"A Problem From Hell": America and the Age of Genocide

Samantha Power / Reader Supported News

"EDITOR'S NOTE: As reports of genocidal acts being committed by Russian forces in Ukraine mount, it seems like an appropriate time to take another look at Samantha Power’s 2013 haunting examination of the genocides that shocked and shaped the world as we know it today: "A Problem From Hell": America and the Age of Genocide.

What follows is an excerpt from the book’s preface."

My introduction to Sidbela Zimic, a nine-year-old Sarajevan, came unexpectedly one Sunday in June 1995. Several hours after hearing the familiar whistle and crash of a nearby shell, I traveled a few blocks to one of the neighborhood’s once-formidable apartment houses. Its battered façade bore the signature pockmarks left from three years of shrapnel spray and gunfire. The building lacked windows, electricity, gas, and water. It was uninhabitable to all but Sarajevo’s proud residents, who had no place else to go. Sidbela’s teenage sister was standing not far from the entrance to the apartment, dazed. A shallow pool of crimson lay beside her on the playground, where one blue slipper, two red slippers, and a jump rope with ice-cream-cone handles had been cast down. Bosnian police had covered the reddened spot of pavement with plastic wrapping that bore the cheery baby blue and white emblem of the United Nations.

Sidbela had been known in the neighborhood for her bookishness and her many “Miss” pageants. She and her playmates made the best of a childhood that constrained movement, crowning “Miss Apartment Building,” “Miss Street Corner,” and “Miss Neighborhood.” On that still morning, Sidbela had begged her mother for five minutes of fresh air.

Mrs. Zimic was torn. A year and a half before, in February 1994, just two blocks from the family’s home, a shell had landed in the main downtown market, tearing sixty-eight shoppers and vendors to bits. The graphic images from this massacre generated widespread American sympathy and galvanized President Bill Clinton and his NATO allies. They issued an unprecedented ultimatum, in which they threatened massive air strikes against the Bosnian Serbs if they resumed their bombardment of Sarajevo or continued what Clinton described as the “murder of innocents.”

“No one should doubt NATO’s resolve,” Clinton warned. “Anyone,” he said, repeating the word for effect, “anyone shelling Sarajevo must . . . be prepared to deal with the consequences.”1 In response to America’s perceived commitment, Sarajevo’s 280,000 residents gradually adjusted to life under NATO’s imperfect but protective umbrella. After a few cautious months, they began trickling outside, strolling along the Miljacka River and rebuilding cafes with outdoor terraces. Young boys and girls bounded out of dank cellars and out of their parents’ lines of vision to rediscover outdoor sports. Tasting childhood, they became greedy for sunlight and play. Their parents thanked the United States and heaped praise upon Americans who visited the Bosnian capital.

But American resolve soon wilted. Saving Bosnian lives was not deemed worth risking U.S. soldiers or challenging America’s European allies who wanted to remain neutral. Clinton and his team shifted from the language of genocide to that of “tragedy” and “civil war,” downplaying public expectations that there was anything the United States could do. Secretary of State Warren Christopher had never been enthusiastic about U.S. involvement in the Balkans. He had long appealed to context to ease the moral discomfort that arose from America’s nonintervention. “It’s really a tragic problem,” Christopher said. “The hatred between all three groups—the Bosnians and the Serbs and the Croatians—is almost unbelievable. It’s almost terrifying, and it’s centuries old. That really is a problem from hell.”2 Within months of the market massacre, Clinton had adopted this mindset, treating Bosnia as his problem from hell—a problem he hoped would burn itself out, disappear from the front pages, and leave his presidency alone.

Serb nationalists took their cue. They understood that they were free to resume shelling Sarajevo and other Bosnian towns crammed with civilians. Parents were left battling their children and groping for inducements that might keep them indoors. Sidbela’s father remembered, “I converted the washroom into a playroom. I bought the children Barbie dolls, Barbie cars, everything, just to keep them inside.” But his precocious daughter had her way, pressing, “Daddy, please let me live my life. I can’t stay at home all the time.”

America’s promises, which Serb gunners took seriously at first, bought Sarajevans a brief reprieve. But they also raised expectations among Bosnians that they were safe to live again. As it turned out, the brutality of Serb political, military, and paramilitary leaders would be met with condemnation but not with the promised military intervention.

