Peter Galbraith, first US ambassador to Croatia (1993-96)
Interviewed by BH Dani (Sarajevo), 3 August 2001.
Translated by The Bosnian Institute, UK.
In a letter sent by Peter Galbraith to the State Department on 25 July 1995, two weeks after the fall of Srebrenica, he wrote: ‘In view of the wealth of evidence for atrocities in Srebrenica and the likelihood that a mass crime was committed there, I should like once again to request consideration of the possibility of air strikes to help Zepa.’ He went on to report in detail the testimony of an unnamed refugee who had survived Srebrenica, and who that very day had given a UN official in Tuzla a ‘very credible’ account of how after his arrest he had been taken to a ‘small building’ already full of prisoners, from which he was transferred to the stadium at Bratunac. In the stadium General Mladic had assured the prisoners, whose hands were tied behind their backs, that nothing was going to happen to them, after which all the males were taken to Konjevic Polje and shot; he had escaped only by a miracle. Galbraith concluded his letter with a last historic warning to his superior: ‘It is still not too late for us to prevent a tragedy at Zepa. The defenders of Zepa are resisting bravely under attack. There is no doubt whatsoever that they know what awaits them. We must not let them down.’ Dani came into possession of a copy of the letter prior to this interview.
This gives me a strange feeling… I sent that letter marked ‘No distribution’, which is a category used only for the most sensitive material, so that I could be sure it would reach the Secretary of State. And Holbrooke did indeed get it, take it to Warren Christopher, hand it to him and say: ‘Chris, you have to read this, this is the human face of what is going on!’ I was worried that after the fall of Srebrenica we would write off Zepa too, and I went off to meet Christopher a few days after Srebrenica had fallen to discuss this. The UN official mentioned was my wife Tone Bringa – though she was not my wife at the time – who had been at Tuzla airport with two aid workers interviewing refugees. If you recall, at the time the press was writing much less about the missing menfolk, the main stress was on the women and children deported from Srebrenica on buses. Among the others at the airport she met this one man who kept repeating stubbornly: ‘I have to talk, I have to talk!’ Women went up to him, probably to ask about their relatives or husbands, but he answered: ‘Later, I have to speak to someone!’ Tone speaks Bosnian well and realized that he was being very serious, and he explained in great detail what had happened to him. But the two UN aid workers were probably very tired, it was their hundredth interview, so that they did not at all realize the significance of his story. Tone told me about it when she came to Zagreb and we at once understood the importance of what he was saying. I believed that those men and boys had been killed from the moment they disappeared. Five thousand, and now it’s reckoned seven thousand, people cannot just disappear and nobody know what has happened to them.
What led you to that conclusion?
The Bosnian Serb army, its modus operandi. Although I’m no expert on the area, I was here before being appointed ambassador to Croatia, I spoke to refugees who had come in from Prijedor and Kozarac; I was in Banja Luka in October 1992, in Manjaca, which probably wasn’t the worst but it was still dreadful. I simply knew that’s how it was. At all events, this guy gave the first tangible evidence.
Can you remember how things were in Banja Luka in October 1992?
Banja Luka in October 1992 was the most evil-filled place I’ve ever been in. Evil things were so obviously in progress, yet life in the city was superficially normal. The roads were blocked so the Muslim [Bosniak] population couldn’t leave or enter the city. Armed men with shaggy beards and hair and hard faces cruised the streets – nowadays we’d call them chetniks. Planes were taking off from the military aerodrome near Banja Luka and flying over the city in spite of the flight ban. And just outside town ethnic cleansing was in progress. I met with Serb officials, as well as with the Catholic bishop and the leader of the Bosniak community Muharem Krzic, who is an incredibly brave man. We were sitting in the Hotel Bosna when he said, in front of the Serb officials: ‘You should know that while we’re sitting here, only 30 kilometres away in Kotor-Varos mass killing is going on…’
He said it in front of them?
Yes, right in front of them. I was tired, because I’d arrived that day from the States; he thought I wasn’t giving him my full attention, so he asked if we could meet again next day. We met again in the morning.
