Rieff on Bosnia: witness to the Ultimate crimes SLAUGHTERHOUSE -- Bosnia and the failure of the West

March 05, 1995|By James Hoge | James Hoge,Special to The Sun

"Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West," by David Rieff. 240 pages. New York: Simon & Schuster. $22

It is David Rieff's shocking conclusion about war in the Bal-kans that we have reached the point where to bear witness is the remaining alternative to losing hope in the face of unchecked crimes against humanity. At least bearing witness preserves an indictment from which succeeding generations might benefit where ours has not.

Thus it is to bear witness that Rieff has written "Slaughterhouse," a conscience-searing account on how ethnic nationalism triumphed in Bosnia. On the way to victory, the Serbs inflamed their kinsmen with propaganda, employed rape and murder as the cutting edges of ethnic cleansing against non-Serbs, illegally seized farms and homes, dynamited hundreds of mosques and leveled ancient cities and towns by ceaseless artillery bombardments.

The Croats perpetrated similar atrocities but to a lesser extent, because they were weaker. And Bosnian muslims, the principle victims of both, sought revenge in kind when the few opportunities arose.

Conscious genocide of the Muslims was the ultimate crime in Bosnia, and the failure to prevent it or stop it has disgraced the United States, its West European allies and the United Nations. The Bosnian Muslims will neither forgive nor forget and the current, fragile containment of the conflict will not last. The full consequences of the West's abnegation of responsibility is thus yet to be known.

Such is Rieff's indictment and he supports his angry righteousness with superb reporting and keen analysis based on two and a half years of immersion in the war zones of the former Yugoslavia.

Rieff depicts compellingly the suffering and dismay of civilians, the heroic efforts of aid workers, the mendacity of nationalist leaders and the fumbling, misguided and at times cynical efforts of the major powers. He is particularly hard on the Clinton administration for repeatedly engendering Bosnian hopes of U.S. intervention when there was never such an intention.

While Rieff believes the West should have forcefully intervened early on, he credits opponents with understanding the gravity of intervention and accuses many backers "of wanting to deal with a great historical tragedy on the cheap."

He disdains those opinion leaders who tried to sell the efficacy of air strikes without supportive intervention on the ground. And he points out that needed heavy weaponry cannot be supplied to the Bosnian Muslims if lifting the arms embargo

isn't accompanied by limited ground intervention. Nor is he respectful of U.N. peacekeeping officials who justified their ineffectualness by bureaucratically rigid interpretations of their mandate.

He has little but contempt for the British and French, whose opposition to forceful intervention has been coupled with an unseemly willingness to impress an unjust settlement.

Rieff has a keen eye for the trumped-up historical differences, exaggerated victimizations, and wild fabrications used to justify both actions and inactions.

There was the Bosnian Serb official who claimed live Serb babies were being fed by Muslims to the zoo animals in Sarajevo. In truth, the animals had starved to death. And there were the opponents of intervention who claimed that Yugoslav partisans in World War II fought 27 Wehrmacht divisions to a standstill. Only two front line German divisions were involved in the partisan war. Like weeds, the myths cropped up faster than they could be eradicated.

Regardless of differences on questions of policy, a reader's thoughts and feelings are deeply affected by Rieff's powerful witness to the catastrophe in Bosnia.

James Hoge is editor of Foreign Affairs, the premier journal of international politics. Before that, he was publisher of the New York Daily News and the Chicago Sun-Times, where for many years he was editor.

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