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Vice Blog

Remembering Srebrenica on the Anniversary of the 1995 Balkans Massacre

In July 1995, more than 8,000 “Bosniaks” (Bosnian Muslims) were systematically killed by Serb soldiers in what is sometimes called the lone act of European genocide since World War II. It was the culmination of three years of ethnic cleansing.

by Giles Clarke
Jul 16 2014, 8:30pm

Muslim women whose relatives were killed in the massacre outside the Srebrenica-Potočari Memorial in Srebrenica, Bosnia. All photos by the author

In mid July 1995, more than 8,000 “Bosniaks” (Bosnian Muslims) were systematically killed by Bosnian Serb soldiers in what is sometimes called the lone act of European genocide since World War II. It was the culmination of three years of Muslim ethnic cleansing.

From July 11 onwards, a force led by Serbian General Ratko Mladić, commander of the Army of the Republika Srpska (VRS) and the elite, deadly unit known as the Scorpions, inflicted nothing short of hell on the Muslim population in and around Srebrenica.

The Srebrenica memorial, officially known as the Srebrenica-Potočari Memorial and Cemetery for the VIctims of the 1995 Genocide

It all began after the fall of Tito’s communist regime in the late 1980s. At that point in time, the multi-ethnic Socialist Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina was inhabited by Bosniaks (44 percent), Orthodox Serbs (31 percent), and Catholic Croats (17 percent).

After a declaration of national sovereignty on October 15, 1991, as the former Yugoslavia began to disintegrate, a referendum for independence was held the following February. The result in favor of independence was rejected by the political representatives of the Bosnian Serbs (who had boycotted the vote). Nonetheless, the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina was formally recognized by the European Community on April 6, 1992, and by the United States the next day.

Immediately following the declaration of independence, Bosnian Serb forces, supported by the Serbian government of Slobodan Milosevic and the Yugoslav's People's Army (JNA), attacked the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina in an effort to unify and secure Serb territory. A brutal struggle for regional control ensued, accompanied by the ethnic cleansing of the non-Serb population from areas under Serbian influence; in particular, the Bosniak population of Eastern Bosnia, near the border with Serbia was targeted. This is where Srebrenica lies.

A goat farmer stands in a field next to the Srebrenica-Potočari Memorial and Cemetery for the Victims of the 1995 Genocide.

From 1992 to 1995, the Bosnian Institute of the United Kingdom counted some 296 villages that were wiped off the map in this area around Srebrenica, though not all were Muslim (in fact, some Serbian villages were destroyed by Bosnian army forces in response to the invasion, and Bosnians committed some atrocities of their own, which helped keep the cycle of ethnic conflict going for years to come). Some 70,000 people were displaced from their homes in this region, with many thousands of Muslims killed. The chaos was largely ignored by much of the rest of the world. This inaction has now come back to haunt the United Nations, who had even set up the first-ever UN “Safe Zone” in the area but failed to prevent the massacre during the weeks after July 11, 1995.

When General Mladić drove into Srebrenica, he began rounding up and killing all the Muslim men he could find. Soon 25,000 local residents took refuge in the Dutch-run “Safe Zone” but were turned over after a few days, with Dutch-Serbian negotiations ensuring the safety of women and children only. The Dutch commander of the "Dutchbat" UNPROFOR (United Nations Protection Force), Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Karremans, was largely powerless, and his calls for airstrikes on Serbian forces were ignored in those critical first hours.

Dutch graffiti on the walls of the former UN peacekeeping headquarters

Much has been said about these UN troops and how they let this happen, but the lack of aid for vulnerable civilians originally stems from those who placed the under-resourced peacekeepers in Bosnia in the first place. UN leadership hesitated and allowed the massacre to happen.

The Dutchbat forces eventually handed over the last 3,000 people, mostly men of military age and a handful of younger boys, all of whom were executed. A large majority of the children were spared and shipped off to Tuzla. Less publicized was the fact that Serb soldiers picked up a number of young Muslim women in the vicinity of the powerless Dutch soldiers and gang-raped them nearby, their screams apparently audible from the UN base. The peacekeepers had arrived in 1993 and left two years later, having failed quite miserably. (On Wednesday, the Hague found the Dutch state liable for more than 300 deaths.)

Many of those transported to Muslim safe zones more than 60 miles away were women and children who got picked up by Serbs in coaches, their gas paid for by the UN. The 10,000-plus men left behind were not so lucky. Many were rounded up and shot over the next days and weeks.

One of the many factories on the outskirts of Srebrenica where Muslim men were rounded-up and detained before being driven to the hills for execution by Serbian forces

The men were instructed to dig their own shallow graves. After being shot, their bodies were thrown into these graves in locations so heavily mined that identification methods are still extremely perilous, adding to the on-going trauma some 19 years later.

Reflecting a year after the massacre, Jean-Rene Rues, the chief war-crimes investigator for the International War Crimes Tribunal in the Hague, said, “What we’re talking about here was a crime against humanity and a crime against humanity is a crime against all of us.”

Yet, like Rwanda the year before, the UN and world governments all stood by as these atrocities took place.

There are 8,372 names engraved into stone at Srebrenica-Potočari Memorial and Cemetery for the Victims of the 1995 Genocide.

As of July 2012, 6,838 genocide victims have been identified through DNA analysis of body parts recovered from mass graves; as of July 2013, 6,066 victims have been buried at the Memorial Centre of Potočari. Serbian President Tomislav Nikolić officially apologized for the massacre, although he stopped short of calling it genocide.

On October 4, 2005, the Special Bosnian Serb Government Working Group said that 25,083 people were involved in the broader Srebrenica operation, including 19,473 members of various Bosnian Serb armed forces; the number of direct participants in the slaughter is thought to be lower, however—perhaps 1,000 people. Of the individuals involved in the military operation, 17,074 have been identified by name. It has also been reported that some 892 of those suspects still hold positions at or are employed by the government of Republika Srpska, the Serbian state tucked into Bosnia and Herzegovina. Their names remain an official secret.

Ratko Mladić is finally in prison at the Hague after being on the run for 16 years. But the world is still waiting for the outcome of the trial.

A former car-battery factory where the Dutch peacekeepers were based. The words mean: "Comrade Tito, We Pledge Our Allegiance."

Emir Suljagic, a former UN translator and Muslim Srebrenica resident, talks to me about his life on the run during the days of the massacre. He later went on to become the minister of education in Sarajevo, Bosnia. He’s been a continual campaigner for the fair treatment of the Muslim population in Bosnia.

Outside the former car battery factory. On the slopes in the background lies the Srebrenica-Potočari Memorial.

Mothers, wives, and children’s statues outside the former Dutch UN peacekeeping headquarters in Srebrenica

Inside the former building of the Dutch UN peacekeeping headquarters. Some 25,000 Muslim refugees sought shelter in and around these buildings during the massacres, but eventually were evicted after the UN forces pulled out in late July 1995. 

"Ratko is a hero," reads the graffiti. Ratko Mladić, the general of the Serbian forces at the time of the massacres, is still sadly revered by some in the area today.

In central Srebrenica, a new minaret from a mosque sprouts up behind a ruin from the war.

A lone podium stands in one of the factories that the Serbians used to round up Bosnian Muslims. Every year, thousands of relatives gather to pay respects to those killed in the July 1995 massacre.