Some thoughts on Srebrenica 20 years on: the massacre the UN and Europe failed to stop and the end of the Bosnian war.

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Please note that this article contains sensitive images of the Srebrenica massacre that may be upsetting to some readers.

In my opinion, Srebrenica is the one of the greatest tragedies of the last century, along side many of the worst war crimes of World War Two and the mass killings in Rwanda. Srebrenica is a startling reminder to me of the cruelty that we, as a human race, are capable of and something that should never again happen. But how often are we found foundering, as we repeatedly allow the same mistakes of the past to repeat themselves, over and over again with apathy? The UN and Europe failed to act twenty years ago this week, when the Bosnian town of Srebrenica, in 1995, fell to Serbian forces right under the nose of Dutch UN peacekeepers. In a Bosnian war, where rivalry and hatred in the multi- cultural republic boiled over in unimaginable fashion, Bosnian Serb forces systematically executed and buried in mass graves 8,000 Muslim men and boys.

Not since the Second World War had Europe witness such deplorable inhuman action by one group against another. War is ugly and no matter how we try to dress it up, what took place over three mind- boggling days (11th-14th July) constituted as mass genocide, even though as late as last week, Russia vetoed the resolution on Srebrenica at the UN Security Council, being recognized as genocide.

One of the first world leaders to condemn the massacre was Pope John Paul II who said in the immediate aftermath of the massacre,

“The news and pictures from Bosnia…. testify to how Europe and humanity are still collapsing into the abyss of degradation… No cause, no goal can justify such barbaric actions and methods. They are crimes against humanity…a defeat for civilization.”

His controlled anger was directed at Bosnian Serb forces, who deliberately overran Srebenica, a United Nations ‘safe haven’ for civilians. In fact, there were six ‘safe haven’ created by the UN – Sarajevo, Gorazde, Zepa, Tuzla, Bihac and Srebenica. The ‘safe haven’ was supposed to be a model example of UN’s attempt to protect the ethnically distinct Bosnian Muslims from Bosnian Serbs. It was also meant to create the conditions for future political talks to end the prolonged war.

Ratko Mladic photographed amongst women and children, while UN peacekeepers look on as bystanders, on the 12th July 1995.

However, Bosnian Serb leadership (and ringleaders of the Srebrenica massacre), Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, refused to compile with United Nations resolutions. In the scheme of things, these safe havens stood in the way of Serbian domination of eastern Bosnia, in their attempt to create a great arc of territory that linked up with the majority of Serb held areas. It was therefore without fear of international intervention that Serbian forces shelled ‘safe havens’ like Sarajevo. Sarajevo was completely destroyed in four years of war and when Tuzla was shelled, only weeks before the horrible events at Srebrenica, it should have been enough reason to prompt the UN into decisive action. Yet, the UN refused to get involved, they stood by and did absolutely nothing, even though the signs were ominous that something dreadful was on the horizon. They even flatly rejected calls from belligerent parties to airstrike Serb positions.

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In fact, for four years, between 1991 and 1995, the international community was unable and/or reluctant to stop the slaughter across the Balkan nation of Yugoslavia, in particular in Bosnia. The list of massacres is long and cruel in Bosnia, which include places like Zvornik, Bijeljina, Foca, Prijedor and Visegard. The Zvornik massacre, for example, was one of the first in a number of war crimes related to the murder of innocent civilians that began at the beginning of the war in 1992. In Zvornik, about 900 Muslims were rounded up and executed by Serbian paramilitary. It is only fair that I add that in the Bosnian war – Croats, Serbs and Muslims – were all guilty of committing war crimes. But by far, the Serbian forces acted in the most despicable fashion, climaxing in their cruelty, with the last massacre of the war in Srebrenica.

A young Bosnian woman cries, as she pays for respects ,at a mass funeral in the village of Memici near Zvornik in 2009.

SrebrenicaIt was on the late afternoon of 11th July, the single greatest crime of the war was carried out. Serbian forces entered Srebrenica and immediately began gathering up all its residences. They firstly expelled some 23,000 women and children out of the town and then began the systematic execution of 8,000 unarmed Muslim men and boys. In sickening aftermath, those who were responsible would later come back and dig up their victims and disseminate the bodies in a grim attempt to hide the atrocities. For those who managed to survive, by hiding underneath lifeless bodies, miraculously escaped in the still of night.

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Exhumation of a mass grave in Srebrenica in 1996 (above), and The skull of a victim of the Sebrenica massacre in an exhumed mass grave outside of Potocari, 2007, (below).