On June 25, 1995, minutes after Sidbela kissed her mother on the cheek and flashed a triumphant smile, a Serb shell crashed into the playground where she, eleven-year-old Amina Pajevic, twelve-year-old Liljana Janjic, and five-year-old Maja Skoric were jumping rope. All were killed, raising the total number of children slaughtered in Bosnian territory during the war from 16,767 to 16,771.

If any event could have prepared a person to imagine evil, it should have been this one. I had been reporting from Bosnia for nearly two years at the time of the playground massacre. I had long since given up hope that the NATO jets that roared overhead every day would bomb the Serbs into ceasing their artillery assault on the besieged capital. And I had come to expect only the worst for Muslim civilians scattered throughout the country.

Yet when Bosnian Serb forces began attacking the so-called “safe area” of Srebrenica on July 6, 1995, ten days after I visited the grieving Zimic family, I was not especially alarmed. I thought that even the Bosnian Serbs would not dare to seize a patch of land under UN guard. On the evening of July 10, I casually dropped by the Associated Press house, which had become my adopted home for the summer because of its spirited reporters and its functional generator. When I arrived that night, I received a jolt. There was complete chaos around the phones. The Serb attack on Srebrenica that had been “deteriorating” for several days had suddenly “gone to hell.” The Serbs were poised to take the town, and they had issued an ultimatum, demanding that the UN peacekeepers there surrender their weapons and equipment or face a barrage of shelling. Some 40,000 Muslim men, women, and children were in grave danger.

Although I had been slow to grasp the magnitude of the offensive, it was not too late to meet my American deadlines. A morning story in the Washington Post might shame U.S. policymakers into responding. So frantic were the other correspondents that it took me fifteen minutes to secure a free phone line. When I did, I reached Ed Cody, the Post’s deputy foreign editor. I knew American readers had tired of bad news from the Balkans, but the stakes of this particular attack seemed colossal. Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic was not dabbling or using a petty landgrab to send a political signal; he was taking a huge chunk of internationally “protected” territory and challenging the world to stop him. I began spewing the facts to Cody as I understood them: “The Serbs are closing in on the Srebrenica safe area. The UN says tens of thousands of Muslim refugees have already poured into their base north of the town center. It’s only a matter of hours before the Serbs take the whole pocket. This is a catastrophe in the making. A United Nations safe area is going to fall.” A new contributor to the Post, I had been advised that Cody, a veteran of carnage in the Middle East, would not be one to get easily rattled. In this instance he heard me out and then posed a few incisive questions—questions that led me to believe he had understood the severity of the crisis unfolding. Then he stunned me: “Well, from what you are telling me, even if things proceed, the Serbs are not going to take the town tonight.” I grimaced in anticipation of his next sentence, which duly followed. “It sounds like when Srebrenica falls, we’ll have a story.”

I protested, but not strenuously. I was half sure the Serbs would back down and was reluctant to cry wolf. By the following afternoon, however, Srebrenica had fallen, and the petrified inhabitants of the enclave were in the hands of General Mladic, a suspected war criminal known to have orchestrated the savage siege of Sarajevo.

I had worked in Sarajevo, where Serb snipers took target practice on bundled old ladies hauling canisters of filthy water across town and where picturesque parks had been transformed into cemeteries to accommodate the deluge of young arrivals. I had interviewed emaciated men who had dropped forty and fifty pounds and who bore permanent scars from their time in Serb concentration camps. And I had only recently covered the massacre of four schoolgirls. Yet despite my experiences, or perhaps because of them, I could only imagine what I had already witnessed. It never dawned on me that General Mladic would or could systematically execute every last Muslim man and boy in his custody.

A few days after Srebrenica fell, a colleague of mine telephoned from New York and said the Bosnian ambassador to the UN was claiming that the Bosnian Serbs had murdered more than 1,000 Muslim men from Srebrenica in a football stadium. It was not possible. “No,” I said simply. My friend repeated the charge. “No,” I said again, determined. I was right. Mladic did not execute 1,000 men. He killed more than 7,000.

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