Back to top

Srebrenica: Twenty Years on

Given the on-going volatility in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia, fewer people in those regions and elsewhere may have time or respite to remember what happened exactly 20 years ago in Eastern Bosnia.

“You are now under the protection of the UN. I will never abandon you”

(UNPROFOR’s French General, Philippe Morillon, in his historic speech to battered 43,000 Bosnian refugees sheltering in the ‘safe haven’ of Srebrenica in April 1993 following the UN declaration of six safe areas in Bosnia under the UN Resolution 819.)

“I just threw myself on the ground; my nephew shook, and died on top of me. When they finished shooting, they went on to get other groups. They kept bringing new rounds of men. I could hear crying and pleading, but they kept shooting. It went on all day”.

(Mevludin Oric, a survivor as quoted by Florence Hartmann and Ed Vulliamy, The Observer, 5 July 2015) 

Given the on-going volatility in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia, fewer people in those regions and elsewhere may have time or respite to remember what happened exactly 20 years ago in Eastern Bosnia. Here, around 10,000 Muslim men aged 12 and above, otherwise under the declared UN protection in the city of Srebrenica, were separated from 25,000 women and children and were exterminated in the open fields, forests and warehouses making it Europe’s worst genocide since 1945. While women and children were boarded on buses on the 11th and 12th of July 1995 to be deported from their home territory, their menfolk were minutely separated from the former and made to walk towards the killing fields under the orders of Serb General Ratko Mladic (b. 1943).

A few hours later, the Serb soldiers loyal to Republika Srpska—a self-declared Serb principality-- supported and protected by Serbia and its president, Slobodan Milosevic (d. 2006), began systematically massacring them—a process that went on for four days amidst the wild drunken parties. Then, they brought in the bulldozers which worked day and night to bury dead Bosnians in mass graves dug up over an extended terrain, and helped by the lights from these vehicles the perpetrators still kept on shooting at the fallen bodies to ensure total annihilation. Ironically, 30,000 litres of petrol used for dispossessions and mass burials had been provided by the UN to the Serbs just prior to these mass extinctions on the premise that they would ensure the safe transportation of the refugees sheltering in Srebrenica since 1993. All this happened right under the UN watch of 400-strong, blue helmeted Dutch military contingent commanded by Colonel Thomas Karremans, otherwise purported to ensure the safety and sanctity of the UN safe haven. The UNPROFOR, meant to provide protection to the refugees as per UN Resolution 819 of April 1993, abandoned Bosniaks to the callous whims of the Serbs, who took their time in exterminating unarmed civilians.

As revealed in several secret papers, originally released by Florence Hartmann despite her personal internment by The Hague’s International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, the CIA officials in Vienna had watched the genocide live via satellite facilities. Fully aware of the impending tragedy, General Rupert Smith, the UNPROFOR Commander in Bosnia, and Yasushi Akashi, the senior most UN senior official in the region, still continued with their holidays in Croatia in that fateful second week of July 1995. 

In fact, more than twenty thousand men had been ordered to march though the forested and mountainous region of deceptive trails with ample places for incessant ambushes, which ever since has kept forensic scientists, human rights activists and bereaved mourners busy locating human bones. 

During the 1990s, the UN was led by Secretary-General Boutros Boutros Ghali, the Egyptian Copt with a long diplomatic career, who commanded an indolent hierarchy that included senior officials like Kofi Annan, Marrack Goulding and Yasushi Akashi—all known as ‘careerist-neutralists’. In addition, generals such as Michael Rose, Philippe Morillon, Bernard Janvier and Rupert Smith, and special envoys including Carl Bildt, Anthony Lake and Richard Holbrooke spent an immense amount of time negotiating with the recalcitrant Serbs who exploited this as Western appeasement of their expansive campaigns. The UN officials lacked both the clarity and initiative on pre-empting the genocide that they, along with other EU leaders, fully knew was in the making and still displayed grave prevarications despite the availability of UN peacekeepers and NATO air power that was itching for some action. Western troops in Bosnia had been the first-hand witnesses to five-year long ethnic cleansing and gang rapes committed by Serb and Croat militants.

Bosnia, the most plural region in former Yugoslavia, suffered because of the xenophobic forces of “Greater Serbia” and “Greater Croatia”, which, among others, were led by fascist leaders like Radovan Karadzic (b. 1945) and Franjo Tudjman (d. 1999). They weaponised and egged on their co-ethnic cheerleaders in Bosnia to uproot Muslims along with committing mass-scale rapes so as to banish Bosniaks once for all from this former part of the Ottoman Empire that had been subsequently taken over by the Austro-Hungarian rulers. Following the First World War, West European leaders had engineered a new country in 1926 in the heady Balkans called Yugoslavia by combining the contiguous principalities of Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, and Montenegro with Serbia being the strongest military-wise and also holding on to the autonomous regions of Kosovo and Vojvodina. The new country went through a taxing polarisation during the Second World with Croats mostly supporting the Nazis and the rest often seeking alliances with the Soviets and other allies. Josip Tito (d. 1980) emerged as the leader of Partisans during these testing and calamitous years and kept the country together through his mercurial personality, a powerful military (largely Serb-dominated), secularism and state-led socialism along with pursuing non-alignment all through the Cold War. His Bismarck-like iron-hand policies held together a plural country of diverse ethnicities and religious affiliations under the banner of secularism though Yugoslav nationalism remained only a skin-deep sentiment, which soon began to dissolve after his death in 1980. “Old enmities” and regional proclivities re-emerged in the constituent regions with Serbia and Croatia claiming the biggest pound of flesh from their erstwhile compatriots. Slovenia, the most prosperous of all, had already separated luckily through a smooth process but in all other cases warfare was the modus operandi. Eventually, Bosnia became the centrefold of these “million mutinies” featuring gang rapes, ethnic cleansing, concentration camps and long-drawn sieges by Croat and Serb militias. 

