From Hell": America and the Age of Genocide (Basic
Books, 2002) is a path-breaking interrogation of the last
century of American history. Samantha Power poses a question
that still haunts our nations past: Why do American
leaders who have vowed "never again" repeatedly fail to
marshal the will and the might to stop genocide? And why
should United States citizens care about genocide when
it occurs thousands of miles away from our borders?
Samantha Power provides
an answer to these questions in the form of the suspenseful
story of courageous individuals who risked their careers
and lives in an effort to get the United States to stop
genocide in the last fifty years. "A Problem From Hell"
examines the following instances of genocide: Pol Pots
murder of two million Cambodians, Iraqi dictator Saddam
Husseins gassing of his own people, the herding
up of Bosnian Muslims into concentration camps and the
slaughter of 800,000 Tutsi by Rwandan Hutus.
Drawing upon interviews
with Washingtons top policymakers, access to thousands
of pages of newly declassified documents and her own reporting,
Power combines history and seasoned political analysis
to do more than merely tell the story of U.S. inaction.
She shows how decent Americans inside and outside
government looked away from mass murder by convincing
themselves that refugees were lying, that intervention
would be futile or that contemporary genocide did not
measure up to the crime they said they would "never again"
permit. By allowing readers to hear directly from American
decision-makers and dissenters, as well as from the victims
of genocide, "A Problem From Hell" reveals just
what was known and what might have been done while millions
The events of September
11, 2001 made it necessary for the United States to shift
its focus from our own internal political struggles to
the larger world stage and, in particular, to the ongoing
human rights violations that continue unabated around
the world. Power hopes to make the world more keenly aware
of the necessity of U.S. intervention and the lives it
"A Problem From Hell"
is riveting reading, as this excerpt demonstrates:
My introduction to Sidbela
Zimic, a nine-year-old Sarajevan, came unexpectedly one
Sunday in June 1995. Several hours after hearing the familiar
whistle and crash of a nearby shell, I traveled a few
blocks to one of the neighborhoods once formidable
apartment houses. Its battered façade bore the
signature pockmarks left from three years of shrapnel
spray and gunfire. The building lacked windows, electricity,
gas, and water. It was uninhabitable to all but Sarajevos
proud residents, who had no place else to go.
sister was standing not far from the entrance to the apartment,
dazed. A shallow pool of crimson lay beside her on the
playground, where one blue slipper, two red slippers,
and a jump rope with ice-cream-cone handles had been cast
down. Bosnian police had covered the reddened spot of
pavement with plastic wrapping that bore the cheery baby
blue and white emblem of the United Nations.
Sidbela had been known
in the neighborhood for her bookishness and her many "Miss"
pageants. She and her playmates made the best of a childhood
that constrained movement, crowning "Miss Apartment Building,"
"Miss Street Corner," and "Miss Neighborhood." On that
still morning, Sidbela had begged her mother for five
minutes of fresh air.
Mrs. Zimic was torn.
A year and a half before, in February 1994, just two blocks
from the familys home, a shell had landed in the
main downtown market, tearing sixty-eight shoppers and
vendors to bits. The graphic images from this massacre
generated widespread American sympathy and galvanized
President Bill Clinton and his NATO allies. They issued
an unprecedented ultimatum, in which they threatened massive
air strikes against the Bosnian Serbs if they resumed
their bombardment of Sarajevo or continued what Clinton
described as the "murder of innocents."
"No one should doubt
NATOs resolve," Clinton warned. "Anyone," he said,
repeating the word for effect, "anyone shelling
Sarajevo must . . . be prepared to deal with the consequences."
In response to Americas perceived commitment, Sarajevos
280,000 residents gradually adjusted to life under NATOs
imperfect but protective umbrella. After a few cautious
months, they began trickling outside, strolling along
the Milijacka River and rebuilding cafes with outdoor
terraces. Young boys and girls bounded out of dank cellars
and out of their parents lines of vision to rediscover
outdoor sports. Tasting childhood, they became greedy
for sunlight and play. Their parents thanked the United
States and heaped praise upon Americans who visited the
But American resolve
soon wilted. Saving Bosnian lives was not deemed worth
risking U.S. soldiers or challenging Americas European
allies who wanted to remain neutral. Clinton and his team
shifted from the language of genocide to that of "tragedy"
and "civil war," downplaying public expectations that
there was anything the United States could do. Secretary
of State Warren Christopher had never been enthusiastic
about U.S. involvement in the Balkans. He had long appealed
to context to ease the moral discomfort that arose from
Americas nonintervention. "Its really a tragic
problem," Christopher said. "The hatred between all three
groupsthe Bosnians and the Serbs and the Croatiansis
almost unbelievable. Its almost terrifying, and
its centuries old. That really is a problem from
hell." Within months of the market massacre, Clinton had
adopted this mindset, treating Bosnia as his problem
from hella problem he hoped would burn itself out,
disappear from the front pages, and leave his presidency
Serb nationalists took
their cue. They understood that they were free to resume
shelling Sarajevo and other Bosnian towns crammed with
civilians. Parents were left battling their children and
groping for inducements that might keep them indoors.
