By Ondrej Novak – On 11 July, 2019 the Srebrenica genocide commemorated the 24th anniversary. This tragic event took place during the closing stages of the Bosnian war. During this massacre, military personnel, paramilitary and police forces from Republika Srpska murdered over 8,000 Bosnian Muslims (mostly men) and buried them in mass graves outside of Srebrenica. To understand how such a horrific event could have taken place, it is important to understand the reasons which led to the war in Bosnia in the first place.
The Balkans retain a long history of ethnic division and conflicts. In addition, the region hosted an artificially created country called Yugoslavia. It was comprised of six federal states (Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH), Montenegro and Macedonia). After World War II, the country was led by Josip Broz Tito, who emerged from the armed resistance against German occupation. Despite being a communist, Tito did not have a good relationship with the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia was therefore not part of the Socialist bloc. Instead, under Tito, Yugoslavia was one of the founding members of the Non-Aligned Movement and served as a bridge between the proverbial East and the West. Tito´s regime was built on pan-Yugoslavism, a decentralised political system, a liberal economy and a certain amount of political freedom atypical for a communist country.
Political and economic tensions in the region rose following Tito´s death in 1980. On his instructions, the leadership passed to a collective body, which continued his legacy. However, as economic problems – such as increasing debt and unemployment – differences emerged. Serbian communists strove for a stronger central government, in which they would hold power as the largest ethnic group in the country. Croatians and Slovenians, on the other hand, felt that their economic and political progress was limited by the Serbs and focused on even higher decentralisation and larger autonomy. The Serbs eventually gained the upper hand in the leadership context, provoking nationalist tendencies and the demonization of the ''other.''
Other catalysts for the conflict in Yugoslavia emerged with the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Slovenia and Croatia were the first countries to declare independence in 1991. Slovenia managed to separate after a brief conflict known as the Ten-Day war. Croatia was a different case as its territory contained large numbers of ethnic Serbs, which feared the repetition of the horrors of WWII, during which Croatian fascists participated in ethnic cleansing of the Serbian population. Therefore the Serbian enclaves in Croatia then declared their own state (Republika Srpska Krajina) which sought to connect to Serbia. The same situation occurred in BiH which declared independence in 1992, where the population consisted of Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks). The Bosnian Serbs, just as the Croatian Serbs, rejected independence and also declared their own state (Republika Srpska) which sought unity with Serbia.
When war in Bosnia erupted, a defining future that had been dormant – sect and religion – was rekindled. Serbs are Orthodox Christians and maintain close ties to Russia. Croats, which were for centuries dominated by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, are mostly Catholic. Bosniaks, the largest community in Bosnia, are descendants of the Ottomans and are mostly non-denominational Muslims. All parties were supported from abroad by different actors and in different ways. The Bosnian Serbs were mainly supported by Serbia and Russia and held the largest number of military ordinance as the military factories and cashes in Bosnia were mainly under Serbian control. They also profited from a large number of volunteers from Serbia, Russia, Ukraine, Romania and Greece. The Bosnian Croats were supported by Croatia both with supplies and volunteers. Bosniaks received their support primarily from Muslim countries and groups. Pakistan was providing Bosniaks with supplies and logistics while jihadi groups such as Hezbollah and Al-Qaeda provided training and fighters.
During the war all parties engaged in war crimes and targeted civilians: rape, torture and execution of both civilians and prisoners of war (PoWs) were regular activities across the lines. However, 90% of crimes were committed by Serbs, according to the UN-Bosnia Report. The events in Srebrenica stand out because of its sheer scale, its organisation and that it happened in sight of UN Peacekeeping Forces.
Srebrenica is a small town in Bosnia’s North-East, and together with the surrounding villages was mostly populated by Bosniaks in a region otherwise dominated by Serbs. Once the conflict started and the Bosnian Serbs gained ground, many Bosniaks sought refuge in Srebrenica which was designated by the UN Security Council as a Safe Area in 1993 and was protected by a contingent of Dutch Peacekeepers (UNPROFOR). However, those forces were ill-equipped, outnumbered and with a mandate that only allowed them to use force for self-defence. Srebrenica soon became overcrowded. At one point the town provided shelter to fifty thousand people. As part of the Safe Area declaration, Srebrenica and its surrounding areas were supposed to be demilitarised. This involved Bosniak fighters handing over their weapons and the Bosnian Serbs withdrawing their equipment (tanks and artillery) from the designated area. Despite that a certain number of weapons were indeed submitted to UNPROFOR, the agreement was often violated as Bosniaks used Srebrenica as a base for counter-attacks and Serbs kept their heavy weapons in the demilitarized zone. During one of the trials at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), one of the defendants stated that the massacre was partially considered a response to the attacks and raids conducted by the Bosniaks against the Army of Republika Srpska (VRS) and the Serb communities in the region.
