20 years later, the ghosts of Srebrenica are still alive

The mass killings of some 8,000 Muslim men and boys around Srebrenica carried out by Bosnian Serb troops in July 1995 is widely referred to as the single worst massacre in Europe after World War II. The cruel events happened in the very last months of the civil war in Bosnia (1992-1995) and involved the failure of Dutch UN peacekeeping troops and the international community at large to protect innocent civilians. On 11 July 2015, the 20 years commemoration of the genocide takes place, bringing many world leaders to the memorial in Potocari. In Serbia as well as in Bosnia and Herzegovina itself, however, the population is still split about what happened and how “Srebrenica” should be remembered. The ugly business of memory politics is still in the making.

Bosnia: A divided country

20 years after the peace treaty of Dayton, Ohio, signed on 21 November 1995, Bosnia and Herzegovina is still a country that is totally divided. There are three different communities, Bosniaks (Muslims), Croats (Catholics) and Serbs (Orthodox). The political system is described as the “world’s most complicated institutional set up.” There are two sub-state entities, the Federation, mostly consisting of Bosniaks and Croats, as well as the Republika Srpska, mostly made of Serbs and consistently calling for more autonomy if not independence. Most analysts describe Bosnia as a dysfunctional country, in fact until today the international community (although today it is really the Europeans) still has a High Representative that can overrule any decision by domestic authorities. Ironically, the Austrian Valentin Inzko is in office in Sarajevo since 2009, hundred years after World War I.

All three ethnic groups have written their own history, each one has a completely distinct collective memory. In fact, the same events are interpreted in the completely opposite way, particularly of the civil war in the 1990s but also other episodes of the past, like World War II or the rule of the Ottoman empire. No common history is written, reconciliation of the past is not happening on a wider scale: it is differences instead of commonalities that are underlined by politicians. As a consequence of these differences, hatred continues. An example are internet forums that are full of hate messages against the other communities.

Short recap of the civil war

The civil war in former Yugoslavia started in 1991. However, is was not ancient hatred as some realist scholars of international relations tried to establish, namely Robert Kaplan. While there is no doubt that the intertwined importance of religion and ethnicity contributed to the conflict, and was constantly used and fuelled by nationalist leaders, it was also the economic factor that was responsible for the outbreak and the continuity of the civil war. During the 1980s, former Yugoslavia experienced a severe economic downturn with dwindling real wages. The IMF got involved and internal solidarity between the different republics deteriorated. The economic decline ultimately led to unilateral declarations of independence by the republics inside the Yugoslav federation that was responded by weapons. During the civil war, the black market, created due to international sanctions, allowed for huge profits to war leaders, while the average citizen had to suffer of shortages of the most basic products.

When the civil war arrived in Bosnia in April 1992, all three groups were fighting against each other. The international community established peacekeeping troops that suffered of shortages and were often used by the war factions. Over time, however, it became clear in many Western capitals that it was the Serbs who were the “bad guys,” while there was a tendency to support Croats (particularly in Germany and Austria) and the Bosniak side (mainly the U.S.). The civil war was cruel, bloody and included many massacres – by all sides.

The “Bosnian Book of Dead” established that at least 97,000 were killed in the Bosnian civil war. The numbers indicate that the large majority of all victims, and even more so among the civilian population, were Bosniaks, followed by Bosnian Serbs and Croats. ICTY research established that some 89,000 were killed with absolute certainty, although the more likely figure is 104,000. The established figure was much less than the general claim during the end of the war of “around 200,000” deaths, a number that is still sometimes wrongly used today. The horror of the civil war included more than a million people displaced, hundred thousands of disappeared as well as torture, severe injuries and rape as a weapon of war.

What happened in Srebrenica?

Srebrenica was one of three enclaves during the civil war. The map is from September 1994. (c) wikipedia.org

The Srebrenica genocide took place towards the end of the Bosnian civil war and even 20 years later, some events of July 1995 still remain unclear. The town had been attacked from the beginning of the war by the Bosnian Serb Army (VRS) but was defended by Naser Oric, an officer of the Bosnian army (ABiH) who established Bosniak forces under his command. Facing the threat of ethnic cleansing by Serb forces, Oric not only defended Srebrenica and the surrounding area that eventually was an enclave, surrounded by Serb-controlled territory, but attacked many Serb villages in 1992 and 1993, also killing Serb civilians, as established in the 2006 ICTY judgment (that was latter successfully appealed in 2008).

