toward Muslim-held territory, and General Ratko Mladic, the Serb commander, began taking control of the region.

Ominously, Rohde relates how Muslim men between 16 and 65 were being separated from women and children. The few Dutch peacekeepers were humiliated and shunted aside.

The massacres began on the 12th. Despite Mladic's promises of good treatment, some 7,000 Muslim men were rounded up, beaten, trucked away - and slaughtered. The Dutch peacekeepers were aware that something had happened: on the 14th, two "[checked] the soccer field where the day before they had seen 1,000 to 2,000 Muslim prisoners. It was empty," Rohde writes.

Mladic had presented himself to the media as cheerfully accepting responsibility for the safety of Muslim prisoners. Nevertheless, his Serb fighters pulled the triggers, drove the vehicles, and manned the earthmovers used to shovel the Muslims - many of them once close neighbors - into mass graves.

Behind all this stands the key question: why the UN forces, though far superior in firepower, communications and especially airpower, were outbluffed, outbullied, and outmaneuvered by the Serbs.

Here Rohde draws a sharp distinction within UN ranks between hawks and doves. The former, backed by French President Jacques Chirac and led by British Lt. Gen. Rupert Smith, who commanded the UN peacekeepers in Bosnia - were little impressed by Serb threats. Smith was ready to accept NATO casualties; he demanded a hard line against the Serbs, the bombing of specific targets, and the return of fire when fired upon.

The doves, represented by French Lt. Gen. Bernard Janvier, in charge of all UN forces in Yugoslavia, and by Yasushi Akashi, the special representative of the Secretary General, were more cautious. They wanted the UN to remain neutral, and opposed intervening as more than observers.

This stalemate left the way clear for the Serbs, Rohde contends. Though he cites atrocities by the Bosnian Muslims, he finds no comparison between them and the large-scale, genocidal "ethnic cleansing" by the Serbs, which only aggressive UN or NATO action could counter.

* Leonard Bushkoff reviews books on history for the Monitor.

A Muslim Father and Son

When he reached Susnjari he was overwhelmed. Thousands of men had arrived since he had been there at noon; hundreds more streamed in. It seemed to take forever, but he finally found his father and some neighbors from Lehovici. His father, sixty-one, was a soft-spoken farmer and easily frightened by shelling. He always urged Mevludin not to get involved in military action and to be careful. His father came up only to Mevludin's shoulder, ...he was the central figure in [his] life....

A few minutes after they met in Susnjari, Mevludin broke down and started sobbing in front of his father. "Don't worry," his father said. "Forget about the house, it's not important. The only thing that's important is to stay alive."

But Mevludin wasn't crying because of the house; he was weeping because he knew what lay ahead.

- from End Game

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