Srebrenica 20 years after the genocide: Why the survivors need closure

Until 20 years ago, it was a Muslim-majority town in disputed Bosnian territory. Then the Serbs attacked and put it on the map of infamyWARNING: readers may find some of the images below distressing

Srebrenica. A drive through eastern Bosnia seems to be full of sleepy Balkan charm. The landscape is one of wooded hills, small farmsteads, abundant plum orchards. The road winds its way through maize fields beside the quiet river Drina. In the woods, a cuckoo calls on a midsummer’s day. All is peaceful.

As is so often the case, landscapes deceive. Twenty years ago, this idyllic setting was the scene of the worst crimes committed on European soil since 1945. The world looked the other way, as genocide was committed in and near the town of Srebrenica.

Here, more than 8,000 men and boys were murdered in a series of executions and massacres in the days after Srebrenica fell to Bosnian-Serb forces on 11 July 1995. Almost a generation later, it is still unclear whether wounds have even begun to heal.

The Serb forces who slaughtered their Muslim neighbours did so methodically and with a literal vengeance. On his arrival in the town, General Ratko Mladic, the commander of the Bosnian-Serbs, told his men: "We give this town to the Serb nation… The time has come to take revenge on the Turks." (As a small historical detail, Bosnian Muslims are in fact ethnically Slav.)

The murder spree that followed was the culmination of a three-year nightmare for the besieged population of Srebrenica.

Two years before the town’s fall, General Philippe Morillon visited Srebrenica and assured the assembled crowds that the UN would from then on keep them safe. The UN Security Council declared the town a UN-protected safe area. One former resident remembers his excitement on hearing Morillon that day: "I thought everybody should celebrate. It was like being born a second time."

The reality proved different.

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Srebrenica cannot be seen in isolation. It was the culmination of a long and deadly series of events

When Bosnian-Serb forces decided to overrun the town, the UN refused to send planes which Dutch peacekeepers had requested. The peacekeepers argued with the Serbs. Then they fled. With all protection gone, the Bosnian-Serb forces were thorough in the days to come. At one point, filming of the killing was interrupted until somebody could drive to fetch a new camera battery, to continue recording the executions.

In one of many haunting images from that time, Serb cameramen filmed a terrified Bosnian Muslim, plaintively shouting across the fields to urge his son – and all those with him – to emerge from their hiding places in the woods.

"Nermin, I am here!" Ramo Osmanovic cried, while his captors looked on and dictated what he should say. "Come down, Nermin! There is nothing to fear!" The bodies of both father and son were later found in mass graves.

The stories told by survivors are mind-numbing: "scenes from hell", as one judge in The Hague later put it, "written on the darkest pages of history". Those who emerged from their hiding places were shot, hanged or simply tortured and left on the ground to die – sometimes with booby traps which would kill those who might try to save them. Bulldozers were brought in to pile up the bodies, which were dumped in pits across the region.

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Mortal fears: a woman tries to identify human remains in 2006; the same place now (Reuters)

In some respects, it can feel as though we are now able to move on. The crimes, classified by international courts as genocide, will be commemorated in Srebrenica on 11 July, attended by thousands of survivors and by political leaders from around the world. And the UN Security Council was yesterday due to debate a UK-drafted resolution which talked of the need to address genocide. (Depressingly,  Serbia recently called on Russia to wield its veto; at the time of going to press, the outcome was unclear.)

Srebrenica cannot, however, be seen in isolation. It was the culmination of a long and deadly series of events. Thus, to take just one small example: in July 1992, the Serb authorities in the town of Celinac in northern Bosnia published a series of edicts which made clear what was on the way. Non-Serbs were forbidden to move around the town after 4pm; forbidden to swim or fish in local rivers; forbidden to gather in groups of more than three; forbidden to sell or exchange apartments; forbidden to communicate with others outside the town… and so on, in language which seemed to have been lifted from the Nazis’ textbook. And finally: "Disrespect of this decision will have consequences in accordance with valid regulations."

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After the storm: a mass grave near Srebrenica; the same place before the 1995 murders (Reuters)

The term "ethnic cleansing" began as an official euphemism. Quickly, like "Final Solution" half a century earlier, the euphemism became powerful shorthand for the deadly reality – a combination of fear, flight and murder.

Interviewing the Bosnian-Serb leader Radovan Karadzic at that time was surreal. On one occasion, he explained to me that there were no Serb snipers in the hills surrounding Sarajevo. (In reality, they terrorised the population of the Bosnian capital, as I and many  others had witnessed.) Ethnic cleansing of Muslims was, he said, humane. "We let them go," he told me cheerfully, "with their luggage, and everything."

Concentration camps, mass rape, ethnic cleansing across the country. That was the pattern of the next few years. The world  wrung its hands, and kept talking about the next set of "peace agreements" in Geneva  and elsewhere.

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Forensic experts examine a site in Serbia; the scene there this June (Reuters)

Finally, after three years of evasion, the killings at Srebrenica – and the international shame associated with them – proved a turning point. An agreement between all the parties to the Bosnian conflict was hammered out at an air base in Dayton, Ohio. The three-year war, which had cost tens of thousands of civilian lives, was finally over. It seemed that Bosnia, and Srebrenica, could begin to rebuild their lives.

Today, there is a genocide memorial centre at Srebrenica. There are exhibitions inside the former factory that housed the UN base. A cemetery contains the bodies of thousands of those who were excavated from unmarked graves and have been reburied here in recent years.

In some ways, there seems to have been an international reckoning, too. Slobodan Milosevic, the Serb leader who expressed astonishment when I asked him if he might find himself in front of a war-crimes tribunal one day – he was "for peace", he explained – was prosecuted for genocide and died behind bars. Mladic and Karadzic, after years in hiding, are both on trial in The Hague for genocide; Karadzic’s verdict is due in a few months’ time. Verdicts in those cases can hopefully bring a kind of closure.

