Today marks 25 years since the beginning of the genocide in Srebrenica. It is the most recent and we must hope, last genocide in Europe. Sadly, already, we cannot say in the world. Since 1995, the killing of Darfuris in Sudan was ruled the 21st century’s first genocide. More recently, the killing of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar has been unofficially classified as genocide (though not legally declared as yet). Rodrigo Duterte’s regime of murder has the systematic look of genocide but without the international outrage. In part, perhaps due to it’s moral guise of targeting criminals. Though genocides have been declared since, none have had the spotlight and attention of Srebrenica – not coincidentally due to the it’s geography – that it did not happen in a faraway land in Asia or Africa but in Europe, in a country neighbouring Serbia and Croatia – historic allies of France and Germany respectively.
Never again. The words that rightly follow genocide. Words that rang so clear and firm after the Second World War that it seemed unthinkable genocide could happen again – at the very least on the same continent and in the same century. But it did. And not in a desolate corner of Bosnia away from prying eyes – but under the watching eyes of the U.N. The same U.N who adopted Raphael Lemkin’s definition of genocide in a bid to legally enforce the spirit of the words “never again”.
WHAT HAPPENED IN SREBRENICA
In 1993 Srebrenica was designated a U.N safe area. Bosnian Muslims or ‘Bosniaks’ were supposed to give up their arms but after years of war and with an active Bosnian Serb presence (the VRS army) they did not and warfare continued despite it’s safe area status. Though the safety of the Safe zone was flimsy, the U.N acted as a crucial buffer stopping the Bosnian Serb army from entering and seizing control.
But in July 1995 Ratko Mladic, the General in charge of the VRS Bosnian Serb army, entered the town in a convoy of tanks and jeeps loaded with men and weapons. For the Bosnian Muslim (Bosniak) population there were two choices: Go to the U.N base for protection or take to the forests in a bid to get to safety 100 kilometres away. Seeing the Bosnian Serb military presence and knowing the brutality of the warfare over the last 3 years, Bosniak combatants headed to the hills for safety. Most of the women, children and elderly men headed to the base. There, recorded for TV cameras, accompanied by UN soldiers, General Ratko Mladic promised food and safety for the civilians behind the wire-mesh fences in the UN compound. For the cameras and to the watching world it began as a straightforward occupation. Victory for the VRS with a full scale retreat by Bosnian forces and no bloodshed. Very soon, all that changed.
The men and boys who had decided to go to the UN base were pulled apart from their families and detained separately – some in warehouses and other buildings while others were trucked to sports fields, meadows, schools and other sites. At various location, for miles around and for the next few days – the killings began. The trail of people – a mix of combatants and civilians – who took to the forests snaked for miles and were quickly found by the VRS troops. Some were killed by shelling. Others, it is said, by poisoned water sources and chemical weapons en-route. Some were tricked by VRS forces posing as the UN. Most of those captured were not taken as prisoners of war (as mandated by the Geneva convention) but grouped together and executed Just like those taken from the UN compound. Throughout Srebrenica and the surrounding areas the killings were organised and carefully co-ordinated.
The first arrivals of the march to freedom waited for friends and family further back in the column. Those that did arrive came with stories of killings. The safe waited anxiously, hoping their loved ones would come. Some did, emerging after days, weeks, even months of hiding in the woods. Many did not. The same story of anxious waiting and drip-fed stories of slaughter played out for the women and children bussed out of Srebrenica, waiting in temporary camps, hoping on news about their sons, husbands and brothers. The women were largely spared death though many were raped and brutalised in other ways – survivors attest to seeing a baby taken from her mothers’ hands and killed in front of her.
Archive footage of news reports in the day immediately following the occupation of Srebrenica tell a foggy, gradual drip drip of truth. First, the reports show Mladic’s forces capturing the town. In the days that follow, stories of scattered bursts of violence emerge. ‘Killings’ become ‘massacres’ and then, the first graves are discovered, criminals are arrested, and the word genocide is used. The years wear on, political figures stand trial, mass burials take place, and at last, the events starting on the 11th July in Srebrenica are legally classified to be genocide. In the last few years, both Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb General and Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb President have been found guilty of genocide in Srebrenica.
THE CONDITIONS FOR GENOCIDE
Genocide doesn’t happen overnight.
Busses to take women and children away. Thousands of gallons of fuel – in war time – to do so. Earmarking and locating killing sites; schools, warehouses, fields and assigning forces to run them. Then, the trucks to load the bodies and diggers required to dig holes for them. Years later; to return, excavate those graves, remove the same bodies and bury them afresh elsewhere to make sure nobody finds them. Think of the mechanics, machinery, men and money needed for all this. And then, perhaps the biggest task of all – silence. From Bosnian Serb residents who saw it happen but continue to hide the location of undiscovered graves – to those in local government refusing to use the word genocide.
Denial filters down from the architects of the crime – defending themselves in court by conjuring images of ‘rogue units’ taking revenge, denying the facts and claiming what happened was not a well-orchestrated pre-planned attack. Genocide isn’t quick. It needs tactics, manpower, investment, agreement and people all along the long chain to agree, adhere and never waiver from that plan. Not for weeks or months but years. Factoring in the sustained denial, it becomes decades.
