Rewriting History to Define a “Civil War”:
Looking back almost two decades later since the start of conflict, it is readily perceptible that this form over substance presentation of Belgrade’s and Pale’s role has on the one hand facilitated Serbia’s ongoing interference while allowing Washington, London, Paris and other capitals to distance themselves from the accountability or even still persistent consequences of what they all now want to call a civil war and/or religious conflict.
Undermining BiH’s Status as Sovereign State, with Territorial Integrity & UN Member:
To the extent that I was present during the negotiations before I assumed role as BiH Minister of Foreign Affairs, the name Republika Srpska was liberally employed by the mediators. While the BiH delegation did not accept such name, I do believe Sarajevo could have been even more affirmatively resistant. Perhaps I was hypersensitive to the use of this name both as lawyer and BiH Permanent Representative (Ambassador) to the UN. I understood the persistent effort to raise the status of the RS and lower the status of BiH as UN member state. (However, observe now the battle over whether Palestine will be admitted as UN member state and its broader consequences). From the “mediation” of Lord Carrington and his sidekick Cuteliero, there was a concerted effort to describe BiH’s admission to the UN as premature, unless Karadzic and Pale had agreed.
Paris & Washington:
The next stage of discussions on the American initiative was scheduled for Paris. President Izetbegovic, Minister Hassan Muratovic and I were invited by France’s new President Jacque Chirac, in part because the new French administration did not want to be left out of the US initiative. Richard Holbrooke also scheduled to be in Paris simultaneously, somehow not to have the French maneuver in front of him.
Markale Marketplace Massacres:
We were to arrive August 28, 1995. President Izetbegovic and Muratovic would come in from Sarajevo through Split (Croatia). I was already in the air flying from the United States. When I landed, our very able Ambassador to Paris Nikola Kovac, an ethnic Serb, met me at the airport. He informed me that only a couple of hours earlier, there had been another massacre in Sarajevo. Mladic’s besieging forces had shelled a packed market killing dozens and horribly injuring more.
Nikola and I with his team from our embassy in Paris went to then greet Izetbegovic’s plane. We met as the President was not even yet off the aircraft, and he immediately said to me” “I got the news in Split, and for a while I did not know whether I should come. I’m not sure what to do, but we have to find a way to end this.” On the limousine ride to the hotel, I was contemplative about the options, but I was even more convinced that the American Initiative would end up another lost hope, and with BiH and the besieged citizens of Sarajevo worse for it as so many other times over 3 ½ years, unless there was decisive action. I told President Izetbegovic that with the US and Europe behind this new peace initiative, we had to demand something more than verbal condemnation. Further, in Paris it was an opportunity to effectively play off the French and US political interests by having them consider whether either might be left looking impotent with respect to the other.
No More Talks Unless NATO Acts & Siege of Sarajevo Lifted:
I proposed to President Izetbegovic that we tell the media as well as Chirac and Holbrooke that we would not proceed with the next round of talks unless NATO acted decisively and to alleviate the siege of Sarajevo. President Izetbegovic looked at me apprehensively, not much optimism or resilience in his eyes – beaten down by the news of the deaths and the burden he felt for BiH and its citizens. “I don’t think it will make any difference. Why should anything be different this time around? But go ahead and try.”
Greece, Iran, Bosnia & Herzegovina – Is there an Islamic Card to Play? It was Already Being Played Against Us!
A month earlier, (as made plainly evident by the betrayal of Srebrenica and the UN/NATO abandonment of Zepa - even without pretext of confronting Mladic’s forces as obliged by both UN Resolution and NATO’s own decision), I felt that we were being slowly but steadily sold out. We did not have many counter-moves. Regardless of the presence of several hundred “Mujahadeen” or Islamic motivated fighters, (these fighters were perhaps capable, but they were a diplomatic liability, and it is not clear that there longer term vision for BiH was consistent with that of most Bosnians/Herzegovinians including Bosniaks), we had not played the Muslim card to our diplomatic advantage while it had been extensively employed against BiH. I felt that BiH had to do its upmost to maintain both the reality and image of a multi-religious, multi-ethnic state as the basis for its then struggle for survival and for its future definition. However, especially as an American, I thought it was time to put the Islamic card as a contingency that BiH would be compelled to resort to if Milosevic/Mladic were allowed to continue to breach UN “safe areas” and NATO “protected zones” as well as gradually suffocate food and other essential humanitarian supplies to cities like Sarajevo and Bihac while BiH continued to be impeded by an arms embargo allowing a continued weapons dominance of JNA/VS (Serbian) forces to be exploited against BiH defenders and civilians.
Next on Mladic’s Menu – Bihac?
The encircled and isolated Bihac region would also come under further pressure if we did not do something to break the siege. The BiH defenders were well led and had fought brilliantly repelling assault from several sides, but in late July of 1995 it was going to be Gorazde or Bihac next to come under assault – and UN/NATO would do little to stop it unless we found a different way.
It was my birthday, July 20, 1995. I had flown to Athens at the invitation of the Greek Foreign Ministry for a Tri-Party meeting with also then Iranian Foreign Minister Dr. Ali Veliyati. Iran and Greece felt compelled to counter the tri-partite meeting bringing together Croatia, Turkey and BiH. Although it was not likely that some tangible outcome would result from a Greek, Iran and BiH agreement, it was an opportunity to change the chessboard or shuffle the cards or simply alter the photograph – take your choice of metaphors.
Organization of Islamic Cooperation – “Arms Embargo Illegal & Invalid”:
As our meeting ended in Athens, I was scheduled to address and lead an emergency session of the OIC (Organization of Islamic Cooperation) which had been called together at our request after Srebrenica and Zepa. I had a reservation on a regularly scheduled flight, but I decided to fly together with Minister Veliyati to Geneva. It would be a message to Washington, London, Paris and some Arab capitals that the American Bosnian was losing confidence and patience with their duplicity.
