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Bosnia's Srebrenica Genocide 25 Years On

The survivors, mostly women, return to the memorial cemetery at Potocari to commemorate the execution of 8,000 Muslim men and boys by Serbian forces.

With the month of July came a grim reminder of a horrific period of history – 25 years ago, Bosnian Serbs and paramilitary troops executed 8,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica in Bosnia-Herzegovina over the period of a week after capturing the town on July 11, 1995.

The tragedy flabbergasted the international community and stands out as Europe’s only genocide since World War II. Despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Bosnians commemorated the tragedy by gathering at the Srebrenica-Potocari Memorial and Cemetery.

About 100 mask-clad dignitaries attended the memorial and several former and present world leaders addressed the gathering through video messages.

“It’s been profoundly moving for me… to continue to add my voice to those across the world who grieve for the families of those killed,” former US President Bill Clinton said. “It’s a brazen reminder of the terrible cost to all of us when we turn our backs on our shared humanities.”

Prince Charles said that the genocide was “a dreadful stain on our collective conscience”. “The international community failed those who were killed, those who somehow survived and those who endured the terrible loss of their loved ones,” he said.

BBC reported that Munira Subasic, the president of the Mothers of Srebrenica Association, an organisation which campaigns for justice for the families of the victims, was one of the few people to speak in person.  

“My first message is to the war criminals, those who committed the crime of genocide,” she said. “We will haunt you and we will never wear down. One of us will always be there to haunt you. It is our right and our duty.”

After her speech, the remains of nine-newly identified victims were buried at a flower-shaped cemetery in Potocari.

“I’m burying my father… The oldest among these victims here,” Fikret Pezic told Reuters news agency. “It took 25 years until we found his body, his remains, so he can finally find peace.”  

What happened at Srebrenica? 

After the commencement of the war in the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bosnian Serb forces commanded by General Ratko Mladic attacked the eastern enclave of Srebrenica, where about 40,000 Bosnian Muslims had found shelter under United Nations protection in the designated safe area near the border with Serbia.

The women and children were separated from men and bussed to territory controlled by the Bosnian army. The men and boys were killed, while others who tried to escape through the woods were captured, detained and executed.

The General-Major of the Bosnian Serb Army (VRS) Drina Corps, Radislav Krstić was sentenced to 35 years of imprisonment for playing a leading role in operation “Krivaja 95”. The plan authorised the shelling of Srebrenica to drive the terrified Bosnian Muslim population to Potočari, a nearby settlement north of Srebrenica.

To compel refugees to leave the territory, the VRS subjected them to threats, insults, rapes, beatings and looting. Eventually, Krstić forced 25,000 Bosnian Muslim women, children and elderly to Kladanj, a town in Bosnian government-held territory.

A group of Bosnian Muslim refugees from Srebrenica walks to be transported from eastern Bosnian village of Potocari to Muslim-held Kladanj near Olovo on July 13, 1995. Photo: Reuters

History   

The kingdom of Yugoslavia was a melting pot with several ethnicities such as Serbs, Croats, Slavic Muslims, Albanians and Slovenes. However, during WWII, the Nazis dismembered Yugoslavia and handed Bosnia and Herzegovina to Croat nationalists. The Croats wanted an ethnically pure state. This ideology transpired into animosities and inter-ethnic violence between Croats and Serb, and Serbs and Muslims in Balkans. 

Ethnic-violence erupted in Yugoslavia in the 1990s due to an incompetent socialist economic system, the continuous resurgence of nationalism, and dysfunctional policies of Slobodan Milošević in Serbia and Franjo Tudjman in Croatia. These leaders exploited the history of ethnic animosities in the region to further their imperialistic agenda. The nationalistic Serb party in Bosnia, backed by Serbia and the Yugoslav National Army drove thousands of Muslims and Croats from their homes. 

By 1991, the ethnic structure of Bosnia and Herzegovina was intricate and fragile since its population consisted of 44% Slavic Muslims, 32% Serbs, 17% Croats and 5% ethnic Yugoslavs. Srebrenica was primarily a mining district with 36,666 people where 75% were Slavic Muslims and 22.6% Serbs.

