Today, July 11th, 2018, marks the 23rd anniversary of the genocide at Srebrenica, where 8,373 boys and men were killed intentionally by Bosnian Serb forces in one of six UN-protected “safe zones”. I always commemorate this day, a mental reminder of why I do what I do, study what I study. This anniversary, however, finds me with the need to share the story and its implications. I think history’s approach to Srebrenica and Bosnia specifically, and conflict more generally, informs more than a few dynamics of our current political climate. This will be long, and most likely cumbersome to read. But I need to write it, felt compelled to share it, and appreciate the time of those who finish it.
The Srebrenica genocide was the worst act of mass violence in Europe since the Holocaust. Though this blog post is not meant to give a comprehensive history of the breakup of Yugoslavia, and certainly not a comprehensive history of the Balkans, it is important to understand the basic idea of what culminated in the death of over 8,000 people. After the breakup of Yugoslavia, there was a devastating fight for independence in the former federated states. The worst fighting was in Bosnia and Herzegovina between 1992 and 1995. The conflict, simplified, was between three primary ethno-religious groups: The Croatian Catholics, the Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks), and the Serbian Orthodox. Bosnia, a country that had a very heterogenous demography at the breakup of Yugoslavia, correspondingly saw the worst violence. It was the only one of the group that, during the 1990s, experienced what has been determined to be genocide.
The 1995 genocide in Srebrenica was precipitated by the conflict between the Bosniaks and the Bosnian Serbs, the latter supported by Serbia proper and the Yugoslav National Army (JNA), which Serbia had inherited control over when Yugoslavia collapsed. Srebrenica, which lies in the Drina valley, represented a strategic geographic location for the boundaries of Republika Srpska (an intended Republic of Bosnian Serbs) and Serbia proper. Unfortunately for the Bosnian Serbs’ aspirations, the Drina Valley was composed of primarily Bosniaks. The solution to this barrier was to ethnically cleanse the undesired population.
Between 1992 and 1995, the area had changed hands between the two sides. On April 16, 1993, the United Nations (UN) mandated Srebrenica a “safe zone”, protected from violence by the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR). A direct consequence of this mandate was that the city swelled with refugees, reaching a population between 50,000 and 60,000 people. The Bosnian Institute of the United Kingdom estimates that at least 296 Bosniak villages surrounding Srebrenica in the Drina Valley were destroyed by Bosnian Serb forces prior to July 1995, uprooting more than 70,000 Bosniaks. Those that were not ethnically cleansed flocked to Srebrenica, with the promise of safety and protection. At the same time, the residents of Srebrenica were beginning to starve from siege conditions, as Bosnian Serb forces prevented aid convoys and all food from entering the area.
On July 6th, UNPROFOR posts fell to advancing Bosnian Serbs. Some Dutchbat, the unit assigned to Srebrenica for UNPROFOR, retreated to Srebrenica, but others surrendered. On July 8th, a Dutch YPR-765 tank withdrew, drawing the ire of the residents who called for it to stay for their protection (an angry resident threw a grenade at it, destroying the tank and killing the Dutch driver). Bosnian Serb units were ordered to advance and capture Srebrenica. On July 11th, the Bosnian Serb forces, including leader Ratko Mladic, entered the town and took control. The streets of Srebrenica were deserted as the residents had fled to nearby Potocari or had left in The Column to Tuzla. In Potocari, residents tried to find UNPROFOR protection in an empty hangar serving as a UN base, but the UN handed them over to Bosnian Serb forces and said the compound was full (first-hand testimony says it was not- I have been there, and it is a massive complex).
At this point, approximately 25,000 – 30,000 Bosniak women and children were forcibly separated onto buses and sent to nearby towns, whereas all men and boys of “fighting age” (over 12 years old) were massacred. It is difficult to say whether it was “systematic”. Eyewitness reports, which I won’t recount in detail here, claim that in the immediate aftermath, Bosnian Serb forces killed boys and men at abandon (and raped at abandon as well). Other groups of men were led to “the White House”, where at night gunshots were audible. There are reports of bulldozers trucking bodies into previously dug mass graves. The United States had satellite evidence – prior to the massacre – of mass graves being dug, and then post-massacre images of the graves having been filled in.
In addition to those men and boys killed in Potocari, a group of about 15,000 men and boys left Srebrenica on the night of July 11th, with the thought that perhaps if they made it to Bosnian-held territory, they would have a better chance of survival than if they were left to the hands of the Bosnian Serb forces they knew were coming to Srebrenica. This group is known as The Column. The Column marched through sniper fire, land mines, ambushes and other barriers from Srebrenica to Tuzla. Approximately 3,500 survived the journey.
