Countless Bosnians lost lives as Western powers failed to act fast: Sarajevo University professor

July 12, 2020 - 11:33

TEHRAN - Joseph J. Kaminski, an assistant professor at the International University of Sarajevo in Bosnia and Herzegovina, tells the Tehran Times that failure of Western powers and the United Nations-led to loss of “countless lives” in the Bosnian War.

On the Srebrenica massacre and the disappointing role of the Dutch peacekeepers, Kaminski notes, “Srebrenica was most certainly the largest scale and most well-known genocide during the war in Bosnia. From what I have gathered in my own visits to the Srebrenica Memorial and through my interactions with local Bosnians who lived during the war, the general consensus seems to be that Dutch troops were more interested in their own safety rather than the safety of the local Bosnians who were being targeted.” 

The professor says, “It wasn’t that the Dutch troops were incompetent fighters; rather it was that they were unwilling.”

“Iran’s role in the Bosnian liberation struggle has been largely ignored by Western media, but any Bosnian you speak with who lived during that time is fully aware of the help Iran provided during the war.”The academic also says Western media outlets largely ignore Iran’s help to the Bosnians during the war.

“Iran’s role in the Bosnian liberation struggle has been largely ignored by Western media, but any Bosnian you speak with who lived during that time is fully aware of the help Iran provided during the war. Iran was one of the very first countries to offer direct meaningful assistance to the Bosnian Muslim cause,” explains Kaminski, author of “the Contemporary Islamic Governed State”.

The text of the interview with Kaminski is as follows:

Q: A new investigation into the Srebrenica massacre shows that the British, American, and French governments were prepared to cede UN-protected safe areas to armed Serb militia during the war in Bosnia. How do you assess the role of Western powers in the massacre?

A: There is no denying that Western forces waited far too long to intervene in Bosnia. They did not properly understand—or perhaps want to understand—the fanatical Serb nationalist mindset. The United States did not decide to forcefully intervene in Bosnia until August 1995, and as you note, it seems that both the UK and U.S. were aware of what was going to happen in Srebrenica at least 6 weeks in advance. Even prior to the Srebrenica genocide, many Western officials were willing to accept certain territory swaps to appease Serb forces even if it meant displacing the Bosnian Muslims who were already living there. 
In 2019, the British National Archives released some shocking documents dating back to July 1995 that showed internal British military assessments actually blaming the Bosnian Muslim forces for provoking the Srebrenica attack. The Western powers were unable to forge a coherent strategy until after atrocities and genocide had already been committed. U.S. President Bill Clinton actually did want to get more directly involved in Bosnia as early as 1993, but ran into his own domestic troubles and faced too much opposition from the EU and eventually backed down. 

What should be learned from Srebrenica is that even in Europe the worst forms of barbarism and killing are always possible. A couple years already into the war, Washington was finally interested in using NATO forces to bomb Serb military targets, but the other European countries involved in the larger mission still sought to keep it limited in scope to humanitarian purposes. This disagreement over tactics wasted valuable time and countless lives were lost as a result. On the other hand, one must remember, it was the Europeans who mostly had their own forces in the region and it was their soldiers who would be targeted if clashes with Serb troops broke out; the U.S. was in a much better position to advocate for a more forceful NATO military response without having to potentially put their own assets at risk. 

Q: Experts argue that one of the biggest failures of the UN has been the Srebrenica massacre in 1995. Many of the Muslim victims had fled to the UN-declared safe zone in Srebrenica but they found out that the lightly armed Dutch troops were unable to defend them. What do you think?

A: Yes, Srebrenica was most certainly the largest scale and most well-known genocide during the war in Bosnia. From what I have gathered in my own visits to the Srebrenica Memorial and through my interactions with local Bosnians who lived during the war, the general consensus seems to be that Dutch troops were more interested in their own safety rather than the safety of the local Bosnians who were being targeted. It wasn’t that the Dutch troops were incompetent fighters; rather it was that they were unwilling. There was also evidence of Islamophobia and other ills commonly found in Europe these days against non-Christian populations that played a role in limiting the willingness of the Dutch soldiers to take a more active role. In the end, many different things could have been done to limit the terror that would eventually transpire, but nobody took the initiative to do so until it was too late.

