In the winter of 1992, at the height of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, I interviewed a group of Bosnian Muslim refugees who had found sanctuary in the Croatian city of Karlovac. Their accounts were confused and confusing, but they shared a common thread. One after another, the refugees reported that when the Serbs arrived in their towns and villages they immediately rounded up community and religious leaders, teachers and intellectuals. They were the first to be executed. I was not sure whether to believe these traumatized, shattered survivors. I should have.
It is one of history’s darker ironies that the Serb paramilitaries of the 1990s who wiped out Bosnia’s Ottoman heritage used ethnic cleansing methods honed by the Ottoman army eight decades earlier. The Turks deployed the Bashi-Bazouks, former criminals released from prison, during the Armenian genocide in 1915. The Bashi-Bazouks lived off plunder and were granted a free hand to murder and rape. When the campaign against the Armenians began, Turkish soldiers sealed off each community and rounded up its leaders and other notables. They then executed them in the public square. Many of the Serb paramilitaries who committed the worst atrocities in Bosnia were also criminals, released by Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic to do the regime’s dirtiest work. Like their Turkish predecessors, the Serbs too had lists, we now know, of those slated for execution when the ethnic cleansing began. The men of Karlovac were telling the truth.
Genocide, or what we now define as genocide–the intentional destruction of a national or ethnic group–is not a modern crime. The Bible records repeated incidents of the warring peoples of the Near East annihilating each other, but genocide is a modern term. It was invented by a Polish-Jewish lawyer named Raphael Lemkin. During the 1930s Lemkin lobbied the League of Nations, the predecessor of the United Nations, for laws against the destruction of a people. In 1944 he published Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation, Analysis of Government, Proposals for Redress, the first work to contain the word genocide, from genos, Greek for people or race, and caedere, Latin for to cut or kill. Paradoxically, while genocide continues to take place, the word has become so powerful that, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, it has almost become “the crime that dare not speak its name.”
Consider the strange, if not perverse, reluctance of one of the primary bodies charged with prosecuting war criminals to deliver a guilty verdict for genocide. Gen. Radislav Krstic was the commander of the Drina Corps of the Bosnian Serb army, which carried out much of the killing at Srebrenica, where in July 1995 8,000 Bosnian men and boys were murdered. Krstic was indicted by the UN International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in 1998 on six counts of genocide and crimes against humanity. In August 2001 he was found guilty of genocide and sentenced to forty-six years in prison. But the sentence was later reduced on appeal, to thirty-five years, when the ICTY found Krstic guilty of the lesser charge of aiding and abetting genocide.