In his memoir, «War in the Balkans», (1) retired Portuguese general Carlos Martins Branco, who was during the conflict in the Former Yugoslavia in the strategically important post of Deputy Head of Mission of UN Military Observers in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina (1994-1996), recounts his knowledge of events that took place around Srebrenica in July of 1995.
In contrast to the fanciful tales of a bevy of dubious «experts», false witnesses, and outright propagandists, General Martins Branco reports facts as they were observed or collected by intelligence and other sources in the field. That information made its way through official channels to his desk in Zagreb, where the headquarters of the UN Observer Mission was located. Martins Branco’s facts and conclusions are hardly susceptible to off-hand dismissal. Excerpts cited below are on pages 201 – 206 of his memoir.
We will begin with the general’s conclusion challenging the received wisdom that Srebrenica was genocide and then work our way back from there:
«Had they entertained the specific intent to commit genocide, the Serbs would have blocked the enclave from all sides so that nobody could have managed to escape. Instead, they attacked from two directions, southeast and east, where they concentrated their assault forces, leaving open corridors for withdrawal toward the north and west (…) nor would they have planned the transportation of seventeen thousand women, children, and elderly, as occurred on July 12 and 13, which made it possible for about half the displaced persons to reach Federation territory. A great number of Srebrenica residents, who did manage to flee, found refuge in Serbia where they spent several years without being bothered by anyone. For the assertion of genocide to hold, it was necessary to conceal some inconvenient facts which were liable to compromise it».
Martins Branco does not deny that «the attack on Srebrenica resulted in many deaths». He notes, however, that «even after twenty years no one has managed to determine their number». (Actually, the Hague Tribunal has been attempting to make that determination but as a result of its lackadaisical efforts we now have, in various verdicts, five drastically varying figures the highest and the lowest separated by a gap of 4.000, all presumably reflecting the judicially ascertained number of executed victims.)
As «Srebrenica Historical Project» has been arguing for years, Martins Branco points out also a very important fact, namely the heterogeneity of the causes of death among the exhumed Srebrenica-related human remains. The author describes the forensic situation in the following terms:
«The causes of the deaths which occurred during and after military operations were various: combat between the two armies facing each other; combat between the Serbian forces and militants taking flight, who were joined by civilians; internecine warfare among fighters of the Bosnian army; and lastly executions of war prisoners».
As for the antecedents of the «magic figure of 8.000 missing (that was an initial Red Cross estimate) which ultimately morphed into an unchallengeable truth», the author says that at a certain point it became a «fact which it was forbidden to question, even before any proof was forthcoming». And he continues: «Woe unto him who would dare to challenge that incontrovertible truth. He will immediately be excommunicated and labeled a ‘genocide denier.’ The fact that 3.000 persons who had been declared missing found their way onto the voting rolls in the September 1996 elections had no impact whatsoever on the incessant repetition of the narrative about 8.000 dead. The media never expressed the slightest curiosity in the face of this and a number of other obvious incoherencies. It was easier to keep relentlessly repeating the genocide theory, which the mass media eagerly promoted. But regardless of the stubborn reassertion of that ‘truth’ it is worth recalling that between a media sound bite and a historical fact there continues to be a huge gap».
«How many prisoners were shot, and how many were killed in battle?», General Martins Branco raises one of the key questions. «We are quite far from having the answers, and I would say that we will have a difficult time ever finding them. It is much easier – and simpler – to talk about genocide».
The Portuguese officer nevertheless ventures to make some estimates of the possible number of war crime victims in Srebrenica in July of 1995:
«The execution by Serbian forces in Srebrenica and the environs of a considerable number of Muslim males – well informed sources cite the figure of 2.000 – among whom the majority were soldiers, was undoubtedly a war crime».
The number mentioned by Martins Branco is significant for a number of independent reasons. Firstly, because the same number of execution victims – 2.000 – is cited by another, no less respectable intelligence source, John Schindler, a high-ranking US intelligence officer who was stationed in Sarajevo contemporaneously with the Srebrenica events. Schindler’s assessment, made from his Sarajevo vantage point, is completely congruent with Martins Branco’s coming out of Zagreb. It was articulated in Ole Flyum’s documentary «Srebrenica: A Town Betrayed». (2) Both assessments match available forensic data to a T. And it should be borne in mind that when things happen to be rather muddled, as they are with Srebrenica, a synthesis of intelligence data deriving from various trustworthy sources should always be paid close attention. It often presents an overall picture that is far more reliable than the reports of isolated individuals, whose field of vision is often limited and who frequently are not even objective.
Finally, the figure jointly suggested by Martins Branco and Schindler, which the available material evidence fully supports, is of interest also for an additional reason. Within the various intelligence communities a rumor has persistently been making rounds alleging the existence of a document – a mysterious letter sent by Alija Izetbegovic to Naser Oric in the Spring of 1995, not long before the commencement of the Srebrenica operation – where it is supposedly reaffirmed that the offer of foreign intervention still stood, as well as the condition that the Bosnian Serb takeover of Srebrenica ought to be accompanied by mass slaughter. The key point in that alleged letter is that the number of victims that would satisfy the interventionist criterion of the interested foreign party would be the already familiar figure of – 2.000.
«However», our author continues, «that was not an act of genocide, as is asserted in many places, mainly by the Tribunal at The Hague, in the form of a political argument». As a civilized person he, of course, entirely agrees that «taking justice into one’s own hands, which is culturally characteristic not just of Serbs but of other communities of the Former Yugoslavia as well, does not justify or mitigate the gravity of the committed act. That was, beyond doubt, a violation of the Geneva Convention».