In 2004, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) deemed the Srebrenica events an act of genocide. In 2007, the International Court of Justice upheld this decision. Some deny the genocide, and even the massacre. In 2016 Russia vetoed a UN resolution to the effect, saying that it was “anti-Serb”. Noam Chomsky vehemently disagrees with the decision that the actions were a genocide. This is not my view, however. Ratko Mladic is on record as saying that: “People are not little stones, or keys in someone’s pocket, that can be moved from one place to another just like that…we cannot precisely arrange for only Serbs to stay in one part of the country while removing others painlessly. That is genocide.” Radovan Karadzic, President of the Bosnian Serbs, issued Directive 7, which read that the Bosnian Serb forces were to: “…complete the physical separation of Srebrenica from Zepa as soon as possible…by planned and well-thought-out combat operations, create an unbearable situation of total insecurity with no hope of further survival or life for the inhabitants of Srebrenica.”
All told, 8,373 were killed in Srebrenica that we know of. In Bosnia as a whole, it is estimated that 82 percent of civilian deaths were Bosniak. You can see the faces of those killed in Srebrenica here.
I lived in Bosnia and studied conflict in the summer of 2015, the 20th anniversary of the Dayton Accords and Srebrenica (you can follow the experience on this blog). One of the most impactful things I ever did was march with thousands of Bosniaks on the Mars Mira (March for Peace). Mars Mira recreates, in reverse, the journey of The Column from Srebrenica to Tuzla. Every year, survivors, family, and activists march the 60 miles, ending in Srebrenica on July 10th, the day before the ceremonial burials of the bodies recovered that year. This year, 35 bodies will be buried.
Walking through the Dinaric Alps in the middle of July, it becomes hot during the midday heat. It is dusty on the stretches that are not surrounded by forest. You pass through a pathway that can only fit a single-file line of bodies, the sides of the path roped off by yellow tape warning of land mines (the floods of 2014 caused many mapped landmines slated for removal to move, increasing danger of inadvertently encountering one). You pass mass graves. You walk over discarded shoes. USAID distributes bananas, and kind Bosnian families distribute more tasty refreshments, if you’re lucky enough to get there before everyone else does. Everyone shares sweat and tears. On the 3rd day of the march, the group enters Potocari. First, you’re met by the Mothers of Srebrenica, a group of women who lost their sons, fathers, uncles, brothers, and husbands. They line both sides of the entryway, sobbing. I shudder to think of their experiences (mass rape was common, as was prostitution during the siege days to acquire some form of nutrients for family). I felt like an intruder- they might have imagined their son’s face, but they got mine.
When you enter, and you pass the women, on your left you see a hangar where the residents of Srebrenica were denied refuge by the UN. It’s massive, easy to see that it could have held everyone. But they were denied entry, those that were sheltered there forced out, handed over to the Bosnian Serb forces. To your right, you see the graveyard. They have a nice memorial wall, names of all the dead printed in granite. You leave roses there, just like at the 9/11 memorial in New York. Beyond the memorial is the graveyard. Depending on how many bodies they recovered for burial that year (35 this year), there are that many freshly dug holes. Today, the 11th, they will bury coffins covered with green cloth and filled with the recovered remains.
The work of recovering bodies is done primarily through the International Commission on Missing Persons. Chartered in Lyon, France in 1996 by Bill Clinton, the ICMP was founded to specifically work on recovery in Bosnia. They now work in multiple conflict zones and other disasters, including Colombia and Peru, in addition to the tsunami in 2005 and 9/11 remains. To date, they have recovered 90 percent of missing persons from Srebrenica. Because the work in Bosnia was so difficult, the ICMP is responsible for pioneering DNA identification technologies. I’ve met with the head of the Western Balkans program, Matthew Holiday, and he explained it. Most people associate mass graves with the Holocaust. The Germans were incredibly organized, documenting most of their killings. Bosnia was less clean. In Srebrenica specifically, there were secondary graves. This means that the bodies were dumped in one mass grave, then moved by machine to another mass grave. In some cases in Bosnia, this happened multiple times. Mr. Holliday told us of one body whose parts were found in four separate locations. The ICMP website lists one case where “22 DNA match reports were generated for different body parts of the same individual.” Because of this, the ICMP has a specific threshold they use for families. If they find a certain percentage of a body, they will call the family in and ask if that’s ok, or if they want the ICMP to keep looking. If the family says yes, it’s ok, they will prepare for burial. If the family says no, they’d like to have more, the ICMP will continue to collect as many fragments as possible. They bury them every year on July 11th.
The stories the ICMP told me will stay with me forever. I won’t take the time to tell them all. But I do know that the babies are easiest to find in one piece, a whole skeleton. That’s because Huggies diapers don’t disintegrate. Even after two decades, the diapers that once held bladders in hold entire baby skeletons in one piece.
