Twenty years ago today the policy of the “safe havens” in Bosnia’s war collapsed, not in the hills of eastern Bosnia, but in a meeting in London.While it is more important to mark the anniversary of genocide at Srebrenica, today should not be forgotten. Nor should the shift be simplified into a redemption story for international policy as a late-found effort to protect civilians. The changes in policy were designed foremost to end the war (1992- 1995), which was a laudable goal, but not one to be confused with civilian protection as the primary objective.
The safe havens were six towns, Srebrenica, Žepa, Gorazde, Sarajevo, Tuzla and Bihać, that were completely surrounded in 1993, and the policy stated that the international community would protect them from the Bosnian Serbs and disarm their defenders in an attempt to take them out of the war logic. But these isolated islands of Bosnian government (mostly Muslim) resistance deep within Serb-held territory ran counter to the strategic goals of the Bosnian Serbs who were using violence to create an ethnically homogeneous Serb Republic. So the war logic was not altered, just delayed.
The first safe haven to fall was Srebrenica, where thousands of men and boys, along with some women, were captured and systematically murdered. By July 21, 1995, eyewitness accounts had reached the front pages of papers around the world, the ICRC was concerned that some 10,000 people appeared to be missing, and U.S. satellites were trolling the skies over Serb-held territory searching for disturbed ground and other tell-tale signs of mass graves.
Also by this time, Bosnian Serb forces had moved forward to try to take the next safe haven in their sights: Žepa . In Žepa, some 17,000 people had been sheltering from bombs for days by the 21st of July.
And on this very day twenty years ago in London, the Contact Group, the U.S., U.K., German, Italy, France, and Russia met to discuss Bosnia policy. They issued a statement warning that if the Bosnian Serbs attacked a safe haven after August 1, that the international community would take overwhelming and disproportionate action, not limited to area of the infringement. They explicitly drew a line at Gorazde. The sum effect was to issue a green light for the Serbs to take Žepa, whose surrender to the Bosnian Serbs would tidy up the maps and render the political negotiations on a final settlement easier. It was the final blow in a international approach to the conflict that was founded on belief that ethnic partition was inevitable and therefore it was palatable to reward, and in this case, even encourage, ethnic cleansing.
Nonetheless, in marked contrast to Srebrenica, after the Žepa safe haven fell to the Bosnian Serb forces on July 25, 1995, there was no widespread killing. It is plausible that circumstances in Srebrenica made it uniquely vulnerable to genocide, but three other factors help explain why Žepa ended differently. First, the Serb offensive was delayed as reinforcements were needed to fight the column of men retreating from Srebrenica and to staff the killing operation. They also met resistance from Bosnian Army forces in Žepa (fighting continued July 19 – 24). Time may have allowed for more moderate voices to gain the upper hand against killing, whether these people were on the Serbian side or from the international community. It also gave the Bosnians more opportunity to consider their best options. Second, while international response to the attack on Žepa was hardly robust, the fact that Ukrainian UNPROFOR representatives escorted the buses evacuating civilians may have saved lives. Third, there was killing. The Bosnian Serbs killed Colonel Avdo Palić, who was negotiating the terms of surrender with Gen. Mladić, and two civilian representatives from Žepa, however, many of the men from Žepa had time to flee through the surrounding hills before the takeover was complete. Further, they did not attempt to all flee in the same direction, but scattered in search of safe territory, including crossing into Serbia. Already overtaxed, the Bosnian Serbs did not have the manpower to hunt down the remaining men from Žepa.
International pressure did help protect Gorazde; NATO bombing on Bosnian Serb positions overlooking Sarajevo, helped ensure that the capitol stayed unified and in government hands. Tuzla by this point was well-established in Bosnian government hands and not really a Serb war aim anyway. Tomorrow will mark the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Split Agreement, whereby Bosnia and Croatia agreed to mutual military action. Together, they prevented Bihać from falling, but the Croatia offensive included re-taking all their lands from separatist Serbs and produced over 100,000 new refugees, this time Serbs.
It is important to recall that the shift in policy instituted by the London Conference, often treated as a redemptive moment for the international community’s Bosnia policy, was predicated on the loss of both Srebrenica and Žepa, mass murder, forced displacement, and reward of territory for these crimes. The endgame strategy paid off; the push to end the war through combined international pressure, including NATO bombing but primarily diplomatic, ground offensives coordinated between the Bosnian and Croatian armies, and the fall of the safe havens changed the map. Exhaustion with the sanctions and intransigence of the Bosnian Serb leadership convinced Milosevic not to send military aid as the frontlines changed and to use his power to push the Bosnian Serbs aside at the peace table. These factors came into force late summer 1995 and they enabled the war to end. But it is important not to confuse them with policies designed to protect civilians.
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