His main point, nevertheless, would seem to be that things definitively ought to be called by their proper name:
«Terrible war crimes must be punished. Yet these criminal acts cannot and should not be confused with genocide. When war crimes, such as the execution of hundreds of military age males, are conflated with genocide, where it is necessary to establish the intent to systematically eradicate members of an ethnic community, that sends a very frivolous signal. That is particularly evident if we bear in mind the fact that the party committing the crime had made available the means to transport seventeen thousand displaced persons, which is about fifty percent of the entire displaced population».
Martins Branco then turns his attention to another notable «incoherence» in the Srebrenica affair, which is that the «Tribunal has so far condemned but a single direct perpetrator» (in a footnote he clarifies that the reference is to Drazen Erdemovic, a perpetrator defendant-turned-prosecution-witness who was initially rewarded with a laughably insignificant three year sentence for signing a plea bargain agreement, followed by numerous benefits in return for his mechanically repeated and highly disputed testimony). (3) The Portuguese author stresses that «no one else was ever put in the dock for executing prisoners of war but, rather, based on ‘command responsibility’ or participation in a Joint Criminal Enterprise, which is the Tribunal’s favored doctrine but the application of which in such a conflict situation is highly dubious. How is it possible to claim genocide if, after twenty years, the Tribunal is incapable of determining the number of victims, the cause of death, and who killed them?»
All eminently logical questions. Martins Branco should perhaps also be given credit for this equally astute observation:
«The Tribunal has forgotten to concern itself with crimes committed around Srebrenica between 1992 and 1995 where the victims were Serbs, resulting in the murder of almost two thousand persons (males, females, children, and elderly), in some cases after acts of torture and other atrocities. For the most part this has been carefully documented, and the identity of the perpetrators is known (…) As Richard Holbrooke admitted in his book, ‘the Tribunal had always been a valuable political instrument of US policy». (4) Quite so, indeed.
And when talking about genocide, Martins Branco is not shy to draw a sharp contrast between the situation in Srebrenica in July of 1995 and what transpired in relatively close proximity barely a month later, in August, as Croatian armed forces went into attack mode:
«What happened in Srebrenica cannot and should not be equated to what happened a month later in the Krajina, where the Croatian army conducted an operation of systematic murder of the Serbian population which did not manage to find any shelter, sparing no one. Men, women, children, the elderly – all without distinction were subjected to the same atrocities, and things even worse. That operation was planned down to the last detail and was amply documented. The orders were issued by Tudjman to his generals, at a meeting in Brioni on July 31, 1995, on the eve of Operation Storm. The Tribunal never considered the events in Krajina as a possible genocide. Western media kept a careful distance from those events. Their silence was complicit and deafening».
Concluding his reminiscences, Martins Branco seems to harbor no doubt that Srebrenica was the perfidious fruit of long-term planning and parallel activity of various interested parties. In support of that, he cites evidence from Ibran Mustafic’s book «Planned Chaos», statements of local politician Zlatko Dukic, and revelations by Srebrenica enclave police chief during the conflict, Hakija Meholjic. The author singles out in particular the intriguing claim of the then chief of staff of the Bosnian army, Sefer Halilovic, that in fact Izetbegovic had made the decision to «discard» Srebrenica rather early in the game but was determined «to extract from it maximum political profit».
Incidentally, while considering what Meholjic and Halilovic had to say on the subject and the evidence that the event may have been conceived some time in advance, it is worth recalling Meholjic’s famous claim of Izetbegovic’s offer to allow the slaughter of Srebrenica’s residents in return for foreign intervention, Srebrenica later to be traded with the Serbs for the Sarajevo suburb of Vogosca. The episode, be it recalled, is alleged to have taken place in the Fall of 1993, when a Bosniak National Congress was being convened in Sarajevo. However, in his book «The Cunning Strategy» (5) Sefer Halilovic set forth some additional information on the subject that may be of possible significance. He claims that the idea of staging a Srebrenica massacre, in return for harvesting its political dividends, was most likely entertained in the minds of Alija Izetbegovic and the Bosnian leadership even before the Congress. It so happens that at the time of the book’s publication Halilovic was politically on the outs with Izetbegovic so perhaps his assertions should for that reason be taken with a grain of salt. The fact remains, however, for all it is worth, that according to Halilovic (who is alive and may be questioned concerning his statements) Izetbegovic had mentioned to him in the Spring of 1993 the supposed offer which several months later, towards the end of the year, was to shock Meholjic and the other members of the Srebrenica delegation in attendance at the Bosniak meeting.
General Carlos Martins Branco’s reflections about Srebrenica are a valuable piece of the mosaic, supplementing and improving our understanding of events. His book is not simply the notes of a strategically positioned foreign observer, but much more than that. It is, in a certain sense, a coming to terms with the politically obscured reality of the matter by institutions which the author – willingly and consciously, or not – nevertheless personifies. In considerable measure, it furnishes answers to such important questions as «what did they know and when did they find out». The clear subtext of Martins Branco’s memoir is that the author and the instances above and below him had the capability of following events in real time, that they pretty much knew who was doing what and to whom, and that on a deeper analytical level they have no illusions – not to speak of dilemmas – about the real nature and background of Srebrenica. After reading «War in the Balkans – Jihadism, Geopolitics, and Disinformation», it is difficult to imagine that the proverbial «powers that be» were in the dark about the cynical political agenda which Srebrenica has come to serve.
(1) A Guerra nos Balcãs, jihadismo, geopolítica e desinformação [War in the Balkans, Jihadism, Geopolitics, and Disinformation] Edições Colibri 2016.