SREBRENICA, STILL AN OPEN WOUND




Srebrenica (BiH), July 2015. Following Tito’s death in May 1980, the Yugoslavian guiding doctrine of “brotherhood and unity” began to crumble under the pressure of ethnic and religious identity across Yugoslavia. With Serbia increasingly pushing for a Yugoslav centralisation of power in Belgrade, nationalism began to rise within each member state of the Federation, and on October the 15th 1991 the Socialist Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina (later to become Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina and then present-day Bosnia and Herzegovina – BiH) declared its national sovereignty following the lead of Slovenia and Croatia. On the one hand, BiH’s move further severed and weakened Yugoslavia, which by now had been reduced to the territories of Serbia and Montenegro (Macedonia had peacefully seceded in late 1991). On the other hand, it strengthened Serbia in its position of leadership in the central Balkan region while also boosting a sense of Yugoslavian identity in the country. This socio-political framework became soon recontextualized towards ideals of pan-Serbism and the creation of a Greater Serbia, shadowed beneath the less radical views of establishing a newly renovated and reformed Yugoslavia. In this regard, Belgrade’s main interest became that of unifying and incorporating all regions mostly populated by and of traditional significance to Serbs under one single entity. Therefore, the independence of Croatia and BiH stood now as a significant obstacle to the achievement of this plan, which Serbia intended to accomplish by acting in the guise of Yugoslavia in order to acquire territories outside its national borders.

At this time, BiH was inhabited by three main ethnic groups: Muslim Bosniaks (44%), Orthodox Serbs (31%), and Catholic Croats (17%). Prior to its independence, the BiH parliament largely reflected this ethnic representation of the country through its three main political groups, which together run the government in a consociational democratic manner. However, the secession of Slovenia and Croatia and the wars of independence which soon followed caused a critical impasse in the status quo. In this sense, a divide arose between those supporting the disintegrating Yugoslav Federation (primarily Serbs), and those seeking independence (predominantly Bosniaks and Croats). In this political climate, a national referendum was held on February the 29th 1992, whose results confirmed the will of Bosnian people to part from the Socialist Federation and claim sovereignty as an independent country – BiH. Bosnian Serb political representatives strongly opposed and widely boycotted the referendum, eventually announcing the secession of the territorial entity of Serb majority part of BiH called Republika Srpska (RS). This marked the beginning of a period of tension and military incidents between the newly constituted Army of BiH and that of RS. Hostilities eventually turned into open warfare in April of the same year, with the latter faction supported by the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) and most importantly the Serbian government led by socialist Slobodan Milošević. The conflict soon engulfed the whole country and the struggle for territorial control escalated into ethnic cleansing against non-Serb populations living in Serbian controlled areas, especially the large Muslim Bosniak communities located in Eastern BiH.

In this frame of reference, Srebrenica soon became a central issue in the War that ensued as well as an important subject for the immediate and long term aftermaths of the conflict. The events that took place in the small Bosnian village eventually came to shape with their outcomes the future of the country. Located about 15 kilometres away from the Serbian border, before the War the municipality of Srebrenica counted approximately 36.000 people, of whom 75% were of Bosniak origin. As the Bosnian War began, it soon became obvious that Srebrenica held a strategic position for the RS military command in order to achieve the full territorial control of areas along the border with Serbia. During the three years-long siege, the enclave slowly shrank to the immediate surroundings of the village, while its population swelled over time from 9.000 to almost 40.000 people – mostly due to refugees fleeing from neighbour villages which had already fallen under Serb control. In March 1993, following a large-scale attack to the enclave led by Serb forces as well as Serbian and international paramilitary groups, the United Nations (UN) declared Srebrenica a “safe zone” deploying UN Protection Forces (UNPROFOR) to the town in an effort to prevent further attacks and protect the local Bosniak population. In spite of this, on July the 6th 1995 Bosnian-Serb General Ratko Mladić began a full-scale offensive against the starved and exhausted Bosniak pocket and UN military command. The 300 UNPROFOR Dutch troops stationed in a former industrial plant could do nothing to avoid the bloodshed, outnumbered, outgunned and made powerless by hesitant and ineffective negotiations between Western powers and Serbia.

