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Srebrenica Today

The town of Srebrenica (pronounced “sreb-ren-it-suh”) sits near the boarder between Serbia and Bosnia & Herzegovina. It is the same population as my town — Roscoe and Rockton, Illinois — but its history and significance vastly outscale its size. It recurred in news coverage this past week, and not positively. But to understand the recent media coverage, you must first understand several pieces of the town’s history.

Background: 1946-1989

yugoslaviaYugoslavia’s location within Europe

Yugoslavia began several decades before 1946, but that history is another complex issue, and the narrative relevant to Srebrenica begins after WWII, when Tito became president. Yugoslavia was a merger of several regions that were left kingless after the Empire of Austria-Hungry collapsed. The Nazi offensive invaded in 1941, established a semi-puppet totalitarian regime called the Ustase, which murdered half a million people and acted in a generally-consistent-with-Hitler way, which shouldn’t surprise anyone.

But anyways. 1946 marks a turning point Yugoslavia’s history because, WWII dictatorships over, the country reorganized itself into six (or seven, depending on if you split up Serbia or not) republics under a new central dictator, Tito. He led the country in unity, didn’t show enough special treatment to any of the republics to upset the others, and split with the USSR to be a socialist, but not Soviet, state. Tito led the country in a nationalized market and socialist system mixed with some market elements.

Except “didn’t show enough special treatment to any of the republics to upset the others” ignores the fact that he completely did. Tito upset the Croats, who led a revolt/protest midway through his rule to protest unfair treatment relative to the Serbs. See John Cox, “The History of Serbia,” Westport, CT: Greenwood Press. 2002. 109 for more on the Croatian Spring and also for more in general on this historical backdrop.

So ethnic tensions grew, or rather, didn’t recede much from their WWII levels. This never led to a successful revolt against Tito, the country remained internally at peace, and he remained in office until his death in 1980.

And as the citizens sit back, helpless but to watch their country’s tenuous multi-ethnic peace dissipate into full blown war, everything came undone. Kosovo, a territory in southern Serbia, begins to protest, nothing gets resolved, other republics begin to protest, and Yugoslavia dissolves. The problem isn’t in dissolution; the problem is in which territories would fall under the auspice of which ultra-nationalist leader, and Kosovo became the issue. Slovenia and Bosnia-Herzegovina each declare independence. Croatia soon follows. Kosovo, which is not a republic, began to act like one, rather than a province within Serbia, and you can imagine how that went. Coincidentally the economy sinks into decline; real wages fell by 10% annually throughout the 1980s.

Civil War: 1992-1995

With these territorial issues and the economic slump came Slobodan Milosevic, a Serbian who constructed a dictatorial machine around himself, declared martial law in Serbia, seized control of the Serbian national media and cranked its propaganda up to 11. Yet, Cox writes,

“Milosevic did not suddenly become a full-blown nationalist and turn his back on communism overnight. Instead he performed an amazing, if malevolent, balancing act. He appealed at once to the Titoist legacy and to the new, anti-Titoist nationalism beginning to emerge among Serbs… He cleverly sat on the fence and worked both crowds; at other times, he switched from one tactic to the other. To the large numbers of Serbs who held military or state jobs, or who were pensioners, Milosevic played himself off as the upholder of Yugoslavia; he would preserve the status quo and they would preserve their positions, pensions, and pride. To the others, he promised to correct the injustices of the Titoist system and see that Serbs got their fair share of the pie — that is, that Serbia would dominate Yugoslav politics or else gather all of its co-nationals into a state to call its own.” (Cox, History of Serbia, 135).

Yugoslavia slid into civil war between its member republics. Serbia and Croatia fought, Serbia and Bosnia fought, I’m fairly certain if I remember correctly that Bosnia and Croatia fought, and everything fell along religious and ethnic lines (which were tightly associated with each other; you were either Muslim and Bosnian, Orthodox and Serbian, or Catholic and Croatian, with few exceptions).

(Of course there were Bosnian Serbs and Serbian Croats and Croatian Serbs and Serbian Croats and Slovenian Croats and Croatian Solvenes and every possible recombination of these identities, but “Bosnian Serb” refers to a Serbian person who live in Bosnia, so it’s a description of both geography and identity. When you only look at identity, it is clear-cut).

Hopefully this is enough historical background.

