The UK Press on Srebrenica
This report analyses coverage of Srebrenica in four UK broadsheet newspapers: The Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Independent, and The Guardian. Three periods are examined: early July 1995; late July—October 1995; and January—December 2001. Articles were acquired electronically by searching the ProQuest newspapers database for articles with ‘Srebrenica’ in their title.
I. How was the Bosnian Serb assault on Srebrenica reported at the time?
(early July 1995)
Two features of the early UK press coverage of Srebrenica stand out: (1) though still not very full, there is occasionally more context and background given than in most later reports, with the Serbian assault on the town sometimes presented in the context of fighting between Bosnian Serb and Muslim forces; (2) there is a major preoccupation with the implications of the fall of Srebrenica for the West’s authority, so that at times the Serbs’ apparent contempt for Western policy seems to be the more important concern, rather than the fate of the town’s Muslim population.
Both of these features of press reporting in early July 1995 are in contrast to later treatment of the story, where the emphasis is unequivocally on crimes committed at Srebrenica, presented as the result of premeditated, one-sided, ‘genocidal’ aggression.
(i) context, background and explanation in early press reporting
Contrary to the picture of a one-sided, genocidal attack which emerged later, some early reporting suggested that there was fighting between Serb and Muslim forces around Srebrenica. On July 7, 1995 The Independent reported ‘The heaviest fighting in three weeks…with Bosnian Serbs firing rockets into the pocket, possibly in response to raids by Muslim forces’, while on July 11 The Guardian said that ‘Dutch “blue helmets” in Srebrenica find themselves shot by both sides’.
Given the general pattern of Western coverage of Bosnia – whereby Serb attacks often appeared as unprovoked aggression because the provocations went unreported – journalists and commentators sometimes seemed puzzled at the Bosnian Serb decision to attack the town. The Times argued that ‘The taking of Srebrenica is more a display of Serb machismo than an act of strategic importance’, while other reports interpreted the move as an attempt to humiliate the West (see below).
Where the Bosnian Muslim attacks on surrounding Serb villages – launched from within the supposedly demilitarised ‘safe area’ – were reported, these tended to be minimised. On July 13, 1995 The Guardian’s Ian Traynor reported that ‘The villages under Bosnian Serb control are poorly defended. By taking Srebrenica, they would neutralise the Muslim threat, free manpower and remove an obstacle to their longstanding aim to enjoy full control of eastern Bosnia.’ However, he noted that ‘The Bosnian Serb high command organised visits for foreign journalists to the nearby village of Visnjica, which had just come under Muslim attack’, implicitly presenting this as a deliberate propaganda move by the Serbs, unlike the way that official Bosnian Muslim efforts to draw Western sympathy were usually taken at face value. Traynor also minimised the significance of the Muslim attack on the village by suggesting it was merely ‘an attempt by the Muslims to sully Serb enjoyment of a symbolic day in their calendar, St Vitus’s Day on June 28’, and writing mockingly of General Ratko Mladic’s vision of a ‘pan-Serbian paradise’
In the same edition of The Guardian, columnist Martin Woollacott noted that ‘The Serbs could have taken Srebrenica…any time these last two years’, asking ‘Why have they chosen this moment to play a card they have always kept in reserve?’. He argued that ‘Minor attacks out of Srebrenica by the local Muslim forces were not a serious problem’, suggesting that the Serbs’ aim may have been to free up troops to send to Sarajevo, ‘where Bosnian government forces are stronger’. He also suggested that ‘it may be that the Bosnian Serb leaders could think of nothing else to do….This was something that could be done, so it was done.’ This is a weak explanation, but again it contrasts with later reports of a premeditated campaign of genocide. Woollacott also undercut any suggestion that the Bosnian Serbs may have been responding to Bosnian Muslim attacks by remarking on the ‘monstrous self-pity’ which allegedly led the Serbs to ‘cast themselves as martyrs’ defending ‘Serbdom’.
