Everyone loves an underdog, real or imagined, particularly if that under- xvii dog can be portrayed as the thoroughly innocent victim of sinister and numerous attackers following a premeditated plan of conquest and annihilation. Such a simplistic, Manichean explanation of complex events is both easy to construct and easy to understand. Thus, the portrayal of the Bosnian Muslims and the fledgling Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina (RBiH) as the blameless victims of both Bosnian Serb "Chetniks" and Bosnian Croat "Ustashas" during the devolution of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s has gained currency despite the patent inaccuracies and lack of sophistication of such a portrayal and the obvious efforts of the Muslimdominated RBiH government to concoct a sophisticated, wide-reaching, and ultimately successful propaganda campaign to paint their rivals, both Serb and Croat, as war criminals and themselves as the innocent victims. The acceptance of this manufactured myth by the international media and western governments has served to cover effectively the Bosnian Muslims' own sins of commission and omission.

While it is undoubtedly true that the ill-prepared Bosnian Muslims were the victims of a vicious attack by the Bosnian Serbs, the usual portrayal of them as innocent prey of their erstwhile Croat allies during the 1992-94 civil war in central Bosnia is far less accurate. In both the numerous media accounts and the plethora of testimony and decisions in the United Nations-sponsored war crimes trials in The Hague, the salient facts of the Muslim-Croat conflict in central Bosnia have been distorted thoroughly by the ideological, political, social, and personal agendas of various government leaders, journalists, war crimes prosecutors and witnesses, and other observers—few of whom were properly equipped or inclined to analyze and report the facts of the matter accurately, thoroughly, or outside the commonly accepted but faulty framework of a story in which the Bosnian Muslims appear to be the victims of overwhelming forces intent on their destruction.

Grounded in the myth of the Bosnian Muslim community as underdog, most existing versions of the story portray the Bosnian Croats as having waged, at the behest of Croatian president Franjo Tudjman, a campaign of unprovoked military aggression against the innocent and unsuspecting Muslims for the purpose of "ethnically cleansing" central Bosnia as a first step toward its annexation by the Republic of Croatia. Convincing evidence to support such far-reaching assertions has yet to be made public, although those who promote such a version of events have repeated their assumptions and assertions loudly and frequently. The question of political or ideological bias aside, this version of what happened suffers from having been cobbled together hastily either by participants in the events, who were seldom in the best position to observe their overall pattern with a critical eye and who were committed to one cause or another; by commentators far removed from the scene and thus in an even weaker position to discern what actually occurred; by prosecutors desperate to find a basis for their charges; or by witnesses seeking revenge for injuries both real and imagined. In fact, what many commentators allege were planned and sinister actions by the Croats in central Bosnia frequently turn out, on closer examination, to have been accidental or the result of a misinterpretation based on faulty assumptions, ignorance, biased witnesses, and pure speculation.

The obvious question is why so many presumably intelligent and experienced observers, as well as many of the actual participants in the events, have been taken in by the myth of the Bosnian Muslims as underdogs. The answer is quite clear and rather prosaic. One of the most basic rules adhered to by historians—indeed, by police detectives and others who seek to reconstruct past events—is that the number of interpretations of what, when, how, and why something happened usually exceeds the number of witnesses. Each participant in an event brings to it certain preset patterns of thought, biases, and propensities, and each participant has a different level of experience and skill to help him make sense of the scene. Then, too, each observer makes his observations from a slightly different viewpoint, and no one observer is likely to have all of the facts at his disposal. This Rashomon effect—the acknowledged curse of historians—is well known, so it is somewhat surprising that so many observers of the events in Bosnia-Herzegovina appear to have abandoned all sense of skepticism and critical thought and instead chosen to rely on hearsay, propaganda, rumors, and speculation as the bases for their stories of how the Muslim-Croat conflict arose, how it progressed, and what it implied.

A number of factors disposed the United Nations, western governments and diplomats, journalists, war crimes prosecutors, and others to accept an interpretation of events favorable to the Bosnian Muslims. For the governments of the European Community—and to a lesser degree of the United States—historical biases and contemporary national interests played a major role. Residual distrust and hatred of the Croats stemming from their alliance with Nazi Germany during the Second World War—the fact that the Bosnian Muslims also cooperated actively with the Nazis notwithstanding—colored the attitudes of the principal western European governments and their representatives on the ground in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Persian Gulf War of 1990-91 and the continuing need to court Islamic states in the Middle East made it expedient to appear pro-Muslim, the more so in that several of the European Community states, notably France, Germany, and the Netherlands, had substantial and often restive Muslim minorities at home and lucrative trade relationships with Muslims abroad.

Such considerations also influenced journalists and other observers covering the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, although the practical day-to-day aspects of covering their beat and the usual dynamics of contemporary media competition probably played a greater role. Most of the journalists covering the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina were focused on Sarajevo and the besieged cities in eastern Bosnia-Herzegovina (Srbrenica, Goradze, and so forth). They normally entered the country through Sarajevo and were reliant on the Muslim-led central government, United Nations agencies, or nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) for information, transport, interpreter services, and other necessary support. Consequently, there was a tendency for them to see and hear only what the Bosnian government wanted them to see and hear. In any event, the competitive nature of contemporary journalism reinforced their natural propensity to opt for the most striking and titillating version of events and to ignore the very concrete, but often complex and dull, reasons for the military conflict between Croats and Muslims in central Bosnia: the struggle for control of military production facilities and lines of communication in the region, as well as the need to resettle the large number of Muslim refugees created by the Bosnian Serb aggression.

