Srebrenica: 25 years on, Europe remembers its largest massacre since the Second World War
Commemorations are being held in Bosnia on Saturday (July 11) to mark the 25th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre — Europe’s worst atrocity since the Second World War.
The events to mark the occasion have been scaled back because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Some 8,000 Muslim men and boys were killed by Bosnian Serb forces over a week from July 11, 1995 in and around the town of Srebrenica, in what is now Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Official commemorations in the morning are to be followed by the burial of nine bodies of victims identified over the past year. Their remains will be laid to rest in the cemetery of a memorial centre to the genocide at Potocari, a village near Srebrenica which was home to a UN peacekeeping base during the Bosnian war.
Srebrenica was supposed to be a UN safe haven when it was taken by the Bosnian Serb army. Its military and political chiefs, Radovan Karadzic et Ratko Mladic, were sentenced to life imprisonment by a world tribunal over the massacre and the siege of Sarajevo.
Twenty-five years after the Srebrenica genocide, the events that unfolded continue to be a source of dispute and tensions in the area.
Nationalism and sectarianism began to rise in what was then Yugoslavia following the death of dictator Josip Broz Tito in 1980.
The fall of the Berlin Wall in late 1989 and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union deepened the crisis and in 1991, war erupted along ethnic lines after Slovenia and Croatia both declared their independence.
Bosnia followed suit by declaring independence in March 1992 with forces of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina and those of the Republika Srpska — also known as Bosnian Serbs — quickly taking up arms.
The Bosnian war
By April and May 1992, the Bosnian Serb army, aided by the Yugoslav army and paramilitary groups from Serbia, started an “ethnic cleansing” campaign against all non-Serbian inhabitants from much of Bosnia.
Among the tactics used by Bosnian Serbs were forced evictions, destructions of religious sites, sieges, concentration camps, torture and rape. Between 20,000 and 50,000 women are estimated to have been raped during the three-year conflict.
The international community responded by calling for an end to the atrocities and sending in a few hundred United Nations peacekeepers.
A UN resolution in 1993 also established Srebrenica and its immediate surrounding as a safe haven to remain “free from any armed attack or any other hostile acts.”
The Srebrenica massacre
On July 11, 1995, UN peacekeepers in Srebrenica were awaiting the arrival of NATO airplanes. They had called for their assistance after Bosnian Serb forces had besieged and overwhelmed other UN posts in the enclave over the previous few days.
Instead, Bosnian Serb forces began shelling the area, prompting more than 20,000 civilians who had sought refuge in the city to flee towards another UN base in Potočari, three miles away.
Srebrenica was quickly captured by Bosnian Serbs who then advanced towards Potočari. Fearing for their lives, more than 10,000 Muslim men and boys set out on foot in the middle of the night for Tuzla, some 45 kilometres away.
Meanwhile, Bosnian Serb rounded up civilians in Potočari. Women and children were eventually bused to Tuzla but Muslim men and boys were taken to the nearby town of Bratunac.
The men who had set on foot were also met at various locations along the way by Bosnian Serb forces with hundreds shot on sight and large numbers taken captive.
On July 14, the execution of the thousands of men held in Bratunac began. They were buried in mass graves near the killing sites.
Between 7,000 and 8,000 men and boys were killed during that week in what the International Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) ruled was a genocide. It was the largest massacre in Europe since the Holocaust.
The scale of the massacre jolted the international community and prompted the Clinton administration in the US into action.
NATO started a prolonged bombing campaign against Bosnian Serb positions which shifted the tide of the war towards the Bosnian Croat forces.
A peace agreement was reached in November in Dayton in the US and signed in Paris in December.
A total of 161 people were indicted by the ICTY between its creation in 1993 and its dissolution in 2017, when the final trial in the first instance was completed.
Ratko Mladic, the former Bosnian Serb military commander who orchestrated the capture of Srebrenica, was convicted on November 22, 2017, for genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.
Radovan Karadzic, a former President of the Republika Srpska, was convicted for genocide in 2013 while Slobodan Milosevic, a former president of Serbia, indicted in charges of genocide, crimes against humanity, grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions, and violations of the laws or customs of war died before his sentencing.
“This has given some satisfaction to the survivors and families of victims,” Jasna Dragovic-Soso, Professor of International Politics and History at Goldsmiths, University of London, told Euronews.
However, she added, “many former RS [Republika Srpska] soldiers and Serb paramilitaries who took part in the massacres have gone unpunished and kept their positions in the security and police forces.”
“Compensation and reparations for survivors and families have been insufficient and ‘ethnic cleansing’ carried out during the Bosnian War has for the most part not been reversed,” she went on to say.
Twenty-five years later, and despite two international courts ruling that the events in Srebrenica were genocide, many around the region continue to reject the term.
“Disputes over the circumstances and nature of the massacres committed in July 1995 in Srebrenica continue to act as a source of tension and division,” Dragovic-Soso said.
“Widespread denial of the number of Bosniak men killed in and around Srebrenica and the refusal to accept the term ‘genocide’ by most Serbs continues to sour inter-ethnic relations,” she added.
A report commissioned by the Srebrenica memorial warned earlier this year that the 25th anniversary of the massacre also marked “25 years of genocide denial.”
“Rather than abating with time, denial of genocide has only grown more insidious in recent years — locally, regionally, as well as internationally,” it stated.
The authors of the report contend that the current president of Republika Srpska and the mayor of Srebrenica are among those peddling conspiracy theories about the event of July 1995.
They also flagged that in an official report released in 2002, the Documentation Center of Republic of Srpska for War Crimes Research referred to the genocide throughout as the “alleged massacre” and that it asserted that no more than 2,000 Bosnian Muslims, all of them armed soldiers rather than civilians, were killed in Srebrenica.
The fact that ethno-nationalism persists can be attributed to “insufficient political and institutional reform, continued reliance on corrupt informal networks of power, political party control of the segregated media, along with the inability of civil society efforts at truth-telling about the war to reach broader audiences,” Dragovic-Soso stressed.
But it has also increasingly led to political gridlock in the country.
“It is now fully and cynically exploited and fueled by politicians and political forces in the region” and “threatens internal cohesion and increasingly ineffective governing structure,” a report from the US-based Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank warned last year.
The report urged Bosnia’s three constituencies to work together or for a new generation of politicians to emerge and outline a positive alternative.
“The idea of ethnic separatism is, unfortunately, gaining traction in the region as land swaps are contemplated and ethnic divisions are viewed as acceptable diplomatic solutions rather than clear warning signs. As ethno-nationalism is cynically deployed in Bosnia, the red lights are blinking brighter,” it added.