In Geneva, I pressed upon the OIC that they must adopt a resolution declaring the UN arms embargo upon the Government of BiH legally and diplomatically void. Further, we set a month later to meet in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to establish the practical mechanisms by which OIC states would assist BiH further on humanitarian, political and military level – an OIC Friends of BiH Action Group.
Some of the OIC Foreign Ministers present tried to deflect the drive for action into purely diplomatic measures. Egypt and Turkey at the time were inclined only to act if Washington provided a clear OK. However. I was not though going to allow diplomatic language once again to become a pretext for no practical steps to be undertaken – and I pressed that the OIC message had to be a visible challenge to the US and Europe who had done little to alleviate BiH’s plight and in fact had increasingly started to abandon their commitments – as evidenced by Srebrenica and Zepa.
Overcoming Personal Animosity - Izetbegovic & Tudjman:
From Geneva I flew that July immediately to Split, Croatia to join President Izetbegovic and BiH’s leadership for a summit with President Tudjman. US representatives were present (although not Holbrooke) to now encourage greater Croatia-BiH coordination. The meetings lasted over 2 days and involved military as well as political elements. The relationship between President Izetbegovic and President Tudjman was very poor on level of personalities and politics. Izetbegovic viewed Tudjman as intellectually inferior, and at times took apparent pleasure in exhibiting what he viewed as his superior mind to counter Tudjman’s overt arrogance. In my opinion, this clear animosity between the two frequently got in the way of the necessity of exploring and reaching better cooperation.
However, this time in Split for both Zagreb and Sarajevo, the stakes were too high. There were also several of us to keep the talks on track, and the conversation/cooperation was very constructive between the two delegations despite the lack of chemistry, (to describe it charitably), between the two Presidents. Dr. Mate Granic and I, as the two Foreign Ministers, also continued to develop a good working relationship. He also invited me for dinner with his family a few days later, and our lines of communication remained constructive.
Within not much more than 10 days, the siege of Bihac had been lifted. Whatever else happened in terms of Croatia’s war to liberate its territory and the then treatment of its Serb population during Operation “Oluja” (“Storm”), it was I’m convinced final salvation for the Bihac enclave. With the encouragement of senior US officials, I provided diplomatic cover for Croatia’s military action – Bihac’s long suffering and the necessity to finally lift the siege were compelling counter diplomatic notes to those of Carl Bildt and Yasushi Akashi who tried to press for the status quo before the UN Security Council.
General Ante Gotovina, who led Croatia’s military against Krajina (Croatian) Serb forces, has answered as defendant to the ICTY (International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia) for alleged violations of international humanitarian law against the Serb inhabitants of that Croatian territory. However, I have previously provided statements that during my interaction with some US officials, we were encouraged not to close off the Posovina Corridor so that Serb civilians could flee to Serbia/Montenegro. Did some US officials/advisers anticipate and/or encourage the Serb exodus is a question that I cannot answer but only speculate.
Even as the siege of the Bihac was still being lifted, President Izetbegovic and I arranged for the Croatian Government to provide a helicopter and for us to fly into Bihac from Zagreb. There was a legitimate fear of anti-aircraft missiles still being fired at us. We flew over treetops, literally brushing them with the bottom of the helicopter. Only a few months earlier, my predecessor, BiH Foreign Minister Irfan Ljubijankic was shot down over the same territory in a helicopter – that is how I came to be designated BiH’s new Foreign Minister. Flying very low was a way to reduce the risk of being located and targeted with anti-aircraft missiles. Houses in Croatian Krajina were still smoldering from fires.
When we landed in Bihac, an orderly unit of BiH defenders assembled led by General Dudakovic. His face was a full smile, his check and jawbones fully visible under the thin layer of skin. The General and all of his men looked like they were wearing oversized uniforms, but it was their bodies that had shrunk to only bone and elastic muscle from 3 ½ years of siege, hunger and deprivation. Their seemingly oversized eyes were the relatively most noticeable – some had a tear but all the confidence of a fighter and survivor.
The First Round of the Bluff in Paris:
Over a month later, it was not the fate of Bihac or Gorazde that was at stake. It was Sarajevo and perhaps Tuzla. Was it Bosnia & Herzegovina? As I walked out of President Izetbegovic’s suite in our Paris hotel, I was going to the front where a small army of reporters were gathered before our scheduled late lunch with President Chirac. I was going to impose a condition for further talks and our engagement in the so-called American initiative: NATO had to act decisively to the shelling of the Sarajevo marketplace and lift the siege of Sarajevo – otherwise, we would walk away from the negotiations.
Of course I knew that it was a bluff. They did not.
Just then, Amr Mussa, Egypt’s Foreign Minister, was walking toward my room. I grabbed him by the arm and turned him toward the front of the hotel to accompany me. He was a friend of Washington and not inclined to see Islamic countries go it independently of the US. However, even our friends in Washington, as the neo-con Richard Perle knew that we were left few cards to play other than the Islamic one – Richard left little doubt that we needed to shake up the inertia in the US and Europe.
Musa was a willing prop in this bit of theater. It did not matter that Egypt was allied with the West. In the eyes of most Europeans as well as Americans, Mussa and Veliyati were the Muslims.
Part 4 – Holbrooke is waiting for me in my hotel room even before I had checked into it.
(UN Photo - Security Council with Ambassador Mario Nobilo Croatia-center & French Ambassador Jean-Bernard Merimee-far right)
By Ambassador Muhamed Sacirbey
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