By Donella Meadows
–September 12, 1996–
At our behest, under our supervision, the Bosnians go to the polls this weekend, or fear to go because they are refugees far from their homes, or refuse to go because the one option they want is not on the ballot — a Bosnia where people of different religions live together in peace.
We don’t believe they are capable of living together. All summer we have been unearthing mass graves at the edges of ravaged towns in what used to be Yugoslavia. Outside Vukovar the remains of 260 Croatian hospital patients have been found. Around Srebenica as many as 8000 Muslim civilians who fled from a U.N. “safe area,” are being unearthed, bullet holes in their skulls, wires binding their wrists behind their backs.
We are shocked, shocked, as we were when mass graves turned up in El Salvador. Shocked as when we learned that the leaders of Chile or the Philippines or white South Africa or even, at one time, Saddam Hussein of Iraq, had committed atrocities against their own people, while our leaders treated them as friends.
Sooner or later, mostly later, we hear the full story, often through a reporter who was on the scene sending out dispatches all along. His or her accounts came out piecemeal, toned down by editors, buried under ablanket of official denial. Finally the reporter slams all the evidence into one book, heavy with frustration that in this supposedly civilized world, genocidal horrors are permitted to continue. The book about Bosnia, written by Peter Maass of the Washington Post, is called “Love Thy Neighbor.”
Maass’s main point is that long before the first mortar was fired in what was once Yugoslavia, a bombardment of lies began. No side has told the truth, but the source of the first, loudest, smartest, and most continuous lies has been Slobodan Milosevic, still the leader of Serbia.
In a time of war and lies you wonder whether even a neutral reporter can sort out truth. But accounts like Maass’s tend to be convincing, because they are loaded with eye-witness descriptions, names, dates, details. Seeing is believing, and Maass causes the reader to SEE the crumbled Holiday Inn in Sarajevo, where running water was an occasional luxury, and each morning as he left, he had to dodge a Serbian sniper’s bullets.
One day Maass crossed the line with a press pass and interviewed the sniper. The Serb enthusiastically offered to let the journalist take a potshot at some colleagues who were just then walking out of the Holiday Inn down below. Maass says some soldiers gave thrills to Serbian civilians on Sunday outings by letting them fire mortars down into Sarajevo.
Maass describes a hospital in Slavonski Brod where doctors sorted out the body parts of “ethnically cleansed” Bosnians who had taken refuge in a sports stadium, which the Serbs then shelled. He tells of being caught under Muslim-Croat crossfire at a gas station, with a thousand-gallon gasoline tank just beneath him.
Most memorably he describes Milosevic. “Why do you write lies about my country?” were the Serbian dictator’s first words to the reporter, and then, says Maass, “he looked me in the eye for ninety minutes and told one lie after another.” “There was not absolutely any policy to press any Muslims to leave their cities,” Milosevic said. And “I am in favor of prosecution of war criminals.” About the charge that he himself is a war criminal: “Dirty accusations without any evidence. They are accusations in the interests of those who are practically in favor of destroying Serbia.”
“It was as though I pointed to a black wall and asked Milosevic what color it was,” says Maass. “White, he says. No, I reply, look at it, that wall there, it is black, it is five feet away from us. He looks at it, then at me, and says, The wall is white, my friend, maybe you should have your eyes checked.”
For years Milosevic told his people that the Bosnian Muslims intend to take over Serbian villages, burn their churches, and put their women under the veil. Maass interviewed many Serbs who deeply believe this, though Bosnian Muslims tend to be secular and pork-eating and don’t even put their own women under the veil. Milosevic also said, every time shells killed civilians in Sarajevo, that the Bosnians were shelling themselves to win international sympathy.
It’s easy to despise those blatant lies, but Maass also calls into question the statements fed to us by our leaders. The Yugoslavs are just murderous, they’ve been doing this to each other for centuries. If we went in there to stop the brutality, we would lose thousands of soldiers. Every side is committing atrocities; none worse than any other. We can’t take action; our European allies don’t want us to. The only role for us is to sponsor negotiations, treat known war criminals with respect and accede to the division of a peaceful, multiracial region into a primitive, unstable apartheid in order to serve the ambitions of a few evil men.
If those are indeed lies, and Maass provides plenty of evidence that they are, we have a heavy responsibility to the Bosnians who are being asked to endorse that dangerous apartheid with their votes. Maass wants us to see that responsibility. He doesn’t want to blame Milosevic alone; he wants us to see that a Hitler can go nowhere without a Chamberlain. A genocidal dictator needs appeasing leaders around him, and those leaders need a disinterested, uninvolved public. You can’t have a Milosevic without a Bush, a Clinton, a Kohl, a Mitterand, a Yeltsin. You can’t unleash soldiers to murder thousands of innocent people unless those soldiers, and millions of people in the rest of the world, hear and believe, without question or investigation, a steady stream of lies.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1996