DID YOU KNOW?  -- Three years before the 1995 Srebrenica Genocide, Serbs torched Bosniak villages and killed at least 3,166 Bosniaks around Srebrenica. In 1993, the UN described the besieged situation in Srebrenica as a "slow-motion process of genocide." In July 1995, Serbs forcibly expelled 25,000 Bosniaks, brutally raped many women and girls, and systematically killed 8,000+ men and boys (DNA confirmed).

11 April, 2010


The following interview appeared on the web site of the Institute for the
Research of Genocide, Canada (
IRGC). The interview was made in 1997.
Republished with permission.

The next phase of your career focused on the collapse of Yugoslavia and the Bosnian war, which led to your reports for Newsday on that struggle, for which you won the Pulitzer Prize. You published a collection of your pieces called A Witness to Genocide. How did the Bosnia story come about? You had been in Yugoslavia. You wound up there again? Or were you on special assignment?

Well, one little bridge there. In 1989 the newspaper asked me to go to Europe. Maybe they finally read my memo. Or probably didn’t. I had learned German. I had this idea (this was part of my obsession from college) that German was an important language, that Germany was the center of Europe, and that if I wanted to know Eastern Europe I really should know German and Germany. So one of my editors, for some reason unknown (and I doubt that it was my memo) said, “We need to open our office in Germany,” and they asked me. He was there in 1989 for a conference and he asked, “Would you go?” And I had said “No.” I said, “I know what’s coming and this is not a job for a married man.” But my wife finally agreed and we set up. We covered, basically, the revolutions in the east. Now I hadn’t been back to Yugoslavia since 1975, except in 1991 at the end of the Gulf War (which I was covering for the paper when I was based in Germany), when an editor called and said, “What’s going on in Yugoslavia?” I called some friends from 15 years earlier and they said, “You’d better come here and look for yourself.” They couldn’t tell me. So I called the editor and said, “I can’t do a story off the top of my head, I’d better go and investigate.” Well, I went there and I still couldn’t figure it out.

This would have been what year?

This was ‘91.

Tito was dead?

Tito died in 1980, and Milosevic, the Serbian leader, came to power in 1987. They say that he was the first man who recognized the fact that Tito really had died, and started acting on that basis. The nationalist movement was already started; he took the reins in his hands from about 1987. So in 1991, Serb nationalism had developed to a very great extent, but so had Croatian nationalism and so had Slovenian nationalism. Each of the republics of what was then Yugoslavia had its own complete set of politics and dynamics.

So I went around from one republic to another; I went to Bosnia. Bosnia was a combination of Serbs, Croats, and Muslims with nobody having the majority, the Muslims being the largest of the groups. Bosnia, therefore, had a special dynamic which was three times as complicated as any other republic. So I went and I toured the place. At one point I went to Knin in Krajina, which is in the Serb part of Croatia. I took a taxi from Sarajevo and I went up there. Men were blocking the roads with logs, and I thought “This is a sign of war.” Why do I say that? Because those roads were the key for Croatia to link the Zagoria part in Central Europe with the Dalmatian part of Croatia on the Adriatic. But it was so hard to tell the story. Then the war started up in June of ‘91, and for the entire rest of 1991 I tried, as a reporter, to cover the story of the war between Serbia and Croatia. But there was very little interest in the United States.

We should explain that with Tito’s death and the fall of communism, the iron fist and the ideology that was the glue holding the country together fell apart, and the regions and the different nationalities then began to be concerned about their own futures. The Serbs came to dominate what was the old Yugoslav Federation and the armed forces there. They then began to take actions in the name of Serbian nationalism, which then led various regions to declare themselves independent. The Europeans recognized Croatia and Slovenia and then, in essence, the war began. If that’s a short, fair summary.

Thank you, that spares me. Bosnia was the problem case because it combined all the nationalities. It was in the center of the country. They couldn’t easily declare independence because a third of the population was Serb, but they couldn’t stay with Serbia. By this time, by 1992, Croatia and Slovenia had separated. Bosnia couldn’t stay with Serbia because the Serbs would dominate non-Serbs in Bosnia, and this was not just Serbs, this was extreme nationalist Serbs who had kind of a übermensch mentality that “We are the bosses and we’re going to run everybody else.” So that was also intolerable.

Your book is called Witness to Genocide. Just briefly enumerate the kinds of atrocities that you began to uncover in your dispatches to Newsday.

Concentration camps. Rape camps where women were held and raped, systematically and for a very long time. Sometimes two or three months. The destruction of the culture. Attacks on mosques — destruction of every mosque in the country — on schools, libraries, as well as the normal destruction in war. Attacks on refugees. Have I left anything out? Those are the kinds of things. These are crimes, defined under international conventions, crimes against humanity or war crimes.