How did the local Serbs you talked to behave?
We had a normal conversation, to the extent that you can have a normal conversation in such circumstances. I don’t recall exactly what they said to me, but I’m sure they told me about the last five hundred years of Serb history, two genocides in this century… I don’t have to remember the details, I can leave that to the tape. But since I’d brought along a camera, I wanted to have a picture of myself with them, and one of them said: ‘Why do you need that, for the war crimes tribunal, ha-ha!’ I thought that wasn’t such a bad idea either, and now we can see who had the last laugh. This was just before the US presidential elections of 1992. I was worried about Krzic so I rang him from the American embassy in Belgrade and told him – because I knew they’d be listening to us – that if Clinton won he’d intercede personally on his behalf. Then I told a colleague from the embassy that next time he went to Banja Luka he should explain to Krzic that it had been just for the telephone, and that although I’d do everything I could myself, I couldn’t commit the future president of the United States. Unfortunately it took my colleague too long to make the journey and Krzic had already told the press that he had guarantees from Clinton’s personal envoy – which I wasn’t in any case. But I was just trying to save his life, because I admired his courage. Later he was imprisoned and beaten, and I really did intervene as best I could, and eventually he was released and came to Zagreb. Later on, which was really ironic, when the republicans were investigating my role in arms sales, they asked: ‘Who was that guy from Banja Luka and what was that secret meeting all about?’
You have mentioned that anecdote about the war crimes tribunal. During your ambassadorship in Croatia, did you ever believe that the tribunal would issue an indictment against such high-ranking officers?
I always believed that.
If you read the transcripts of my press conferences, which I can show you because they have been published, you’ll see that. A group of American journalists were attacking the tribunal in 1994, saying that it was ‘a farce’, we were doing it to ‘salve our conscience’, only ‘small fry’ would end up in court – and perhaps not even they. I told them: ‘No, it’s no small matter to be a suspected war criminal: first, the whole world considers you to be a war criminal; secondly, you have to worry about whether anyone’s going to abduct you, whether anyone from your own side is going to betray you, you can’t sleep two nights running in the same bed.’ Mr Karadzic, where are you sleeping now? I doubt whether you ever spend two nights in the same bed. Can you imagine life in constant fear for five or six years, especially if you’re a coward like Karadzic? The second thing I said at that time was: ‘One day your side won’t be in power any longer!’ One day a government will come to power which will conclude that it’s far easier to send you to The Hague than to keep you in the country.
What do you make of the comments coming from the right in Croatia and Serbia, and from Moscow too for instance, that the Hague tribunal is a destabilizing factor in the former Yugoslav republics?
When I was ambassador in Croatia, the first complaint was that the tribunal was proceeding only against Croats, instead of against all the Serb crimes and their perpetrators who should have been at The Hague. Now the Serb perpetrators too are at The Hague, starting with the absolute number one, Slobodan Milosevic, through top-ranking officers to the political leadership, Biljana Plavsic and Momcilo Krajisnik – apart from Karadzic and Mladic, who if they survive long enough will end up at The Hague, I’m sure. So I think the tribunal is an essential factor of stability, for two reasons: because of the arrest of the criminals, but also as a precondition for a durable peace. People have to confront the crimes they have committed and be brought to justice. In Croatia I realized that part of the cause of the recent conflict was the fact that justice was bypassed after the 1941-5 war. Tito came to power, killed as many ustashe as he wanted to, the door was closed and everyone got on with their lives; but a line was not drawn beneath the crimes that had been committed, which allowed the Serbs, instead of saying that Ante Pavelic was responsible, to say: ‘The Croats are responsible!’ Now it’s clear that neither the Serbs nor the Croats are responsible, but individuals: Milosevic is responsible, Karadzic, Mladic, Kordic, Blaskic.
Carla Del Ponte told Dani that the prosecutor was investigating Franjo Tudjman and that if he had lived he too would have been indicted. Did you know about this investigation while you were serving as ambassador in Croatia?