The military aspects of the Muslim-Croat conflict in particular have been misrepresented in the international media and before the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY). The military organization, capabilities, and strategies of the opposing sides—as well as their intentions and the course of military operations in central Bosnia between November, 1992, and March, 1994—can be made clear only by a detailed and unbiased analysis of the conflicting evidence and commentary. Such careful analysis is made more difficult by the selective nature of the factual data made public by the United Nations and the governments concerned, all of which have national interests to protect. The massive amount of uncritical and largely anecdotal commentary in the popular press and in books by journalists and participants in the events described is also of little use in finding the truth because of their own biases and because the bulk of such material does not address the military aspects of the Muslim-Croat conflict in any substantial way.

A correct assessment of the Muslim-Croat civil war in central Bosnia requires an unbiased consideration of the facts, the rejection of unwarranted conjecture, and the determination of what patterns, if any, can be imputed to the events. The following brief military history of the Muslim-Croat civil war in central Bosnia attempts to provide such an assessment, and in doing so differs in many significant respects from the accepted version of the story based on the myth portraying Bosnian Muslims as the victims of unprovoked aggression by their Bosnian Croat allies. In the first instance, this study rejects the distorted, counterfactual, and anecdotal evidence that underlies the underdog myth in favor of documentary evidence and direct participant testimony as to the events in question. Secondly, this analysis focuses on the military aspects of the story to the exclusion of its political, diplomatic, and sociological dimensions. It also concentrates on the Muslim-Croat conflict in central Bosnia to the exclusion of events elsewhere in the region. The focus is thus primarily on events in the Lasva, Kozica, and Lepenica Valleys—wherein are the major towns of Travnik, Novi Travnik, Vitez, Busovaca, and Kiseljak—and the mountainous regions to the immediate north and south, an area that generally corresponds to the assigned boundaries of the Croatian Defense Council (HVO), Operative Zone Central Bosnia (OZCB), and the Army of Bosnia-Herzegovina's (ABiH) III Corps. However, it should be noted that the much larger III Corps's southern boundary incorporated the towns of Bugojno, Gornji Vakuf, and Konjic, which were not part of the OZCB—a fact that has caused considerable confusion among commentators. Accordingly, events in comparatively distant areas, although technically under the purview of the OZCB commander, are not developed in detail except insofar as they directly affect events in the Lasva-Kozica-Lepenica Valley enclave. In any event, those outlying areas (Zepce, Kakanj, Visoko, Vares, and Sarajevo) were isolated from the OZCB commander's command and control by virtue of their physical isolation and the inadequate telephone and radio communications available. Similarly, the key towns on central Bosnia's border with Herzegovina (notably Kupres, Jablanica, Prozor, Bugojno, Gornji Vakuf, and Konjic) as well the Mostar region, which were under other HVO commands, figure in this narrative only insofar as they directly affected events in central Bosnia. Thus, the intense Muslim-Croat fight for Mostar is generally excluded, as are events in the far north of the country.

The restriction of this study to a narrow focus on central Bosnia as defined above is also required by a more important consideration. There was a substantial difference in the Muslim-Croat conflict in central Bosnia and elsewhere. The Muslim-Croat civil war in central Bosnia was unique with respect to ends, means, and methods. What may have been true of the conflict in Herzegovina was not necessarily true of the conflict in central Bosnia, especially with respect to the motives and goals of the two sides, the resources available, or the involvement of outside forces. Neither the HVO nor the ABiH were totally integrated monolithic structures, and one cannot simply assert that attitudes and actions common to HVO leaders in Mostar were reflected unaltered by HVO leaders in Vitez or Busovaca. Similarly, the attitudes and actions of the ABiH's III Corps leaders in Zenica were not necessarily the same as those of Bosnian government leaders in Sarajevo. Moreover, the resources available to the OZCB commander were severely restricted compared to those available to the HVO commanders in Herzegovina, just as the operational situation was far different. Facile interpolations based on the situation in Herzegovina are thus very misleading and should be avoided. In the end, the Muslim-Croat civil war in central Bosnia must be judged on its own terms.

The reader familiar with the Bosnian-Croat-Serb (BCS) language will notice, too, that I have not included the usual diacritical marks to indicate the special phonetic value of certain letters in place and proper names or in the words in the very few BCS phrases included in this volume. The decision to omit such marks in the text was dictated by several factors including the inconsistency of the sources, particularly the English translations prepared by the staff of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia; my own imperfect knowledge of the BCS language; and editorial economy and simplicity. I believe the omission of the usual BCS diacritical marks will cause no problems as most English readers are familiar with the unmarked forms of the places and persons named and unfamiliar with the proper values associated with the various diacritical marks.

The complexity of events, the nature of the available sources, and the usual problems of reconstructing and interpreting the past guarantee that even the most conscientious historian is sure to make errors of both omission and commission. Such errors as may be found here are mine alone. They would have been far more numerous without the generous assistance and helpful comments of my friends and colleagues, among whom I wish to thank particularly Turner Smith Jr., Steve Sayers, Mitko Nau-movski, Bob Stein, Chris Browning, Barbara Novosel, Ksenija Turkovic, Bruno Gencarelli, Stjepan Mestrovic, Jim Sadkovich, Milan Gorjanc, and Miles Raguz. Special thanks are due to Bill Nelson who drew the maps. I am particularly indebted to Zeljana Zovko, Joanne Moore of the ICTY Public Information Service, and Kevin O'Sullivan of AP/Wide World Photos for their assistance in finding the photographs used to illustrate the text. I am also grateful for the cheerful assistance of Denis Bajs, Jadranka Berkec, Teri Dabney, Sonja Domjan, Tristan Kime, Ivica Kustura, Goran Selanec, and Erica Zlomislic. As always, my wife Carole deserves commendation for enduring my prolonged absences, both physical and mental, during the preparation of this study.

The Muslim-Croat Civil War in Central Bosnia

Was this article helpful?

0 0

Post a comment