Srebrenica soon became scene to some of the most ferocious criminal acts perpetrated in Europe against civilians on behalf of a regular army since Second World War. During the days following the attack, a campaign of ethnic cleansing took place against the Bosniak and in general the non-Serb population. This occurred in the form of mass executions, systematic rape, deportation, and destruction of property, including buildings of cultural importance and places of worship. In a few days, more than 8000 civilians were killed with the intent of eradicating indigenous ethnic and religious groups present on the territory. An operation which also included the disposal of bodies in unmarked mass graves, their subsequent exhumation, mingling and scattering over various locations in order to conceal the traces of the crimes perpetrated. A sequence of events which eventually led to the institution of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the indictment of the masterminds responsible for those crimes.

On the 20th anniversary of the massacre, the wounds have yet to heal as the events that recently unfolded at the Srebrenica-Potočari Genocide Memorial remind us. While a day of mourning was observed across BiH on July the 11th 2015, some 50.000 gathered at the place which once was the heart of the Bosniak enclave and where today stands the mausoleum and about 6000 graves of the victims who in 1995 sought refuge here. During the remembrance day an additional 136 graves were dug in order to bury some of the most recently identified remains of those who died during the fall of the enclave. A delegation of numerous world leaders and military representatives also attended the event. Among them, former US President Bill Clinton, generally acclaimed and celebrated by the crowd, and Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić, who was instead strongly contested.

People began to arrive in the early morning from every corner of the country, but also Europe and the world. The commemoration started around noon with a series of speeches held by the various representatives of states, organisations and religious authorities, in the former headquarters building of the UNPROFOR military command. The ceremony then moved outside in the hot and harsh summer sunlight, at the mausoleum where 8372 names are engraved in stone at the centre of the vast burial ground. Here, the delegations paid their tributes to the fallen and addressed the crowd.

Vučić’s appearance was met with boos and strong disapproval by the crowd, despite his earlier statement to the press where he condemned the Srebrenica massacre as a “monstrous crime”, and expressed “regret and pain” towards the victims and their relatives. While he recently repeatedly pledged his full cooperation with Bosnian authorities and the ICTY in order to shed light and bring full justice, many Bosniaks still call him a “genocide denier” due to his ambiguous approach on the matter and his far-right past. Indeed, Vučić’s political past comes forth as that of a hard-line nationalist during the Milošević era and long time supporter of Ratko Mladić. It dates back from that same period the infamous comment “For every Serb killed, we will kill 100 Muslims”, expressed just few days after the Srebrenica massacre and quoted by the attendees at the Genocide Memorial on a large banner. His recent efforts to condemn the ethnic crimes commanded by Serb and Serbian leaders also do not seem to be popular among the Bosnian population, which criticises Vučić’s apparent restraint from referring to those events as a genocide. Therefore, the already quite tense situation quickly escalated when after laying flowers and receiving the commemorative roundel from the activist group Mothers of Srebrenica, while on his way to the VIP stand Vučić had to closely face the upset crowd. It was at this moment that the latter turned onto him with more than just words and jeers, and started throwing dirt, plastic bottles and whatever at hand, forcing him to hastily flee the event shielded by his security staff.

Vučić has become over time through his words and actions a catalyst to the frustration and suffering of the Bosniak community in BiH. However, the local population also feels betrayed by those countries and organisations which stepped in during the War in order to stop the hostilities and guarantee the respect of human rights, but instead failed in their commitments. In this regard, the unrest that stormed the Genocide Memorial few days ago should also be analysed beyond the ethnic violence perpetrated by Serbia and its current policies of denial, thus also taking into consideration the intertwined failed strategies of peacekeeping implemented by Western diplomacy. From this perspective, the UN, EU, US and NATO have all received strong criticisms for failing to protect Srebrenica. Especially the EU has been accused of downplaying the position held by Serbia in the war field, leading to poor decision-making both on the military and diplomatic levels. Indeed, Radovan Karadžić (then President of RS), Milošević’s, and Mladić’s plans were rather clear from the beginning, having threatened “blood up to the knees” if Srebrenica would have fallen in Serbian hands with or without the use of military force, as in fact eventually happened. Furthermore, recently declassified US documents have caused once again disappointment and anger as it has been made public that Western armed forces and diplomatic delegations were aware of the crimes and mass killings that were taking place just as the enclave and its refugees were being handed over to Serb control. Nevertheless, no immediate and direct action was taken by those in charge of keeping Srebrenica and its refugees safe.