When the UN designated the enclave of Srebrenica as a “safe area” in 1993, only 450 lightly armed Dutch peacekeepers were stationed there. It was clear that this was not sufficient to defend the Muslim civilian population that was concentrated there. However, the U.S. and other major powers would have had the airpower to defend the area, but “decided to abandon Srebrenica to its fate” as The Guardian wrote. Bosnian Serb forces attacked the town of Srebrenica on 6 July 1995, not meeting any armed resistance from Bosniak forces. After infamous negotiations between Bosnian Serb general, Ratko Mladic, and the Dutch UN commander, some 10,000-15,000 Bosniak men and boys tried to escape on the night of 11 July to Bosniak-controlled Tuzla through the forest. They were executed on the spot or on their way in the forest or went missing, presumed dead. It is still not a 100% clear why they tried to escape, nor is it for sure established when the plan on the Serbian side was developed to murder the male population.

Even after 20 years of intense forensic research, “only” 6,241 victims have been identified. On 11 July 2015 another 135 people will be buried in the memorial of Potocari. The figure of the exact number of killings by the Serb troops is highly disputed, but most likely it is between 7,000-8,000 Bosniak men and boys. Instead of just remembering the names, a photo project was started to give faces to the victims. PRIO-research established that at least 7,475 persons were killed after the fall of Srebrenica. Also conspiracy theories are around, for example Noam Chomsky alleges in the book “The Srebrenica Massacre,” which he co-edited, that the figure of victims is more likely to be 800, claiming an international conspiracy of the West. However, not a single serious researcher has taken into account that claim of Chomsky.

The International Court of Justice in a 2007 ruling described the massacre of Srebrenica as genocide, as it was done the first time by the ICTY in 2004. However, it also made clear that it could not prove that Serbia intended or committed genocide in the whole of Bosnia, following the strict legal interpretation of the word genocide. It did not undermine with that ruling either the jurisdiction of the ICTY or to charge individuals of genocide. At the same time it showed how difficult it is for international courts to prove that a country with all its institutions bears responsibility, as long as not clear documents are available that outline the plan of extermination of one specific group.

The memory of Srebrenica in Serbia proper

In Serbia itself, Srebrenica is a very contentious issue and many political parties, including the pro-European ones, continue to dispute the events or even the evidence of what happened in July 1995. This does not come as a surprise, considering how Serbian media reported about the events at the time. The narrative was distinct, based on heroism and glory about the own side while only telling the massacres committed by Croats or Bosniaks. That complete denial of media and politicians continued until the rule of Milosevic ended in October 2000. When he was ousted of power, the denial in media stopped, but the facts and magnitude of the own crimes committed are often not presented and deliberately left aside.

Thus, it might not come as a surprise to see a widespread perception of actually being the victim during the civil war, embedded in a larger framework of memory construction that is based in victimhood, going back centuries with the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. In debates, the own crimes are usually justified with other massacres committed by Croats or Bosniaks, without allowing a critical reflection or an actual interest in the crimes committed by the Serbian side. This widespread lack of active engagement, with the exception of some local human rights NGOs in Belgrade, is connected with a continued isolation within the European context. Although EU membership negotiations officially started in January 2014, Serbia has for a long time been an outlier in Europe, almost a pariah state. Not surprisingly, many Serbs developed feelings of resentment and felt rejected by the West.

When fugitive Radovan Karadzic finally was arrested in 2008, accused among other crimes of the Srebrenica massacre, was interpreted as a sign of change in Belgrade towards its past. It was not until 2011 though, that the other mastermind of the Srebrenica massacre, general Ratko Mladic was captured. Both are accused of genocide in The Hague, but a ruling is still awaited. It is widely believed in the West that Serbian officials must have been complicit in the hiding of both individuals. The EU’s demand that only with a full cooperation with the ICTY an actual negotiation for membership would be possible, increased the pressure to the point, that Serbia’s government gave in. However, the case of Vojislav Seselj who returned from The Hague to Belgrade in May 2015 to due to “health reasons” to Belgrade shows Serbia’s ambivalence to the past.

