The stain of Srebrenica

The continuing freedom of the men who did this demeans us all, writes Henry Porter

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THE DISTANCE between resolution and result is so great in the affairs of the UN that even the optimistic Secretary General, Kofi Annan, must experience pangs of despair. Writing in the International Herald Tribune last week, he welcomed the setting up of the International Criminal Court in Rome as the beginning of a new era of justice. But below the surface you could sense his deep reservations about the effectiveness of a court in which no American can ever appear as defendant.

Even beyond America's refusal to submit to the court, there must be grave misgivings about the international community's ability to prosecute those responsible for massacres and ethnic cleansing. On the day of the formal ceremony in Rome, a few hundred miles to the north east, Bosnians reached the end of a week of events marking the greatest war crime in Europe since the Holocaust. What made their commemorations so urgent was the fact that the scores of men responsible for the massacres which took place after the fall of Srebrenica in July 1995 are still at large and often within the reach of Nato troops. Only a handful of known war criminals have been apprehended

However, in many respects the conditions for the investigations of war crimes in Bosnia are good. The country is protected by the troops of the multinational Stability Force (S-For) which have access to the sites in eastern Bosnia where these terrible crimes took places. There are witnesses aplenty: thousands of Muslim women who lost every male member of their family when the Serbs overran Srebrenica. There are even Serbs who have testified to what happened. Besides there is evidence - bones littered over hillsides, pits full of bodies, which bear witness to the ruthless organisation of the Serbs. And there are names, names of Serb soldiers and policemen who performed acts of such grossness.

What the survivors of the massacres and the thousands who lost their male relatives fear most is that Srebrenica will be forgotten in the interest of keeping the fragile peace. They believe that S-For is dragging its feet over the capture of suspects and that the War Crimes Tribunal Investigators from The Hague are being hampered by lack of resources and a kind of institutionalised hesitancy. These fears may not always be appropriate, but it is the case that well over 7,000 people are still unaccounted for and that the majority of the grave sites in the east are unexhumed.

The more you learn about Srebrenica, the more you begin to understand how it has become the bloodiest symbol of the war, and of the fecklessness of the UN. The losses at the Muslim enclave may represent only 3 or 4 per cent of the total casualty figure for the war (200,000), but the premeditation of the Serbs stands out, together with their terrible driving resolve, once they scented victory and saw that the Dutch forces, which were meant to be protecting the town, had capitulated in a blind funk.

Srebrenica is the test and until something happens to bring the killers to the War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague, the massacres will remain a stain on the conscience of European democracy. To ignore and forget these crimes, as most of us have, is to disdain our own democracy and systems of justice.

Srebrenica is part of our present. It is not history and we should never forget that the massacres took place in the middle of Europe, half way between London and the holiday resorts of Greece. Moreover the events of three years ago would not have occurred if the UN had not promised to protect the 25,000 Muslims in the "safe haven".

This is what happened. On 11 July 1995, the Serb forces massed around Srebrenica, bent on clearing the eastern marches of Bosnia of Muslims before any international settlement fixed the territories. That night panic gripped the town together with its force of 400 Dutch protectors, who themselves felt deserted by the high command at Unprofor. Huge columns of Muslim men began to take flight in the dark, striking out through the wooded hills towards Muslim-held territory in the north-east. Many were never seen again. They had few provisions for the scramble through the scorched hills and little water. They were shelled by the Serbs, some were caught in traps and many were tricked into giving themselves up by the Serbs wearing blue UN helmets which they had removed at gunpoint from the Dutch. Over the following days in Srebrenica there were scenes of unimaginable torment. General Ratko Mladic, the Serb commander and now indicted war criminal, strutted in a brutal good humour while his soldiers and Sabotage Units prepared for the massacres. Then came the separation of men and women. Boys as young as 10 were dragged from their mother's arms; old men, fathers, brothers, sons and husbands were herded into buses or forced to march to the killing grounds. The women were sent away on buses with assurances from Mladic that all their men would be released after the Serbs had checked their number for war criminals. But this was a lie. Only a very few were seen again and these were the men who had feigned death and lay hidden in the piles of bodies at the massacre sites.

The women were not spared either. Many were brutally raped and one woman called Nora witnessed the following incident on her journey from the Dutch post at Potocari, just outside Srebrenica. The story is related in a new book The Graves of Srebrenica and Vukovar by Eric Stover (Scala). Her bus was stopped at a checkpoint and a Serb soldier climbed on board. He was young and probably drunk. Suddenly, without warning, he pulled out his knife and cut the throat of baby sleeping in his mother's arms. He pushed her head down and told her to drink the blood, then he let the bus go on its way.

It is shaming to read of such barbarism, but I include it to give an idea of the evil unleashed by the Serbs in those few days and also of the memories that the survivors live with. War crimes do not end with the killing, but continue tearing at a person's psyche for decades, often extinguishing capacities for trust and self love.

Ten days ago at the Missing Persons conference in Sarajevo there were many such memories on hand - such as those of Hasan Nuhanovic, a professional interpreter. At the time of the fall, he was serving as translator between the Dutch and the Serbs. He had taken his parents and younger brother into the compound because as an official UN translator he believed he could protect them. But the Dutch forced him to hand over his family to the Serbs. It was the last he saw of them. Today he cannot escape the feeling that if his father had not trusted him and if he had not placed so much faith in the UN, they might still be alive.

Mr Nuhanovic, a young man with a quick intelligence, tells his story in fluent English over and over again. You believe him when he says that each time he goes through these events some part of him dies: you believe him when he says that he has withheld his love for his daughter of five months for fear that it would distract his mission to tell the world about Srebrenica. He is compelled by his experiences and will not let them rest until men like Dragonir Vasic, the police chief at Srebrenica, are charged with war crimes. Incidentally, though heavily implicated, Vasic stayed in his post until a few weeks ago and was in daily contact with the S- For troops. Then he heard word that he might be plucked, and he vanished.

The problem is that war crime investigators in Sarajevo are moving very slowly. They must have the evidence of crime and many of the original grave sites, spotted in 1995 by US spy planes and by a courageous American journalist named David Rohde have been tampered with. Added to this, UN commanders have been unwilling to guard the sites for fear what is called "mission creep", that is to say getting too involved and angering the local Serbs. As a result much valuable evidence has been lost. We know what happened at many of these sites, especially after a man named Drazen Erdemovic testified at The Hague about his role at a place called Pilica Farm where busloads of Muslims were executed in the blazing sun. We know the names of the soldiers, their commander and the approximate number of people that were mown down by the standard issue AK 47s, then tipped into the excavated graves. Many of those bodies have now been removed by the Serbs, which underlines the need for speed and determination.

But the main point is that this business has dragged on too long. The international community must not let another anniversary of the fall of Srebrenica pass, without making progress on the capture of indicted war criminals. The issue of war crimes in Bosnia, particularly those at Srebrenica, must be regarded by all Europe as a present scandal. If the international community cannot muster the will now to mount a vast effort to see justice done in eastern Bosnia, there is little hope that the International Court in Rome will ever serve the high purpose that Kofi Annan described this week.

This is a test for all of us.

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