50,000 will mark Srebrenica, but the bitterness still endures

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The Independent Online

Thousands of people converge this morning on the mining town of Srebrenica in the hills of eastern Bosnia to commemorate the worst act of genocide in Europe since the Second World War: the cold-blooded killing of nearly 8,000 Bosnian Muslims by the army of the Bosnian Serbs.

Remembering Srebrenica has now become a thriving industry: this week there are conferences, there are books, there are memorial stones in the field where many were killed and where today almost 600 are finally to be given a decent burial. The ceremony is a way of committing theSrebrenica atrocities to the past.

"May grief become hope, may revenge become justice, may mothers' tears become prayers, that Srebrenica never happens again," reads one of the stones.

Among the hundreds of flimsy wooden grave markers, the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, Serbia's President Boris Tadic, Bosnia's high representative, Paddy Ashdown, and many other dignitaries will bow their heads today, assenting to the view that Srebrenica's atrocities belong to history, as irrevocably as VE Day.

But for many this is a story which lacks an ending. Srebrenica is not in the past. It is still going on.

A few miles up the road from the memorial is the village of Kravica. By the side of the main road is a cluster of nondescript modern barns. There is nothing to draw attention to them, no plaque or monument. Yet if Srebrenica were truly in the past, there would be some sort of memorial. The memory of the hundreds killed here demands no less.

The Bosnian Serb guards ordered them into the barn, writes David Rohde in Endgame, his Pulitzer Prize-winning account of the massacre, "and it was a relief for the prisoners to get out of the sun. But having so many men crammed into one space was claustrophobic. The men closest to the door were probably puzzled when they saw the Serbs raise their rifles ...

"The Serbs suddenly opened fire and then threw hand grenades ... Chaos erupted ... After five minutes there was a lull in the firing. Piles of corpses, or what was left of them, lay strewn across the concrete floor."

But today the barn is just a barn. Hay and horse droppings lie on the concrete floor. The barn is firmly in the territory of the Republika Srpska, the Serbian entity for which the soldiers who committed the atrocities were fighting, and whose legitimacy was confirmed in the Dayton peace agreement that ended the war. A few hundred yards down the road, the Serbs have built a memorial to their own dead, a concrete cross 15 feet high surrounded by smaller crosses. It will be inaugurated tomorrow, in a ceremony competing for attention with today's.

"It's a memorial to the 3,500 Serb victims of the war, "killed in every way," said a local man sitting with his friends admiring the monument. "This was a completely destroyed area. Reconciliation with the Muslims? It'll never happen, because everyone blames us for war crimes. Nobody cares about our own victims."

Then he remembered something. "Al-Qa'ida came to London, didn't they? Now let's see what nice things you write about the Muslims!" He and his friends laughed heartily.

The poison of Srebrenica has not been drained, the boil has yet to be lanced. Survivors of the massacre arriving in Srebrenica this morning will be acutely aware that many of the people who executed their kinsmen are still at large in these villages. Ratko Mladic, the Serb general who ordered the executions, "six feet tall, barrel-chested and overweight, his face bright red and as wide as a shovel", is still at liberty. The " justice" invoked on the memorial stone is so far just a pious hope.

And it is not only the Bosnian Serbs who did the killing who have cheated justice. The Serbs were free to commit genocide because the UN peacekeepers in charge of guarding the "safe area" meekly handed the Muslims over to them.

Hasan Nuhanovic, who worked as an interpreter for the Dutch peacekeepers for the three years in which the town was under siege, believes that the Dutch soldiers to blame should also be brought to justice. With a Dutch legal firm he is pursuing the possibility of prosecuting the officers who were in charge. "Complicity in war crimes is what I would choose as the charge," he says.

Ever since the massacre, debate has raged as to why the outside world allowed it to happen and who or what was to blame: the UN, the governments of Britain, France, Germany and the US, or the weak and ambiguous mandate under which the Dutch served.

But for Mr Nuhanovic, who saw the disaster unfold and who lost his father, mother and brother, there is no doubt about the culpability of the Dutch. He has mustered his own memories, the accounts of peacekeepers and officials, and the arguments that he believes nail the Dutch, in a fat book entitled The Role of International Factors in Srebrenica, published here last Friday.

The Dutch, he maintains, had no excuse for not realising what the Bosnian Serbs' intention because the same thing had happened in this area three years before. "In May 1992, Bosnian Serb forces rounded up the Muslim population of Bratunac and villages around and brought them to the football field," he writes. Bratunac is five kilometres north of Srebrenica.

After the women and small children had been sent away, he goes on, "in the nearby primary school the Bosnian Serb forces tortured and executed up to 1,000 Bosnian males. Their bodies were buried in mass graves ... Many other villages had the same or similar fate during the spring of 1992 ... The pattern of killings showed that the main intention of the Bosnian Serb authorities was the elimination and liquidation of the entire Bosnian Muslim male population in the region."

Yet when Serb forces approached the town in July 1995, the Dutch did not fire a single shot to try to deter them. When the terrified population flocked to the Dutch base, a disused battery factory north of the town, the Dutch admitted 5,000, but prevented a further 25,000 from entering because, they claimed, the base was now overcrowded ­ "an outrageous falsehood", Mr Nuhanovic says.

He blames the Dutch not for passivity but for active complicity. "Not because the Dutch battalion did not do enough, or because it did nothing, but because it did a number of things that were wrong," he writes. "We are speaking not of passive responsibility but of active responsibility ... The conduct ranged from common cowardice via lack of interest and concern, all the way to complicity in the crime."

Mr Nuhanovic documents several cases in which the Dutch saw and reported Muslims being killed in front of their eyes near their camp. They forced the refugees to leave, he says, "when the killings were already going on ... The Dutch forcibly expelled 5,000 people into the hands of their executioners."

Right outside the camp's gate, the refugees were separated by sex: women and children to be deported to safety, the men to be killed. And to make it easier for their executioners, he says, the Dutch frisked the Muslims on the way to their deaths in, to make sure they were not carrying knives.