In Bosnia, their problem was that they couldn’t really be independent and they also couldn’t stay with Serbia. So what do they do? They turned to the European community and asked, “Would you guide us? If we make a decision would you support it?” So the European community came up with a process which recommended that they hold a referendum. It’s a very European solution. They used to do this after World War I as well, which led straight into war. So they held a referendum and roughly 66 percent of Bosnians voted for independence. The Serbs all boycotted, the 33 percent. The outcome was that the moment they were recognized by the European Community and by the United States, April 6th or 8th of 1992, was the moment that the Serbs started shooting at Sarajevo and attacking cities up and down the Drina Valley.

So you were suddenly the eye witness to the destruction of the civilizing idea of Europe, in a way. All of the lessons learned at the end of World War II were being unlearned right before your eyes.

Well, first of all I wasn’t there in April. I was there in March when they had the referendum. Just by coincidence I was in the region and I went in for the day. Frankly, there was so little interest in the Croatian war and the Bosnian war at the beginning that those of us who thought that this was the most important thing happening in Europe, because I came to that conclusion during the Croatian war, were frustrated that nobody wanted the story. It was not just my newspaper but the American press in general. So it was a very frustrating time. When the Bosnian war started, same thing. I could hardly interest them. But by the summer of 1992 people could see, just from the siege of Sarajevo alone, that the people meant something. The Serbs, in attacking a capital and burning down a library for example, this really was no holds barred.

So I went back, and by accident to a good degree, I wound up going to north Bosnia, to Banja Luka. It’s the mainly Serb city in the north. It’s a place where there was no war. But I knew, because I had already made this tour the previous year and I was very familiar with the thinking there, that this was going to be the place where the intellectual authors of the war were going to operate. Now it wasn’t quite right; I may have gone there for the wrong reasons. I called somebody there and I said, “What’s going on? I heard that there’s ethnic cleansing.” I didn’t even know what the term really meant, nobody did. The man I called was a Muslim who was the head of the Muslim Party of Democratic Action and he said, “Please, in the name of God, come here. There are terrible things going on. People are being deported in cattle cars. There are other things.” He didn’t mention the camps. When somebody says that to you, if you can go safely, or you hope with safety, you just get on the next bus. The road opened up, and the buses were just starting up. I was on the first bus into Banja Luka. I discovered these things — well, “discovered” them — !

The Muslims and the Croats gave me their side of the story. Together they were maybe not quite 50 percent of the population; the Serbs had the majority, I think, in Banja Luka. Then I went to the authorities and I asked them what was going on. And then I went back to the people who were being victimized, and back and forth. Finally I determined it was true, that these cattle-car deportations were going on. Then the next thing I heard about was camps. So I went to the authorities and said, “I’ve heard some terrible things about camps, can you take me to these camps?” And they said, “Yeah, okay. You’re the first visitor. We’re happy to have you and we’ll take you.” They asked which one did I want to go to, and I said Omarska, and they thought about it and said that maybe they could do it. But they didn’t take me there.

These were old mines, iron mines?

In this case, Omarska is an iron ore mine.

Did you feel a moral outrage as you saw this and began reporting it?

You know, outrage is sort of the wrong word. I would say white rage. But a totally contained rage. If you wind up in the middle of something like that and you have a tip that it’s true, you check it out, you go back and forth, you convince yourself that it’s true. Your number one concern on earth is getting the full story, getting out of there, and getting the story out. You don’t have time for emotions. You really just simply concentrate on what you’re doing.

Now they didn’t take me to Omarska. They took me to a place called Manjaca, the day the Red Cross was visiting. I had a photographer along, a brilliant guy, and he managed, despite the fact that he had men with dogs on him, he was surrounded all the time, to get some superb photographs which just showed the degradation that they were subjecting Muslim prisoners to. So his pictures plus my story, it was powerful stuff. And frankly, I didn’t have time for emotions. I just wanted to get the story out, that was my only concern, you know: I’ve gotten this story out, what’s the next story? Well the next story was Omarska, because I said to them, “Now would you take me to Omarska?” They said, “Maybe we will,” and then they changed their minds and said, “No, we can’t guarantee your safety.” So I started collecting stories on Omarska, both while I was there in Banja Luka and after I went to Zagreb when I found refugees. In other words, I just got very determined.

Belated International Response

As the story began to emerge, the most remarkable thing was the non-response of the great powers, both the U.S. in the Bush and Clinton administrations, and the Europeans. How do you account for that, once the story was out, the images were out, and it was very clear what was going on?