Perhaps the most interesting explanation was that offered by The Times’ Defence Correspondent, Michael Evans, in a July 14 front-page report titled ‘Muslim soldiers “failed to defend town from Serbs”’, which relied on military and intelligence service sources. The article noted that Bosnian Muslim forces in Srebrenica ‘put up only a brief fight…and their commanders left the night before the Serb tanks entered the town’. According to one ‘intelligence source’: ‘“The BiH just melted away from Srebrenica and the senior officers left the night before”’. Srebrenica had been effectively abandoned ‘to a relatively small Serb advancing force’. Challenging other reports that ‘up to 1,500 Serbs were involved in the assault’, Evans cited intelligence estimates that ‘the main attack was carried out by a force of about 200, with five tanks’. According to one of his unnamed intelligence sources: ‘“It was a pretty low-level operation, but for some reason which we can’t understand the BiH (government) soldiers didn’t put up much of a fight”’. This description of a ‘pretty low-level operation’ stands in marked contrast to the co-ordinated campaign of genocide suggested by later coverage.
Evans also departed from what was to become the usual script when he noted that despite Srebrenica having been ‘officially demilitarised’ in 1993, Bosnian Muslim forces in the town ‘were not short of weapons’ and had been ‘shelling Serb units along the main road to the south’. The Muslim forces had been ‘“adequately armed” for streetfighting’. According to his ‘intelligence sources’, it was this ‘harassment which precipitated the Serb attack’, although it was ‘an opportunist move’ on the part of the Bosnian Serbs: ‘The apparent decision by the Muslims to abandon the town provided the Serbs with a sudden opportunity to occupy Srebrenica’.
Evans raised the possibility that the Muslim abandonment of Srebrenica may have been mainly due to military weakness, since the ‘local defenders’ were possibly ‘incapable of mounting a defence’. He also noted that: ‘If it was a political decision to abandon Srebrenica, it could be seen by the Serbs as an invitation to move on to the next Muslim enclaves, in particular Zepa and Gorazde’.
Srebrenica later came to be seen as a highly significant event – the ‘greatest atrocity since WWII’ – but in early coverage, before this was established, the event did not seem so important in itself. What made the fall of Srebrenica important for UK reporters and commentators was not so much particular events on the ground but the perceived challenge which the Serbian action presented to Western authority. Indeed, it may have been this feeling of humiliation which predisposed many writers to turn Srebrenica into one of the most powerful examples of Serbian evil.
(ii) indignation that the Serbs flout the West’s authority
It is striking how often Srebrenica is presented, less as a defeat for the Bosnian Muslims, than as a defeat for the West. The Independent’s July 13, 1995 leader column began with the words: ‘Farce, fiasco, catastrophe, humiliation’ – all terms which ‘politicians and commentators have used…in the past 24 hours to describe the fall of the Srebrenica enclave’. Two days later, the paper’s editorial bemoaned the spectacle of ‘the mighty West, with all its bombs, planes and missiles…reduced to wringing its hands on the sidelines’. The Independent said that the UN now faced ‘a rout’, predicting that ‘a withdrawal…will cause a crisis of confidence in international institutions’. Describing the ‘killing fields of Srebrenica’ as provoking ‘the gravest geopolitical impotence in Europe since the war against Hitler’, the article suggested that the post-WWII order was coming to an end, describing the USA, ‘the continent’s guarantor of peace and security for 50 years’ as merely ‘postur[ing] chaotically from afar’. The editorial explicitly portrayed Bosnia as a contest between Europe and the US, arguing that: ‘Pax Americana has had its day on our continent. It is time for Pax Europa. But once again, the Balkans are the proving ground’.
In The Times, Michael Evans and Tom Rhodes suggested that the Serbs’ capture of Srebrenica struck ‘a mortal blow to UN credibility’. It was as if the attack was less on the Bosnian Muslims than on the West: it was the UN who were said to have suffered ‘another deadly blow’ at the hands of the Serbs.
