Uncomfortably Numb
Monday Notes
Uncomfortably Numb
As I watch the latest horrors come to light in Ukraine, I am reminded just how easily the world got used to civilian massacres in Bosnia.
Published on: Apr 4, 2022  

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My friend and colleague Bruno Tertrais tweeted on Sunday that the footage we were seeing from Bucha in Ukraine—images of men and women executed in the streets with their hands tied behind their backs—was what he feared would happen next in Russia's war of aggression. A "Srebrenica on steroids," he wrote—perhaps a tipping point for further Western involvement in Ukraine's war. I quickly jumped in to qualify Bruno's tweet. Srebrenica was like many other civilian slaughters at time of war. It was most notable, I wrote, in that "Western troops sent to ensure the safety of civilians literally handed them over to be butchered." Srebrenica remains for me the prime example of how a disembodied desire for "intervention," shorn of any will to actually fight, can lead to truly hideous ends.

I finished the tweet by saying that the last thing I wanted to do was wade into comparatively weighing tragedies. Western complicity in the Srebrenica massacre weighs heavily on the West, but doesn't change the nature of the crime committed. Counting corpses of the innocent is a tasteless thing to do in any context. From what we can see so far, Srebrenica featured killing on a much larger scale than Bucha. But that doesn't matter. A war crime is a war crime. While scale multiplies our horror, it doesn't change the fundamental nature of the outrage. And to be fair, we almost certainly don't yet know the full extent of Russia's depredations in occupied Ukraine, including in Mariupol and Kherson.

As I tweeted my little corrective, I was reminded of another grim fact: Srebrenica took place in 1995, three years into the ghastly war in Bosnia. And while some 8,000 young men and boys were systematically executed there in the course of a week, Srebrenica was merely the most telegenic of a long list of massacres that had regularly marked that war since its very first days. The massacre was not anything particularly new in and of itself. It just got the most attention, in no small part because of the West's unhappy role in it.

If you haven't watched the BBC documentary The Death of Yugoslavia, you ought to. (It can be watched in its entirety on YouTube.) It's a remarkable document because it features all of the main leaders, as well as many of those who directly took part in the war and ended up on trial at the Hague, speaking frankly to the interviewers. Episode 4, "The Gates of Hell," about the start of the war in Bosnia, is particularly grim watching, but worth the effort.

Here's the part of the episode documenting one of the first massacres in Bosnia in April 1992, in the town of Bijeljina. (Caution: graphic.)

The city fell in three days. Afterwards, Serbian paramilitaries rounded up a number of civilians, all Muslim politicians and activists, and summarily executed them. The paramilitaries had a photographer along, but apparently they weren't too concerned about killing people in full sight of the world. Indeed, that was likely part of the plan, to spread terror among Muslims living in other parts of the country—the logic of ethnic cleansing at play.

This man, photographed pleading for his life minutes after being captured by Serbian paramilitaries in Bijeljina, was not spared.

The photo became iconic at the war's start. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) confirmed that 48 civilians were killed in those opening days of the war in Bijeljina, and at least as many were disappeared. It was all amply documented.

More indelible in my memory, however, is the footage from Zvornik—footage that immediately popped into my mind when the images from Bucha hit the internet this weekend. Here's the relevant part from the BBC documentary.

The massacres in Zvornik took place at the end of May, also in 1992, about a month after Bijeljina. The ICTY confirmed that 491 civilians were killed. The documentary includes an interview with a UN official who happened to be driving through the city at the time of the conflict. He describes his Jeep skidding around a corner because of blood on the road, and talks about several truck-loads of corpses being taken out of town to be buried. There is footage in the link above of the dead being loaded onto the trucks—rigid bodies being tossed into piles like cordwood. Again, all in full sight of the world, three years before Srebrenica.

Why am I remembering these horrible things now? For one, at the time of writing this short little essay, the expert consensus is that the Ukraine war will last for a good while longer. In arguing against implementing a no-fly zone a few weeks back, I wrote that "most horrible of all, we must get used to watching the unwatchable." Well, here we are. And we might be here for some time.

Do I regret my no-fly zone argument? No, I still stand by my case on the merits. The Russians, unlike the Serbs, have nuclear weapons, and that unfortunately matters. But nuclear weapons aside, the parallels with Bosnia point to a deeper darkness: that in a long and increasingly intractable conflict, the unwatchable can become routine.

And I suppose that's the lesson for me from this latest outrage. We must keep helping the Ukrainians fight their war. We must be ready to help them rebuild their country whenever the shooting finally stops. But above all, we mustn't become numb to the reality of this war. It's all too easy to let that happen.