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Hidden side of the Yugoslav war

The pictures they don't want you to see

The British government has banned an exhibition of photographs showing atrocities committed against Serbs in the civil war in the former Yugoslavia. Living Marxism went to Serbia to get the full story and some of the pictures from the forbidden exhibition. They are published in this special section.

The Belgrade-based exhibition was banned by the Department of Trade and Industry on 13 January 1993, under sanctions imposed on Serbia by the United Nations. Croatian and Muslim groups from the former Yugoslavia have been allowed to stage their own exhibitions of atrocity photographs in Britain without hindrance.

Living Marxism takes no side in the Yugoslav conflict. But we have sought to expose the distorted way in which this war has been presented to people in the West. In particular, we have opposed the dishonest campaign to demonise and scapegoat the Serbs----a campaign which the British ban on the exhibition has reinforced.

Publishing these pictures is part of Living Marxism's attempt to help set the record straight. Judge for yourself who is telling the truth.


The forbidden exhibition


When she started working on a project about Serbs killed in the Second World War for the Serbian Academy of Sciences in 1990, Bojana Isakovic never imagined that two years later she would stage an exhibition about Serbs killed in a new war.

The original project involved recording the excavation and disinterment of the bones of thousands of Serbs killed and thrown into pits by the Croatian Ustashe regime in the Second World War. 'But when war broke out in 1991, I just turned towards recording the current developments', says Isakovic. The site where the bones were buried was destroyed by the Croats during the current war. All that remains for posterity are the photographs in Isakovic's exhibition (see picture, p22).

Intended as an 'encounter between the living and the dead Serbs', the exhibition opened at the Museum of Applied Arts in Belgrade on 29 September 1992. Isakovic says that it is a challenge to all those who want to bury the past or rewrite history to suit their purposes in the present: 'Croatia is trying to sanitise its history. So is Germany. Croatia is simply following in the footsteps of Germany. Who was the first to mention the "concentration camps" in Bosnia? Germany. And now Germany wants some kind of Nuremberg trial for the Serbs.'

Isakovic feels the British ban on the exhibition is typical of the attitude of the Western powers which she blames for the disintegration of Yugoslavia. She says her pictures should be shown because they tell an untold story about the Yugoslav war.

'It is understandable that the Americans and Europeans don't want to show our pictures to their people - because they are the authors of these pictures.

'I think it is Europe that is under a blockade. We have the opportunity on our TV to watch Sky, BBC and CNN all night long, so we know what is going on in Europe and the United States - but you don't know what is going on here.

'For two years, official England has been involved in a kind of propaganda against the Serbs, or at least it has been hiding the truth. If people in Britain saw the exhibition they would start asking questions. And I don't think the British government wants this.'

  • Bojana Isakovic is the organiser of the exhibition, 'Genocide Against the Serbs'


A selective silence

When the British government slapped a sanctions ban on a photo exhibition showing atrocities against the Serbs, Joan Phillips went to Belgrade to get the full story - and the photographs

It is embarrassing being British in Belgrade these days; embarrassing trying to explain to angry Serbs why the British media tells so many lies about them; embarrassing trying to explain why they are the only people in the former Yugoslavia being made to suffer Western sanctions.

It is even worse being a Western journalist in Belgrade; sitting in a press conference with Krajina's president, Goran Hadzic, and listening to the Serbs being assailed by other journalists for wrongdoing in Krajina when their own people have just been massacred in their hundreds by Croatian forces.

Krajina is a Serbian enclave in Croatia where the Serbs are in a majority. In March 1992, the Serbs of Krajina were placed under the protection of United Nations peace-keepers. In late January 1993, however, the Croats launched a series of military offensives to seize back land controlled by the Serbs in Krajina.

To most Serbs, the foreign media's coverage of what happened in Krajina was incomprehensible. How could it be that the Croats could rampage through Serbian villages killing their inhabitants, and yet the Serbs were the ones who ended up getting a bad press? According to Hadzic, Croatian forces had killed 830 Serbian civilians and 150 soldiers after a week of fighting. Yet foreign reporters had little to say about any of this.

