Conflict Alerts # 409, 14 July 2021
In the news
On 11 July, the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina gathered in thousands to commemorate the 1995 Srebrenica massacre; the day the killing began. They also reburied 19 newly identified victims whose remains were found in mass graves and recently identified through DNA analysis. The massacre is known as the only acknowledged genocide since World War II; 26 years after the genocide, only a handful of the officials and the military officers have been brought to justice, for the organized killing, burial, and cover-up operation. An estimated 20,000 people were involved in the gruesome massacre of up to 8000 Muslim Bosniaks from Srebrenica.
On the eve of the anniversary, Milord Dodik, the Serb member of Bosnia's presidency, denied that what happened in Srebrenica was genocide and stated to a newspaper that the mourners are "burying empty coffins."
Issues at large
First, a brief history of the massacre. The Srebrenica Massacre took place on the sidelines of the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia that followed the disintegration of Yugoslavia. They were unleashed by the territorial ambitions and nationalistic passions that set the Bosnian Serbs against the Croats and Bosniaks, the two other ethnic factions. During these years, Bosnia and Herzegovina were under attack by the Serbian and Croatian forces, who were each trying to carve a Greater Serbia or a Greater Croatia. An estimated 100,00 people were killed during this war. The Serbian forces were attacking villages, towns, and cities in Bosnia with an aim to "ethnically cleanse." At the time, under the protection of the UN and NATO forces, the Muslim town in Eastern Bosnia, Srebrenica, had been classified as a safe zone for non-Serbs.
On 11 July 1995, the Bosnian Serb army overruns Srebrenica which caused tens of thousands of refugees to flee to the Dutch forces' compound. Mladic, who led the Bosnian Serb army, ordered the evacuation of all elderly, women, and children civilians, and all the men of fighting age were taken as prisoners. In the days following this, more than 8000 Muslim men and boys were systematically butchered by these forces and dumped the bodies in mass graves. In order to try and erase the evidence, the forces with the help of a few civilian companies dug them and reburied them in other locations. By 17 July, witness accounts emerged of harrowing accounts of murder, rape, and torture.
Second, the regional and global responses. The international response led to the Bosnian Serb political leader being indicted on 24 July, and the military chief Ratko Mladic on 16 November by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. However, over the years, only a handful of the perpetrators have been indicted for the various roles they have played in the massacre. A total of 48 individuals have been sentenced in the past 26 years, and four have been given life sentences. In 2003, Bosnia and Herzegovina conducted their own set of investigations and came up with a list of names of those who played a part in the crimes in and around Srebrenica, but to date, even the direct perpetrators captured from 1995 are yet to be indicted. Additionally, even though the massacre has been declared a genocide by international and national courts, but Serb leaders in Bosnia and neighbouring Serbia continue to downplay or even deny the evidence of what happened. Two days before the 26th anniversary, a Srebrenica Genocide Denial report was published, which identified at least 234 instances of genocide denial in regional public discourse and the media in the past year. On the same day, the Bosnian media reported the celebrations of the Serbian War in the backyard of a Church right above the memorial centre, with provocative music.
Third, justice and reconciliation. International Tribunals were set up to bring to legal liability the perpetrators of the genocide. The Bosnian government in 2003 issued a public apology over the incident, and in 2019, the Dutch supreme court also upheld partial liability of the Netherlands to the deaths caused under their watch. Legal and symbolic justice have been offered at various stages through the past 26 years. Attempts have been made to engage with the survivors and make a record of their experiences to deal with the denialism and the revision of history. However, delayed justice, outright political denial, and the sheer depth of the loss from the massacre remain haunting.
Fourth, the counternarrative of historical denialism: two popular narratives from the Serbian side remain. One group believe that there were killings but state that the fatalities have been overstated and deny the role of Serbia supporting the Bosnian Serb regime. Another set of people believe the genocide never happened. The issue of Srebrenica never resonated in the Serbian society, and those that call the Srebrenica genocide in Serbia face condemnation and lawsuits.
The parallels of denialism and the slow pace of bringing the perpetrators to justice remain a glaring reality of the massacre. This could be a reflection of the popular sentiments among Eastern European leaders against the Muslims in the region. The responses to the genocide have largely been legal or symbolic; it would be useful to see if a humanized approach to dealing with the delayed justice and losses would be helpful to the families that lost their loved ones. A large part of the narrative and the denial of the genocide is used as a divisive element in the Bosnian and Serbian societies, which are counterproductive to the creation of a safe environment for communities to co-exist.