Similarly, in The Guardian Ian Traynor described the Serbs as treating the UN with ‘their customary contempt’ because of the Dutch troops taken hostage, and Martin Woollacott said that ‘The Serbs are running us ragged’. The seizure of Srebrenica was ‘another [in] the long list of UN humiliations’, and General Mladic had ‘always used the enclaves to taunt the UN and diminish its commanders’.
II. Early reporting of massacres
(late July – October 1995)
Looking at this period of the coverage, two things are striking: first that there is still some reporting of context, but less than in initial reports; second that the estimates of numbers missing presumed dead vary widely and develop into an orthodoxy only slowly over a period of weeks.
(i) context, background and explanation
On July 16, 1995 John Sweeney noted in The Guardian that: ‘The fall started with a massacre of the villagers of Visnijca. Burning roofs, butchered peasants: a familiar sight but with a twist. The killers were Muslims, the victims Serbs. In early June a commando of Bosnian armija, loyal to the multi-ethnic but mainly Muslim Sarajevo government, had left the enclave to torch Visnijca.’ This is thin, but it does present the Serb attack on Srebrenica as part of an on-going conflict between two sides, rather than a premeditated plan for genocide. Sweeney’s explanation of the attack is that: ‘Their blood up, the Bosnian Serbs took their revenge’.
In The Independent, Robert Block reported that ‘Muslim soldiers from Srebrenica were effective fighters and on several occasions during the war managed to break out of the enclave and raze several nearby villages, killing many Serb civilians in the process’. Again, this is hardly substantial but does at least differ from the way that later reporting often tended to present the Muslims of Srebrenica purely as victims.
(ii) estimates of numbers missing
With hindsight, it is interesting to examine how the estimates of numbers missing or killed varied widely, and to track the sources who were suggesting different figures. John Sweeney’s July 16 report, quoted above, asserted that: ‘Everyone knows what is happening to the Muslim men of Srebrenica right now. Around 10,000 of them have gone missing. They are being “questioned”’. In the same day’s edition of The Guardian, EU commissioner for humanitarian affairs Emma Bonino was quoted as saying that: ‘The major problem is missing persons…some 15,000 of them.’
It seems clear that the 10,000 estimate was worked out on the basis of subtracting the number of refugees from Srebrenica from the estimated 1993 population of the town. As Christopher Bellamy reported in The Independent: ‘There were some 42,000 people in the enclave in 1993. Yesterday the UN refugee camp at Tuzla had registered 6,440 refugees, mainly women, children and old men, with a further 10,500 in camps nearby. Another 11,000 are believed to be in the surrounding area. The figure of 10,000 missing is therefore speculative, based on a 1993 estimate, which disregards the number who may have died or escaped during two years of hard conditions.’ It also seemed, from Bellamy’s report, that the Bosnian Muslim government was the source of the estimate: ‘the Bosnian authorities yesterday demanded action to find and rescue the estimated 10,000 people still unaccounted for.’ The method of calculation, let alone the credibility of higher estimates such as Bonino’s, was rarely questioned, but it was noted in The Guardian that: ‘The number of people missing in Srebrenica is still unknown. The official population before it fell was 40,000, but it had been cut off for three years and aid agencies believe the Bosnian government over-estimated population figures to maximise the flow of aid.’ If this is correct, it seems certain that the 10,000 figure was a known over-estimate.
In fact, compared with what later became established as orthodoxy, some of the estimates given in reports from this period appear cautious and conservative. For example, a July 25 report in The Independent mentioned that ‘Some estimates of prisoners executed are as high as 4,000’. At this stage, the number ‘missing’ was distinguished from the number ‘massacred’, as in a further report from The Independent which noted ‘as many as 6,000 missing Muslims’ and ‘as many as 4,000 captured Muslim men from Srebrenica…summarily executed by the Serbs’. The former figure appears to have come from the ICRC, and the latter was said to be based on accounts from ‘Muslim refugees from Srebrenica and testimony from Serbs living in towns and villages nearby’. Notably, the summary executions were said to be of ‘Srebrenica fighters’.
