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Friday, 29 June, 2001, 13:17 GMT 14:17 UK
Viewpoint: The West did not do enough
Kosovo refugees prepare to return home
The people in the Balkans 'need their day in court'
BBC correspondent Allan Little, who spent much of the 1990s covering the wars in the former Yugoslavia, argues that the West was guilty of turning a blind eye to Mr Milosevic's deeds.

In November 1991, I stood on the edge of Vukovar watching a ghostly procession of people who seemed only half alive, emerging from many months of living underground as, daily, the homes over their heads were pulverised by Serb and Yugoslav army bombardment.

Former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic
Milosevic pursued military conquest with impunity
Among them was a young woman, barely out of her teens. All she had managed to salvage of her possessions was a Serbo-Croat English dictionary.

Vukovar had been an ethnically mixed town on the beautiful Danube valley between Serbia and Croatia.

All the same

"In your high school class, how many of your friends were Serbs and how many Croat" the young woman was asked by one of us.

She seemed mystified by the question. "Really I have no idea. We did not ask, we did not care. We were all the same," she said.

Mr Milosevic's great achievement was in persuading the world for nearly a decade that Yugoslavia was somehow irredeemably doomed to ethnic hatred and conflict.

It was a lie from which the brave and tolerant and - in many cases - heroic people of Yugoslavia still need to be rescued.

'Nobody's fault'

In the early 1990s I practically lived in former Yugoslavia.

During my brief return visits to the UK I was bewildered by the consensus that had taken hold among British - and Western European - people in general: That the Balkan tribes had been killing each other for centuries and that there was nothing that could be done.

It was nobody's fault. It was just, somehow, the nature of the region.

General Ratko Mladic
Mladic: Everything happened under the eyes of the world.
It was a lie that Western governments at that time liked.

It got the Western world off the hook.

When I and others argued that you could not blame all sides equally, the moral implications were that the world should - as it later did - take sides.

We were denounced - derided even - by government ministers as laptop bombardiers.

And when Mr Milosevic takes the stand in the Hague he will give chapter and verse on the deals he made with those who came to try to make peace - how much they knew, how much they tacitly agreed to by turning a blind eye here and there.

After the massacre at Srebrenica in 1995, General Mladic, the chief perpetrator, said triumphantly, "Everything that happened here happened under the eyes of the world."

We can expect that to be part of Mr Milosevic's defence too.

So-called peace process

For the so-called peace process in the early 1990s was, to Mr Milosevic, nothing more than a way of fending off Western intervention against him.

It was a tool by which he staved off military opposition, while he, with impunity, pursued military conquest.

When the Americans under Bill Clinton started to argue for intervention, the Europeans opposed it on the grounds that it would derail the peace process.

Madeleine Albright
Mrs Albright could not stomach the lie any more
And what was the peace process? It was envoy after envoy coming to Yugoslavia to bang heads together - to persuade the so-called warring factions of the folly of war.

It ignored the central dynamic of the conflict for years - that for Mr Milosevic, war was not folly at all. It was supremely rational. It was the only way he could stay in power.

From 1991 it was clear that if you supported the arms embargo and opposed western intervention you were, by inescapable logical extension, in favour of a Serb military victory.

Market carnage

In 1994 I landed in Sarajevo on a clear crisp sun-lit winter's day.

Half an hour later, a bomb landed in the crowded market place and 70 people lay dead.

On the record, UN spokesmen would condemn nobody until they could condemn everyone in equal measure.

Moral equivalence, symmetrical guilt.

There followed one of the lowest episodes in the West's involvement in the war - a sustained and systematic whispering campaign to try to blame the victims.

Off the record, UN spokesmen would take you aside and whisper in your ear that the Muslims had of course bombed themselves. Don't forget - they're all as bad as each other.

I left the Balkans a few months after that, when I found that I could no longer look Sarajevo in the eye, so tainted did I feel.

I have many friends there - of all nationalities - and I could no longer live among them without a sense of debilitating shame. Many of us who covered that war felt this way.

Albright's consensus

It was in the end Madeleine Albright, much maligned on this side of the Atlantic, who could not stomach the lie any more, and she built a new consensus.

Suddenly it was OK to describe Mr Milosevic as the driving force of the war. Suddenly it did not sound "unbalanced" or "partisan" to lay the blame squarely on the shoulders of one regime.

And so I hope that the indictment for what Mr Milosevic did in Kosovo will be followed by an indictment for what he did in Croatia and Bosnia.

Those people - the people Mr Milosevic taught us to regard as savage Balkan tribes who simply could not be dissuaded from mutual slaughter, the girl with the Serbo-Croat-English dictionary - also need their day in court.

And we owe it to them to examine our part in their tragedy.


At The Hague

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