Sidbelas father remembered, "I converted the washroom
into a playroom. I bought the children Barbie dolls, Barbie
cars, everything, just to keep them inside." But his precocious
daughter had her way, pressing, "Daddy, please let me
live my life. I cant stay at home all the time."
which Serb gunners took seriously at first, bought Sarajevans
a brief reprieve. But they also raised expectations among
Bosnians that they were safe to live again. The brutality
of Serb political, military, and paramilitary leaders
was met with condemnation but not with the promised military
Minutes after Sidbela
kissed her mother on the cheek and flashed a triumphant
smile, a Serb shell crashed into the playground where
she, eleven-year-old Amina Pajevic, twelve-year-old Liljana
Janjic, and five-year-old Maja Skoric were jumping rope.
All were killed, raising the total number of children
killed in Bosnian territory during the war from 16,767
* * *
If any event could have
prepared a person to imagine evil, it should have been
this one. I had been reporting from Bosnia for nearly
two years at the time of the playground massacre. I had
long since given up hope that the NATO jets that roared
overhead every day would bomb the Serbs into ceasing their
artillery assault on the besieged capital. And I had come
to expect only the worst for Muslim civilians scattered
throughout the country.
Yet when Bosnian Serb
forces began attacking the so-called UN safe area of Srebrenica
on July 6, 1995, ten days after I visited the grieving
Zimic family, I was not especially alarmed. I thought
that even the Bosnian Serbs would not dare to seize a
patch of land under UN guard. On the evening of July 10,
I casually dropped by the Associated Press house, which
had become my adopted home for the summer because of its
spirited reporters and its functional generator. When
I arrived that night, I received a jolt. There was complete
chaos around the phones. The Serb attack on Srebrenica
that had been "deteriorating" for several days had suddenly
"gone to hell." The Serbs were poised to take the town,
and they had issued an ultimatum, demanding that the UN
peacekeepers there surrender their weapons and equipment
or face a barrage of shelling. Some 40,000 Muslim men,
women, and children were in grave danger.
Although I had been
slow to grasp the magnitude of the offensive, it was not
too late to meet my American deadlines. A morning story
in the Washington Post might shame U.S. policymakers
into responding. So frantic were the other correspondents
that it took me fifteen minutes to secure a free phone
line. When I did, I reached Ed Cody, the Posts
deputy foreign editor. I knew American readers had tired
of bad news from the Balkans, but the stakes of this particular
attack seemed colossal. Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic
was not dabbling or using a petty landgrab to send a political
signal; he was taking a huge chunk of "protected" territory
and challenging the world to stop him. I began spewing
the facts to Cody as I understood them: "The Serbs are
closing in on the Srebrenica safe area. The UN says tens
of thousands of Muslim refugees have already poured into
their base north of the town center. Its only a
matter of hours before the Serbs take the whole pocket.
This is a catastrophe in the making. A United Nations
safe area is going to fall."
A new contributor to
the Post, I had been advised that Cody, a veteran
of carnage in the Middle East, would not be one to get
easily rattled. In this instance he heard me out and then
posed a few incisive questionsquestions that led
me to believe he had understood the severity of the crisis
unfolding. Then he stunned me: "Well, from what you are
telling me, even if things proceed, the Serbs are not
going to take the town tonight." I grimaced in anticipation
of his next sentence, which duly followed. "It sounds
like when Srebrenica falls, well have a story."
I protested, but not
strenuously. I was half sure the Serbs would back down
and was reluctant to cry wolf. By the following afternoon,
however, Srebrenica had fallen, and the petrified inhabitants
of the enclave were in the hands of General Mladic, a
suspected war criminal known to have orchestrated the
savage siege of Sarajevo.
I had worked in Sarajevo,
where Serb snipers took target practice on bundled old
ladies hauling canisters of filthy water across town and
where picturesque parks had been transformed into cemeteries
to accommodate the deluge of young arrivals. I had interviewed
emaciated men who had dropped forty and fifty pounds and
who bore permanent scars from their time in Serb concentrations
camps. And I had only recently encountered the remains
of four schoolgirls. Yet despite my experiences, or perhaps
because of them, I could only imagine what I had already
witnessed. It never dawned on me that General Mladic would
or could systematically execute every last Muslim man
and boy in his custody.
A few days after Srebrenica
fell, a colleague of mine telephoned from New York and
said the Bosnian ambassador to the UN was claiming that
the Bosnian Serbs had rounded up and murdered more than
1,000 Muslim men in a football stadium. It was not possible.
"No," I said simply. My friend repeated the charge. "No,"
I said again, determined.
I was right. Mladic
did not execute 1,000 men. He killed more than 7,000.
Power is the executive director of the Carr Center for
Human Rights Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government
at Harvard University. She is a former Balkan war correspondent
and a graduate of Harvard Law School.