Commemorating Srebrenica

18 years after the massacre at Srebrenica, justice and reconciliation have both been difficult to attain.

A main street is pictured in Srebrenica
Acceptance on all sides of the horrors of Srebrenica genocide is the only way to build a future that is not tainted by the massacre [Reuters]

On Tuesday, July 9, a procession passed through Sarajevo, carrying the remains of 409 victims of mass execution which took place in Srebrenica 18 years ago. A day before that, 5000 participants of the Peace March set along the 80 kilometre long route to Potocari, a village near Srebrenica, where the burial and commemoration is held. Cyclists and bikers from Bosnia, Germany, Austria, Slovenia, Italy, Turkey and Croatia joined in to honour the victims.

Commemorations are to mark 18 years since the Army of Republika Srpska entered Srebrenica, which was at a time a protected UN safe zone. the number of those killed, is estimated to be around 8000. Approximately 30 000 inhabitants have been displaced and relocated.

When I first visited Srebrenica, in the late 1990s, there was no memorial centre in Potocari, just an empty field and abandoned factories. Today, over 5000 victims are buried there, while many others are still declared missing. Podrinje Identification Project located near Tuzla has been established in 1999 to identify the human remains, using the DNA of the living relatives.

If you enter the Identification centre and look at the body bags, the gravity and sorrow of the July 1995 events becomes evident. In 2007, International Court of Justice ruled that the executions which took place in Srebrenica at that time constitute an act of genocide, the only genocide in Europe since the Second World War. Eighteen years later, we are still pursuing justice, contemplating reconciliation, and debating international involvement.

UN “safe area”

A year into the Bosnian war, on 16 April 1993, United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 819 declaring Srebrenica a “safe area”. It was to become a demilitarised zone, under the protection of the UN, the town of Srebrenica had a population of about 8000 people, 70 percent of which were Bosnian Muslims, and about 25 percent Bosnian Serbs. Combined with the rural areas, and arrival of refugees from the surrounding areas, Human Rights Watch estimates that approximately 37 000 inhabited the safe zone in the early 1990s.

However, in early July 1995, the Army of Republika Srpska advanced towards the town. Although international peacekeepers in Srebrenica asked for air support on July 10, it was initially refused, then written off as a bureaucratic error, and only in the afternoon of July 11 did two fighter jets arrive. However, the Dutch peacekeepers no longer had any negotiating power, as General Mladic’s troops had at that point entered the town.

The UN negotiated for the release of the Dutch troops, abandoning the “safe zone” and failing to ensure a safe relocation of Srebrenica’s Muslims. The remnants of the Dutch presence in Srebrenica can still be seen at the former factory in Potocari, which now serves as a museum, in the form of wall graffiti they left behind.

“Crime and punishment”

Although the UN and the Netherlands were at first given immunity from the prosecution, a Dutch court ruled in 2011 that “the State [was] responsible for the death of [the] men.” It is evident that the international community failed in Srebrenica. As we live in the world where foreign intervention has become a norm, rather than exception, the failure to engage in the UN protected zone that July is puzzling.

I want to clarify that in no way do I advocate international intervention as a successful means of resolving disputes, but rather to highlight the way in which intervention through Resolution 819 was not enforced. The debate has often centred around the question whether a small group of ill-equipped young Dutch soldiers charged with a task of keeping peace in Srebrenica were capable of preventing a genocide. However, what that should be asked is not only whether they could have done anything, but why there was no greater UN presence and diplomatic pressure at the time.

Failing in the prevention of genocide, the international community then intervened in the process of post-conflict justice. In May 1993, International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia was established through Resolution 827 to try the war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the wars in the Balkans in the 1990s. In the case of Srebrenica, the International Court of Justice ruled in 2007 that genocide took place in July 1995.

Justice remains slow and incomplete, as the trials for those considered responsible continues in the Hague. The former president of the Republika Srpska, Radovan Karadzic was arrested in 2008, and just yesterday, coinciding with the anniversary of Srebrenica, a genocide charge was reinstated against him by appeals judges at the UN. Ratko Mladic, a general in the Army of Republika Srpska, was arrested in 2011 and is currently under trial. A number of other trials are also being held in the Hague, primarily for high ranking officers of the Bosnian Serb Army. 

Serbia’s apology

The case, brought to the International Court of Justice by Bosnia against Serbia, did not only contain charges of genocide, but also indicted Serbia. However, the Court cleared Serbia of genocide charges, but instead found it guilty of failing to prevent the genocide and take steps in line with the Genocide Convention.

After a decade and a half of denial, Serbia’s Parliament passed a resolutionin 2010, apologising for the Srebrenica massacre. The resolution states that Serbia extends “condolences and an apology to the families of the victims because not everything was done to prevent the tragedy.” Serb’s current President Tomislav Nikolic has, in spite of previous denials of genocide, apologised, as has the previous President of Serbia, Boris Tadic. A peace group from Belgrade, Women in Black, is again this year taking part in commemorations, expressing the need to remind Serbian citizens of the crimes committed. However, public opinion on the issue is still very much divided.

What did we learn, eighteen years later

The genocide in Srebrenica happened towards the end of the Bosnian war, which claimed more than 100,000 lives and displaced around two million people. On the day after the commemoration, it is important for all citizens of former Yugoslavia, all nations and ethnicities to ask ourselves, as people, as individuals, how do we, eighteen years later, politically, emotionally, and as societies face both, past and future? What have we done, since 1995, to admit, to talk about apology and contemplate forgiveness? After almost two decades of annual commemorations throughout the country, ICTY judgments, years of denial, burials and identifications, have we learned anything since July 11, 1995? 

Three years ago, I returned to Srebrenica with the Alexander Langer Foundation and their project Adopt Srebrenica, attending workshops on creating unity with Italian and Bosnian students. It made me think how these Bosnian youth, of all three ethnicities, Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats, have been failed by our neighbours, friends, political representatives and the international community.

There was no talk of the guilt or apology, just a simple attempt to bring together the youth, carrying the burden of the past. Reading the transcript of the BBC interview with Hasan Nuhanovic, a former Dutchbat interpreter whose family was killed in Srebrenica in 1995, I couldn’t help but ponder upon part of his reflection: “this little [Serb] girl and my daughter should have a future.”

A future however, depends on the ways in which we deal with the past. The process of justice, conducted at the international level, has done little in encouraging reconciliation, let alone writing a common history, both of which should be an outcome of all successful conflict-resolution strategies.

Internally, contemporary political processes, deeply rooted divisions, politicisation of victims on all formerly warring sides, and the refusal of Bosnian Serbs to admit that genocide took place eighteen years ago only indicates that we have a long time until the horrors of Srebrenica will be accepted by all.

Building a future for all Bosnian citizens requires mutual respect for each other’s beliefs, traditions, history and memory, which without a viable Truth and Reconciliation Commission and wider political commitment remains difficult.


Lana Pasic is an independent writer and analyst from Bosnia and Herzegovina. She is currently studying for a Masters degree at Oxford University.