(E) VUKOVAR, U.N. intervention too late - The Washington Times
UNIntervention inVUKOVAR too late
VUKOVAR, Croatia The exquisite old baroque Danubian city of Vukovar seemed almost too perfect for the neighborhood.
It developed centuries ago in a very unusual and delicate manner for a small city in the Balkans, when traders from the north of Europe plied the Danube River southward, carrying not only goods to trade on these unknown peripheries of Europe but carrying the refined music of "Europe," its arts and architecture to the "wild" southern Serbs. Vukovar was an outpost a plains' Salzburg, a little Prague, a faraway Tallinn. Even two centuries ago, its exquisite Baroque streets were lined with the best shops, with an impressive opera house and with a legendary hotel acclaimed across a Europe that always sniffed at "the Balkans."
In fact, Vukovar was too perfect for the Balkans and when the Serbs turned away from the other cities they had left in ruins after the first four months of the war they began in June 1991, they turned on this lovely Croatian Roman Catholic city with a special destructive vehemence.
It was the same vengeance they would wreak on Bosnian Muslim Sarajevo, another Balkans jewel that, to them, didn't "belong." It was the special vengeance of the mountain people of the Dinaric Alps, united under Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic against the cultured and tolerant "European" elites of the valleys and plains.
Later, historians would define Vukovar that terrible fall as "Croatia's Stalingrad." The pattern of attack on the Danubian prize was the common one that the Serbs had been employing in their march across Bosnia and Croatia and their unsuccessful attempt to take Slovenia at the beginning of the war.
The Yugoslav army provided the heavy weapons and infantry support to local Serb paramilitaries and the local Serbs, almost all of whom immediately turned on their neighbors in what they now grotesquely called "self-cleaning."
The horrors seemed to grow as the Serbs took town after town, with no resistance from the unarmed and terrified local populations and surely with hardly an outcry from the world, whose representative spokesmen were flocking sheepishly to conference after conference, begging the Serbs to tell them what they really wanted in order to stop fighting and saying over and over in world forums that the Serb forces were too strong for them to fight.
In Vukovar, the Serbs offered safe transit to hundreds of Croats who had, in their terror, taken refuge in a hospital. When on Nov. 9, 1991, the Yugoslav army entered the hospital (after promising U.N. representatives that they would not) and the Croats emerged, almost all were murdered or taken away to be executed in quonset huts that still stand today.
But this is a story about another fall day in Vukovar, this one eight years later in 1999. This story carries the entire saga of international governance still a step further, to the morning after and to what happens to an already victimized people once the war is over and they supposedly had been "saved."
That beautiful fall day, a small group of foreign journalists had been driven by bus to the former museum building of Vukovar, courtesy of the office of the late Croatian President Franjo Tudjman.
Five local officials, four men and one woman, sat at a long table in a lovely salon of the museum, which was itself filled with photos of the diabolical destruction of the town that lay in the snow just outside the windows.
"In 1997, the Croatian government adopted a national reconciliation program," began Vladimir Stengl, a handsome, grey-haired man with a perpetually sorrowful look who was Vukovar's Croatian mayor, "and its main task is to establish trust and confidence."
But soon the journalists' questions turned to talk of justice for the thousands of victims there, many of them still buried in undiscovered mass graves; and at this point, the mayor added sadly, "Unfortunately, the butchers of Vukovar are walking free on the streets of Yugoslavia [Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko] Mladic, [Bosnian Serb political leader Radovan] Karadjic because they are out of our control and the international community is unable to arrest them."
The leading Serb official at the table, Milos Voinovich, a little man with darting black eyes, immediately and coldly objected to the discourse. He did not want any words like "butchers" or "war criminals" to be used.
"I am a lawyer," he proclaimed to the group, "a member of the judiciary. That is why I avoid using such words. This must be proven by a court."
Since in the ferocity of the siege, more explosive devices fell on Vukovar in three months than during the entire Second World War and since so many of the defenders of the historic city were young boys and girls, who fought as young people do, heroically most of the city lay by then in shards and pieces. But one plot of land was spanking clean and neat: the Serb cemetery built by the attackers for their fallen. The monuments of marble graves have atop them, in stone, the hats of the hated World War II Serb Chetnik fighters.
But despite the Serb destruction and despite the fact that the Serbs blew up a group of Croat houses to build the cemetery, the Croats, who won the area back in 1995, were not permitted to remove the monuments.
In that same spirit, the Serbs changed the name of one of Vukovar's lovely old avenues from the name of a Croatian leader to the name of his assassin. That could not be changed, either, because the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe declared it could not. The OSCE had immediately decreed that nothing should be changed for at least five years because it would hurt the Serbs' pride and might damage the reconciliation process they so insisted upon.
Later, back in Zagreb, I discovered that one of the reasons for the considerable tension that bleak day in the museum was because the Serb official so offended by talk of "war criminals" was indeed a lawyer. In fact, he was the head of the Supreme Court in Vukovar, and it was he, during the siege, who was first in charge of choosing those to be taken to concentration camps and those to be killed.
The international organizations would not even allow the Croats to look for the lost bodies of those still-missing young men and women that would set back the process of "reconciliation" because telling the truth about the war would "remind the Serbs of the war" and make them more recalcitrant about "reconciling."
"Two thousand people killed in Vukovar," a top aide to President Tudjman said afterwards, sadly, voicing typically what many Croats felt, "and you are faced with huge emotions growing up from the graves. And nobody's punished. How can I reconcile people when we do not have the satisfaction that somebody is punished for it all?"
But this new free-floating international mentality prided itself on being, above all, "non-judgmental," talking constantly of "reconciliation" instead of "justice," as though reconciliation were as simple as saying that everybody is guilty, so let's just get on with it and have the right thoughts.
Thoughtful psychological analysts like Prof. Slavin Letica, the respected Croatian writer and intellectual, argued that these supposedly well-meaning foreigners, who were by then setting down the principles for international governance in foreign crises from Croatia to Indonesia to Rwanda, with their alphabet soup of organizations, had become "post-national" human beings, "ciphers with no emotions."
To them, he went on, "people who still have emotions and who still talk in terms of right and wrong, good and evil, nation and patriotism" are "tribal."
"Emotions and patriotism are [seen as] retrograde," he said. "Borders like these historically fearsome ones in the Balkans are unfashionable and simply must be changed, attitudes must be purified. These are the men and women of a borderless world."
I personally remember, in 1992 in Zagreb, being told by the deputy Croatian defense minister, "If you take away a people's right to defend themselves, then you're morally responsible to defend them." But the international governance world did not feel this way, and neither did the European and American militaries, even though even the U.N. Charter's Article 51 guarantees every people the right to defend itself.
Yet when the rebuilt and reinvigorated Croatian army struck out in the summer of 1995, stunning the world by retaking the Serb-occupied Krajina and then heading toward the north to retake East Slavonia, the first response from the United Nations and from virtually all the Western world capitals was that they could simply never do it.
The Clinton administration, which had predicted the Krajina would not fall, stopped Croat forces from taking East Slavonia, which most probably would have successfully ended the war.
"With hindsight," the author and historian William Shawcross writes, "Vukovar can be seen as the last moment at which NATO forces might have intervened to stop the fighting and to halt Yugoslavia's fall into the abyss. But there was no political will to undertake such difficult action. Instead the paths of diplomacy and humanitarianism were followed."
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Georgie Anne Geyer
The Washington Times
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