In 1992, a UN peacekeeping force arrived in Bosnia and Herzegovina with the limited goal to ensure delivery of food, medicines and aid to the victims of ethnic-violence. Despite limited UN intervention, Serbs continued to uproot Muslims from their homes in Zvornik, Bratunac and Višegrad. By January 1993, Bosnia and Herzegovina’s army (primarily Muslims) was fighting a two-front war with the Serbs and Croats. Capturing Srebrenica was paramount for the Serbs since it would have facilitated a reunification with Serbia and allowed the consolidation of a monolithic Serbian state. 

In March 1995, Radovan Karadžić, the Bosnian Serb President, ordered the army under Mladić to create “an unbearable situation of total insecurity with no hope of further survival or life for the inhabitants of Srebrenica”.

Who is accountable? 

The United Nations (UN) Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the UN’s principal judicial organ, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) termed this gruesome atrocity a ‘genocide’. Further, the ICJ concluded that the Republic of Serbia was responsible for not preventing the genocide and not-holding the perpetrators accountable.

At the ICTY, the President of the [Serb] Bratunac district, Miroslav Deronjić, testified that Karadžić said, “Miroslav, those people there [slavic Muslims in Srebrencia] must be killed… Whatever you can, you have to kill… All those who are down there, they should be killed. Kill all those you manage to kill.”

Coffins containing the remains of 282 identified victims of the Srebrenica slaughter await burial in a former battery factory on July 10, 2003, just across from the joint cemetery where they were finally buried alongside 600 already buried in March that year. Photo: Danilo Krstanovic/Reuters

The Serbs who executed the 8,000 men and boys belonged to the Bosnian Serb Army’s, Bratunac Brigade which was commanded by Colonel Vidoje Blagojević, and the 10th Sabotage Detachment, headed by Lieutenant Milorad Pelemiš who directly reported to Mladić, among others.

Mladić, the architect of ethnic-cleansing at Srebrenica, was handed a life sentence for genocide and other war crimes in 2007 by ICTY. “I want my enemies, and there are many, to drop dead because I am still alive,” the ‘Butcher of Srebrenica’ said at the ICTY.

Additionally, four members of a paramilitary group, which reported to Mladić and Krstić, known as the Scorpions were also sentenced to a total of 58 years in prison for the execution of six Muslims.

“The time has come for us to take revenge upon the Turks of this region,” said Krstić while celebrating his victory on July 11, 1995, in Srebrenica.

On November 15, 1999, Kofi Annan the Secretary-General of the UN, acknowledged the failure [of the peacekeeping forces and the UN Security Council] at Srebrenica and said,

“The international community as a whole must accept its share of responsibility for allowing this tragic course of events by its prolonged refusal to use force in the early stages of the war… The cardinal lesson of Srebrenica is that a deliberate and systematic attempt to terrorise, expel or murder an entire people must be met decisively with all necessary means, and with the political will to carry the policy through to its logical conclusion.”

Legacy of the victims 

For several years, Serbs in Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina have denied the massacre and undermined its impact by arguing that the war in Eastern-Bosnia resulted in fatalities on both sides. Serbian politicians, even today, firmly believe that the Muslims died in combat and the number of casualties was similar on the Serbian side. 

However, survivors from Srebrenica, especially women, have been at the forefront of campaigns to persecute the architects of this heinous crime, primarily Karadžić and Mladić. Representatives of Srebrenica’s women have filed class-action lawsuits in pursuit of justice and compensation, demanded the return of Srebrenica’s people to their homes and held several demonstrations in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Netherlands. 

Srebrenica genocide survivor Ramiz Nukic looks at a skull that he found in the forest near Konjevic Polje, Bosnia and Herzegovina, July 6, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Dado Ruvic

Bakira Hasečić, who found the Association of Women Victims of War in 2003, detailed how sexual violence was employed against these women. 

She told the journalists at New Statesman, “They tell us that rape happens in every war – that all armies commit rape, but this aggression, this genocide that happened, the rape of Bosnian Muslim women cannot be compared with any act of war or aggression.”

She added, “It had to be one big project that would include planners, commanders and executors. Simply, rape was used as a weapon for ethnic cleansing and genocide.” 

Women survivors have played a prominent role in preserving the memory of the massacre’s victims by holding anniversary commemorations and mass burials at the memorial cemetery at Potocari.

(With inputs from Reuters)