Instead, they denounced the Serbs for stubbornly holding on to Krajina (where they have always lived and where they make up a majority); for seizing weapons from arms depots (did they expect the Serbs to confront the laser-guided missiles of the Croats with pitchforks?); and for sabotaging a hydro-electric dam (which developed problems only after it was seized by Croatian forces, and was then miraculously made safe).

The Western media preferred to speculate about a possible attack involving Serbian troops from Belgrade, rather than condemn the real attack by Croatian troops from Zagreb.

Media coverage of what happened in Krajina is a case of what Bojana Isakovic calls 'selective silence'. Isakovic is the organiser of the Belgrade exhibition, 'Genocide Against the Serbs', which has been banned in Britain. One of the aims of the exhibition, which opened in Belgrade five months ago, is to draw attention to the 'selective silence' of the world's media about the suffering of the Serbs in this war and the Second World War.

'Victims' is the word stamped on the front cover of the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition. 'There are many other victims', says Isakovic. 'They are Croats and Muslims, we don't deny that. I am sorry for all victims.' What she objects to is the way in which the media has managed to sustain a deafening silence about Serbian victims of the Yugoslav conflict.

Look at the photographs on these pages of Living Marxism. You see dead Serbian civilians. Yet to read the media reports of the war in Yugoslavia anybody would think that there were no Serbian victims. That impression can only be reinforced by the ban on Bojana Isakovic's exhibition coming to Britain.

The day I left Britain for Belgrade my mind was on what was happening in Krajina, so my attention was caught by the headline on the back page of the Guardian: 'Croats continue offensive as UN investigators discover mass grave' (26 January). Thinking that a mass grave of Serbian dead must have just been discovered in Krajina, I scanned the article, only to discover that the grave was in Vukovar, the dead were Croats and they had been killed more than a year ago.

In a war which has exacted a high toll of suffering on all sides, how could anybody argue that the massacre of one group of civilians is more or less important than that of another? Yet this is effectively what the Western media has managed to do. Whether intended or not, the Guardian's juxtaposition of the two stories had the effect of cancelling out what is happening to Serbs in Krajina today and focusing attention on what happened to Croats in Vukovar more than a year ago.

What exactly did happen in Vukovar when war was raging in Croatia in late 1991? Thanks to the media, Vukovar will be remembered as a symbol of Serbian aggression. But why did the Serbs destroy Vukovar, when almost half its population was Serbian? An explanation has never been given. We were left to conclude that the Serbian forces who laid waste to Vukovar were evil men.

To understand what happened in Vukovar we have to fill in the background to the media images. The Belgrade exhibition helps to redress the balance. The problems there started in spring 1990, long before the first shell fell, when Franjo Tudjman was elected president of Croatia on a nationalist ticket. From this point on, the Serbian minority in Croatia had good cause to fear for its future. Tudjman's government began by removing Serbian street names, and ended up by removing Serbs - from their jobs, their houses and their land.

In and around Vukovar, where Serbs made up 37 per cent of the population, and Croats 44 per cent, trouble began almost as soon as Tudjman was elected. Following Zagreb's example, state and private firms began sacking Serbs from their jobs. Tensions increased in Borovo Selo, on the outskirts of Vukovar, as Croatian militants began intimidating Serbs by bombing their homes, restaurants and shops. Signs appeared in Borovo saying 'No dogs or Serbs'.

In the climate of fear and insecurity generated by Tudjman's nationalist policies, Serbs began flooding out of Croatia into Bosnia and Serbia well before the war began. Bojana Isakovic's exhibition shows photographs of Serbian refugees leaving Borovo in May 1991. The war in Croatia did not start until July 1991. By the time the battle for Vukovar began, Serbs were already living in fear of their lives.

Yet somewhere along the line, the media managed to turn the story around. Vukovar, home to 31 000 Serbs as well as 36 000 Croats, became a symbol of Croatian suffering. Everybody seems to have forgotten what the photographs on these pages show: when the Yugoslav federal army marched into Vukovar it found the streets strewn with the corpses of Serbian civilians slaughtered by the Croats.

There is little doubt that Serbian irregulars took their revenge on Croatian civilians once they had control of the city. But the mass grave containing dead Croats at Ovcara outside Vukovar should not obscure the fact that the whole of Vukovar became a mass grave for Serbs while the town was under Croatian control.

