At the time of its occurrence, as George Szamuely argues in his recent book Bombs for Peace, the killings at Srebrenica constituted a golden propaganda opportunity for the US, helping to redirect public attention from Operation Storm - the Croatian-US led assault that drove the Serb population out of Croatia's Krajina region. In the present day, meanwhile, the tragedy of Srebrenica continues to be used for propaganda purposes. In the week in which the UN - whose forces, ironically, played quite a significant part in allowing the massacre to happen - has been called upon to officially classify the massacre as a 'genocide' (a call vetoed by Russia, of course, and opposed by Serbia and the Bosnian Serbs), the BBC has broadcast a documentary Deadly Warning: Srebrenica Revisited. Presented and narrated by journalist Myriam Francois-Cerrah, the film follows a group of British schoolchildren as they visit the Srebrenica memorial and talk about the massacre with local people.
Some of the testimonies of these people are very moving. Yet the one-sidedness of the documentary's account of the war is apparent in numerous details. Early in the production, for example, the Bosnian capital Sarajevo is praised as having been, before the war, a multicultural European city; this is true, but it is revealing that nobody notes that Yugoslavia itself was multicultural before it was broken apart with the encouragement of the US and European powers and the forces of nationalism within the former federation. In this documentary, as in most Western media narratives about the Bosnian war, Bosnian 'independence' is simply taken for granted as a positive and 'natural' development that was opposed by intransigent, backwards-looking Serbs. Here is perhaps not the place to explore in great detail the background to the war; but anybody with an interest in an alternative view of the events that led to the conflict would do well to consider intelligent counter-narratives, such as this documentary from George Bogdanich.
Strikingly - and this cannot simply be a function of the documentary's limited, 30-minute running time - Deadly Warning offers almost no historical contextualisation of the Srebrenica massacre itself. Numerous barbarities were committed against Serbs in the area prior to July 1995 during attacks launched from the so-called Srebrenica 'safe area' (which in fact served as a protection zone for Muslim forces) and the UN played a role in allowing these murderous raids to be carried out. While these attacks are briefly mentioned, the fact that they are introduced by a shady-looking Serb commander suggests that they are merely the rationalizations of a war criminal. This is deeply problematic. As Janine Clark has written in an academic article about responsibility for the war, ‘It is undeniable that Serbian forces, both the regular army and various paramilitary organizations, committed heinous crimes during the Yugoslav wars. Yet terrible crimes were also committed against the Serbs – in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo’. While we should certainly be wary of what the historian Peter Gay, in relation to the Nazi Holocaust, once called the ‘comparative trivialisation’ of atrocity, we must acknowledge that crimes were committed on all sides during the war, even if Serb - and Croat - forces were responsible for rather more of them than were the Bosnian Muslims.
And what does the documentary have to say about the involvement of the world's great powers? Discussing the consequences of Srebrenica, Francois-Cerrah comments that the 'international community' was finally 'galvanised into action' by the killings at Srebrenica, but neglects to mention that this 'action' involved massive and deadly force directed against Serb civilians, as well as ethnic cleansing, which even continued in 1996, after the Dayton Accords had been implemented. Indeed, Deadly Warning elides any discussion of the military and political complexities of the Bosnian war, resorting instead to the psychologistic platitude that its horrors were simply the result of 'intolerance' towards Bosnian Muslims.
In line with the current preoccupation of the UN, the aim of this documentary is to ensure that Srebrenica is remembered as a genocide. I have no particular problem with this description - or rather, I would have no problem with it, were such descriptions ever remotely objectively applied. We should remember that the designation of a massacre as a 'genocide' is always an ideological operation. How interesting it is that Srebrenica - a massacre committed by the US's de facto enemies, the Serbs - is regarded as a 'genocide' by the US and its allies, whereas the 2003 invasion of Iraq led by the US, in which a million people were killed, is described as 'humanitarian intervention' or tamely written off by its former cheerleaders as a mistake. If we are to call Srebrenica a genocide, let us be under no illusions that to do so is a political language game on the part of the Western powers and part of a wider process of highly partial historical commemoration.