Long before Srebrenica, Radovan Karadzic, the self-styled leader of the Bosnian Serbs stood in front of the Bosnian parliament and declared that Bosnian Muslims could not defend themselves in a war and that they might disappear entirely. Those prescient remarks were ignored by the rest of the world. In 1992 concentration camps were discovered in Northern Bosnia by British ITN and Guardian journalists. News of the camps made headlines around the world and the cover of TIME magazine. The world started to become concerned but largely, nothing was done.
Images of forcible transfers, Bosniaks being placed on busses taking them away from their homes to free up territory for Bosnian Serbs to move in was given a catchy new slogan – ethnic cleansing. The world watched but again nothing was done to stop it. Karadzic, his General Ratko Mladic, Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic and their troops were moving slowly, testing to see how much they could do and get away with. The answer – a lot.
The stage for genocide was being set for at least 3 years during the war – (though there is evidence that planning started before the onset of war). Srebrenica was not a shocking, sudden, hijacked plane. It was not an anonymous man with a rucksack in a packed arena. It was not a fire in a tower block or national landmark engulfed in flames. It was slow, obvious and deliberate. Leaders and their army consistently pushed the boundary, brazenly ignoring international laws, treaties and conventions. And we all watched it happen on the evening news.
Never again means nothing if the signs aren’t followed and the path to tragedy is ignored. Genocide isn’t sudden. It’s sustained. It is slow. It is shrewd. It requires the media. It requires the support of citizens and high approval ratings of politicians openly promulgating extreme, hateful views. Slowly inching to extremes as they realise they can get away with more and more. We have plenty of leaders of that ilk in power today…
IT CAN HAPPEN ANYWHERE
It happened in Bosnia – a nation proud of it’s high proportion of inter-ethnic marriages and multiculturalism, where the people truly believed their leader Tito’s motto ’brotherhood and unity’. Tito’s death left a gap which nationalism came to fill. An opportunist, once a banker, called Slobodan Milosevic came to rule in a time of uncertainty. Instead of calling on togetherness and the spirit of similarity, Milosevic exploited and deepened those divides conjuring images of historic battles and struggles, myth building in order to fuel old, long forgotten divisions in a region that had lived peacefully for decades. Within a few short years, the fabric of a country whose balance was delicately woven was ripped apart.
Today the despots are less subtle than Milosevic was – they don’t start with calls to history and heritage on disputed lands and mythic battle fields. They ban travel. They send refugees back to warzones. They separate families at borders. They pose proudly in front of billboards declaring we should send refugees back. They write articles mocking religious attire – some ban beachwear aimed specifically at integration. The hallmark of genocide is secrecy. The words ‘final solution’ were euphemistically used in Nazi Germany, a manifesto to murder millions of jews was never officially declared. Each generation seems to learn more about staying silent.
Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic continue their denial from behind prison bars – others flaunt their denial from office, like Bosnian-Serb politician Milorad Dodik. Despite repeated proof at numerous international war crime trials and thousands of articles of evidence, despite bodies, graves, witnesses, confessions and international law. New ways are crafted of appealing to the extreme right inspiring hatred towards certain groups. Karadzic was not subtle when he warned of Bosniak / Muslim extinction and even less so when he allowed TV crews to film ‘aid camps’ where emaciated men were not even hidden from view. More and more extreme ‘strongmen’ type leaders are emerging around the world, cheered on for less tolerant, less inclusive views. Until the 2010’s UK leaders were clamouring over each other to promote multiculturalism. But the buzz words have changed – borders and migrants (itself a misnomer) are in vogue now and extremity wins votes.
The American Dream is mentioned far less now. White picket fences have become ‘beautiful’ concrete walls. The EU’s free movement policy became a rallying cry for British isolationists clambering over each other to decry the arrival of even white, European visitors of the same faith. People are working hard to find differences despite the wealth of similarity they have with the people they want ‘out’. Refugees and asylum seekers, by law required to be housed when fleeing war, are called migrants and opportunists. What has happened to civility and openness and tolerance? For the words ‘never again’ to mean anything, we must be proactive, vigilant and sensitive enough to feel the winds of change. For a long time now, it has felt like a storm is coming.
Srebrenica is not history. Srebrenica, in and of itself, should not be forgotten – for the tragedy and the failure of the international community and the UN itself. But today, it is also a warning of just how fast the tide of tolerance can change and just how blatant and flagrant hatred can become. And at it’s worst what it can lead to – genocide.
If we are to mean never again, we must educate ourselves by looking to the past and understand how it happened before. It is beholden upon all of us to see the signs and to do more.
That’s why it’s important that all of us, always, remember what happened in Srebrenica on the 11th July 1995.
Written by Ismar Badžić
RECOMMENDED READING / VIEWING:
Mothers of Srebrenica – A Bosnian-based charity run by the mothers who lost husbands and sons in the genocide.
Remembering Srebrenica – A British-based charity with lots of resources and stories:
More on the UN definition of genocide.
The brilliant and award-winning documentary The Trial of Ratko Mladic will be broadcast on BBC 4 on Monday 13th July at 23:30 GMT+1
I’m currently working on a documentary called Facing Karadzic about the Bosnian war. I have kept it under wraps because it isn’t finished but since I couldn’t go to Srebrenica this year, and the film contains a lot about Srebrenica, I’ve decided to make it available online for 7 days – until Saturday 18th July.
Below are links to both the full film and just the section related to Srebrenica.
Srebrenica (10 minutes): https://vimeo.com/437261281
Full Short Film (28 minutes): https://vimeo.com/226714286