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A mass grave near Zvornik; the same site in June this year (Reuters)

But, as a visit to Srebrenica today makes clear, there is still much to be done. Before the war, Srebrenica was three-quarters Muslim. Today, Serbs form the majority. And few of them are eager to acknowledge what happened here.

A few miles north of Srebrenica is the village of Kravica. Just off the main road, a collection of buildings includes one bearing a faded sign proclaiming the Kravica Agricultural Co-operative, which was based here before the war. Cows and goats wander amid the agricultural equipment. At first glance, the buildings are unremarkable. It doesn’t take long, however, to notice that the walls are spattered with bullet holes.

This was where more than 1,000 Muslim men and boys were brought from near Srebrenica and killed in 1995. General Mladic told the men they would be taken to Bosnian territory and united with their families. Instead, they were executed, with automatic weapons and hand grenades. A Kravica survivor, left for dead, described to the Hague war-crimes tribunal how he "walked over dead bodies" to survive.

All this is part of the historical record. Talk to locals, however, and they plead ignorance. A woman tending animals at the site in Kravica explains: she wasn’t here; she has heard nothing; she knows nothing. (Yes, she says, foreign visitors regularly come to visit the site, and ask questions. But she wasn’t here; she has heard nothing; she knows nothing.) Only when it comes to Karadzic and Mladic, does the woman become animated. They should never have been sent to The Hague, she says. The two men had simply been "defending the Serb people".

In a Serb café in Srebrenica, it’s a similar story. "We consider Mladic and Karadzic to be our heroes," one 43-year-old man says. Mladic “saved thousands of civilian lives". Anything else, another man says, is "lies and fabrications".

The coffee drinkers here are more interested in speaking about the arrest in Switzerland last month of Naser Oric, a Bosnian Muslim commander, who also stands accused of war crimes. There may have been a few "mistakes" on the Serb side, they acknowledge, but that is all. One man works at the factory next door to the memorial centre. No, he says, he has never visited the exhibition to learn the facts about Srebrenica.

The reluctance to confront truth after terrible crimes is, of course, nothing new. Martha Gellhorn reported from Germany in April 1945, with heavy sarcasm: "No one is a Nazi. No one ever was… We have nothing against the Jews, we always got on well with them… It should, we feel, be set to music."

But quite apart from the obvious difference in the scale of the crimes committed – millions versus "merely" tens of thousands of civilians dead – there is another important contrast between Germany after 1945 and the Balkans today. Two decades after the Second World War, the development of a new generation meant Germany was beginning to ask tough questions about its own history.

Chancellor Willy Brandt (who had personally resisted Nazism from the start) visited Warsaw in 1970 and dropped to his knees in the ghetto to express repentance, the famous and historic Kniefall. This was against the grain: opinion polls showed that most Germans felt he shouldn’t have apologised. But Brandt’s remarkable gesture marked the beginning of an historical honesty which provides a cornerstone for the stable, peaceful Germany that we now know.

In today’s Serb and Bosnian-Serb leadership, by contrast, there is little sign of an emerging Willy Brandt – a leader who understands the need for more truth for the sake of all sides, and who is ready to take political risks to get there.

There are rays of half-light. Milorad Dodik, the President of the Republika Srpska – the Bosnian-Serb entity of which Srebrenica now forms a part – visited the town in April, and talked of "crimes" committed, and said he was "sorry for all the victims". But at the same time, he didn’t sound that sorry – and more recently, he described the focus on Srebrenica as "the greatest deception of the 20th century".

From Belgrade, the messages have been equally mixed. Tomislav Nikolic, the Serb President, gave an interview in 2013 in which he apologised for the first time for "crimes" committed, in some respects a major step forward; at the same time, he emphasised that this was not genocide. This is more than just a detail. Both literally and metaphorically, the leaders of Serbia and the Republika Srpska refuse to admit where the bodies are buried.

There is little political backing – still less political pressure – for people to come clean about the past. Rather, the contrary. A large massacre site in northern Bosnia, discovered and excavated in the past two years, provides a vivid example of the continuing silence.

Hundreds of bodies were uncovered at the mining complex of Tomasica, close to the notorious camps of Omarska and Trnopolje. The mass grave was discovered only after one of those involved in the killings said he could no longer stay silent. He said he was “haunted” by the eyes of a girl whom he had killed 20 years earlier.

A reporter from the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, a regional NGO pressing for truth, justice and reconciliation across the region, visited Tomasica after excavations had begun. Nobody was ready to talk about the historical events. One man quoted a Bosnian proverb: "Stay silent, someone can hear you."

That reluctance to speak out, on Srebrenica and other killings across the country, means that too many are left not just with the loss of a loved one, but also with the double pain created by forced disappearance – where relatives, without a grave to visit, are unable to achieve closure.

On the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre, Amnesty International is launching a campaign for the estimated 8,000 people still missing all across Bosnia, including 1,000 from Srebrenica. But that will be an uphill battle in the current context, not least because of political games being played by politicians on all sides, in Bosnia and Serbia alike.

Twenty-three years ago, the cover headline for a piece that I wrote for The Independent Magazine ran, "Hope Dies in Sarajevo", and I reported on what the Bosnians perceived as the world’s determination to look away at that time. The world failed then, by refusing to exert pressure when pressure was needed. These days, Bosnia can seem deceptively quiet. But if we seek any kind of stability in the Balkans, the need for truth and justice today remains as urgent as ever before.

Steve Crawshaw is the director of the Office of the Secretary General at Amnesty International and a former Eastern Europe editor of ‘The Independent’

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