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Following the massacre at Srebrenica, Radko Mladic turned his attention on the next ‘safe haven’ of Zepa. Zepa also fell to Bosnian Serb forces, but unlike in Srebrenica, a massacre of Bosniak men did not occur, as most of them had safely fled Zepa by the time Mladic’s forces arrived. It was at the next ‘safe haven’ of Gorazde, that Mladic, under enormous pressure from Belgrade and President Clinton’s threat of NATO air strikes, finally stopped his genocidal rampage. Of course, Karadzic and Mladic would test the resolve of the President of the United States, with a mortar attack that smashed into a Sarajevo market place on the 28th August, a little over a month after Srebrenica. This horrible blunder by Bosnian Serb forces was the beginning of the end of the war in Bosnia. (Though, it can be argued that Srebrenica was in fact, the beginning of the end of the war, when President Clinton finally said enough was enough.) It triggered a NATO bombing campaign two days later on the 30th August. Its consequences saw the defenses of Bosnian Serb forces collapse in western Bosnia, allowing Muslim and Croat forces to take the initiative. By the end of November, NATO which included 20,000 US troops were finally on the ground in Bosnia, taking over the lead from an inept United Nations. Furthermore, the Dayton Agreement that was drafted in November and signed in the middle of December 1995 eventually finally brought an end to the Bosnian war.

You can say what you like about Bill Clinton. Depending on what side of the political fence you sit on, many people seem to love to hate him and his policies. I am not American, so I don’t share some of the deep rooted biased and hate towards US politicians in general, but history will judged him as the man who eventually did what the international community couldn’t – stop the genocide and the war. Through US led negotiations, headed by Clinton’s Secretary of State Warren Christopher and negotiator Richard Holbrooke, all the warring parties were able to agree on a framework for peace. Though, it is often bought up that, if only Clinton lived up to his pledge in 1992 to stop Serbian aggression, the Bosnian war, Srebrenica and the dozens of other Bosnian massacres could have been forestalled? Question could also be asked why he sat on his hands in regards to Rwanda too. However we cannot dwell on what might have been, we must look forward. But in saying that there are some lessons we can take from what happened during the Bosnian war. For one, the UN should have had a stronger military presence in place, in Bosnia. It should have intervened with force to stop the genocide and bully tactic of the Serbs against innocent civilians. 

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Belgrade graffiti condemning Ratko Mladic as the ‘butcher of Sebenica’.

Today, survivors and those who had lost loved ones, still continue to struggle to come to terms with their grief and loss and what had occurred twenty years ago. Hopefully though we can help to reconciled relationships between Bosnian Muslims and Serbs? But as the former Secretary-General Kofi Annan said, ten years ago on the 10th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre, to help rebuild trust among the Muslims and Serbs of Bosnia, it “can only be done by persisting in the struggle for justice”. We have come a long way since then to achieving that, by prosecuting and bringing to trial (which is still ongoing), Ratko Mladic and Rodovan Karadzic, who planned and carried out the massacre.

Our only stumbling block in fully appreciating the magnitude of the massacre is Russia’s veto to not recognize Srebrenica as an act of genocide. Some say that this will only put back trust and reconciliation years. Belgrade had asked Moscow to veto the resolution because it argued that it was ‘anti-Serb’ in its judgement. As I write this article, the irony overnight saw Serbian President attend the commemorative ceremony in Bosnia, to mark the twentieth anniversary of the massacre, which was highlighted with immense anger, over Belgrade’s persistence denial of the war crimes at Srebrenica as genocide. With old wounds still very much raw in Bosnia, Serbian Prime Minister Alekandar Vucic was pelted with bottles and rocks, which threatening his safety. It only goes to shows the great divide that still exist between Bosnian Muslims and their neighbours – the Bosnian Serb – and Belgrade.

I believe it is fair to say that the international community will not be swayed by those who continue to deny Srebrenica as a crime of genocide and will do their utmost to pursue justice and further reconciliation. Furthermore, continued efforts to find and identify those victims still missing, can only be a good thing. Last year 136 new victims were identified through DNA testing. They now rest in peace with the thousands of other victims at the Srebrenica genocide memorial. The funeral service was held on Saturday and in attendance was former President Bill Clinton, who yet again apologized that he was sorry that it took so long to end the war.

“I grieve that it took us so long to unify all of your friends behind using the amount of force that was necessary to stop this violence. And I’m thrilled that the peace has been maintained. On behalf of my country and from the bottom of my heart – I love this place. I never want to see another killing field like this within thousands of miles from here.” – Bill Clinton, 2015.

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The above is a photograph from 2007 showing the burial of 775 identified victims. Below is the funeral procession of the 136 victims that were buried on 11th July 2015.

Photo Credit: The header image is the gravestone at the Srebrenica-Potocari genocide memorial near Srebrenica. It is used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike 3.0 license. The images of the skull of the victims of Srebrenica at the exhumed site in 2007, the burial of 775 identified victims in 2010 and the panorama of modern day Srebrenica are also all used under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike 3.0 license. The B/W photograph of the mass grave at Srebrenica 1996 is provided by ICTY under the creative commons attribution 2.0 license. I am unsure of the image containing the young Bosnian women from Zvornik. It appears to be in the public domain, if not, I claim it as ‘fair use’ to highlight the sadness of events that surround Bosnia’s massacres.



Categories: Blog Favourites, Twentieth Century, War history

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11 replies

  1. This is a very complicated topic for me to understand since I am in a relationship with a Serbian guy. They look at this very differently. In addition to that he tells me that us europeans of the west have a western biased opinion of what happened.

