The Balkan Wars and Ethnic Cleansing

By Flaherty, Patrick | Monthly Review, October 1994 | Go to article overview

The Balkan Wars and Ethnic Cleansing

Flaherty, Patrick, Monthly Review

Monthly Review did its readers a great service by publishing an excerpt from "Why Bosnia?" by Rabia Ali and Lawrence Lifschultz in the March issue. The article provides an informative defense of the Bosnian cause which forces the entire left to come to grips with the questions raised by the Balkan wars. The authors also make a compelling case for some form of Western entry into the war to halt Serbian and Croatian ethnic cleansing, whether this aid be limited to lifting the arms embargo, as Ali and Lifschultz advocate, or extended to the open-ended application of NATO military might, as others like Bogdan Denitch demand.

Unfortunately, in the end the relatively measured recommendations of Ali and Lifschultz, like the other calls for intervention, add up to a prescription for counter-genocide rather than a lasting just solution to this bloody conflict. The Balkan wars should pose an acute dilemma to those who think through the logic of the current struggle to the probable outlines of a military victory for any side. In their partisanship and understandable desperation, Ali and Lifschultz skirt some important facets of the Balkan wars which the Western left must keep in mind lest we become unwitting accomplices. A brief historical and sociological account will be required to make my case. But let me begin by pointing out a conspicuous omission by Ali and Lifschultz in their account of the murderous forced retribalization campaigns conducted during the Balkan wars.

Ethnic Cleansing and the Lasvanska Valley Campaign

In the spring and summer of 1993, the Bosnian leadership, particularly President Alija Izetbegovic, opted to exploit a general war-weariness in Croatia and launch a surprise military offensive against ethnic Croat enclaves in central Bosnia. The strategic rationale for seizing this parcel of land was to link up mainly Muslim pockets in the north and south. The sole obstacle to Izetbegovic's plan was the roughly 200,000 Croats inhabiting the Lasvanska valley region who bore the brunt of the Bosnian offensive. To conquer the Croat ancestral homelands, the Bosnian army adopted the Serbian and Croatian model of terroristic ethnic cleansing. The Lasvanska campaign culminated in burning dozens of indigenous Croat villages to the ground, razing several cities, frequent massacres, and every form of atrocity that was so rightly condemned by the Western left when it was meted out by Croats and Serbs against Bosnian Muslims.(1) To justify genocide, Bosnian Prime Minister Haris Silajdzic fell back on the all-too-familiar Serb pretext that these outrages were the militarily justified actions of the Bosnian army on Bosnian territory. As a result of this assault, 120,000 Croats were turned into refugees, fleeing lands that their people had inhabited for centuries.

By pressing its momentary advantage over the Croats, the Bosnian side entered the war as aggressors and can no longer be regarded solely as victims. A top Bosnian defense ministry official spelled out the war aims of the army leadership in a brazenly candid interview to a Croatian newsmagazine. Commander Arif Pasalic declared that the immediate objective of the Lasvanska campaign was to transform central Bosnia into a military-industrial bridgehead for nothing less than the complete liberation of BiH (Bosnia-Hercegovina) from foreign occupation. Indigenous Croat and Serb resistance to the Bosnian advance was trivialized as the work of Utashi or Cetnik terrorist bands with no legitimate claims worthy of consideration. To be fair to Izetbegovic, there remains no other option than a reciprocal ethnic cleansing if the object is to restore a greater Bosnia by military means. The predicament of this war for the Western left is that whichever side wins out, the victor will be forced to drive out the losers, who are sure to resist occupation, as the indigenous Croats did in Central Bosnia.

In any event, the Bosnian campaign not only failed but backfired calamitously. …

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