I talked to the prosecutors who were collecting evidence against Tudjman before he died, but the Tribunal had waited too long to investigate matters connected with the case. By that time he was already at death’s door.
How great in your view was Tudjman’s personal responsibility for the crimes committed by units of the Croatian army?
It would probably be wiser to leave that judgement to the historians, or in the case of his subordinates to the courts. There are two separate questions. The first is the involvement of the Croatian government and regime in what we then called the Bosniak-Croat war and the ethnic cleansing carried out at the time. There is no question but that Croatia had a determining influence on the HVO and the HDZBiH. In fact, Tudjman’s influence on the Bosnian Croats was far greater than Milosevic’s influence on Karadzic. That influence was very useful, because Tudjman and Susak brought the war to an end: the moment they signed the Washington Agreement they implemented it. The second question is that of Operation Storm. I have read the indictment against Gotovina, and it’s obvious that the same things apply to the top of the chain of command, i.e. Tudjman. Namely, after it had established control over the territory of the Krajina Serbs, the Croatian Army either participated in or permitted systematic looting and burning, and notably the murder of at least 150 Serb civilians who had remained in their houses. These were not individual acts, they were events that occurred on territory under the control of the Croatian authorities and that could not have occurred unless those authorities had given their approval. This is command responsibility – and a very serious instance of it.
Explain to us the circumstances that led to your famous tractor drive with the Serb refugees leaving Croatia. The Croatian citizens lining the route along which you passed were far from well-disposed towards the columns of Serb refugees.
We have to understand first of all that the Serb population left their homes before the Croatian Army took over, so it is very difficult to defend the view that the Croatian Army drove out the Serbs. This was very different from Prijedor, Visegrad and other places that are synonyms for the Bosnian genocide. But I am quite sure that crimes against humanity were committed after the Croatian Army took control of the Krajina. I’ll explain my tractor drive. Some 40,000 Serb refugees were trapped near Topusko and the Croatian Army had them surrounded. A ceasefire was signed and the refugees were allowed to pass through the Croatian positions near Sisak and on to the motorway leading towards eastern Slavonia. On the first day of the evacuation there was stoning in Sisak, a mob attacked the column and a number of elderly women were killed, while the Croatian police stood by and watched what was going on. I learnt about this only the next morning: it turned out that an Associated Press reporter had been there and he wrote a very good text describing a woman removing splinters of glass from the shawl in which her baby was wrapped. I asked for an interview with Tudjman, which was fixed for midday, and protested against the treatment of the Serb civilians. I told him that in a normal democratic country the minister of the interior would have resigned, or he would have fired him. He lost his temper with me, which often happened…[laughs]… and said I was wrong. I lost my temper too and told him I’d protect the refugees myself if he wouldn’t.
He didn’t believe you’d actually do it.
I didn’t believe it either, but I’d said it so now I had to. We collected all the reporters we could find and went off to join the convoy. My intention was to drive in a bullet-proof car with a prominent US flag, but it was a fine day and I mingled with the refugees and talked to them. I met some guy from Karlovac, his wife and two small children, but in the middle of our conversation the convoy set off and he invited me to join him. I sat on the tractor in Petrinje, and when we got to Sisak the mob was lining the road and things looked very ugly. The people were really out for revenge, the hatred was tangible.
Tudjman never forgave you.
But this time there was a policeman every fifteen metres, very determined to protect the refugees. And in the middle of all this, people recognized me – ‘Oh, look, there’s Peter Galbraith!’ – and began to wave at me, so I waved back. And yes, Tudjman never forgave me. Up to then we’d had very good relations.
What did he say to you?
He never said anything explicitly, but we had far less contact.
He called you a ‘tractor diplomat’
That was later. I was in London at the time of a HDZ congress and he made a speech about red-green witches and tractor diplomats. But that was in the Croatian version of the speech, in the English translation it wasn’t even mentioned.