In the midst of this war, Bosnian Muslims were forced out of or fled from areas with hostile Serbian military presence and segregated themselves into little enclaves. The UN helped bus these refugees out of dangerous areas and into the enclaves (Cox, 149). These naturally became easy targets for the Serbian military to bomb, and they did. Thousands of casualties came from the refugee areas, and the UN again intervened to declare several of them “safe areas,” which didn’t mean much. This declaration meant that the UN would send peacekeeping forces (though light) to the towns, and also focused the international community’s attention on those areas, which led to bargaining with live hostages and Milosevic’s army threatening to destroy civilians whenever the UN intervened too much (Cox, 150). Not a great balancing act, but there wasn’t much else they could do.

Srebrenica: July 1995

So the war slows down in late 1994 and early 1995. But in July of 1995, the Bosnian Serbs (ethnic Serbians who lived in Bosnia and held allegiance to Serbia) invaded Srebrenica because the town held several Muslim Bosnian military figures. A few hundred UN peacekeepers had been in the town since 1993 when it was designated a “safe zone,” and they kept about 25,000 people safe, while 15,000+ civilians tried to escape the city. After several days of siege and shelling, the Serbs invaded and began a vicious massacre.

It is difficult to describe the event because our eyes glaze over numbers like 8,000, or 40,000 and we can’t process how large that is. We go about our lives in social circles of 200 people, maximum, and our brains tend to black out beyond that. But imagine this: an 11 year old boy is yanked off a school bus into an open field, made to stand up next to an open pit in the ground, has a machine gun place to his temple, and shot. His dead body falls into the pit with a lame thump, and they bring out the next boy. Eventually enough bodies accumulate to fill the pit, the troops dig another mass grave, and the process repeats until eight thousand men have been killed.

srebrenica-mass-graveA mass grave in Bosnia, 1995

You and your father escape the town, knowing that danger is imminent, and flee into the woods. But the Serbs were waiting in the woods. They convince you to turn yourself in peacefully — and nothing will happen! — so you walk over to them. They grab your shoulder to spin you around, and shoot you through the back of your skull.

Eight men are bound and thrown into the back of a truck. The truck slugs along a dirt path a few miles outside of town. It pulls into a small clearing in the woods. The men yell at the prisoners to hurry up, to get out of the truck quickly. They taunt the prisoners: “when you were killing Serbs you didn’t wait.” The bound men lay on their front, knowing they will die in a few moments. A few shake. The soldiers decide to move the execution elsewhere. So they walk the prisoners forward, making them put one foot in front of the other, into the line of fire, until they fall to the ground, skulls laced with lead. Two Bosniaks are left alive and are forced to drag their friends’ bodies into a ditch. The soldiers find another one left alive. A soldier farther back yells out, “wait, I have three bullets!” They aim, and take his life. (Very graphic Youtube link here; requires account login to verify age over 18).

A few 19 year old boys leave their house and try to escape westward, away from the Serbian troops. They get in a car to drive out. After a few minutes of driving, they pass the town limits and see something up ahead. It is a military roadblock and in a few moments they die. You can imagine how.

(The second and third examples are documented; the first and fourth are hypothetical)

Is that too graphic? It still understates reality. If we wanted to get really graphic, I could also describe the rape of the town’s women. The media picked up that story, along with the killing of the town’s men, and international pressure began to really build. It was graphic enough that UN leaders first began to allow rape to be categorized as an act of war, when used in war as an intentional tactic against the enemy combatants or population.

Does this make your blood boil? Do you feel anything while reading this? Did you want to scream when watching the video? Whatever you are feeling, multiply that by a factor of several hundred, and you might begin to understand the sentiment of the residents of Srebrenica today.

From Jane Springer, “Genocide: A Groundwork Guide,” Toronto: Groundwood Books / House of the Anansi Press. 2006. 73.

Muslim men were sent to concentration camps, tortured and murdered. The worst massacre of the genocide took place during six days at Srebrenica from July 11 to 16, 1995. There, under the eyes of international peacekeepers, the Serbian forces separated the city’s men (all those between the ages of 11 and 65) from the women. The men and boys were loaded onto trucks or buses and driven to execution sites in isolated locations where they were shot — 8,000 of them.

During the genocide, an estimated 50,000 Muslim women were captured and taken to schools or community centers where they were gang-raped and continually abused, for days or weeks or months at a time. The rapists told the women that they wanted to impregnate them so that they would have Serb babies. Once pregnant, the women were often kept imprisoned until it was too late for them to have safe abortions.

