Roy Gutman Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Witness to Genocide: Conversation with Roy Gutman, correspondent, Newsday, winner of the Pulitzer Prize; 4/10 97 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by S. Beth Atkin

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Belated International Response

As the story began to emerge, the most remarkable thing was the non-response of the great powers, both the U.S. in the Bush and Clinton administrations, and the Europeans. How do you account for that, once the story was out, the images were out, and it was very clear what was going on?

I was in the field then so I had hardly a clue, but I did know something even then. I knew that if I was coming upon this and I was discovering and researching it and I was trying to beat the drum, then clearly they had made a decision in advance to close their eyes in Washington. In fact, after my first visit to Banja Luka, I did a story about Omarska, even though I hadn't visited it, based on second-hand information, and I labeled it as such. Because I felt, "My God, here I am, I'm the first person here, I'm convinced this is true. I've proven every other element of the story that I heard, here's the one I can't prove because I can't go there. But boy it sure raises big questions." Then we sent it around the Bush administration. My colleagues from Newsday in Washington got it to the Secretary of State himself, because my colleague was on his plane. They got it to the CIA, to the White House, members of Congress. I called. I sent it everywhere. Two weeks later, nobody ever called me back.

So that was evidence that they didn't care. Why didn't they care? The only thing I can think of is that we were in a new era. In the Cold War era, Yugoslavia was a place of strategic contest between the United States and the Soviet Union. And post - Cold War, I think they felt it didn't matter, that it would have to find its own way, that they'd have a revolution in time and good for them. That's one reason.

Another reason is that the Serbs really did appear, especially on paper, to have such superiority that they were going to take it quickly, and it would be over with. That we could close our eyes and in a blink it would be over. It was a total misconception by the Americans, by the Serbs, and by everybody. In fact, the Serbs went to Yazov, the Russian Defense Minister, and they asked him before or midway through the Croatian war, Gutman with friends (and children) in a rented armored truck in beseiged east Mostar, Bosnia; November 1993. Photograph by Andree Kaiser."Will the West intervene?" Yazov went to (I'm not sure if it was Cheney or whoever was the American at that time) and asked, "What are you going to do?" He got an assurance that the Americans were going to do nothing. In other words, they had a green light at that point.

Now, why did they decide not to do anything? As I say, one reason is the end of the Cold War, the other is that there is, among the American military to this day, a fear that getting involved in a war in a country that has mountains ("We do deserts, we don't do mountains," that's what Colin Powell said), getting involved in a war like that is a quagmire, that no matter what's happening, it's Vietnam all over again. So when Bush asked for military advice as these things were going on, he was told by Colin Powell, "400,000 troops, 10 years, and we'll never get out of there." I mean an absolute exaggeration, a total misreading of the politics. Almost willful ignorance of the facts.

Bush was also not somebody who eagerly sent men into battle. You know, in the Iraq war, where there was every justification from the American national interest perspective to go in, Margaret Thatcher said she had to convince him. She said George was going wobbly.

The final reason is this was an election year. Bush felt, I suppose with some reason, that getting involved in a military exploit where you don't quite know what the hell is going on (I mean it was confusing), was not a great idea. But the real truth is that if they had done all their homework, if they had tasked the CIA, the intelligence agencies in general, the State Department, and said, "Use all your resources to find out what's going on; not that we want to get involved but we want to be on top of this in case we ever should," they would have figured out, as I did, that genocide was going on. But I think that for political reasons they didn't do that.

Okay, that's the explanation at one level, the level of the great powers. Is it possible to help us understand what was going on on the ground? What was driving the Serbs and these peoples as they turned on each other? Well, partly the Croats and the Bosnians were defending themselves against the Serbs. But was this a surprise to you? And what explains the ferocity, the emergence of evil in a sense, in this new, post - Cold War context?

Well I came away thinking that it basically had a strategic military content at its heart, which was that in the Croatia war the previous year, the Serbs had taken control of a large section of Croatia, called Krajina, with the capital of Knin. But they had no secure military strategic route to reach it from Serbia. And they needed it because this was really far away, a couple hundred miles away.

And they were concerned about protecting Serbs in that region.

Yes, those Serbs who had now declared their independence of Croatia and were running an absolute militant state. So the army very easily could talk itself into carving a corridor, especially after Bosnia declared independence, across northern Bosnia to link up Belgrade with Banja Luka and Knin. I learned that they were going to do this the previous year, five months before the war broke out. I just went to Banja Luka, I got briefed by the Serbs there, and they said, "We're probably going to need this territory." I said, "Wait a minute, this is populated (as far as I knew) by non-Serbs, predominately Muslims and Croats. How are you going to do it? This means war. This means total war." And the mayor of Banja Luka said to me, "Well, not if everybody's clever." He really didn't have an answer. Well it was total war. And that's where the ethnic cleansing (a euphemism for genocide) basically began. It was along that corridor. That's where the concentration camps were set up. Everywhere along there. In places where there was fighting, like in Brcko, in places where there was no fighting, like Banja Luka. And the killing, the raping, it all went on all along that corridor. So start with the military concept, and that helps you explain how it starts. Then you have to look at what happened once they did that. There was no resistance, the Bosnians were not at all prepared. The Serbs saw that they could roll over the country. What does a military do when it discovers that? It carries on and they expand their territory. Very quickly they had two-thirds of the country. They were going for Sarajevo. They were basically going for broke. So that is my understanding. What amazes me is that I figured this out as a journalist just by looking at the map and using logic. The American government, for the longest time, didn't seem to recognize this.

So it sounds like "see no evil, hear no evil," I don't know about "speak no evil" in this particular case because the politicians were making promises about what we would do, or threatening to do things, at least during the campaign, which they didn't do anything about.

Let me tell you something. The most amazing thing to me was, when I wrote my story about Omarska and I hadn't been there, I had two witnesses whom I found in Zagreb. One had been from Omarska, one had been at the Luka camp at the port in Brcko. And they told their stories. I spent more than a week searching for refugees. They told their stories in a convincing way. The newspaper put the headline "Death Camps" on the story and it's justified because of the killing there. It had a thunderclap effect. It had an effect in Bosnia. It had an effect in Europe. It had an effect in the United States. And the effect in Bosnia was that the Serbs closed down the camps, and actually people were freed. It's the most amazing thing ever. In Europe it just sort of stunned people, but nobody knew what to do. The European intelligence services may or may not have had this information. They should have had it from refugees. They really should have. It's unbelievable that they didn't have the same information I did.

Somebody at the State Department heard me speak on NPR the afternoon after the story appeared and looked up the files and discovered that they had something on it, and the next day the State Department confirmed the story. And this was another headline. Then the smart guys on the seventh floor as they say, where the Secretary of State is, looked at this and said, "We've just confirmed something, people are going to ask us where have you been all this time? Why are you confirming a news report? We are the United States of America." And so the next day they retracted it. "We were overtaken by events. This statement is inoperative." And then back and forth, back and forth. Finally weeks later they said they asked the CIA to look up all the information and the CIA said they didn't have anything on it because they hadn't been questioning refugees. Then some people quit in the State Department in protest, a guy named George Kenney, over the fact that they weren't even searching. And then they started interviewing refugees and about three months later they confirmed the damn thing. I didn't feel good about this at all.

Next page: Conclusion: Norms and Values