Srebrenica’s enduring legacy of loss

By Khadija Patel 12 July 2013

It’s been 18 years since the death of more than 8,300 people in Srebrenica. Eighteen years since “a deeply shocking, disturbing moment in European history.” By KHADIJA PATEL.

Eighteen years after the fall of the United Nations “safe area” of Srebrenica in July 1995 to Bosnian Serb and Serbian forces, the memory of genocide and forced displacement lingers; a global legacy of loss. To date, almost 6,000 victims of the Srebrenica massacre have been buried at the Potocari memorial park. They represent only a portion of those who were killed. According to data collected, more than 8,300 people were killed in Srebrenica in the summer of 1995.

Emir Suljagic is the author of Postcards from the Grave, a first-hand account of the Srebrenica massacre. He was a refugee during the war in Bosnia and was 17 years old when his family fled violence in the Drina valley in 1992 for the safety of Srebrenica. He taught himself English and became an interpreter for the UN forces stationed in the town. It was a job that would ultimately save his life.

Recounting the events of 11 July 1995 to the BBC, Suljagic said, “I first knew what would be happening the moment they started separating men from women and children.

“I knew that whenever they separated men from women, they most of the time kill the men.”

In Srebrenica and the surrounding towns and villages, Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) men and boys were rounded up in fields, public buildings and stadiums in preparation for their execution.

Drazen Erdemovic, who was found guilty by the Hague Tribunal for “enforced participation in the Srebrenica massacre” said during his testimony, “I couldn’t shoot anymore, my index finger started to go numb from so much killing. I was killing them for hours.”

Erdemovic himself is believed to have killed about 80 people.

In the five days following 11 July 1995, 8,372 people would be killed.

Benjamin Ward, Human Rights Watch’s Deputy Director for Europe and Central Asia, says Srebrenica was the worst crime in Europe since World War II. “It was a deeply shocking, disturbing moment in European history,” he said in a telephonic interview with Daily Maverick.

According to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, these events in Srebrenica were replicated in at least eight other municipalities in the country.

Ward says that while there were other examples of such mass killings, Srebrenica was the most egregious example of the failure of the international community to protect civilians in the Bosnian war.

“The town was supposed to be a safehaven under the protection of UN peacekeepers, and the lightly armed peacekeepers were unable to prevent the Serb forces from seizing the town and from taking prisoner the men and boys – some 8,000 men and boys. Some of them probably competent to be soldiers, many of them not.”

The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and the United Nations’ highest court, the International Court of Justice in The Hague, have labelled the events in Srebrenica in July 1995 “a genocide”.

The United Nations approved the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. This convention establishes “genocide” as violent crimes committed against groups with the intent to destroy the existence of the group.

In April this year Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic apologised for the first time on behalf of Serbia for the attacks on Srebrenica.

“I am down on my knees because of it. Here, I am down on my knees. And I am asking for a pardon for Serbia for the crime that was committed in Srebrenica. I apologise for the crimes committed by any individual on behalf of our state and our people,” he said.

Nikolic, however, stopped short of labelling the Srebrenica massacre a “genocide”.

He contends that the allegation of “genocide” must still be proven.

Still, his apology represents some progress. Until five years ago, Nikolic was a member of the ultra-nationalist Serbian Radical Party, which has denied that Serb forces committed any crimes during the wars of the 1990s.

“I think it is fair to say there are still very different accounts about what happened during the war in Bosnia,” Ward, the Human Rights Watch researcher, says.

He points out that justice is already being served on some of the perpetrators of the massacre.

Ratko Mladic, the wartime Bosnian Serb army chief, is on trial at The Hague on various charges, including genocide, over the Srebrenica massacre. Serbia has also convicted four of its paramilitary soldiers of war crimes in 2007 after video footage emerged that showed them executing six Bosnian Muslims in a forest near Srebrenica days before the massacre.

Ward believes that what is less advanced than the pursuit of justice for the crimes committed in Srebrenica is the process of reconciliation, of firstly coming to terms with what happened during the war.

“Most of the Bosnian Muslims, Bosniaks who were forced out of Srebrenica, have not returned. They now live in the majority areas in Bosnia,” he says.

He believes that the process of reconciliation depends on an open examination of what happened during the Balkan wars and an acceptance that both sides of the conflict sustained losses.

To date, efforts by civil society to establish a truth and reconciliation commission to forge a unified narrative of the war has not received sufficient support from governments.

“I do think the regional truth commission is important and needs more political backing,” Ward says.

The international management of the July 1995 Srebrenica crisis continues to resonate as failed because of an unwillingness by the international community to use force to intervene in the conflict. The massacre of Srebrenica is said to stand out as the international community’s most egregious failure to intervene during the Bosnian war.

“I think that clearly it does have relevance beyond Europe and particularly in terms of…the way in which the UN developed the contexts of the responsibility to protect, even some of the discussions today about how effectively to respond to what’s happening in Syria and whether in fact it’s possible to meaningfully protect civilians without being a party to the conflict,” Ward says.

And yet, just a year before the Srebrenica massacre, another genocide, this time in Rwanda, was also blamed on an international community that was too slow or too reluctant to intervene to prevent the death of civilians where sovereign governments were unable to.

The UN adopted the principle of  “Right to protect” or R2P in 2005. It was intended to be the first piece in a new international legal framework for stopping war crimes after a century of ad hoc humanitarianism. At its core, R2P holds that when a sovereign state fails to prevent atrocities, foreign governments may muscle their way in to stop them.

Ward adds, “I think also that also had an effect as well on the response of NATO to the subsequent war in Kosovo in 1999. I wouldn’t want to say that it was the sole factor, but I think it was certainly an important factor.”

So while the massacre of Srebrenica was a turning point in the West’s attitude towards military engagement in Bosnia and later on, in Kosovo, it is perhaps in our perspective of the international community’s involvement in current day conflicts that most sharply amplifies the tragedy of Srebrenica.

The ongoing war in Syria is one such example. It illustrates on one hand the frustration with the international community’s efforts, but also illustrates the mistrust of the international community to effectively manage conflicts without first promoting its own interests. And so it is in Myanmar, where the Rohingya people continue to suffer persecution without rousing much attention, that the legacy of Srebrenica is also felt.

Since the last anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre, a further 409 bodies have been discovered in mass graves. The legacy of Srebrenica is one of recurring loss. DM

With additional reporting by Goolam Hassen

Read more:

  • Remembering Srebrenica on Al-Jazeera
  • Memories of a better future in the aftermath of the Srebrenica genocide on Open Democracy
  • Srebrenica’s legacy –A slideshow on Reuters

Photo: A Bosnian woman embraces the coffin of a relative, which is one of the 409 coffins of newly identified victims from the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, in Potocari Memorial Center, near Srebrenica July 11, 2013. The bodies of the recently identified victims will be transported to the memorial centre in Potocari where they will be buried on July 11 marking the 18th anniversary of the massacre in which Bosnian Serb forces commanded by Ratko Mladic killed up to 8,000 Muslim men and boys and buried them in mass graves. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic



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