In an interview with Croatian radio and TV you said that your government had known about Operation Storm before it began. Can you give us a few more details about this?
We have to go back to that time, remember how we were thinking then. Srebrenica had already fallen, it was becoming more and more clear that the missing menfolk had been killed. Zepa was about to fall, and then the assault on Bihac followed, in which not just Bosnian but also Krajina Serbs took part. In the London Declaration it was written merely that we would ‘protect Gorazde’, but there wasn’t a word about Bihac, or Zepa. I sincerely believed that if Bihac fell, there’d be another Srebrenica but four times bigger. The Croats had some perfectly legitimate interests too, since if Bihac fell the strategic encirclement would alter to Croatia’s disadvantage, since a compact western-Serb state would have been created. They’d always planned to attack the Krajina, but initially intended to do so in November, since the weather would still be good enough then to launch the assault from the coast, but it would be harder for Serbia to support the Krajina logistically through Bosnian territory. However, they realized that after the fall of Srebrenica and in the middle of a Serb offensive against Bihac, the sanctions and international pressure they were so afraid of would be far milder. This was a cunning move. I knew about the decision only around 21 July. Susak hosted a party in honour of our military attaché, at which he informed us of the Croatian authorities’ decision to launch the operation on 1 August.
It’s still not entirely clear how it came about that the Croat forces halted their advance before Banja Luka. Your testimony could throw additional light on the circumstances under which the operation was called off.
That was one of the absolutely key moments in the war. Even now I can’t tell you whether we did the right thing. Perhaps we did, perhaps we didn’t…
What was your problem?
I’ll tell you what my problem was at the time, and how I look at things today. It was September and Holbrooke had arrived with his team. Ordinarily we two would first have gone directly to Tudjman and talked with him for an hour, an hour and a half, before joining his ministers. We were waiting outside Tudjman’s office, Holbrooke had come in from Belgrade, with instructions from the Secretary of State to tell Tudjman not to take Banja Luka, and he asked me what I thought about it.
Was he in two minds too?
It was my impression that Holbrooke didn’t think he had to obey his instructions, since on previous occasions he hadn’t obeyed them either. And he asked me. People on the inside will tell you that I was a hawk, that I called for military intervention and favoured a military solution. But at that moment I too had certain doubts. My doubts related to two things: one was the refugee population from western Bosnia and the Krajina which was in the area, as well as the local population, since I had already seen the Croats in action. It’s true that the city was in the hands of people whom I consider fascists, but there were normal people there too, women and children, innocent people. I was worried about the potential consequences of the 400,000-strong wave of refugees that would have passed through the Posavina corridor and Brcko, and the humanitarian catastrophe it would have produced. On the other hand, I was afraid we might replace one problem by another. In other words, if Tudjman took Banja Luka would he give it up? I’d often heard him talking about how Banja Luka had traditionally been oriented towards Zagreb, and I know what that meant: when we divide up Bosnia, Banja Luka will be in Croatia. I think Holbrooke was influenced by the fact that Milosevic had told him that in Banja Luka there were Serbs representing an alternative leadership to Pale. We discussed this and both came to the conclusion that we should tell Tudjman to halt. Holbrooke told him that. It was a very hard decision, and if we’d felt only slightly differently it would have been different. Sometimes history is made not by big, carefully pondered strategic decisions, but precisely like this.
How does it strike you from today’s perspective?
The reason for allowing Croatia to take Banja Luka was that it would have meant the total collapse of the Bosnian Serbs and the fascist principles they espoused. It would have been far easier to reconstruct the country in the conditions of a total Serb defeat than it is at present. And we did think about this at the time. But even today I don’t know the right answer. The peace would have been far more stable if the Croatian Army had taken Banja Luka.
In other words, you regret your decision?
Not necessarily. The other side of the coin is the question of how many more people would have died. I don’t know what the price is. I only know these are hard decisions that cannot be avoided. We had the responsibility for taking that decision and I think we took it on the basis of the best possible assessment we could make at the time. During the past six years I’ve thought about it every day.
