Marking 23th Anniversary of Srebrenica Massacre: Lessons still not learned

Srebrenica Massacre Memorial (photo: Michael Büker, Commons)

Today on 11 July, thousands of people are heading towards the eastern Bosnian town of Srebrenica to mark the 23th anniversary of the 1995 massacre, the deadliest part of the Bosnian genocide and the worst crime committed on European soil since the World War II. The massacre was committed by Bosnian Serb forces under the command of General Ratko Mladić and was part of the wider ethnic cleansing campaign throughout areas controlled by the Army of Republika Srpska that took place during the 1992–1995 Bosnian War. The events in Srebrenica included the killing of more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys, as well as the mass expulsion of another 25,000–30,000 Bosniak civilians, in and around the town. The ethnic cleansing campaign consisted of unlawful confinement, murder, rape, sexual assault, torture, beating, robbery, and inhumane treatment of civilians, the targeting of political leaders, intellectuals, and professionals, the unlawful deportation and transfer of civilians, the unlawful shelling of civilians, the unlawful appropriation and plunder of real and personal property, the destruction of homes and businesses, and the destruction of places of worship.

In April 1993 the United Nations had declared the besieged enclave of Srebrenica a "safe area" under UN protection, however, in July 1995 UNPROFOR's Dutch soldiers failed to prevent the town's capture by the Serbian forces and the subsequent massacre. The Bosnian Serb offensive against Srebrenica began in earnest on 6 July and in the following days, the five UNPROFOR observation posts in the southern part of the enclave fell one by one. Some of the Dutch soldiers retreated into the enclave after their posts were attacked, but the crews of the other observation posts surrendered into Serb custody. Simultaneously, the defending Bosnian forces came under heavy fire and were pushed back towards the town. Once the southern perimeter began to collapse, about 4,000 Bosniak residents who had been living in a Swedish housing complex for refugees nearby fled north into the town of Srebrenica. Foreign soldiers reported that the advancing Serbs were cleansing the houses in the southern part of the enclave. On 8 July, a Dutch armored vehicle took fire from the Serbs and withdrew. A group of Bosniaks demanded that the armored vehicle stay to defend them, but vehicle continued to withdraw.

On 9 July 1995, emboldened by early successes and little resistance from the largely demilitarized Bosniaks as well as the absence of any significant reaction from the international community, the President of the Republika Srpska Radovan Karadžić issued a new order authorizing the 1,500-strong Serbian corps to capture the town of Srebrenica. The following morning, on 10 July, the foreign military leaders made urgent requests for air support from NATO to defend Srebrenica as crowds filled the streets and Serbian tanks were approaching the town. NATO airstrikes on these began on the afternoon of 11 July as bombers attempted to attack Serbian artillery locations outside the town, but poor visibility forced NATO to cancel this operation. Further NATO air attacks were cancelled after Serbian threats to bomb the UN's Potočari compound, to kill Dutch and French military hostages and to attack surrounding locations where 20,000 to 30,000 civilian refugees were situated. Late in the same afternoon, General Mladić with other Serbian officers took a triumphant walk through the deserted streets of the town of Srebrenica. In the past two years, both Karadžić and Mladić were convicted of various crimes at the UN tribunal, including genocide.

Today's anniversary will be the first one since Ratko Mladić was found guilty by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague and thus has an importance since there's a culture of denial of the Srebrenica genocide in Serbian society, taking many forms and present in particular in political discourse, the media, the law and the educational system. Unfortunately, a recent poll conducted by the Valicon agency last June showed over 66% Serbs in Republika Srpska deny the Srebrenica genocide, and the newest surveys in Serbia also show similar results, i.e. making deniers a majority. Knowing the Balkan mindset, a popular recognition of genocide there will happen only when a new pro-Serbian nationalist argument emerges, that genocide is "too old" to speak about. In other words, it may appear after many years, or more probably decades.

On the other hand, apart from the Serbian deniers, we must mention the other problematic groups as well. The first group consists of various local politicians who are coming to commemoration not to express sympathy, but rather to gather political points. The second group are sponsored activists who come up with identical intentions, for example the "Women in Black" and "UDIK," both Soros-funded advocacy groups led by Staša Zajović and Edvin Kanka Ćudić respectively. One of their activist slogans during marking the former anniversaries was "Crimes are the responsibility of all of us". Actually, they are not. It is a counterproductive imposition of collective guilt on the entire ethnic group and a message "you are all guilty," so we should not be surprised that they're by denying giving an answer "we are not." Finally, the third group consists of foreign politicians who, by referring to genocide, want to justify their geopolitical role in the Balkans. For example, Mike Pompeo issued a statement published on the US Department of State website, saying: "We will not forget your fallen, the United States stands with the people Bosnia and Herzegovina." One may wonder why US-led NATO forces cancelled an operation against the Serbian forces just hours before the genocide of 1995, and why today they don't stop Saudi-led genocide against Yemeni people. In fact, the United States took part in it.

Filip Vuković

Filip Vuković is a Serbian politologist and investigative journalist from Belgrade, covering the western Balkan area for Serbian, English and Italian outlets. His focus is on nationalism, ethnic tensions and economic policy in the post-Yugoslav area. Currently, he is preparing a PhD dissertation at the University of Padua.