Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Comment: Too Much Stress on Bosnian Abuses?

Milosevic gets to focus on Bosnian government misdeeds as bulk of witness evidence is presented in written form.
By Chris Stephen

The corrosive effects of Bosnia's war on all the protagonists were highlighted in the trial of Slobodan Milosevic this week, when a senior observer with the United Nations reported on abuses by both sides during the siege of Sarajevo.


The Serb artillery and sniper attacks on Sarajevo are well known, but the report by Francis Thomas, who was UN observer for nine months, also spoke about the dubious tactics used by the Bosnian government side.


Giving testimony on November 12, Thomas said Bosnian forces had stolen a UN armoured vehicle, and captured some UN military observers and held them for a while.


On one occasion, he said, Bosnian government interior ministry snipers targeted Serb women to provoke the Serbs into firing back and breaking a UN-mediated ceasefire.


"A ceasefire was broken by the Serb side because three pregnant women had been shot by [Bosnian government] snipers," he told the court. "Troops fired the next day on Bosnian government positions. Of course the [Bosnian] soldiers they [the Serbs] shot were not in any way involved in the sniper action.


"The snipers were controlled by the [Bosnian government] Ministry of Internal Affairs, which is not even the army. The troops on the front lines had no control over the snipers."


Milosevic immediately asked him, "I assume the Minister of Internal Affairs is a Bosnian?"


"That is correct, " said Thomas, adding, "That particular item was never covered by the Western media."


The reason this incident was missed by foreign journalists may have been that they were busy covering the daily barrage of Serb artillery and sniper fire directed at Sarajevo and its residents.


Thomas's appearance in court shows a curious new feature of the Milosevic trial.


To save time, prosecution witnesses give their evidence in a written statement. It takes only a few minutes to summarise the main points, and the rest of the court session is then dominated by Milosevic's cross-examination.


Journalists covering the trial receive copies of the statements. But also in court are visiting lawyers and flocks of Dutch high-school students. And for them, it must look as though Milosevic is the inquisitor.


When Thomas was in court, the impression given must have been that the siege of Sarajevo was dominated by abuses committed by the Bosnian government side.


That is not to criticise the evidence - Thomas was very fair, and historians will have cause to be grateful for his observation reports.


But about an hour into the session, dominated by Milosevic's questioning, I felt that the fighting around Sarajevo as set out by Milosevic had nothing to do with the one I remember.


The siege I witnessed was dominated by shells pouring into the city from the surrounding hills. In 1994, I remember talking to residents who could not sleep, because the ceasefire had suddenly made their nights too quiet.


Yes, there were abuses by the Bosnian government side. And it was distasteful to watch ministers whose own families were safe in the West urging locals to stay and face the bullets.


But these were the exceptions. The siege many journalists remember was one where Sarajevo's residents were mostly Muslims, but also included some Croats and Serbs - and all those people of mixed ethnicity for whom Serb hardliners had little time. On the streets and among the sandbags, you would meet people - Muslims and non-Muslims alike- who insisted they were fighting for a multi-ethnic Bosnia.


For them, the idea of journalists describing a war between Croats, Muslims and Serbs was defeat in itself. They wanted a multi-ethnic state. They wanted human decency to prevail.


Their idea of fighting hate with tolerance did not get them very far - Sarajevo was hammered by Serb shells.


But those journalists who were there will never forget the idealism that they kept alive.


Chris Stephen is IWPR's tribunal project manager in The Hague.


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