The story of the persecution of the Serbs in Croatia has still not been told. Before the war, there were 600 000 Serbs living in Croatia. Now there are less than 100 000--and their position is far from secure as events in Krajina testify.

Meanwhile, cities in the front line of the civil war in Croatia, such as Osijek, Karlovac and Sisak, are now to all intents and purposes Serb-free. The same is true of towns on the Dalmatian coast, such as Zadar, Split and Sibenik. In towns like Gospic, where hundreds of Serbs disappeared without trace while others were butchered and burned, there are no Serbs left. Over half of Zagreb's large Serbian community has left the city.

While the Western media has maintained a selective silence about what has happened to the Serbs, it has continually broadcast what the Serbs are supposed to have done to everybody else.

If the Serbs commit an atrocity or break any rule it is certain that we will hear every detail. The same cannot be said about the other combatants in this war. There are 40 000 troops of the Croatian army stationed outside the state of Croatia, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, in defiance of a UN ban on the deployment of foreign (non-UN) forces. We hear nothing of this, and Croatia has been subject to no sanction. Yet Serbia, which has no regular forces in Bosnia, is constantly accused of being the aggressor there.

When the West can find nothing to pin on the Serbs, it has no qualms about making things up. Take the row about the no-fly zone over Bosnia. The Americans have constantly accused the Serbs of violating the UN flight ban, despite plentiful evidence that Yugoslav air force planes have not made a single flight in the no-fly zone since it was imposed on 9 October 1992.

UN observers are stationed at all airports in the federal republic of Yugoslavia, and have access to all flight plans and planes. Awacs airborne surveillance systems based in Hungary and the Adriatic have also confirmed that Serbian aircraft have been abiding by the ban. Meanwhile, Croatian planes violate the UN resolution as a matter of course. America's insistence on enforcing the no-fly ban clearly has less to do with violations than with giving the Serbs a hard time.

Black propaganda as well as bias has distorted media reporting. For example, in 1991 news reports informed us that Dubrovnik's old city had been razed to the ground by the Serbian forces besieging the city. Now we find that Dubrovnik's old city survived the siege intact. The only building completely destroyed was the Serbian Orthodox church, which was firebombed from within. The real damage done was to the reputation of the Serbs.

Or what about the case of the emaciated man pictured in the Independent as a starving inmate of a Serbian detention camp (14 August 1992)? The caption failed to point out that the man was all skin and bones because he was dying of cancer. The Independent apologised the next day, but the damage had already been done, and probably nobody saw the correction hidden away at the bottom of an inside page. What we were never told was that the man was a Serb, whose daughter identified him after seeing Western media reports.

Some might object that it is easy to make mistakes, especially in the heat of war. But how many mistakes does the media have to make before it becomes clear that there is something more than accidental about the distortions in reports of the war in Yugoslavia?

Last summer's reporting of non-existent Serbian 'death camps' in Bosnia is the most glaring example of how the media has helped to criminalise the Serbs. The emotive pictures and reports by ITN's Penny Marshall and the Guardian's Ed Vulliamy from Omarska and Trnopolje in August 1992 led to comparisons between the Serbian detention camps and Nazi concentration camps. Yet on BBC 2's Late Show, in January 1993, both reporters tried to suggest that the 'death camp' allusions had nothing to do with them. The Observer's Victoria Clark even had the cheek to blame 'a voyeuristic public' for the excesses of the media.

Now the media has moved on from discovering 'death camps' to inventing 'rape camps'. Serbs have been accused of 'systematically' raping up to 60 000 Muslim women. Muslim women who gave birth in November and December 1992 say they were held in camps and raped by Serbs, even though the war in Bosnia only started at the end of April 1992. Are the Serbs really such a devilish race that their children are born three months ahead of time?

The way in which distortion and downright lies have been accepted as news about the war in Yugoslavia is symptomatic of our uncritical times. It is time to demand the truth.