Sarajevo, a beautiful city of culture, historic libraries and galleries, had been the scene of skiing Olympics in 1984 and represented the ethos of inter-cultural marriages and shared neighbourhoods where synagogues, Orthodox and Catholic churches existed side by side with the mosques and Sufi tekkes. It was ironically here in 1914 that the Austrian crown prince was gunned down by Serb nationalists triggering the Frist World War, yet the city was dynamic enough to retain its proud cultural traditions until the early 1991 when Serb marauders, perched on Mount Igman and other hills began the longest siege in Europe’s history. Most of the landmarks and residential areas in Sarajevo were destroyed with sustained and targeted bombardment while snipers took selective pot shots at pedestrians, school going pupils and citizens queuing up for water and bread. 

The world came to know of “Sniper Alley”, “Bakery Massacre on Ferhadia”, “Defiant March by Sarajevan Meliha in a floral dress”, hastily dug up graves by the pavements, and certainly of Zlata, the solitary girl with her diary jottings. Living in the city’s Ottoman part, Zlata became the Anne Frank of Bosnia during its most turbulent years. Sarajevo bled right in front of world eyes, as this was the first-ever, sustained war that people watched on their televisions facilitated by satellite technology and learnt about its horrendous aspects through the daring work by reporters such as Martin Bell, Ed Vulliamy and Janine de Giovanni. However, politicians of all hues including Bill Clinton, John Major, Jacques Chirac, Douglas Hurd, Malcolm Rifkind and a host of so-called peace negotiators such as Lord Carrington, David Owen, Boutros-Ghali and others failed to induct tangible measures deterring genocidal developments concurrently happening in every Bosnian hamlet and town. Refugees were being ambushed even while they tried to reach Travnik, Sarajevo and Srebrenica. 

Historic cities like Mostar became the wasteland with more than a million Bosnians on the move as the internecine war clogged up over 100,000 fatalities and 70,000 rape victims. Happening right in the heart of Europe with people watching atrocities in their homes and troops gazing through their binoculars, these events traumatised Europe’s new generation of Muslims in particular. Sarajevo’s Jewish cemetery—the biggest in Europe—mostly displaying Spanish names and properly maintained by the Ottoman and Yugoslav governments surreally headquartered Serb militias, perched on Mount Igman. 

For four years they desecrated graves by using them as trenches and ammunition dumps and perused this sprawling graveyard as a vintage point overlooking the historic city down below. This author’s personal visits to the country and also to the cemetery—a few years after the warfare—still encountered harrowing scars of destruction and unchecked sufferings all across an otherwise beautiful landscape. The Bosnian authorities led by a scholarly Alija Izetbegovic (d.2003) were hamstrung by the UN-led arms embargo that ironically allowed Zagreb and Belgrade to pursue their mayhems almost unchecked. Some foreign Muslim fighters did venture in to help Bosniaks but given the location of the country and its uneasy and vigilant neighbourhood, their numbers remained miniscule.  Muslim governments in Turkey, Iran and Pakistan tried to help Bosnians through diplomatic channels, which often proved ineffective but allowed their space to Bosnian refugees. Some of these countries tried to send in arms for Bosnians yet they were either thwarted by the EU leaders, or suffered pilferage at the hands of Croats in Zagreb due to its being the main entry point into beleaguered Bosnia. 

Muslim refugees and had been declared a safe haven by the UN under the watchful eyes of the UNPROFOR on the ground and of NATO from the air. For quite some time, Milosevic, Karadzic and Mladic so as to implement their first stage of “Greater Serbia” had been voraciously eyeing towns such as Srebrenica, Gorazde and Zepa in eastern Bosnia, and as disclosed by Florence Hartmann and Ed Vulliamy, Western leaders had surreptitiously resigned to their cession to Serbia without fully ensuring rights of the local Bosniaks. Of course, Russia, Greece and several other countries empathised with the Serbs and even helped them financially and through weapons and volunteers besides road blocking efforts to relieve sieges, which only emboldened Mladic to unleash this unparalleled monstrosity. As mentioned above, the extent of travesty was discovered in greater detail when several starved, ill clothed and wounded stragglers from amongst the survivors reached Bosnian cities after walking for days. Since that tragic July in 1995, new mass graves are being periodically discovered containing disfigured bodies, and forensic testing is continuously conducted to identify victims who, in many cases, have fractured skulls and missing body parts. Each new discovery stipulates a renewed tragedy for bereaved families and thus Bosnian trauma endures in many homes and hearts. 

The Jewish cemetery has been restored to its erstwhile neat and well-organised form by the Bosnian authorities and a recent visit brought back the old memories of its plight soon after the war. The old Mostari Bridge in Mostar, blatantly destroyed by Croats, has been rebuilt but is least reflection of its historic predecessor. Travnik buzzes with people, many of them not local yet direly overwhelmed by numerous personal tragedies. Bosnia itself remains in a precarious state given parallel administrations which have been put in place under the Dayton Peace Accords of 1995 and faces an immense rate of unemployment reaching almost 40%. The country needs to be integrated within the EU like Croatia, Slovenia and other Balkan neighbours to the east and south and that is the only guarantee against history not repeating itself in the Balkans. 

One wonders whether the mighty of the world gathered on 12 July 2015 in Srebrenica and elsewhere, paying homage to Genocide victims and their near ones with numerous perpetrators still at large, would ever bother to think on those lines.

Iftikhar H. Malik is Professor of History at Bath Spa University, and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. Author of several books, Iftikhar, an MCR at Oxford’s Wolfson College, published a volume on Bosnia in 2005 and has visited the region a few times.