Srebrenica Revisited

As soon as we entered Bosnia-Herzegovina in July 1995, we learned that the Serbs had overrun the United Nations designated “safe area” of Srebrenica. Approximately 60,000 civilians had been held up in the Srebrenica enclave, and subjected to a blockade of food for three years and to intermittent artillery bombardment. The U.N. Security Council empowered U.N. forces to take measures, including the use of force, to protect the “safe areas”. However, when the Serbs troops attacked Srebrenica, confused and frightened Dutch U.N. troops offered no resistance, and let them pass through. We changed our plans, and headed for Tuzla, forty miles north of Srebrenica in eastern Bosnia, where thousands of survivors of the onslaught were being transported.

Young, tough Swedish soldiers with short blond hair and the light blue berets of the U.N. Protection Forces in the Former Yugoslavia (UNPROFOR) are stationed on top of tanks and in sandbagged bunkers around the barbed wire enclosed Tuzla airbase. The “blue helmets” are on high alert, but the show of force seems belated since the Srebrenica refugees have already been expelled from their homes.

Inside the base, seven hundred white tents are pitched in geometric rows across two kilometers of open fields on either side of the main concrete runway. Shallow, two-foot wide trenches cut into the sun-baked mud, criss-cross the camp carrying dirty water to a nearby stream. Approximately five thousand internally displaced Moslems are now housed in the camp. They are mainly women and children packed ten to a tent. Red, green and yellow dresses and blouses are hung out to dry on ropes stretched between the tent poles.  The colorful peasant clothes are a bittersweet reminder of life before the war.

The camp has an eerie feeling. Many of the women have a distant, vacant look. There appear to be no adult men here.

The UN has done an efficient job erecting the refugee camp on short notice. Workers have set up centrally placed water tanks, latrines, a vaccination unit, medical facilities and a food distribution center. Lines of women holding plastic buckets with UNHCR stamped on them wait at the communal water faucets.

We found the camp hospital located in a large airplane hanger at the far side of the base. Large pipes and vents line the inside walls and ceiling of the large room. The room has the look of a medieval death house. The building is not ventilated, and the air inside is heavy with the nauseating odor of urine and feces. The concrete floor of the hanger is packed with tight rows of black iron beds, all occupied by exhausted and debilitated elderly patients who survived the siege of Srebrenica, and the evacuation to Tuzla. Thin and sickly, they stare open-mouthed at the ceiling. Despite the oppressive heat in the building, most of the patients are bundled in woolen blankets.” – Field notes, M.Viola

We had not known what happened to the men and boys of Srebrenica when we were working in Tuzla, but in the weeks and months that followed, their fate became evident. U.S. intelligence, deaf to warnings of an imminent massacre in the preceding months, was able to identify satellite photos showing large numbers of males gathered in a soccer stadium. The following day, they were gone and evidence of plots of freshly turned earth consistent with mass graves was seen in the photos. Aggressive investigative reporting by David Rohde of the Christian Science Monitor confirmed body parts, personal effects, and spent shell casings at the site of the freshly dug plots, and interviews with eyewitnesses left little doubt that a large scale massacre had taken place.

The Dayton-Paris Peace Accords of 1996, ended the war on the ground, and stipulated that the country be divided into two entities, the Muslim and Croat controlled, Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the Serb controlled, Republika Srpska.  Srebrenica became a Serb town in the Republika Srpska, an irony not lost on the mothers and wives of the victims. A cynic might say that the existence of the Republika Srpska is proof that the Serb campaign of ethnic cleansing accomplished what it set out to do: the destruction of the multi-ethnic state of Bosnia where people refused to be identified by their religious beliefs. Since the signing of the Peace Accords, there has been no serious movement for a “Truth Commission”, as happened in South Africa, Rwanda, and other countries torn by wars or massive human rights violations. To participate in a “Truth Commission” the perpetrators have to assume some degree of culpability. The Bosnian Serbs will not admit to committing atrocities, and prefer to play the victim.

The search for justice for atrocities committed during the Bosnian War was left to the investigations of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) at The Hague. Although burdened with a surfeit of cases and long procedural delays, the ICTY has executed a number of high level indictments and convictions. With respect to the Srebrenica Case, the Court has been diligent in its investigation of allegations, and has convicted 13 Serbs for from 5 years to life imprisonment, including General Radislav Krstic, who was one of the high ranking officers that led the attack on the enclave. The two most celebrated, and most important, ongoing cases involve Radovan Karadzic, former President of the Republika Srpska and Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, and Colonel General Ratko Mladic, Serb Army Chief that led the assault on the Srebrenica civilians. An immense amount of detailed information has been uncovered- from exhumation of 21 grave sites, demographic data, intercepts of Serb messages, insider witnesses, and the detailed plans of the killing operation of non-combatants- to convict the indicted. Srebrenica is the first case in which the ICTY has been able to secure convictions of Serbs for genocide, in addition to crimes against humanity and war crimes.

Despite Karadzic and Mladic’s attempts to denigrate the authority of the Court, there will be some justice obtained if they receive life sentences as the overwhelming evidence indicates that they should. Nevertheless, the proceedings of the ICTY have not made life easier for Muslims trying to resume their lives in Bosnia. Most Serbs in Bosnia, and in Serbia, see the Court as another attempt by the West to unjustly cast blame on them, and defame their war heroes. At this point, Bosnia Serb leaders appear to prefer false myths to the horrid, painful truth of what happened at Srebrenica, in the ethnically cleansed villages, and in the death camps. The only hope for Bosnian Society is that eventually there will be a dialogue, some common language between Bosnian Serb and Muslim. It will be the power of new symbols, and a new vocabulary in a country where discourse is dead.