Q: What was Iran's role in saving Bosnians’ lives from the massacre?

A: Iran’s role in the Bosnian liberation struggle has been largely ignored by Western media, but any Bosnian you speak with who lived during that time is fully aware of the help Iran provided during the war. Iran was one of the very first countries to offer direct meaningful assistance to the Bosnian Muslim cause. Many have argued that if it was not for Iran’s assistance in providing necessary equipment and training to local Bosnian units at the beginning of the war, the end result may have been different. The UN weapons embargo (UNSC Resolution 713) passed on September 25, 1991 was perhaps the biggest mistake of the entire conflict. This resolution imposed an international arms embargo on all Yugoslav territories which actually worked to the Serbs benefit since they already were in possession of most of the former Yugoslavia’s heavy military equipment.

“Many have argued that if it was not for Iran’s assistance in providing necessary equipment and training to local Bosnian units at the beginning of the war, the end result may have been different.”As a result, Serb forces had a major advantage on the battlefield. The Bosnian Muslim resistance fighters possessed almost nothing beyond a limited amount simple assault rifles and small arms when the war first broke out. Near the city of Kakanj, about an hour and a half outside Sarajevo, there is a well-known memorial for an Iranian shahid who was martyred by Croatian forces. This particular shahid was known for demonstrating incredible bravery by helping provide critical tactical training and support for the heavily outmatched Bosnian resistance fighters. It is also known that during the war, the Iranian people back home sold their gold and other valuable possessions in order to help provide necessary financial assistance to the Bosnian people.

Q: Western media try to show a sectarian face of Iran, but the Bosnia is where Iran - a predominantly Shia country - was one of the first Muslim countries to provide support for the Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks, who are mainly Sunni Muslim). What is your take on it?  

A: I think the situation in Bosnia goes far beyond sectarianism of any form; any civilized nation should have felt a sense of moral obligation to help the oppressed Bosnian Muslim side. While other countries were busy making sure that other powerful Western actors and the UN approved their efforts, Iran did not bother to waste their time with such delays. As soon as the atrocities became apparent, Iran acted decisively and provided the best help they could under the difficult circumstances they also faced, recently coming out of their own 8-year war in which an aggressive foreign power sought to undermine their sovereignty. Bosnia and Iran enjoy cordial relations today.

Q: There have been some hesitations on the real number of victims. Although the announced number is 8,000, the documents show up to 20,000. Why is there such a difference? And what is the real number?

A: There are a few explanations for this. First, many bodies still have yet to even be found, and as time goes on inevitably more remains will be uncovered. So, it is likely that the numbers of victims, not only in Srebrenica but in Bosnia more generally, will be much higher than the current official numbers. Second, there have been scientific advances in forensics and DNA testing over the years which has helped up the process of identifying the remains of the deceased, this also is a reason why numbers will probably go higher. Third, Serb authorities have made great efforts to hide the extent of the killings. Srebrenica genocide denial to varying degrees is real even though it is completely obvious what happened there. Certain well-known individuals such as the recent Nobel Prize winning author Peter Handke and even Noam Chomsky have made efforts to downplay what happened in Srebrenica. Sadly, in the end, I do not think anyone will ever know the actual number of people killed during the Bosnian war.  

Q: What should be learned from the Srebrenica massacre?

A: What should be learned from Srebrenica is that even in Europe the worst forms of barbarism and killing are always possible. Muslims living in the West must be aware that they are seen as the enemy by many people living right next door to them.  It is hard to deny that if the Bosnian Muslims were not Muslim, the global response would have been significantly different. It is important for Muslims—Sunni and Shi’a—to foster good relations and look out for each other. We have enough enemies as it is; we do not need to create enemies among ourselves.

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