On July 25, The Guardian reported a press conference by UN envoy Tadeusz Mazowiecki at which he said that ‘7,000 people were missing from Srebrenica’, suggesting that here had been ‘extremely serious violations [of human rights] on an enormous scale’, and that ‘Barbaric acts have been committed’. The report noted, however, that although there had been many refugee accounts of atrocities, ‘analysts caution that atrocities in wartime are almost invariably exaggerated by confusion, fear, propaganda or psychological warfare’. The report also noted the lower estimate of 4,000 killed, and like other contemporaneous articles, quoted Dutch defence minister Joris Voorhoeve’s remark that the Dutch UN troops in Srebrenica said they saw ‘terrible things, but what our soldiers saw does not account for the disappearance of thousands of people’.
Shortly after Mazowiecki’s statement, the UN Security Council responded to Madeleine Albright’s revelation of surveillance photographs. The Times reported that Boutros Boutros Ghali had been instructed to ‘compile a report on possible “crimes against humanity”’. The article mentioned Albright’s estimate that ‘up to 2,700 Muslim men had been shot dead’, but it also said that ‘the Red Cross estimates that 6,000 people are missing’, that ‘America puts the total of those unaccounted for at 13,000’ and that Amnesty International had said that ‘many thousands of men, including boys as young as 12, remain unaccounted for and may have been deliberately or arbitrarily killed’, reinforcing ‘estimates that up to 4,000 Muslim males may be missing’. All these estimates appeared in the same report, creating a highly confused picture.
Perhaps the key contribution made by Albright, helped by UN officials and others, was to characterise the deaths at Srebrenica as part of a planned massacre, not as having arisen from a military conflict. She said that ‘These dead were not killed in the heat of battle. They were systematically slaughtered on the instructions of the Bosnian Serb leadership.’ Reporting these words, John Sweeney noted that the release of the satellite pictures had been timed to counter any ‘“good propaganda” for the Serbs’ generated by images of ‘the misery of the Krajina Serbs, ejected by the Croat army: a mudslide of humanity trekking from the homes they had lived in for generations; homes burnt; Serbs stoned while Croat police looked on, immobile.’
Albright’s UN performance was nevertheless seized on by many as providing what The Guardian/Observer described in the headline to Sweeney’s article as ‘hard evidence of a massacre of up to 2,700 men and boys’. Of particular note is David Rhode’s August 19 report, in which he claimed to have found ‘a decomposing human leg protruding from freshly turned dirt’, on visiting the site shown in Albright’s photographs. At this stage, Rhode still mentioned a ‘United Nations official estimate that 4,000 to 6,000 Muslim men are still missing’, but by October 1995 the commonly accepted estimate was around 8,000, apparently originating from the Red Cross. At the beginning of October The Independent reported that ‘The Red Cross has said 8,000 of the 42,000 people in Srebrenica before its fall remain unaccounted for’, and an editorial at the end of the month said that ‘More than 8,000 men and teenage boys are still missing following the fall of Srebrenica. Most, it is assumed, were massacred when the Bosnian Serbs overran the town in July.’
III. Reporting in 2001
There are three points of interest which emerge from articles about Srebrenica in 2001: the role of the Hague Tribunal in interpreting what happened; related to this, the now unequivocal labelling of Srebrenica as genocide, with frequent parallels drawn with the Second World War; and the alleged proof of the massacre provided by the corpses in Tuzla morgue.
(i) the Hague
The arrest of Dragan Obrenovic in April, and the sentencing of Radislav Krstic in August, were the occasion for reports summing up the significance of Srebrenica. The use of Second World War parallels is examined below, but first it is worth pointing out how the Hague Tribunal itself gave some very clear signals about how the event should be treated.
The indictment of Obrenovic stated that he: ‘participated in a criminal plan and enterprise, the common purpose of which was to detain, capture and summarily execute by firing squad and bury more than 5,000 Muslim men and boys from the Srebrenica enclave’. In The Independent, the ICTY was quoted as saying that ‘the Muslim population of Srebrenica was virtually eliminated’, which implicitly conflates the expulsion of the population with the people actually killed.