Moving on to something else, given Tudjman’s views on Bosnia we see him as the ideal type of politician Samuel Huntington had in mind when he wrote Clash of Civilizations. By the end of your period of service Tudjman certainly wasn’t fond of you, but you always had very frequent contact with him. Tell us something about your conversations in the context of his views on Bosnia, Muslims and civilizational differences.
Tudjman was very different from Milosevic, although people are only too ready to say they are just the same. They were completely different personalities. Milosevic was the biggest opportunist I’ve ever seen, whereas Tudjman was very rigid, knew what he wanted and what he believed. His only problem was that he lived in the wrong century, since he belonged more to the nineteenth century than to the twentieth.
Which was our misfortune.
And Croatia’s too. His view of the world was historically determined, and as you perhaps know his favourite writer was Huntington. Clash of Civilizations was his favourite book. He always used to explain to me and the visitors I brought to see him that the Balkans were the site of a clash of civilizations, in which Croatia was the eastern frontier of Western civilization, Serbia embodied the unknown and mysterious Orthodox world, while the third participant in the conflict was Islam penetrating into Europe and represented by the Bosnian Muslims. I tried to persuade him not to use this line of argument, especially in front of visitors, because it didn’t convince anybody; everyone simply left him thinking the guy was the most incredible racist. All the congressmen who came solidarized with Bosnia. I wanted to arouse some sympathy in them for Croatia too, but Tudjman constantly prevented it! I’d tell him: ‘Don’t do that! Tell them how you want to help the Bosnians and oppose the Serbs.’ And I developed a whole line of argument to use whenever I discussed with him. I’d tell him: ‘That’s very interesting, Mr President. I’m not a great historian like you, but I understand my country and I’d like to explain to you how the Americans see things.’
He knew you were a Harvard historian. Did he understand the irony in your words?
No, he was incapable of irony… [laughs] … But let me finish. So I’d say to him: ‘They watch on TV the Bosnian Serbs shelling Sarajevo and squeezing the besieged city and they say: “Christ, what barbarians!” And then, to be frank with you, they watch Mate Boban and the destruction of Mostar and the demolition of the Old Bridge and they say: “Those Croats are barbarians too!” When they see the citizens of Sarajevo, women in high heels, men in suits, trying to get to work or queuing for bread or water while the shelling continues, they say: “Those people look like us, they’re Westerners, they’re ordinary people just like us!” But those people, Mr President, are Muslims!’ At that time our relations were still friendly, he wouldn’t say anything, we’d move on to something else. Two days later I’d arrive for another meeting and he’d begin to develop his theory all over again.
How do you assess the current position of the Bosniaks? Do they have real reasons to fear for their survival, squeezed as they are between two obviously very powerful nationalisms that have unconcealed designs upon parts of Bosnia-Herzegovina?
I’m an optimist concerning the future of both Bosnia and the Bosniaks. Many people saw the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina as the path to the future: the cold war was over, and we were entering a period of chaos, the stability of a bi-polar world had vanished, and B-H was an introduction to this future. On the contrary, I think it was an echo of the past. The nation-state on the threshold of the twenty-first century does not have the importance it had at the beginning of the twentieth century. It is no longer the defining institution of human life; local institutions like the village, town or region are growing in importance. Supra-national institutions like the EU, or for that matter the UN, WTO, OSCE or Council of Europe, are important too. People today travel far more, there are no barriers to interpersonal communication via the Internet, more and more we have a common language available to us in the form of English. I presume that Croatia and Serbia – I say Serbia, because in the long run I have my doubts about the future of Yugoslavia – will join the European community and be interested in supra-national problems, while the importance of the national question will diminish. Can you imagine the Croatian Kuna existing in twenty years time? Probably not, Probably Croatia will be using the Euro. Perhaps in twenty years the danger threatening Bosnia from Croatia will be no greater than the danger threatening Switzerland from Germany, Italy or France.
Has the fact that the Bosniaks are also Muslims been seen in some international circles as posing a fundamentalist threat? Has their adherence to Islam aroused suspicion and made their position more difficult in international circles?
