Srebrenica massacre – a bloody legacy in the Balkans

Twenty years on, the pain felt by the survivors and relatives of those killed in the Srebrenica massacre has not dulled a bit. The Serbian Prime Minister was forced to flee the 20 year commemoration of the massacre as he was pelted with stones by a crowd of Bosnian Muslims. Carrying a banner with PM Aleksandar Vucic’s words from days after the massacre 20 years ago – “If you kill one Serb, we will kill 100 Muslims” – they made it very clear that the Serbians have not been forgiven. So what happened in Srebrenica in 1995? 

The massacre took place during the Bosnian war, and was part of a concerted campaign of genocide and ethnic cleansing. After the death of dictator Tito in 1980,Yugoslavia was steadily drifting apart. By the early 90s, the first ‘state’ had broken away, with Slovenia becoming independent after a short war. The next to go was Croatia, which through fierce fighting against Serbia had created a de facto state by 1991. The real battle however was going to be in Bosnia, a region divided between Catholic Croats, Muslim Bosniaks and Orthodox Serbs. After a yes vote in a referendum on independence – boycotted by the Bosnian Serbs – Serbia decided Bosnia was not going to slip away.

Red = Serb, Green = Bosniak, Blue = Croat, Yellow = Mixed

The war began with incredibly vicious ethnic cleansing in the majority-Serb east of the country. The actions were carried out by the Bosnian Serbs, but with the support of Serbia itself. Muslim villages were burnt, men and boys were tortured and murdered, and women were systematically raped. It was a campaign of fear to drive out the Muslims and turn an ethnically mixed part of Bosnia into a pure Serb region. As the Muslims fled, some were besieged in enclaves such as Srebrenica.

In 1993 the UN declared these enclaves safe zones, under the protection of UN peacekeepers, and they filled up with refugees. In 1995 however, the Bosnian Serb army under Ratko Mladic began moving in. The demoralised peacekeepers, including 450 Dutch soldiers in Srebrenica, were left in an unclear position regarding the approaching Serbs, and without sufficient backup. The result was that the peacekeepers essentially stood by while men, women and children were being murdered, tortured and raped all around them.

In early July 1995, the enclaves were handed over to the Bosnian Serb Army. Immediately men and boys were separated and taken away. Over the next few days over 8000 of these Muslim civilians were killed in mass executions. It was the worst massacre in Europe since the Second World War.

Shortly after this the war was brought to an end through NATO intervention. Over the last few years the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo had been under siege by the Serbs, causing tremendous suffering in the city. In August ’95 a mortar strike that killed 43 civilians in a market was used as a direct pretext for NATO to get involved, and the Serbs were forced to the negotiating table. However the solution that was created – a federal Bosnia with a complex powersharing system – is still seen as fragile.

The killings were part of a complex three-sided war, in which war crimes took place on all sides. Bad feelings ran back to the Second World War, where a fascist Croatian militia collaborated with the Nazis against the Serbs. However, there is no doubt that the Bosnian Serbs together with Serbia attempted to create a ‘pure’ region using the most vicious of tactics – ethnic cleansing and genocide.

It’s also important to remember though that the Western leaders at the 20 year commemoration this week are some of the same leaders who stood by and watched Yugoslavia fall apart. The lack of effort on the part of Europe and the US allowed these crimes to take place. They saw nothing to be gained by playing ‘policeman’ until it was too late, and it was this mistake that led NATO to get involved in the far more controversial bombing campaign in 1999 to drive the Serbs out of Kosovo.

Serbia today has made a lot of effort to apologise for their actions during the war, and are steadily heading towards EU membership. However their refusal to describe the massacres as genocide, and the Serbian PM’s reception at the commemoration, demonstrates that there is still plenty of bad blood in the Balkans.

Much of this post is based on my notes from a lecture on the Balkan wars by Aernout van Lynden, a Dutch correspondent who covered the war, and taught a course on War and Media at my university last year.

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