In the trial of Krstic, Judge Almiro Rodrigues said that Srebrenica ‘conjured up images of “corpses piled up in mass graves; corpses with their hands tied or their eyes blind-folded; dismembered corpses”’. Rodrigues also said that in Srebrenica, ‘What was ethnic cleansing became genocide’.
What was reported, at least sometimes, in July 1995 as an opportunist move, or as revenge for earlier raids by Bosnian Muslim fighters, had now become a planned criminal enterprise, or even genocide. Srebrenica no longer existed in the context of a civil war, but only as an exceptional event, outside history. As such, it apparently had more to do with the Second World War than with the Bosnian civil war.
(ii) Second World War parallels
All of the articles about the Obrenovic and Krstic trials quoted above drew parallels with World War Two. The most common phrase used to describe Srebrenica is ‘Europe’s worst atrocity since the Second World War’, or ‘the worst atrocity in Europe since the Second World War’, or ‘Europe’s worst atrocity since the Nazi era’, or ‘systematic executions unknown on this scale since the Second World War’. Variations on these phrases are so widely and routinely used as to constitute a stock formula for describing Srebrenica.
Other ways to draw WWII comparisons also seemed to suggest themselves to journalists whenever Srebrenica was mentioned. In The Independent, Stephen Castle wrote that the ICTY’s judgement ‘singles Krstic out as the most important war criminal since the Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann to be tried’ (even though ‘the tribunal did not suggest that he participated in person in any of the atrocities it catalogued’). For Ian Black, writing in The Guardian, the same parallel was suggested because ‘the tribunal used language familiar from the 1961 trial in Israel of the Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann’. Black added that: ‘In scenes reminiscent of the second world war, men and boys aged 13 to 70 were separated from women and children and bused away to be shot.’ The Times interviewed Medecins sans Frontieres doctor Daniel O’Brien, who had witnessed the fall of Srebrenica. O’Brien said that: ‘After Auschwitz, they said something like that could never happen in Europe again….But it did, and UN troops were there to watch it’.
Note: It would be useful to trace the origin of the phrase ‘the worst atrocity in Europe since the Second World War’ and its variants, though I have so far been unable to do so. It may also be worth charting the use of the term ‘genocide’ in connection with Srebrenica. The table below counts all articles since July 1, 1995 which contain the words ‘Srebrenica’ and ‘genocide’. About a quarter of all articles across all four papers examined contain both. This could be refined by counting the frequency of such occurrences in each year since 1995.
Articles since July 1995 mentioning ‘Srebrenica’ and ‘genocide’
(iii) the bodies in Tuzla
A number of articles mentioned the bodies in the morgue in Tuzla as proof of the Srebrenica massacre. Despite the established estimate of 7—8,000 dead there were still varying accounts of the numbers killed.
In April 2001 The Guardian said that, as against the ICRC estimate of ‘7,300 men and boys’ massacred at Srebrenica, ‘Relatives of the missing estimate the death toll to be closer to 10,000’. The report said that ‘By September last year 4,000 bodies had been exhumed from mass graves around the town, but only 76 had been identified with any certainty.’
In July, The Independent’s Kate Holt said that ‘it is now thought that nearly 9,000 men were slaughtered’, though she did not make clear why this was thought, nor who thought it. She did, however, say that ‘So far, more than 4,700 bodies have been uncovered….Only 180 of these bodies have so far been identified.’ If these figures were accurate, they would imply that 700 more bodies were discovered between April—July 2001, and that a further 104 had been identified.