That’s true. There was no basis for it in reality, but that fact did make things more difficult. In my country too there were people looking for a new enemy. But I think the justice of the Bosniak cause eventually prevailed, which can best be seen in the reaction of the Jewish diaspora, which identified with the Bosnian Muslims. By contrast, real hostility prevailed among them towards the Croatian government, even though Tudjman tried to help the Jewish community in Croatia; but that was to no avail, because people would constantly return to his links with the ustashe. Not personal links since he was a partisan, but his attempts to rehabilitate the ustasha movement.
He was booed at the opening of the Holocaust Museum in Washington.
Right. That was a bit unfair, because the Jewish community was fully protected by the Tudjman regime; but no one could get over that obscene idea of reburying ustashe at Jasenovac.
What was your impression of Milosevic? Were you too one of the many international victims of his ‘charm’?
Generally speaking, I think I’m immune to charm, and his charm too completely escaped my notice. I met him in 1992, in Serbia, while I was working for the foreign affairs committee; I was impressed by the fact that he was very articulate in English, but thought: ‘That guy’s lying!’ I went away from that meeting dissatisfied. We had long conversations at Dayton, but frankly he was drunk. At our first meeting at Dayton we were discussing eastern Slavonia, it was his first meeting with Tudjman after several years, also present were Christopher, Susak, Milan Milutinovic, Holbrooke and I. He was 35 minutes late! What can you do on the military airport at Dayton, Ohio?! He was in the officers’ club and after lunch he got drunk. Christopher and Tudjman drank white wine, and in the course of an hour and a half they drank a glass each, while Milosevic ordered a bottle of white wine and my only job during the meeting was to see how many times he filled his glass. At the end they all went off and left us two, and the high point of the meeting was when he told me – because I was supposed to go to eastern Slavonia to continue mediation – that this was a waste of time. At the end of the supper I asked the waiter how much wine Milosevic had drunk: a bottle and a half!
Did you get the impression he really had no problem with dropping the Krajina Serbs and returning the occupied parts of Sarajevo?
At the meeting on eastern Slavonia Milosevic insisted that its future should be decided by a referendum, while Tudjman would accept nothing except unconditional reintegration. And after a long wrangle Milosevic said: ‘OK, there won’t be a referendum!’ Just like that! He was never concerned about the human rights of the Serbs in Croatia. Christopher told me to prepare a briefing on the agreement for eastern Slavonia, and of the fourteen points in the agreement I drafted seven. They all had to do with the human rights of the Serbs in Croatia. Although I tried to get Milosevic fired up about this, he never showed the least interest. It was completely unimportant to him. That guy doesn’t believe in anything, his feeling for Serb rights is non-existent.
Croatia became a member of the Council of Europe during Tudjman’s regime, while Bosnia has to go through a very long and complicated procedure before entering this European institution. Can you comment on this?
This is a very interesting example of the European modus operandi. In the case of Croatia, the Council of Europe drew up a list of forty conditions it had to fulfil before becoming a member. Three months went by, Croatia didn’t fulfil a single one of those forty conditions, yet it became a member. Our policy was different: we demanded fulfilment of the conditions we’d set for entry to the Partnership for Peace and we never relaxed them. It seems to me that if Croatia became a member of the Council of Europe, then so should B-H. The conditions they set were good conditions, but it’s not clear to me how the conditions for Croatia can be different from the conditions for B-H.
Let us return once more to Srebrenica. Are you disappointed at the failure to act, in view of the fact that the information you sent in remained hidden during the following months? If these facts had been revealed in time, at least Zepa might have been saved.
I was disappointed that we didn’t do anything to save Zepa. I think that my letter and the fall of Srebrenica changed a lot. They changed American policy, the US no longer had any objection to Operation Storm, the military operation which changed the regional dynamics and led to the defeat of the Bosnian Serbs. I think my letter and the information it contained had some influence, and helped to save Bihac.