The 11th of July 2018 marks the 23rd anniversary of the beginning of the Srebrenica massacre that occurred during the Bosnian-Serb war. The war as a whole remains to be the darkest period in Europe’s post-World War II history, with the massacre at Srebrenica marking what is perhaps the most heinous incident of this grim period. This statement is qualified with a “perhaps” due to some of other heinous realities of the Bosnian war. While the war broke out in 1992, it could be said that the seeds of the conflict go back to the days of the Ottoman Empire, while the roots began to take old with the death of the Yugoslavian autocrat, Josip Tito. His death, which ended his 27 year-rule, was the catalyst for several independence movements within Yugoslavia, movements that eventually lead to the break-up of the Federation, with Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia, Macedonia and Kosovo all now being independent states. While some of these moves towards independence passed off relatively peacefully, others were notoriously bloody.
Prior to the war, Bosnia and Herzegovina was an ethnically mixed population, with Muslim Bosniaks being the largest group, and the province also containing a significant amount of Croats, Serbs and individuals identifying as Yugoslav. Bosniak moves towards independence was agreed upon by a simple majority in the Bosnian parliament, however the Bosnian-Serb members of parliament disputed this outcome, claiming that a two-thirds majority was needed to validate this motion. Bosniaks attempts to gain independence, lead by national icon Alija Izetbegović, were met with invasion by both the Serb and Croatian military, as both armies attempted to carve up Bosnian territory between them. This carve-up had allegedly been agreed by Franjo Tuđman and Slobodan Milošević, premiers of Croatia and Serbia respectively, in 1991. On April 6th 1992, the Serb army began shelling the capital of Bosnia, Sarajevo, and by the end of the month the war had engulfed much of the province.
Siege of Sarajevo and Systematic Rape
It is well beyond the scope of this article to present all the major incidents of the conflict; truly harrowing tales from the siege of Sarajevo, the use of prison camps, photos of which conjured up images of WW II, and the utterly unfathomable use of systematic rape as a tool for ethnic cleansing of the Muslim population. However, it would seem wrong to write anything on the Bosnian conflict without bringing this occurrences to your attention. To give you an idea of the scale of the monstrosities that occurred in this conflict, estimates for the numbers of Muslim Bosniaks who were raped by Serbs range from 12,000 to 50,000, many of which occurred in specially set-up “rape camps”.
Srebrenica fell in the later stages of the war, being taken over by Serb forces on the 11th of July, 1995. Setting the stage for the ominous occurrences that were about to ensure, the commander of the Bosnian-Serb forces, General Ratko Mladic, told his men over the radio, “We give this town to the Serb nation… The time has come to take revenge on the Turks.” The tragedy that occurred in the Bosnian town is made all the more saddening by the fact that it had just 2 years previously been listed as a UN-protected safe areas, watched over by UN troops. Residents of the town have described their sheer joy in this moment, believing that the UN presence would protect them from the worst of the war.
From the morning after they had captured the town, the Serb forces began separating men and boys (of a “fighting age” – which at times included 14 year olds, according to eye witnesses) from amongst Bosniak civilians, and held them in separate locations. Other Bosniak men had fled the area, either attempting to form a column of resistance to the Serbs, or making an effort to flee to Bosniak territory further Norther. The Serb army used megaphones to call the men out from their hiding places and assure them that they would be safe. Unfortunately, many Bosniaks fell for this ploy and emerged from the surrounding woods.
From the 13th of July through to the 22nd of July, daily mass executions took place. At times gunshots were heard for 30minutes non-stop, as hundreds of men were summarily shot. On some days women and children were included in the murders. Rape was an ongoing event throughout the war and the period of the Srebrenica massacre was no exception. More often than not, the Muslim men were made to dig their own mass graves. Some survivors describe being lined up along with dozens of other men, and mowed down with bullets; despite being shot, a few men managed to survive, feigning death amongst the dead bodies that surrounded them. By the end of July 22nd, more than 8,000 Bosniak men and boys had been murdered and buried in mass graves.
Ambiguous Loss, Culpability, and Denial.
The fallout from the massacre has included some complexities, three in particular. Firstly, there is the ongoing reclamation and identification of dead bodies. From amongst the mass graves that were used, the Serbs often dug these back-up, and moved them to different locations in order to keep them out of view of the UN. Unfortunately, many families have yet to locate a body or body-part, denying them of closure on their painful loss. Ambiguous loss is a phenomenon that develops in situations like this, and can make grieving, sadness and letting-go all the more difficult. Over 1,000 bodies remain missing.
There is also the issue of UN culpability. While the majority of the blame lies with the Serb forces who committed these atrocities, much is to be said about the UN’s criminally inadequate response to the goings-on at Srebrenica. Particular focus is given to Dutch UN forces who turned away many of the men who would ultimately make-up some of the victims of the massacre. While a court ruling at The Hague in June of this year found the Dutch government partially liable for the deaths of 300 men at Srebrenica, this represents but a small fraction of those who were murdered.
Finally, and perhaps most significantly, is the fight over the narrative of what occurred at Srebrenica. While Holocaust denial is a criminal offence in some countries of the world, and no significant voices are denying the atrocities that occurred in Rwanda, there are parties from the conflict who deny the scale of what happened, labelling it as merely just another war-time occurrence, rather than being a genocidal attempt to ethnic cleansing. Particular hurt was caused to the families of victims when last year the town (of Srebrenica) elected a Serb Nationalist, Mladen Grujicic, as the Mayor. Grujicic is one of those who deny that what occurred at Srebrenica was genocide. In a further move to redraw the narrative, in June of 2017, the leader of Bosnian Serbs, Milorad Dodik, banned the teachings on the siege of Sarajevo (which claimed the lives of 11,000, including 1,100 children) and the massacre at Srebrenica. It is truly chilling to think that not even three decades have passed since the occurrence of these realities, one of the significant communities from the brutal conflict are taking significant measures to rewrite history, rather than drawing valuable lessons from the conflict to ensure that future generations do not fall into the same traps. It is almost unbearable to think about a resolution of one’s feelings in light of what happened at Srebrenica; while these three issues remain outstanding, closure for the victims will likely remain elusive.