It has been 20 years since more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys were massacred inside a UN safe haven, Srebrenica, by Bosnian Serb militaries. Thousands of women, children and elderly people were forcibly deported and a large number of women were raped. It was the greatest atrocity on European soil since the World War II.
The town of Srebrenica came to international news as a result of events during the Bosnian War (1992–1995). The major plan by the secessionist Bosnian Serb presidency included the creation of a border separating the Serb people from Bosnia’s other ethnic communities and the abolition of the border along the River Drina separating Serbia and the Bosnian Serbs’ Republika Srpska. The Bosnian Muslim (also called Bosniak) majority population of the Drina Valley posed a major hurdle to the achievement of these objectives. The killings in Srebrenica were executed by units of the Bosnian Serb Army under the command of General Ratko Mladic in July 1995. And what’s the main reason behind this? “Ethnic cleansing”. Yes.The term implied that non-Serbs were filth or infected.
We met our tour guide at the Battery Factory at Potocari now called Srebrenica Memorial Room. This 1980 industrial building was used by the UN Dutch Battalion as their headquarters. It was the symbol of optimism by the Bosnian Muslims escaping Srebrenica. But it rapidly became a scene of unspeakable loss and suffering. Our tour guide who happened to be a victim of the Bosnian war began telling us a story about the disintegration of Yugoslavia, the formation of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina by referendum, and the attack on the newly formed republic by Bosnian Serb forces backed by the Serbian Government and the Yugoslav People’s Army with the intention of merging and attaining Serb territory within Bosnia. He kept on saying how useless the UN Dutch armies during that time. How come a UN safe area “free from any armed attacked or any other hostile act” was literally attacked. Following the town’s capture, all men of fighting age who fell into Bosnian Serb hands were massacred in a series of executions. The women of the town and men below 16 years of age and above 55 were transferred by bus to Tuzla. It’s interesting to know that in 2005, Kofi Annan, then Secretary-General of the United Nations in a message to the tenth anniversary commemoration of the massacre, wrote that the UN had “made serious errors of judgement, rooted in a philosophy of impartiality”, describing Srebrenica as a tragedy that would haunt the history of the UN forever.
There was like a 30-minute film showing on what happened really during the Bosnian war. It was a heartbreaking moment. Watching how families separated from their loved ones and how they coped up with their lives after that is unimaginable. There was also a small gallery exhibition in the memorial room showing some disturbing photos captured during the war. Afterwards, we walked to the memorial site. The memorial entrance has a circular wall with the names of thousands victims with their dates of birth imprinted on the marble, a very depressing site actually. Beyond that wall, are the white marble tombs of the victims, each carrying this Surah: “And say not of those who are killed in God’s cause: “They are dead.” Rather they are alive, but you are not aware”. Honestly, I had goosebumps while walking around the area.
Some important dates after the massacre:
August 1995: NATO starts air strikes against Bosnian Serb troops.
November 1995: Following NATO air strikes against Bosnian Serbs, Bosnian Muslim President Alija Izetbegovic, Croatian President Franjo Tudjman and Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic agree to a U.S.-brokered peace deal in Dayton, Ohio.
December 1995: The three leaders sign the Dayton peace accords in Paris, paving the way for the arrival of a 66,000-strong NATO peacekeeping Implementation Force (IFOR) in Bosnia. The international community establishes a permanent presence in the country through the office of an international peace overseer. – Yes. The end of this war.
February 2002: Former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic goes on trial charged with 66 counts of genocide and war crimes in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo. Ex-NATO commander tells the court Milosevic knew Bosnian Serbs planned to massacre Muslims in Bosnia in 1995
March 2006: Milosevic is found dead in his cell in The Hague.
July 2008: Bosnian Serb wartime president Radovan Karadzic, one of the world’s most wanted men for planning and ordering genocide, is arrested
May 2011: Ratko Mladic was arrested in Serbia and currently in the Hague prison.
April 2013: Serbian President Tomislav Nikolić officially apologized for the massacre
2013 and 2014: The Netherlands was found liable in its own supreme court and in the Hague district court of failing in its duty to prevent more than 300 of the deaths.
July 8, 2015: Russia vetoed, by request of the Republika Srpska and Serbia, a UN resolution condemning the Srebrenica massacre as genocide, Serbia calling the resolution “anti-Serb”.
July 9, 2015: Both Members of the European Parliament (EP) and House of Representatives of the U.S. Congress adopted resolutions on Srebrenica reaffirming the description of the crime as genocide.
The Srebrenica massacre is one best example of actions where the forces of prejudice overwhelm the forces for pluralism. We should learn and remember these acts which are committed with intent to destroy a racial and religious group, to force them to evacuate, to prevent births within the group and to commit mass murder in order to rid a place of a people. These horrifying incidents provide us with important lessons and should be etched into our mind as a ‘never again’ moment.
When will we learn? This is a question I often find myself asking. Hello Syria.