As the genocide was about to hit its peak, the European delegation led by then Swedish foreign minister Carl Bildt once again met with Milošević and Mladić in Belgrade in order to negotiate a ceasefire. However, the choice was taken to avoid any reference to what was happening in and around the enclave as its fall was considered essentially inevitable and it could have eventually represented a strong argument for BiH during future and decisive peace talks. Unlike the US, the EU strategy had been developing since the beginning of the War towards the achievement of an agreement without a military commitment, therefore supporting the international embargo on arms enforced in the whole former Yugoslavia which ultimately was preventing BiH to defend itself. Therefore, when Mladić ordered the execution of the entire Bosniak male population of the enclave, he did so sure of the fact that the international community would have not intervened, as it had been already happening in many other circumstances such as in Sarajevo, and it eventually happened in this case too.

While after the fall of Srebrenica the War kept raging on in BiH, in early August 1995 Serbia invaded the Croatian region of Krajina in order to secure the Serb populated areas of interest in Croatia. In line with the Split Agreement signed between the then Croatian president Franjo Tuđman and Bosniak BiH president Alija Izetbegović, Croatia and BiH came together in order to fight Serbia back. The enforcement of the pact of mutual defence allowed for a quick and effective response from Croatian and Bosnian forces. These managed to promptly ward off the Serbian attack while also relieving the Bosnian enclave of Bihać, which was suffering a similar situation to that of Srebrenica. Within the bigger framework, this move finally produced a major shift in the military balance of the Bosnian War, therefore leading to new and firmer peace negotiations between the three countries and the signing of the Dayton Agreement in December 1995.

Twenty years on, the events that unfolded at the Srebrenica-Potočari Genocide Memorial show how the events that took place here in 1995 are still very vivid among the survivors, the relatives of the victims, and the Bosniak population all. A legacy which lays dormant beneath Srebrenica’s soil and in people’s hearts, ready to resurface and take different and various shapes. The sentences handed out to Slobodan Milošević, Radovan Karadžić and others by the ICTY have only partially quenched the thirst for justice and the consequences of war crimes, which will remain difficult to forgive for a long time to come. Additionally, many Serbs and Bosnian-Serbs still strongly oppose the ICTY findings and final rulings, labelling the international tribunal as a puppet organisation controlled by NATO and aimed at harming Serbian interests and citizens. While General Mladić is still on the run wanted for numerous counts of crimes against humanity, many demonstrations have been held on the streets of Belgrade in his, Karadžić’s and Milošević’s favour, where they are depicted by the demonstrators as national heroes.

Even though today BiH seems to have found a balanced solution onto which develop its future, in the aftermath of the War its two largest ethnic groups are still trying to establish a peaceful coexistence. In this sense, the country is more fragmented than ever before. Not only this is represented on the political side by two separate federal entities (Bosnia and Herzegovina and Republika Srpska), but it is also reflected on the territory with the presence today of regional sharp majorities as opposed to the widely mixed ethnic landscape existing prior to the War. Additionally, the country’s constitution is still largely based on the Dayton Agreements, a Western-made treaty vastly criticised since its inception for merely and overly focusing on the political side of the war rather than actively seeking and promoting peace at an inter-ethnic level. All these aspects highlight the actually fragile frame of peace and democracy on which the country today stands. An externally imposed and apparently sound status-quo, which however is constantly at risk of being thrown off balance by the same circumstances which generated the dissolution of the Yugoslav Federation and the subsequent conflicts.

© Mattia Alunni Cardinali 2022
© Mattia Alunni Cardinali 2022