The “progressive” president Boris Tadic attended in 2005 as the first Serbian leader the commemoration of Srebrenica. In 2010, the Serbian parliament condemned the Srebrenica massacre, and Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic, a former ultra-nationalist, issued three years later a personal apology. This year, the Serbian prime minister Aleksandar Vucic will visit the 20th commemoration of Srebrenica which can be seen as a sign of possible reconciliation. And yet, Vucic condemned a British-backed UN resolution in the Security Council that would call Srebrenica genocide and got the active backing of Russia. This goes in line with any Serbian leader who so far never used the word genocide in the context of Srebrenica. Today, no Serb can claim that there is no information out there about the circumstances of the event. It is not about knowledge, but it is more a denial about the past and the feeling that the own suffering is not acknowledged.

The Bosnian view in general terms

Inside Bosnia itself, there is an enormous fragmentation of memory that has produced competition and different narratives among the three main groups. That is in contrast to basically all other EU countries where on dominant narrative can be identified, even though this narrative might be disputed within the country. In Bosnia, there is simply no dominant narrative. Rather, there exist three official memory narratives based on three ethno-national identity constructions. All three sides glorify their own battles and soldiers, celebrating them as heroes, no matter in what crimes they have been implicated.

None of the group leaders wants to know anything about the “dark side” of their own history. Interestingly, all sides use World War II as a justification and redefinition of the civil war in the 1990s, constructing a continuation of fighting and suffering. Thereby, one can see that history is (mis)used to include historic events for the present that will allow to defend the own atrocities and make “sense” of the history and contemporary events. This allows constructing a homogenous continuity of narratives that should allow for not being questioned in the own group.

Memory construction among Bosniaks

The burial of victims at the memorial site in 2010. (c) Wikipedia

According to Bosniak narratives, the Bosnian civil war is seen as a Serbian and Croatian aggression aiming to destroy the newly created state of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Thus, the two groups are perceived as traitors, supporting Belgrade and Zagreb. Crucially, Bosniaks, and Islam at large, suffered of genocide. The systematic killing of some 8,000 Bosniak men and boys in Srebrenica is a symbol of suffering for the entire Bosniak nation. It seems to be clear though that “Srebrenica” has become a symbol of genocide not right away, but only after the civil war. In fact, the role of the Bosnian Army (ABiH) was very much contested, because questions were raised why the ABiH did not defend the enclave, in fact betraying and sacrificing Srebrenica. Moreover, it was also questioned why the “war hero” Naser Oric and his officers left Srebrenica in May 1995 and were not there to defend the enclave as they have done in 1992 and 1993. These allegations of political and military leaders also go against the late president, Alija Izetbegović.

There is not much space in the collective memory for the own involvement in the war. If anything, it was about defending the country and liberating it, particularly in 1995 with its offenses in north-western Bosnia. However, Bosniak president Bakir Izetbegovic apologized in 2010 for any crimes committed by the ABiH, receiving severe criticism of nationalist Bosniaks. The own massacres, particularly against Serbian civilians, are not talked about or defended. A critical attempt to evaluate military campaigns and attacks are hardly to be seen. The creation of the Republika Srpska is often described as a “genocidal creation” as seen in this official newsletter, thus undermining from their side a common Bosnia that is mostly perceived to be undermined by the Republika Srpska in the West.

Instead of claiming any responsibility about the defense of Srebrenica, the Bosnian parliament claimed in a resolution of 6 August 1995, that it was the international community, thus the UN and the Dutch peacekeepers, as those being responsible. While the victims organizations in Srebrenica were originally also very critical towards the Bosniak leadership and army, this attitude shifted soon after the war. The survivors were also very vocal that wartime commander Naser Oric, who was detained in Switzerland on 10 June 2015, should be extradited to Bosnia and not to Serbia. This eventually happened to the disdain of the Serbian side. While a trial was started against Oric in Bosnia, he was released due to the decision of the court.

