Details of war against civilians in Bosnia emerge from accounts

April 16, 1993|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- As the West continues to resist intervention, a mounting body of eyewitness accounts portrays a deliberate war against civilians, waged through mass killing and terror, to uproot an entire population in the heart of Europe.

The evidence, largely drawn from survivors of the Serbian campaign of "ethnic cleansing," underscores a unique aspect of the Balkan war:

It is a conflict in which gross violations of international law, universally recognized human rights and the rules of war are by now well known to the world's governments and their publics, who nevertheless allow them to continue largely unchecked.

Human rights activists say that in failing effectively to halt the violations, the West is ignoring its own treaty obligations aimed at preventing genocide.

Helsinki Watch has noted that in the Genocide Convention, finally ratified by the U.S. Senate in 1988, nations agreed to "prevent and to punish" acts of genocide, acts committed "with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group" by such means as "killing members of the group."

The organization, which will release a major new report this weekend, also noted that the convention authorizes the United Nations to take appropriate action "for the prevention and suppression of acts of genocide."

Protecting civilians from conflict has long been a principle of international law and the rules of war, enshrined in the Geneva Conventions and a 1969 U.N. General Assembly resolution.

But the aggressors in the Balkans seem undeterred by these conventions. A fresh reminder of the continuing crimes occurred Monday, when Serbian shelling of Srebrenica killed 53 civilians, including 15 children, an attack that Cedric Thornberry, the senior United Nations official in the former Yugoslavia, labeled "an atrocity."

If a gruesome pattern from the past repeats itself, the Muslim population in this eastern Bosnia town will be rounded up; men will be separated from women and children, and all will be pushed out through intimidation or force. Some inhabitants will be slain on the spot.

Parallels inevitably have been drawn with the Nazi Holocaust. There are important differences with and similarities to the Holocaust, in which more than 6 million Jews died, along with Gypsies, homosexuals and others the Germans wanted their world cleansed of.

Hitler aimed ultimately at eliminating an entire religious and ethnic population in all of Europe, if not the world. The Serbian campaign, much more limited, seeks to create an ethnically pure greater Serbia by purging large sections of Bosnia-Herzegovina of their native Muslim and Croat populations.

Pattern of killing

But both share a pattern of killing and an organized means of displacing an unwanted population. And, more so than either the German extermination campaign or the 1970s slaughter of Cambodians by the Khmer Rouge, the full dimensions of the Serbian atrocity are clear to the world as it progresses.

"It's a war on civilians. And nobody can deny the facts. In a sense it is happening in full view of the world," says Jeri Laber, executive director of Helsinki Watch.

Independent investigators say atrocities also have been committed by Bosnian Muslims and Croats. But they agree that the Serbs are responsible for most.

A growing number of eyewitness accounts, many of them deemed credible by the U.S. government and published by the State Department, expands the definition of ethnic cleansing to mean a form of terror sufficient to prevent Muslims and Croats from ever wanting to return to their homes, if they could.

Besides wholesale expulsions, it includes mass killings of civilians and an industrial-scale disposal of corpses; beatings, torture and mutilation of prisoners; widespread and deliberate rape of women and young girls, along with the sexual abuse of some men, the blocking of food and humanitarian aid, and the destruction of religious sites.

Plenty of stories of atrocities in the war in the former Yugoslavia have been recounted. But the State Department's compilation stands as an extraordinary catalog set against the reluctance of Western governments to become sufficiently involved to stop the horror.

The State Department reports include accounts of elaborate efforts to inflict emotional pain and humiliation:

A 20-year-old Muslim described how, in the Serbian assault on the village of Harambine, a group of eight men were lined up in pairs and ordered to beat up each other. Fathers were pitted against sons "or brother vs. brother."

"After a short while, the man in the pair next to the witness refused the soldiers' exhortations to beat his son more fiercely. One of the soldiers then marched the man off the road and into the ditch where he shot him."

At a make-shift prison in a hotel basement in Gacko, "the prisoners experienced random beating and were forced to eat from the same cans in which they relieved themselves."

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