Unequal Victims: The Wars in the Balkans and the Lies of “Humanitarian Intervention”


Most people old enough to have followed Bill Clinton’s first campaign for president will remember a picture that helped propel the case for war in the former Yugoslavia. The image, originally filmed by a British ITV news crew, showed Bosnian refugees who seemed to be behind a barbed wire fence, its central focus on one emaciated man.

The photo circulated widely, appearing on numerous front pages and magazine covers accompanied by stories of what some journalists and opinion makers were calling a new Holocaust in Europe. This led to one of the first wars based on the idea of ‘humanitarian intervention’ and an updated, post-Soviet role for NATO in the process.

There were serious problems with the picture that weren’t really investigated by mainstream sources. One German journalist, William Dietrich, whose story ‘The Picture that Fooled the World’ appeared in English in the low circulation British magazine LM (Living Marxism) a few years later, said the photo was misleading because the journalists were standing behind a fence within the camp and shooting through it, even though the compound itself was not fenced in.

Later reports asserted that the emaciated man, Fikret Alic, who is still alive today, had only been there for 9 days when the footage was shot and appeared as he did due to childhood illness, although Alic himself later claimed it was due to injuries sustained in a separate camp. Whatever the cause, the other men in the image and accompanying footage do not appear to be suffering from the same issues.

While its true that LM later lost a libel case brought by ITV and its two reporters, it’s also important to note that the suit was brought in the UK, which has notoriously strict libel and defamation laws that favor deep pockets and limit freedom of speech in comparison to Canada or the US. Especially in the latter country, its unlikely that such a case would  have even made it to trial let alone caused the magazine to cease publication.

LM was found to have claimed through the article that the plaintiffs had ‘deliberately’ misrepresented the facts, something that’s implied but never outright stated in the story and doesn’t change many of the issues Dietrich presented therein, or in a followup piece examining footage shot by a  at the same time.

This isn’t to say that the Muslim refugees in the Trnoplje camp weren’t suffering the effects of war or that they were welcomed by the local Serb population. There were reports of robberies, beatings and rape in the compound during night time raids by Serbian extremists. This treatment mirrors that of other groups displaced in these Balkan wars of the 90s, including innocent Croats and Serbs in other areas.

It should have rung alarm bells that any government, even the unrecognized Bosnian Serbs led by Radovan Karadzic, if engaged in genocide, would open up such places to both the Red Cross and the western press, especially when they were already being portrayed as the aggressors in the conflict.

Recently, another wrinkle was added to this history by British reporter Neil Clark who discovered that Slobodan Milosevic, the former leader of Serbia who died in custody in 2006, was actually partially absolved of the serious charges leveled against him during Karadzic’s trial at the Hague. In his report on these revelations, Clark wrote, “The ICTY’s conclusion, that one of the most demonized figures of the modern era was innocent of the most heinous crimes he was accused of, really should have made headlines across the world.”

Picking Villains and Victims

By choosing to make the Serbs the only villains of the piece, western media and politicians gave a free pass to people like  Franjo Tudjman, the Croatian President who spoke fondly of the fascist Ustasha, and was quoted as saying how thankful he was his wife was neither “Serb nor Jewish”.

In contrast to the outraged reports about Serbian crimes like the massacre of Srebrenica that some commentators have said was revenge for earlier atrocities carried out by the the Bosnian Muslim commander Naser Oric in the area, those of other groups were often ignored.

Operation Storm, a Croatian campaign to re-take territory held by Serbian rebels in and around Krajina in the summer of 1995 led to at least 600 deaths and the forced removal of 250,000 people. The battle is now celebrated in Croatia on August 5th each year as an official holiday called “Victory and Homeland Thanksgiving Day”.

The leader of Bosnia, Alija Izetegovic, had written a book while in prison as a young man calling for the creation an Islamist state and the expulsion of non-Muslims from the country. Under his watch, many of the the so-called Mujahideen who would later become such enemies of the west traveled to Bosnia to fight. Among them were two of the hijackers on September 11th, 2001 and the man who murdered journalist Daniel Pearl in Afghanistan.

Yet these were the good guys according to most politicians and major media at the time, just as Ukraine’s oligarchs and neo-Nazi militias are unvarnished heroes and Russian speakers in the east of that country are the bad guys today. It seems that western foreign policy elites have little patience for nuance.

Choosing Sides

To paraphrase George Orwell, in wars supported or fought by NATO countries, some victims are more equal than others. In trying to defend Albanians in Kosovo in the spring of 1999, NATO bombing runs may have killed as many as 2,500 civilians (the full number is not known). It’s illegal under international law to bomb civilian infrastructure but NATO and its allies routinely targeted bridges, roads, water and power facilities in Serbia claiming a ‘humanitarian’ purpose.

Yugoslav forces certainly didn’t have clean hands either, killing the majority of more than 8000 more people, civilians and insurgents, during the fighting in the breakaway province .

Later, in 2004 this one-sided NATO humanitarianism led to another 200,000 Serbs being pushed out of Kosovo under their noses, an act of ethnic cleansing that didn’t make the front pages of western newspapers. As is usual in war, those least able to defend themselves were targeted by victors on the battlefield. It’s believed that Kosovo’s Roma population was reduced by 80% during the conflict.

Still, after so much time has passed, what’s the point of dredging up this history?

For one thing, the supposed successes of Bosnia and Kosovo are often contrasted with the tragic events that occurred in Rwanda by those who believe military campaigns, mostly fought from the air, can stop ethnic cleansings, mass murder and even transform countries for the good. In my opinion the track record doesn’t support this notion. Kosovo is practically a NATO colony, Libya is a disaster, the less said about Somalia, Syria and Iraq the better.

In Rwanda, a narrative of Tutsis as pure victims and Hutus as little more than murderers bent on killing them, ignores both the country’s history and the many innocent Hutus killed at the time and in the years since. In the near future, keep an eye on nearby Burundi, a mineral rich country with similar demographics, where tensions between the two groups are being stirred by US backed President Paul Kagame of Rwanda, a Tutsi, against that country’s President, Pierre Nkurunziza, whose father was Hutu.

After a failed coup attempt in 2015 by forces disputing Nkurunziza’s right to run for a third term, the situation in the country has simmered. Rather than looking for ways to de-escalate the situation, “Instead we’ll hear more preposterous rhetoric about the world’s obligation to ‘intervene’, ignoring Burundi’s sovereignty, to ‘stop genocide’ or ‘stop the next Rwanda’.

Humanitarian intervention or R2P (Responsibility to Protect) is an ideology just like Neoconservatism and, in my opinion, both lead to an ignorance of actual history and cherry picking of data to reach pre-ordained conclusions. Both schools of thought usually target resource rich areas and are usually supportive of each others’ calls for ‘regime change’ around the world.

The wars in the Balkans helped cement the idea in the west that the world is black and white, once one of the more bizarre features of the far-right. In US politics, Republicans usually raise more money from defense contractors but this election year is different: Hillary Clinton is beating Donald Trump in this donor category by a 5-1 margin.

The merchants of death know there’s money to be made from the ‘humanitarian interventions’ that will come out of a Clinton presidency, just as they’ve profited from Neocon wars under Republicans. ‘No fly zones’ in Syria, already proposed by the former Secretary of State’s campaign, will likely only be the beginning.

*In researching this article I relied extensively on background information provided in a series of long articles by Edward S. Herman and David Peterson for the Monthly Review, which are available here.


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