Bosnian Serb defense mechanisms

Also for Bosnian Serb memory narratives, the civil war is a main point of reference. Yet, the understanding of history is completely different than their Bosniak neighbors. The civil war is seen as “the homeland defense,” a necessary conflict of the Republika Srpska to protect ethnic Serbs in Bosnia from Bosniaks and Croats. The two other groups were traitors, because in contrast to the Bosnian Serbs they wanted to leave the Yugoslav federation. The crimes committed by the Bosnian Serb Army are a huge challenge and so are the internationally recognized crimes, particularly Srebrenica. However, the defense mechanisms are very strong, as it already has been described about Serbia proper: crimes have been committed on all sides and Serbian victims are ignored.

Only with the help of the international community the Potocari Memorial was established and inaugurated in 2004 to commemorate the victims of Srebrenica, because the Bosnian Serb tried to resist it. In November 2004, the government or Republika Srpska admitted “enormous crimes” that were committed in Srebrenica and issued an official apology to the victims. However, the word genocide was not used and ever since then, the politics of the government of the Republika Srpska has been downplayed of what happened.

World War II is used by Bosnian Serbs to pride itself in an antifascist legacy, whereby the collaboration of Serbian Chetniks with the Nazis are downplayed and the partisan fight against the openly fascist Ustasha in Croatia is glorified. It goes so far the president of the Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, declared in 2011 that the Serb people “largely carried the anti-fascist struggle in the former Yugoslavia, and due to that it cannot be a criminal and genocidal people.” Such kind of defense mechanisms should help to strengthen the in-group belief of innocence, whereby the rest are the responsible ones.

What’s about the future of memory politics about Srebrenica?

Is there any way that Bosnian memories can bridge their differences of memory narratives? Many see the accession to the EU as an opportunity to overcome the political divisions in Bosnia. However, politicians from all sides seem to be more comfortable in the corrupt environment at the moment, in comparison to a Western liberal democracy that EU accession would imply in the long run. As the nationalist parties from all sides do not want a change of the status quo, also the possibility of an EU integration process seems to be slim, to say the least.

It seems unlikely that a common, national Bosnian memory narrative can be established any time soon. The hope, however, would be that the nationalist memory politics of the moment, that are aggressive against the other and defensive about the own group, is slowly going to be overcome. Otherwise, hatred is going to continue and Bosnia as a country and its very identity will remain dysfunctional. The necessity of dialogue seems to be obvious, which would need to start in schools but also would need to involve adults, because they continue to portray messages of hate to their children. The creation of a complex history that is not self-centered but allows different perspectives, that is not monolithic but challenging, allowing pluralist voices, particularly of the victims from all sides, would be key. This should eventually allow for the long process of reconciliation instead of hatred.

This post has been informed by the following articles:

DiCaprio, L. (2009). The betrayal of Srebrenica: The ten-year commemoration. The Public Historian, 31(3), 73-95.

Duijzings, G. (2007). Commemorating Srebrenica: Histories of violence and the politics of memory in Eastern Bosnia. In Bougarel, X., Helms, E. & Duijzings, G. (Eds.), The new Bosnian mosaic: Identities, memories and moral claims in a post-war society (pp. 141-166). Aldershot: Ashgate.

Honig, J.W. (2007). Strategy and genocide: Srebrenica as an analytical challenge. Southeast European and Black Sea Studies, 7(3), 399-416.

Lyngstad, T.H., Brunborg, H. & Urdal, H. (2003). Accounting for genocide: How many were killed in Srebrenica? European Journal of Population, 19(3), 229-248.

Moll, N. (2013). Fragmented memories in a fragmented country: Memory competition and political identity-building in today’s Bosnia and Herzegovina. Nationalities Papers: The Journal of Nationalism and Ethnicity, 41(6), 910-935.

Obradovic-Wochnik, J. (2009). Knowledge, acknowledgement and denial in Serbia’s responses to the Srebrenica massacre. Journal of Contemporary European Studies, 17(1), 61-74.

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