An estimated 200,000 of a total population of of 3.2 million Bosnian Muslims were killed in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Ultimately world leaders pointed to this massacre as the tipping point in the need for intervention. The UN had already been bombing Serbian forces, even in Srebrenica (though too late), but the whole situation really escalated after this.

The U.S. bombed the region, airdropped supplies to civilian areas and negotiated the Dayton Peace Accords, which ultimately ended the war in December of 1995. It was a long road to recovery, if by ‘recovery’ you mean barely mending the civilian populations, having to tip-toe ethnic divisions for fear of complete societal collapse, and the issue remaining at the forefront of the collective Bosnian and Serbian psyches. In fairness, progress has been made: some of the Serbian leaders responsible have been tried in international courts and been found guilty. But in large, this remains an undercurrent just below the surface of the political landscape.


The word genocide divides people. Nationalist leaders are viewed as weak by acknowledging that it happened, and their populations deny it, if they can. They don’t want to use “the G word” because it sounds so bad. An article hosted by Amnesty International notes that “denial has become the natural law of co-existence.” The country’s unstated but very consistent policy is to not acknowledge anything at all. This maintains a tenuous peace.

That same AI article:

The International Criminal Tribunal in the Hague, the International Court of Justice and the state court of Bosnia and Herzegovina have established it as such – genocide. What some deny ever happened is the only atrocity in Europe to be labelled genocide since WW2.

Actually, denial was the first reaction to the massacre – as the perpetrators of the crimes in Srebrenica dug up the primary mass graves, and moved the bodies into secondary and tertiary mass graves. At times, they even burned the bodies. From then onwards, it was easier to deny what had occurred. When the remains were found, the denial took another form – it was claimed that those killed were legitimate military targets. This argument is still being used, even though 421 child victims have been re-buried so far, one of them a new-born baby, and even though the adults who were killed include a 94-year-old woman, Šaha Izmirliæ.

The Bosnian Serb wartime campaign caused untold misery but it did not achieve its genocidal objective. Muslims continue to live in Bosnia and Herzegovina. A handful have even returned to Srebrenica. The fate of the nation depends on co-operation between the communities – but the trust is gone.  (Link here).

And the international court system is a cumbersome process with a high burden of proof. To be consistently found guilty, including in appeals, denotes the most certainty we can have that this really happened, and that genocide is the best term to describe it.

The international legal definition of genocide stated in the 1951 Convention on Genocide is worded this way:

Genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

So this means that genocide must be intentional — and you have to be able to prove it — that the perpetrators targeted a group “as such,” meaning because they are part of that group. Mass killings of another population’s military forces is not genocide, since that could serve a tactical purpose in the war, but indiscriminate killing of anybody, regardless of military status, could be. Killing is not the only form of genocide. Anything that destroys the target group also counts., like preventing births (forced sterilization included) would “deny them the right to exist,” though it may take a generation to achieve.

People associate genocide with mass murder because the only genocides they learn in school are the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide. But genocide may or may not include mass killings, and mass killings may or may not be genocide. My professor last fall for an International Relations class was adamant that Pol Pot’s mass killings in Cambodia in the 1970s was not genocide, because of the lack of national, ethnic, racial, or religious discrimination. He just killed everyone. He killed people of his own ethnicity too. (My professor quickly affirmed that his actions were a Crime Against Humanity and were several War Crimes, but technically by definition was not genocide). Conversely, the Canadian government (though this is hotly debated) committed genocide against its indigenous population without mass killings. They used forced sterilization and separated children from parents to assimilate them into Canadian society, essentially killing the indigenous society without killing the indigenous people.

This definition also includes “in whole or in part,” meaning that scale doesn’t really matter. Serbs targeted Muslims living in Bosnia, not all Muslims everywhere, but this doesn’t impact the events in Srebrenica.

So in the specific case of Srebrenica, on intent to destroy the court rules that “[t]he Bosnian Serb forces knew, by the time they decided to kill all of the military aged men, that the combination of those killings with the forcible transfer of the women, children, and elderly would inevitably result in the physical disappearance of the Bosnian Muslim population at Srebrenica.” (See Katherine Southwick, “Srebrenica as Genocide? The Krstić Decision and the Language of the Unspeakable” UT Dallas, for critical opinion. Link here). If this seems straightforward, it isn’t. It took months of debate to determine, and still receives scholarly dissent from Serbs and some independent analysts alike. But nonetheless, it stands as the official ruling.