    • That may be true. Nothing is black and white in war. Ultimately, a massacre took place. There is no point denying that it didn’t happen. Our sympathies are always going to lie with those closest to us. I have some Bosnian friends. I used to work with a Bosnian Muslim women who emigrated to Australia after the war. She lived through the destruction of Sarajevo.

    • I think the fact that of the 38,239 recorded civilian deaths 31,107 were Bosniaks killed by Serbian military and para-military forces tells us all we need to know about where guilt lies in this sordid episode of ethnic cleansing.

  2. A thoughtful and thought provoking post Robert. The Bosnian War was a collective failure for the UN, NATO, and Europe and for all that there were lessons learned our ability to prevent and halt such atrocities sadly remains limited.The doctrine of Responsibility to Protect that emerged out of the failures in Rwanda and Bosnia is still hampered by political decision making and has achieved little to help the people of Syria for example. I’m also reminded of the danger in any situation where those with a particular agenda can exploit tensions between ‘Us’ and the ‘Other’.

  3. You touch on a subject that is really controversial – US/NATO/UN intervention in foreign wars/conflicts. And also Russia. Historic alliances and long standing economic/political relationships have to be put aside when atrocities like this can be stopped.
    Another thought provoking post.

  4. Well done, Rob, for tackling this subject. Srebrenica and the whole Bosnian war is a subject that should make those who held the reins of power hang their heads in shame. That something of that magnitude could happen in Europe such a short time ago shows how little some people have moved on from the days of Hitler and the Nazis. Thanks for reminding us of the evil that can lurk beneath a civilised veneer.

  5. A very compelling article, Rob. Thank you for writing it. I’ll always remember visiting Srebrenica when I was travelling through Europe in 2010. While I was there I attended a talk by a woman who had survived the events of the massacre (she was a teenager at the time). Her and her mother were among the women who were forcibly separated from their male relatives. I’ll never forget what she said about having to watch her father be herded into a bus and driven away. He was never seen again, and as yet his body has not been identified.

    The fact that something like this can still happen, and continues to happen even now in places all over the world, boggles my mind. Sometimes I feel like we as a species learn nothing at all from the past.

  6. This is a great article, one of your best. As others have stated in the comments, it’s a tricky topic, that being if/when the international community should intervene in mass killing situations. Samantha Power, now the US Ambassador to the United Nations, wrote a very interesting book about this called “A Problem From Hell,” which discusses Srebenica as well as other massacres. Some, she argues, are situations where it’d be pretty easy to stop what’s going on–Rwanda was famously an example of that. Others are much harder. It’s really a double-edged sword. When Tony Blair came into office in 1997 part of his vision of foreign policy was a willingness to intervene militarily for purely humanitarian reasons, principally to stop mass killings–and Britain did intervene in Sierra Leone in 1999/2000, pretty successfully, on that basis. Unfortunately that same vision of foreign policy led him to get Britain involved in the Iraq War, which he saw as an intervention for humanitarian reasons. About former Yugoslavia I tend to agree with Bill Clinton’s hindsight, that NATO should have intervened much earlier than it did.

    Great post!

  7. It is interesting to note that the UN often gets blamed when everything goes wrong in the world, as if it’s an entity unto itself. The fact is though, the UN only has the power to make a difference in this world if UN nations contribute resources and personnel. It did not happen in Rwanda, despite the UN commander’s request for more troops and didn’t happen in Bosnia. At least NATO stepped up to the plate in Bosnia.
    It must be remembered that the context for America’s inaction, at least in Rwanda may be the “Black Hawk down” Somalia scenario which was very fresh in their minds back then.
    For Bosnia, I’m glad that some of the suffering was prevented. The tragedy of the Rwandan genocide is still being played out to this day with seemingly endless wars in the DRC whose roots began with some of the original perpetrators of the genecide.

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  9. Great post, Rob. Srebrenica was a tragedy; a coldblooded massacre that should’ve been prevented. The thing is; up until about five years ago I would’ve unequivocally said that ‘interventionism’ for humanitarian purposes or to prevent mass killing was absolutely the correct policy for the civilised world. In fact, I believe it was Tony Blair who was largely behind this interventionist doctrine and convinced Bill Clinton to eventually intervene in Bosnia.

    What has made things far more complicated is the issue of whether our governments can be TRUSTED not to use that principle in order to carry out its own corporate or territorial ambitions. For example, in Libya in 2011, it was precisely the principle of ‘The Need to Protect’ that was cited to justify an all-out military intervention, allegedly to prevent a massacre of civilians. The problem is – and ALL the information backs this up – is that *there was no imminent massacre of civilians* about to occur; the entire thing was made up to justify a pre-existing agenda. At the time, people like David Cameron and Hilary Clinton were citing Srebrenica and Rwanda as the justification in order to appeal to people’s humanitarian instincts. If anything, they have now CREATED a humanitarian catastrophe where one didn’t exist before.

    In doing so, they’ve now created a very dangerous, muddy dynamic – because the next time there IS a REAL humanitarian emergency or potential genocide about to occur and our governments talk about intervening, a lot more people are going to be very suspicious as to whether it’s ‘real’ or not. Which is very dangerous; because what of there IS another Srebrenica or Rwanda?

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