I was in the field then so I had hardly a clue, but I did know something even then. I knew that if I was coming upon this and I was discovering and researching it and I was trying to beat the drum, then clearly they had made a decision in advance to close their eyes in Washington. In fact, after my first visit to Banja Luka, I did a story about Omarska, even though I hadn’t visited it, based on second-hand information, and I labeled it as such. Because I felt, “My God, here I am, I’m the first person here, I’m convinced this is true. I’ve proven every other element of the story that I heard, here’s the one I can’t prove because I can’t go there. But boy it sure raises big questions.” Then we sent it around the Bush administration. My colleagues from Newsday in Washington got it to the Secretary of State himself, because my colleague was on his plane. They got it to the CIA, to the White House, members of Congress. I called. I sent it everywhere. Two weeks later, nobody ever called me back.

So that was evidence that they didn’t care. Why didn’t they care?

The only thing I can think of is that we were in a new era. In the Cold War era, Yugoslavia was a place of strategic contest between the United States and the Soviet Union. And post – Cold War, I think they felt it didn’t matter, that it would have to find its own way, that they’d have a revolution in time and good for them. That’s one reason.

Another reason is that the Serbs really did appear, especially on paper, to have such superiority that they were going to take it quickly, and it would be over with. That we could close our eyes and in a blink it would be over. It was a total misconception by the Americans, by the Serbs, and by everybody. In fact, the Serbs went to Yazov, the Russian Defense Minister, and they asked him before or midway through the Croatian war, “Will the West intervene?” Yazov went to (I’m not sure if it was Cheney or whoever was the American at that time) and asked, “What are you going to do?” He got an assurance that the Americans were going to do nothing. In other words, they had a green light at that point.

Now, why did they decide not to do anything? As I say, one reason is the end of the Cold War, the other is that there is, among the American military to this day, a fear that getting involved in a war in a country that has mountains (“We do deserts, we don’t do mountains,” that’s what Colin Powell said), getting involved in a war like that is a quagmire, that no matter what’s happening, it’s Vietnam all over again. So when Bush asked for military advice as these things were going on, he was told by Colin Powell, “400,000 troops, 10 years, and we’ll never get out of there.” I mean an absolute exaggeration, a total misreading of the politics. Almost willful ignorance of the facts.

Bush was also not somebody who eagerly sent men into battle. You know, in the Iraq war, where there was every justification from the American national interest perspective to go in, Margaret Thatcher said she had to convince him. She said George was going wobbly.

The final reason is this was an election year. Bush felt, I suppose with some reason, that getting involved in a military exploit where you don’t quite know what the hell is going on (I mean it was confusing), was not a great idea. But the real truth is that if they had done all their homework, if they had tasked the CIA, the intelligence agencies in general, the State Department, and said, “Use all your resources to find out what’s going on; not that we want to get involved but we want to be on top of this in case we ever should,” they would have figured out, as I did, that genocide was going on. But I think that for political reasons they didn’t do that.

Okay, that’s the explanation at one level, the level of the great powers. Is it possible to help us understand what was going on on the ground? What was driving the Serbs and these peoples as they turned on each other? Well, partly the Croats and the Bosnians were defending themselves against the Serbs. But was this a surprise to you? And what explains the ferocity, the emergence of evil in a sense, in this new, post – Cold War context?

Well I came away thinking that it basically had a strategic military content at its heart, which was that in the Croatia war the previous year, the Serbs had taken control of a large section of Croatia, called Krajina, with the capital of Knin. But they had no secure military strategic route to reach it from Serbia. And they needed it because this was really far away, a couple hundred miles away.

And they were concerned about protecting Serbs in that region.

Yes, those Serbs who had now declared their independence of Croatia and were running an absolute militant state. So the army very easily could talk itself into carving a corridor, especially after Bosnia declared independence, across northern Bosnia to link up Belgrade with Banja Luka and Knin. I learned that they were going to do this the previous year, five months before the war broke out. I just went to Banja Luka, I got briefed by the Serbs there, and they said, “We’re probably going to need this territory.” I said, “Wait a minute, this is populated (as far as I knew) by non-Serbs, predominately Muslims and Croats. How are you going to do it? This means war. This means total war.” And the mayor of Banja Luka said to me, “Well, not if everybody’s clever.” He really didn’t have an answer. Well it was total war. And that’s where the ethnic cleansing (a euphemism for genocide) basically began. It was along that corridor. That’s where the concentration camps were set up. Everywhere along there. In places where there was fighting, like in Brcko, in places where there was no fighting, like Banja Luka. And the killing, the raping, it all went on all along that corridor. So start with the military concept, and that helps you explain how it starts. Then you have to look at what happened once they did that. There was no resistance, the Bosnians were not at all prepared. The Serbs saw that they could roll over the country. What does a military do when it discovers that? It carries on and they expand their territory. Very quickly they had two-thirds of the country. They were going for Sarajevo. They were basically going for broke. So that is my understanding. What amazes me is that I figured this out as a journalist just by looking at the map and using logic. The American government, for the longest time, didn’t seem to recognize this.