Mira Kalanj, a Serbian civilian from Gospic in Croatia, was killed and burned by Croatian forces between 16 and 18 October 1991. Her husband, Duro, was machine-gunned in the back and then burned



A family photograph of Mira and Duro Kalanj with the eldest of their two sons


As Croatian forces withdrew from Vukovar on 15 and 16 November 1991, they dragged Serbian civilians from the cellars where they were hiding, and massacred them. These Serbs were axed to death in a courtyard, after being dragged from the cellar at 74 Nikola Demonja Street in Borovo-naselje, near Vukovar


This three-year old Serbian boy was shot dead while hiding in the cellar at 72 Nikola Demonja Street. His mother and father, Sladana and Miroslav Cecavac, were also killed


Between 16 and 18 October 1991, 24 Serbian civilians from Gospic in Croatia were slaughtered. Croatian forces killed the 15 men and nine women with guns, knives and sledgehammers,doused the bodies with petrol and set them on fire. From October 1991 to February 1992, more than 500 Serbian civilians from the Gospic area disappeared without trace


This photograph was seized from Saudi Arabian fighters captured in Crni Vrh near Teslic, Bosnia. A Muslim soldier displays the severed head of Blagoje Blagojevic, a Serb from the village of Jasenove near Teslic


A Serbian girl, suffocated to death in PVC and stuffed in a mechanic's pit, Borovo-naselje, November 1991


The bones of Serbs thrown into pits by the Croatian fascists, the Ustashe, during the Second World War, just before they were buried in a crypt at Prebilovci, Herzegovina, in June 1991


Serbian women on their way to Jasenovac concentration camp in Bosnia, where up to 600 000 Serbs, Gypsies and Jews are estimated to have been killed during the Second World War


Stipo Kraljevic took this photograph of his fellow Croatian Ustashe soldiers with the severed head of a Serbian villager from Ivanjska near Banja Luka, December 1942


A Croatian Ustashe soldier with the severed head of a Serbian Chetnik


A Serbian soldier helps a wounded comrade, Vukovar 1991. He was killed going back into the combat zone to rescue another. The wounded soldier was later killed in action


The corpse of Milorad Dekic, a Serbian policeman from Osijek, was found in the Danube near Susek


A Serb from Banija, killed while riding his bike, September 1991

Briton 'planted black propaganda'


Robert Allen Lofthouse, from Nottingham, claims to have supplied the British and American media with black propaganda against the Serbs in Bosnia, according to the Belgrade news agency Tanjug.

Lofthouse was captured by Serbian troops on Mount Majevica in northern Bosnia at the end of January. They claim he was fighting as a mercenary. According to the reports from Belgrade, Lofthouse has admitted supplying both Roy Gutman of US Newsday and the BBC with false information about camps, rapes, 'ethnic cleansing' and other atrocities carried out by the Serbs in Bosnia.

Lofthouse is said to have sent false reports and rigged TV footage to Gutman once a month, and to the BBC once a week, with the help of men working for a Muslim intelligence officer called Amir. For instance, he is reported to have admitted telling Gutman and the BBC that the Bosnian Serbs were using war gases in September 1992.

Gutman's reporting for the Guardian in early August 1992 certainly lacked the ring of authenticity. On 4 August, Gutman reported from Slavonski Samac, Croatia, that people in Serbian camps across the River Sava in Bosanski Samac were being tortured, killed and made to eat their own faeces. His report was said to be based on the (uncorroborated) testimonies of former prisoners.

On 5 August, Gutman reported from an unknown location that bodies had been cremated and turned into animal feed at a Serbian camp in Brcko.

On 6 August, Gutman reported from Zagreb on how 'Serbian guards kept their captives "in open pit"'. This was a tale of alleged atrocities at Omarska, told by 'Hajca'. We were told that Hajca 'did not witness the killings himself but on one occasion saw eight corpses covered with blankets'.

The story of Lofthouse's confession has not been reported in the British media. Doubtless they would argue that his black propaganda claims about Gutman are unsubstantiated. But so too were most of Gutman's stories from Bosnia. The Guardian was happy to print fantastic tales of people being turned into animal feed in Serbian camps. So why not a word about any of this?


A SELECTIVE SILENCE

CENSORSHIP AND BIAS IN THE YUGOSLAV WAR


A selection of photographs from the forbidden exhibition, and materials related to the ban, can be seen at The Edge gallery and bookshop from Thursday 25 February. Phone for details.

THE EDGE, 92 Cromer Street, London WC1 Tel (071) 278 9755 Fax (071) 833 5045


Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 53, March 1993

 
 

 

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