On 11 July this year, a number of heads of state and foreign ministers, including Bill Clinton, will meet on a plain seven kilometres outside Srebrenica. They will be there to commemorate the fact that it is twenty years since over 8000 men and boys were killed while the women were put to flight and were subjected to systematic persecution here in the heart of Europe. The site where they will be gathering, Potočari, was the headquarters of the UN forces who were supposed to protect the people of Srebrenica. Their total failure to protect the people of the little town as they had promised to remains a lasting brand of shame, on the international organisation. Potočari is now a cemetary and memorial site for the many lives that were lost.
The war in Bosnia from 1992 – 1995 was brutal. Few had believed that ethnic cleansing could ever take place in Europe after the Second World War. The people of East Bosnia, where Srebrenica lies, were particularly hard hit by this war, and the Muslim population was sometimes wiped out and sometimes put to flight from areas where they were in the minority. They therefore gathered in areas where they had been in the majority, and became Muslim enclaves. One such place was Srebrenica. In 1993, the French General Philippe Morillon, who was commander of the UN protection force UNPROFOR, visited the town. He was shocked at what he saw. The town was overcrowded, and there was hardly any drinking water left. Food, medicines and other vital commodities were lacking. In response to what he saw, Morillon proclaimed that he would guarantee that the town was safe, and that the UN would protect the townspeople and never leave them.
The situation gradually became even more difficult, and so untenable that it was decided through a number of resolutions by the UN Security Council in spring 1993 that the status of these areas should be upgraded to “safe areas” This implied deploying extraordinary forces and attempting to secure a humanitarian corridor, so that aid despatches and emergency material could get through and protect the people against repeated attacks from surrounding Serbian forces. On 16 April 1993 the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 819 and demanded that “all parties and others concerned treat Srebrenica and its surroundings as a safe area which should be free from any armed attack or any other hostile act”. The Security Council also demanded that the enclaves of Zepa and Gorazde should be protected by the UN. On 18 April, the first protective forces, UNPROFOR, reached Srebrenica.
In the course of the spring of 1995, the situation deteriorated further. UNPROFOR, which was supposed to protect the people in the enclave, was itself under attack, but had instructions to remain neutral. In the lead-up to the Srebrenica tragedy a sort of paralysis set in, a denial that people in this UN-protected area could be subjected to genocide. It was unimaginable to both the international community and to those in the enclave. However, an article in The Guardian on 4 July this year implies that there was also a trade-off between the various international stakeholders, as a result of which they remained passive instead of actively trying to stop the unfolding genocide. In other words, it was not merely paralysis ensuing from inability to conceive of the inconceivable, but also a collision with a peace plan in which the so-called safe areas would be a bargained.
In early July, around 600 lightly armed UNPROFOR soldiers in Potočari attempted to protect the people of Srebrenica. One of the main problems was that they had no petrol, and much of their patrolling had to take place on foot. The commander of the Dutch forces at Potočari, Colonel Karremans, contacted UN headquarters and pleaded for “close air support”, after several grenades had landed near the refugee centres and the UN’s own observation posts. On 9 July, 30 UN soldiers were taken hostage, while the Serbian forces intensified their attacks. Thousands of refugees fled from surrounding areas in to Srebrenica because they found that UNPROFOR was not giving them the protection they needed. In the afternoon of 11 July, two Serbian positions were bombed by Dutch F-16 aircraft. The Serbian forces responded by threatening to kill the Dutch hostages and shooting missiles at the refugees. These threats put an effective stopper to further NATO bombing. A few hours later, the commander of the Bosnian Serbian army, Ratko Mladic arrived in Srebrenica with a camera team. He invited Karremans to a meeting, and issued an ultimatum that the Muslim population must hand over their weapons to the Serbian force in order not to be shot. At that time the town was under Serbian control and the UN forces were paralysed, as was NATO. Later in the evening of 11 July, General Mladic and followers paraded triumphantly through the empty streets of Srebrenica. The performance was filmed, and has been preserved for posterity. This is the day that is now commemorated as the fall of Srebrenica, but the nightmare was not over on the evening of that day.
The UN soldiers handed over 5000 Muslims who had sought refuge at the Dutch base in Potočari , and in return 14 Dutch soldiers who had been held hostage were released. On 16 July came the first reports of a massacre, and the first Muslims who had fled from Srebrenica arrived in the Muslim areas. Following negotiations between the UN and the Bosnian Serbs, the Dutch soldiers were eventually allowed to leave Srebrenica, leaving behind them weapons, food and medicines. In the course of those few days, over 8000 people were killed.
The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) has passed a series of judgements, reached conclusions and condemned the action as genocide. In other words, it is internationally acknowledged that what happened cannot be regarded simply as a massacre; it must be seen as a systematic attempt to exterminate the basis for existence of a group: genocide. The story of the war in Bosnia and the genocide is not yet over. Two of the main architects behind the events, the Serbian Bosnian political leader Radovan Karadzic and the Serbian Bosnian military commander General Radko Mladic, are sitting in the dock at the ICTY in Haag, awaiting their sentences. New findings are emerging through these criminal proceedings, and survivors are learning more through the process of identifying those who were killed. Additional insight is also being gained into how and where they met their end, and the circumstances surrounding their deaths. The war in Bosnia and the genocide in Srebrenica changed the UN and international peace diplomacy and interventions. One mantra was that this must never be allowed to happen again. But the new state, Bosnia and Herzegovina, which was formed after the fall of Srebrenica and heavy international intervention in the wake of the fall, is rife with ethnic divisions in both politics and everyday life. In many ways, the ethnic policy prevailed, and Bosnia became effectively divided along ethnic lines at all levels of society.
When the international guests arrive at the cemetery in Potočari on 11 July to remember the dead, it is not only as observers, but also as accomplices in the tragedy, albeit in different ways. Can they prevent it happening again, or have they helped to lay a foundation that will enable ethnic nationalistic politics to rise again, and have outcomes as tragic as the one that is to be commemorated on 11 July this year?
- Translation from Norwegian: Beverley Wahl