On in whole or in part, we see that the population was not entirely destroyed, and also that the event occurred in less than a week. The Serbs also spared the lives of the women. But as men are requisite to reproduction, even this does not escape the definition’s wording of “imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group.” At any rate, they killed all the men. This certainly would be “in part” in a substantial way.

On a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, it is clear that the Bosniaks were distinct from the Serbs in both ethnicity and religion. This was not purely political (political genocide does not exist; notice party affiliation is not a category in this list) since Bosniaks were not just some distinct political group within Bosnia, held together by ideology. The divisions go deeper than that. The Bosniaks and the Bosnian Serbs were separated on Muslim-Orthodox and Bosnian-Serbian grounds. Both of these distinctions qualify in this part of the definition.

On as such, Bosnian Serbs have retrospectively made the claim that they only targeted military officers and outposts, and Srebrenica was an important military target. While the later is undeniable, the former is untenable. As the Amnesty International article above pointed out, people were killed that fell far outside the military recruitment age (like 12 year old boys, infants, and elderly women). But again, let us not think that genocide is only mass murder. The non-murder actions against the town’s women would also independently count as genocide, and this cannot be rationally justified under military grounds.

On (a), (b), (c), (d), and (e), the Bosnian Serbs certainly violated (a), (b), and (d). (c) was not committed because “conditions of life” were not imposed. The genocide lasted only a few days. This would be more fitting for something like the Holocaust where the targeted population was forced to live long-term in ghettos and later in concentration camps. These are conditions of life. But short term, instantaneous actions like the events in Srebrenica do not set up conditions of life. (e) was not committed to my knowledge, but again this is because this event was only a few days, not a widespread campaign.

(Although the Bosniaks disagree and argue that the entire segment of the civil war from 1993-1995 was a genocide, and that Srebrenica was only one example in a wider pattern of genocidal behavior from the Bosnian Serbs. At any rate, I still have not found in my research any separation of children from parents).

So, in my evaluation, this event really was a genocide.

That doesn’t stop some people.

This Month

Al Jazeera published an article this week about a new development in the post-war tensions. A Bosnian Serb named Grujicic is about to become the mayor of the town. Keep in mind that Bosnian Serbs, especially their politicans, either deny the events of Jul 1995 outright, minimize their severity by claiming the numbers are inflated, or reject the label of genocide.

Dan Mclaughlin, “Srebrenica tense as Bosnian Serb poised to become mayor,” Al Jazeera News, 13 October 2016. (Link here)

(Do note that the entire election might have to be redone due to ballot irregularities and a pending recount).

The town of Srebrenica, again, holds greater significance that one would expect. The head of the EU delegation to Bosnia and Herzevogina says that Srebrenica is “an enormous focal point,” and that “The next major challenge for Bosnia is defusing the danger around Srebrenica, the remote and troubled town.”

grujicicGrujicic, 2016, the mayor-elect of Srebrenica, and a Bosnian Serb

Now the article does point out that “Grujicic says he will not interfere with the annual July 11 commemoration of the massacre, but also insists that it is time to focus on boosting the town’s ailing economy and improving prospects for its residents.” This isn’t the worst policy to propose. I think improving the economy and increasing economic interactions between groups is a great way to force them to become interdependent, which deters civil war. But really? Not address it at all? Lets just move on, like nothing ever happened?

The last 18 months or so have seen an increase in polarization in Bosnia. Nationalist fervor has again been used by Bosnian Serbs to gain political power. The AJ article, referring to the most recent elections, says that “Bosnian Serbs rallied to Dodik in the elections, which also saw nationalists flourish in Bosniak and Croat areas, and swept several convicted criminals – including a war criminal – into local political office.”

Additionally, the aforementioned war criminal, now a higher-up politician in the province where Srebrenica sits, held a referendum “about opting out of the state judicial system, so it means in that area he is already working on independence,” according to the Austrian diplomat from the AJ article.

I hope you can see where I am going with this.

One individual mayor in the town doesn’t matter very much, beyond symbolism. But an entire province being politically flipped and then floating ideas about independence should really, really be cause for concern. When that same Austrian diplomat says that “for the international community there are not many red lines, but this is one,” we should be bracing ourselves for escalation. Escalation is not inevitable — it doesn’t have to happen, and certainly doesn’t have to happen on any given timetable we can predict — but it can, and that alone should be concerning.

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