So it sounds like “see no evil, hear no evil,” I don’t know about “speak no evil” in this particular case because the politicians were making promises about what we would do, or threatening to do things, at least during the campaign, which they didn’t do anything about.

Let me tell you something. The most amazing thing to me was, when I wrote my story about Omarska and I hadn’t been there, I had two witnesses whom I found in Zagreb. One had been from Omarska, one had been at the Luka camp at the port in Brcko. And they told their stories. I spent more than a week searching for refugees. They told their stories in a convincing way. The newspaper put the headline “Death Camps” on the story and it’s justified because of the killing there. It had a thunderclap effect. It had an effect in Bosnia. It had an effect in Europe. It had an effect in the United States. And the effect in Bosnia was that the Serbs closed down the camps, and actually people were freed. It’s the most amazing thing ever. In Europe it just sort of stunned people, but nobody knew what to do. The European intelligence services may or may not have had this information. They should have had it from refugees. They really should have. It’s unbelievable that they didn’t have the same information I did.

Somebody at the State Department heard me speak on NPR the afternoon after the story appeared and looked up the files and discovered that they had something on it, and the next day the State Department confirmed the story. And this was another headline. Then the smart guys on the seventh floor as they say, where the Secretary of State is, looked at this and said, “We’ve just confirmed something, people are going to ask us where have you been all this time? Why are you confirming a news report? We are the United States of America.” And so the next day they retracted it. “We were overtaken by events. This statement is inoperative.” And then back and forth, back and forth. Finally weeks later they said they asked the CIA to look up all the information and the CIA said they didn’t have anything on it because they hadn’t been questioning refugees. Then some people quit in the State Department in protest, a guy named George Kenney, over the fact that they weren’t even searching. And then they started interviewing refugees and about three months later they confirmed the damn thing. I didn’t feel good about this at all.

Conclusion: Norms and Values

I hear a common link between our discussion of the Cold War and your discussion now, and that is that norms and values matter. That the Helsinki process, surprisingly, represented the institutionalization of human rights in Eastern Europe, and that maybe on the American side we didn’t realize that. Now I hear you saying that values and human rights norms mattered, and obviously that was what was driving you, but there was a political indifference both in Washington and in Europe. So there is a common link. I guess one of your concerns now is to see that those norms are understood by recording the story so that this doesn’t happen again.

You know, you don’t necessarily know what your norms are or your values are. You try them out in different circumstances and you discover them. But anybody in the postwar generation will feel that the Holocaust was supposed to be a one-time event, that it could not happen again, that it should not happen in Europe, that we couldn’t let this sort of thing go on, and that if we the reporters don’t report it then it could go on. So we all have this obligation. It goes without saying in a way. Crime, massive crimes by states, upset the world environment. Besides the crime itself and the victims, look what it does to world order.

But here we are in a new era where nobody knew what the order was. George Bush talked about the “new world order,” but there was no world order. So I guess through the coverage of these crimes I began to think that war crimes is really a very important category of events and that we ought to know more about it. I never used the term in any of my coverage, “war crimes.” I didn’t use the word “genocide” in my coverage, ever. My editors were real sticklers. We have to have a source for every statement, every judgment. When I came to do the book I put together my articles and I thought about what had I been through here. What does it add up to? And it added up to genocide. So I’m now trying, with the help of colleagues, to look at this question of what is a war crime. Can we as journalists cover it without naming it? Would it help if we knew the definition under international law, so that at least we could guide the public by saying “The Geneva Conventions say that if you destroy a mosque, unless it’s being used for attack on a military force, that’s a war crime.” I didn’t know that at the time, and I think we could benefit from that knowledge.

The norms are not out there, in the sense that our governments are not telling us what they are, and yet here’s a preexisting set of norms, international treaties and conventions. We the press have a need, we the media have a need, to find some norm to refer the public and ourselves to so that we know what we’re reporting. Maybe there’s something we should be doing.

One final question. How would you advise a would-be journalist starting out to prepare for covering this new world?

Good luck. I think area studies is probably one important way to go. You’ve got to master European history. There is no other way. You must know where we came from, or how we have our system. It doesn’t have to be the Middle Ages, it doesn’t have to be the Magna Carta, but at least modern European history through this Helsinki process. Get that down. You’ll have a sense of norms, let us say. Then focus on regions. Look for one region that you think will be important in five or ten years, where you can make your mark. Learn the languages and then be prepared. Realize the limits of journalism but go back to your stories again and again. Just keep at it. You know, everybody has these chances. They come to you as a journalist when you least expect it. But you’ll be ready then.

Mr. Gutman, thank you very much for being here today and for this fascinating account of your Cold War beat and then the Bosnia beat for which you won the Pulitzer Prize. Thank you very much, and thank YOU very much for joining us for this “Conversation with History.”