A few days after Holt’s report, The Independent ran an article by a (presumably) Bosnian Muslim journalist, Nedim Dervisbegovic, reporting from Sarajevo that ‘Bosnian Muslim officials say they have found a mass grave in eastern Bosnia containing more than 200 victims of the Srebrenica massacre in which up to 8,000 Muslims died’. Note that in Sarajevo it is apparently thought that 8,000 died, not 9,000 or 10,000. Dervisbegovic quoted one official describing this as ‘one of the biggest findings in a single mass grave we have had so far….It is difficult to say exactly how many bodies were there but it is definitely more than 200’. The article said that ‘Some 4,500 bodies of Srebrenica victims have been found in individual and mass graves or scattered in woods in eastern Bosnia’.
Three days later, The Independent carried another article about Srebrenica, this time suggesting that ‘Almost 8,000 disappeared’, but predicting that ‘By the end of this year, the bodies of some 6,000 massacre victims will have been exhumed’. The article also noted that ‘even with the help of DNA technology, only 100 or so a month are being identified’. This prediction gets the number of bodies allegedly found closer to the accepted total of 8,000 victims, though it is not clear why there is an expectation that 6,000 will have been exhumed by the end of the year. There is no attempt at consistency across different articles in the same paper even over a matter of a few days.
The most informative article on the topic appeared in The Guardian on August 3. Jennifer Friedlin (who estimated 7,500 killed at Srebrenica) noted that: ‘About 4,000 plastic bags containing the remains of an estimated 3,000-3,500 people slaughtered at Srebrenica have been neatly stored and tagged on shelf after endless shelf.’ This seems more credible – not 4,000 nor 4,700, nor a ‘predicted’ 6,000 bodies, but 4,000 bags, containing the remains of fewer people. Unusually, Friedlin also raised the possibility that some of the bodies being exhumed may not be Bosnian Muslims, citing the Sarajevo-based International Commission on Missing Persons estimate that ‘of the 30,000 missing bodies in Bosnia Herzegovina, more than two-thirds are Muslim, 4,000-7,000 are Serb, and just under 1,000 are Croat.’
IV. A Note on Naser Oric
One of the most notable features of coverage of the Bosnian Serb assault on Srebrenica is that the event is rarely understood and explained in the context of civil war. One indication of this is the negligible number of articles that mention the local Bosnian Muslim leader, Naser Oric. Searching for articles about Srebrenica which mentioned Oric since July 1995 turned up only nine articles across four papers over nine years. The press portrayal of Oric has changed over that time, but his importance apparently remains marginal.
In the first, and most substantial article, from July 1995, ‘General Oric’ is hailed as the ‘Muslim “Robin Hood”’. Despite reporting that ‘Oric…is regarded by his own people as a Robin Hood figure whose daring antics have helped to keep the enclave fed and defended’, the article does mention Oric’s raids on Serb villages around Srebrenica as the reason for the Serb attack. The impact of these raids is deliberately minimised, but at least at this stage the reporter feels obliged to provide some semblance of an explanation: ‘Those raids were used as the justification for the Bosnian Serb drive against the “safe area”. “It was simply a terrorist stronghold and we couldn’t tolerate it any longer,” Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader, said yesterday.’
While the Serbs are presented as having been engaged in ‘ethnic cleansing’, Oric’s activities are presented as less serious, with no killings mentioned: ‘During the bloody autumn of 1992, when Bosnian Serb soldiers and their paramilitary allies were “cleansing” eastern Bosnia of Muslims, Naser Oric and his men were striking up and down the Drina river valley, stealing livestock, burning villages, and inflicting stinging humiliations on the Bosnian Serb army flanks.’ The final raid, on the village of Visnjica, is mentioned as the Serbs’ reason for taking Srebrenica, and Lieutenant-Colonel Milovan Milutinovic is quoted as saying ‘Since January, 50 Serbs have been killed in terrorist actions. We can no longer tolerate Unprofor failure and inaction. We will go in and do Unprofor’s job for them. We will demilitarise Srebrenica.’ However, it is made clear that this is simply an excuse, and that the raid on Visnjica was merely an attempt to obtain food since the Serbs were blocking aid convoys: ‘Following months when the Serbs had been restricting aid convoys into the enclave, a Muslim raiding party from Srebrenica attacked Visnjica, a nearby Serb village. They were probably after livestock, but the Muslims also burnt six houses, killed one Serb soldier and badly wounded an old woman. The authorities immediately took a small group of foreign journalists to Visnjica to prepare world public opinion for an attempt to overrun the enclave.’
