The atrocity is a vivid reminder that a mass slaughter took place on European soil on July 11, 1995, while the world looked the other way.
As Europe marks the 20th anniversary of the massacre of about 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica, the remains of victims — arms, legs and heads hidden by Bosnian Serb forces — are still being discovered.
The atrocity was the worst in Europe since World War II, and the exhumations are a vivid reminder that while the violence of the Islamic State group and Boko Haram has dominated the headlines recently, mass killing took place on European soil on July 11, 1995, while the world looked the other way.
A few months before the end of the Bosnian war, Bosnian Serb forces under Gen. Ratko Mladic took over a United Nations “safe haven” in eastern Srebrenica, separated the men and boys from the women, bound their hands, led them to killing fields and shot them.
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The bodies were later dumped in mass graves and then scattered to conceal the evidence. Some among the handful that survived did so by pretending to be dead and hiding under corpses.
On Saturday, a remembrance of the massacre will be held at the Srebrenica-Potocari Memorial in Bosnia, where rows of tombstones testify to the cruelty of the war. Past and present world leaders, including the presidents of Croatia, Montenegro and Slovenia, are expected to gather at a commemoration for the victims. Former President Clinton, whose administration brokered the accords that ended the war, will lead the U.S. delegation to the event, the Obama administration said Wednesday. Clinton will be joined by members of Congress and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
Paddy Ashdown, a former diplomat from Britain who was the European Union’s high representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina from 2002 to 2006, said at a ceremony in Westminster Abbey in London this week that the world must never again stand silent in the face of genocide.
“We could have prevented this horror,” he said. “We chose not to. We should therefore remember Srebrenica, not just to bear witness to those who suffered, but also as a warning to us all of what happens when we turn our back.”
In a region haunted by the past, reconciliation has been halting and deep wounds remain.
In a sign of the challenges, Russia on Wednesday vetoed a draft U.N. Security Council Resolution that condemned the massacre as a “crime of genocide.” Serbia, Bosnian Serbs in Bosnia and Russia, which is a close ally of Serbia, had criticized the British-drafted resolution as being one-sided, divisive and “anti-Serb.” The Hague-based war-crimes tribunal has ruled that the massacre constitutes a genocide.
Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin objected to focusing only on Srebrenica, calling the resolution “confrontational and politically motivated” and stressing that Bosnian Serbs and Croats had also suffered during the 1992-95 war.
Britain’s U.N. deputy ambassador Peter Wilson stressed that the resolution “did not point fingers of blame, score political points nor seek to reopen political divisions.” It also didn’t link the crimes at Srebrenica to the Serb people and recognized there were victims on all sides, he said. The vote was 10 countries in favor, Russia casting a veto, and four abstentions: China, Nigeria, Angola and Venezuela.
The Serbian news media reported that Tomislav Nikolic, the Serbian president, who has previously apologized for Srebrenica but has declined to call it a genocide, would not attend the ceremony Saturday in Bosnia. An aide told Danas, a Serbian newspaper, that for Nikolic to attend, a senior Bosnian Muslim official would need to make a similar gesture at places where Serbs suffered.
Nevertheless, Serbia, which is seeking to join the European Union, has made significant progress in its historical reckoning.
After years of evading capture — aided by the willingness of successive governments in Serbia to turn a blind eye and by a Serbian public skeptical of justice at The Hague — Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb wartime political leader, were arrested. They are being tried on war-crimes charges at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.
In March, Serbia arrested eight men suspected of having participated in the atrocity by killing more than 1,000 Bosnians at a warehouse in Kravica, near Srebrenica. The arrests were described by prosecutors as the first effort by the Serbian police to detain anyone accused of involvement in the slaughter at Srebrenica.
In Kosovo, a former province of Serbia that defied the government by declaring independence in 2008, the Serbian leadership and ethnic Albanian leaders have achieved a fragile power-sharing agreement.
Yet Srebrenica continues to cast a long shadow. Bosnia remains one of Europe’s poorest and most ethnically divided countries, and the massacre has remained a source of political contention. Bosnian Serb nationalist leaders have sought to play down the events at Srebrenica, and leading Bosnian Muslim officials express frustration that the 1995 Dayton Accords, which ended the war, granted the Bosnian Serbs autonomy over their own territory.
The Dayton Accords divided the country of Bosnia and Herzegovina into two entities, a Muslim-Croat federation and a Serbian republic. That agreement ended a war in which more than 100,000 people were killed, a majority of them Muslims. But the complex power-sharing system has helped to paralyze decision making in the country.
The massacre, which took place when the Srebrenica enclave was under the protection of 400 lightly armed U.N. peacekeepers from the Netherlands, has also been a source of national shame for the Dutch.
Last year, a Dutch court ruled that the government was liable for the deaths of about 300 victims of the massacre, saying peacekeepers had failed to prevent their deaths. The ruling was a catharsis of sorts for the relatives of Srebrenica victims who had long called for the Netherlands to be held accountable.
In Srebrenica, the search for human remains continues. Two decades later, relatives still scour the nearby forest for bones. According to the International Commission on Missing Persons, 6,930 bodies have been identified from 17,000 body parts found in dozens of mass graves. But about 1,000 victims from the massacre have still not been identified. There will be 136 burials of newly identified bodies Saturday.
Munira Subasic, president of the Mothers of Srebrenica association and who lost 22 relatives in the massacre, including her husband and son, this week lamented that many mothers were still unable to bury their dead. “Some mothers are still searching for the bones of their children,” Subasic said. “That is our life now; our biggest problem and our greatest mission.”