It makes for easy recovery.
In Sarajevo on the 11th, it is silent. No music but classical is allowed, even in the taxi cabs. No television but the ceremony in Srebrenica. It is depressing, heavy, an anvil. Even if the sky is blue, the Miljacka laughing, the green hills tumbling into the main thoroughfares- even with that, it is as if color left the world, on this day.
I say all of this primarily because I believe it is absolutely necessary to bear testimony in a place of denial. We live in a world that has been dubbed ‘post-truth’. We live in a world that is so overwhelming, with tragedy and scandal and corruption and reckless abandon by elites playing with civilian lives, that it can be difficult to know what is true, to believe it, and certainly to see it. It is our job, always, to listen, to believe, to allow the oppressed to speak, and to value narrative.
I was incredibly blessed to have Hasan Nuhanovic as one of my instructors in Bosnia. Hasan led the lawsuit against the Dutchbat for complicity in the Srebrenica genocide. He was a translator for the UN in Bosnia, but after asking if they would protect his family with him, they said no. He identified his brother by his shoes, because that was the only identifiable part of his skeleton. He tracked down his mother’s murderers. They had raped her, beat her, and they handed her remains to him in pieces in a trash bag. Used, abused, and discarded.
I mention this also because, on an international scale, it is important to hold those complicit responsible. NATO knew the massacre would occur and called off air support, for various reasons. The Dutch peacekeepers not only stood by but actively released Bosniaks to the Bosnian Serb forces, knowing what the outcome was likely to be. The United States CIA had satellite imagery of mass graves being dug, standing empty, and being filled over. Madeleine Albright didn’t present this evidence to the UNSC until August – though the graves had been dug much earlier. We knew. Just like we know that Syria is happening. Just like we know about the Rohingya, and we knew about them at least four years ago. That’s by my count- and I was informed publicly, by a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. We knew of Rwanda. We have done nothing.
But it comes to the theoretical point – what is the government’s responsibility to intervene in another sovereign state’s affairs? The government is responsible insofar as its citizens imbue it with responsibility. We live in a world where our government is denying progressive policy; caging children at the border; rampaging haphazardly across the globe; ignoring basic human rights; and generally reneging on all moral expectations. But we cannot expect it as a government, a body, to find responsibility because it “should”. It is our job, as active, engaged citizens, to imbue it strongly with the expectation to do what we see as responsible. If we called our senators about Srebrenica, Rwanda, Myanmar, Syria – what difference might be made? If we, as humans, made an effort to march for humans – what difference might be made? You cannot expect of a government what you do not demand be expected. You cannot demand expectation without expecting it first of yourself.
My experiences in Bosnia, and my experience with Srebrenica, has informed my own life experience. The experience brought me face-to-face with atrocity, with narrative, with a qualitative evidence of real-world impact that policy – or lack thereof – has. It has guided my studies, my passions, my motivations. It has caused me to look hard at the relationship between peace and security, between conflict and stability. It has forced me to reckon with a world that at once provides butterflies and the color purple, in the same breath that it gives genocide and mass murders. We pay for violence and charge for beauty. We starve art but feed a military-industrial complex.
It is hard to see trauma and to continue fighting without being exhausted yourself. By the end of my time in Bosnia, I wanted to leave – but at least I could. I have nightmares of mass graves – but at least I can wake up. I haven’t visited Arlington on purpose, even though I’ve been in Washington, D.C. for a year, because I know that the first time I walk among an endless field of white stones I will need to sit down and cry alone – but at least I can make the decision to avoid that experience until I am ready. Those that experience trauma firsthand do not have these escapes. But I have also learned during my time studying conflict, becoming expert at the worst side of humanity while wholeheartedly believing in and encouraging the best parts of it, that it is ok to recognize when you need a break, a moment, a time to heal, too.
That does not mean to stop fighting. If we know, we can fight. But to know, we must listen. We must intentionally absorb narrative, encourage dialogue, and respect a qualitative approach to a world that is nothing less than lived. We must find empathy and pair it with agency in a time that seems to be full of apathy and helplessness.
All told, 8,373 boys and men lost their lives beginning today, 23 years ago. They lost them in the most gruesome ways. But that was not the singular instance in the conflict. An estimated 100,000 died, whether in the siege, of starvation, of murder, or in concentration camps. Today I mourn them, and I mourn the international failure to do what was right, when it knew. And I mourn the current inability to do what is right, when we know. Upon Donald Trump’s inauguration, I wrote a piece wondering what kind of policy a lack of empathy would portend.
The memory of today, of the 100,000, of the millions throughout history, is our mandate to be more human for those still alive than we ever were for those that we found in pieces in mass graves.