A few days after this article in The Independent, The Guardian mentioned Oric as ‘the Bosnian commander of Srebrenica’ who had ‘capitulated’ as ‘a deal was cut’: ‘The Bosnian soldiers agreed to surrender their weapons to the UN and, in return, the Serbs agreed to stop the attack.’ Oric is presented here as ‘a superb guerrilla commander, the best in the Balkans’, according to UN sources. It is therefore a mystery why ‘Oric and his 250 crack troops hardly tried to fight.’ The ‘UN sources’ cited in the article suggest that ‘as a good military commander, Oric could see that defending Srebrenica was hopeless and withdrew his men to the hills to wreak havoc on the Serbs from there – “which,” says the UN, “they are well able to do”’. The article notes, however, that ‘Conspiracy theories abound that some deal was done – that he and his men withdrew 24 hours before the town fell and that the Bosnian government, knowing that Srebrenica was unviable, was glad to have its international victim status restored.’ The intention is evidently to underplay these ‘conspiracy theories’.
By November 1995, during the Dayton talks, the possibility was raised that Oric –described as ‘a Bosnian government military commander in an eastern Muslim enclave’, and ‘commander of the Srebrenica enclave’, was ‘expected to be indicted for war crimes’. Oric did not figure prominently in this brief story, and nor did Srebrenica, since the prospect of his being charged for war crimes did not sit easily with the orthodox version of the Srebrenica massacre. Efforts to maintain Oric’s ‘heroic’ image continued in John Sweeney’s December 1995 description of him as ‘the capable Bosnian commander of the town’s militia’.
By the following year, Serbian allegations of atrocities committed by Oric were being mentioned, though sometimes in such a way as to cast doubt on them. Julius Strauss wrote in the Daily Telegraph that: ‘Bosnian Serb television likes to show one particularly gruesome half-hour film with close-up shots of atrocities allegedly committed by the military commander of Srebrenica, Naser Oric, against Serb villagers.’ Another 1996 Telegraph article acknowledged that ‘many Muslims blame Mr Oric for the breakdown of law inside the Srebrenica pocket’ and that for ‘many Srebrenica refugees’ Oric is ‘a hate figure accused of making money out of the misery of others’. More controversially, the article went on to note that ‘he is also accused by the Bosnian Serbs of being a war criminal who organised attacks on Serb civilians near Srebrenica throughout the war’. Unusually, this general statement was not undermined but supported by specific illustration: ‘For Veselen Sarac, a Bosnian Serb now living in Milici, there is little doubt that Mr Oric is a criminal. More than a dozen white flecks of scar tissue on his arms are all the proof Mr Sarac needs for what sort of man Mr Oric became in the war.’
Oric then seems to have disappeared from articles about Srebrenica until 2001, when he got a brief mention in reports on proceedings at the ICTY. Both articles implied that he was being unfairly accused of war crimes. In The Guardian, Jonathan Steele reported that Oric wanted to ‘tell the Hague tribunal the truth about his role during the 1992-95 war’, and that he had ‘led the defence of Srebrenica before thousands of Muslim men were massacred’. In the Daily Telegraph, Oric was described as ‘the Muslim commander of Srebrenica who fought off a hugely superior Serb army for several years’, and it was noted that ‘The survivors of the Srebrenica massacre in 1995 have pledged to protect Oric, although many Sarajevans accuse him of enriching himself on the proceeds of the war.’ These same accusations were reported when Oric was finally arrested by NATO for the ICTY in April 2003. The Independent ran an article detailing the crimes of which he was accused, but also describing him as ‘widely praised in Bosnia for defending Muslims from Serb attackers’.