At the beginning of 1995, the situation worsened. Srebrenica was overcrowded, supplies running short and criminality spreading. The UN was experiencing a similar situation to that of the refugees, since they too had limited supplies and the soldiers who were on leave, were not allowed by the VRS to return. This decreased their numbers from 600 to 400 and due to limited supplies, they often had to patrol on foot. On 6 July, the VRS under the command of Ratko Mladić attacked Srebrenica, and captured several UNPROFOR observation posts and took several peacekeepers hostage. They also commandeered some of their machinery (cars and transporters) which they later used to capture a number of refugees by tricking them into thinking they are being saved by UN soldiers. As the VRS advanced towards the town, Lieutenant-Colonel Karremans, commander of the UNPROFOR in Srebrenica, requested air strikes from NATO. Their operations were initially postponed because of bad weather, and when they eventually sent their jets, the air strikes were cancelled en route as the VRS threatened to kill UN hostages and attack civilians. On 11 July, VRS entered the, by then, empty Srebrenica as the refugees gathered at the UN compound in the adjacent village of Potočari.
In the evening of 11July, the VRS negotiated with UNPROFOR that all the refugees would be transported into Bosniak held territories. However, on the same day the first killings began. On 12 July, buses and lorries arrived to transport the refugees. At that time, the VRS already managed to separate the men from women and children, arguing that they needed to interrogate them, as they were looking for war criminals. The men were gathered in local factories and schools, where they were usually stripped of their possessions, shoes and had their hands tied behind their backs. Similar procedures were happening all over the area. After they were gathered at one of the locations, they were often abused and tortured. Next they were moved into one of the surrounding fields where they sometimes had to dig their own graves before being executed. The killings lasted from the 11to 22 July. During this time it is estimated that around 8,000 people were executed and buried in mass graves. First reports about the mass killings appeared in August. In November Radovan Karadžić, the President of Republika Srpska, and Ratko Mladić along with others, were charged by the ICTY with war crimes for their responsibility over the Srebrenica massacre.
This event is considered the worst mass killing in Europe since WWII. It is also considered to be among the UN´s clearest failures, in which peacekeeping operations did not carry out their fundamental task of providing protection to non-combatants. Relatives of the victims tried to sue the UN for its responsibility in the massacre, but the UN claimed immunity over its operations. They then moved their case to the Netherlands. It is unprecedented that a state takes responsibility for their military units during a UN mission, however, the Dutch courts proceeded with the case and in 2002, following the release of a report by the Dutch Institute for War Documentation, the government resigned. The case, considered by the Dutch courts, regarded some 300 Bosnian men that were killed after they were handed over to the VRS from the UN compound by Dutch Peacekeepers. The courts tried to establish the percentage of peacekeeper’s responsibility in their deaths. The Netherland’s Supreme Court presented its final judgment, after the case went through several appeal stages. The final decision stated that the Dutch peacekeepers held a 10% responsibility for the deaths of 300 Bosniaks. The percentage was originally higher, but the final decision lowered Dutch responsibility, arguing that the soldiers were ill-equipped, outnumbered and faced mortal danger from the VRS. Another relative success in the aftermath of the massacre is the fact that all the top figures involved in the event ended up in front of the ICTY. Both Karadić and Mladić were sentenced to life-long imprisonment. Despite recognising that the event took place, both Serbia and Republika Srpska still do not recognise Srebrenica as a genocide. Neither does the UN. Draft resolution S/2015/508 of the Security Council was vetoed by Russia in 2015.
Remembering such horrors today is relevant for several reasons which are often interconnected. Remembering the past and learning from it is very important. As the often repeated political saying goes: 'Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.' In the current European context it might actually be more relevant than ever as the continent is witnessing a rise in nationalism, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. This can be related to the migration crisis and terrorist attacks on European soil perpetrated by jihadi groups such as Al-Qaeda, Daesh and Hezbollah. A similarly worrying pattern is the radicalisation of European Muslims. Both are reinforced by the dehumanisation of the ''other'' which already played an important role during the Bosnian war. This article should serve as one of many reminders that events like the genocide in Srebrenica took place and remembering those who perished will help create awareness, understanding and provide a valuable lesson for the future.
29 July 2019