Remembering Srebrenica 24 Years After


By Syed Sharfuddin

11 July 2019 marks the 24th anniversary of the fall of Srebrenica which also witnessed the worst genocide of a religious community since the holocaust. In this month, 8000 men and boys were butchered by the Bosnian-Serb military of General Ratko Mladic on the orders of Serbia’s President Slobodan Milosevic and Bosnian-Serb political leader Radovan Karadzic.

This was clearly a text book genocide which was aimed to erase the genetic identity of the Muslims of Srebrenica for the coming generations, thus cleansing the enclave for Serbs. The international community, represented by the UN Protection Force (UNPROFOR), and assisted by the Contact Group of five countries (USA, UK, France, Germany and Russia) couldn’t foresee it coming, and when it came they couldn’t act in time to prevent the killings of innocent civilians.

In 1992 when the Bosnia war began in February, 45,110 people were killed. Of these 30,442 were Bosnian Muslims. 10,546 died in one month alone (June 1992)

The helplessness of the international community could be gauged from the fact that the supplies of petrol given by the UN Protection Force to the Bosnian-Serb army for evacuating the civilians were used by the latter to transport Bosnian men and young boys in convoys of buses to the firing site, and the UNPROFOR couldn’t stop them from this. The Dutch soldiers who were deputed to provide security on the ground were outnumbered and under-supplied. They were so helpless that they evicted a group of Bosnian civilians from their military headquarters where these people had managed to escape to seek protection.

In the studies that came out after the Bosnia war, it is claimed that the UNPROFOR was unable to stop Bosnian-Serb army from segregating Bosnian men and boys from their womenfolk to take them to the firing squads. These studies point out that at least two countries in the Contact Group had intelligence that Bosnian-Serb army, aided by Serbia would carry out a massacre of the Bosnians in Srebrenica but these countries did not share this information with the rest of the Group or the UN. It is also alleged that the UNPROFOR was more concerned about the safety of the abducted Dutch soldiers in Srebrenica when the genocide started than it was about saving the lives of Bosnians at the hands of Serbs. It is also claimed that there was a tacit agreement among the Contact Group countries that if Srebrenica were to be made a sacrificial lamb for the sake of achieving peace in the region, they would bite the bullet in search of a final end. What they did not know was the extent of how terrible this endgame would be when it was actually played out in July 1995 resulting in 8000 deaths in which every victim was between the age of 25 to 35 years.

In the February 1992 referendum called by Bosnian leader Izetbegovich, Bosnians overwhelmingly voted to become independent from the former breakaway republic of Yugoslavia. In Eastern Bosnia the situation was complicated because although the Bosnians were in majority, certain critical municipalities were also inhabited by Serbs. The Bosnian-Serbs strongly resisted the vote for Bosnia’s independence and were actively assisted by Serbia. The political leader of the Bosnian-Serbs, Radovan Karadzic announced that Srebrenica, as well as few other municipalities such as Zepa and Gorazde, would remain in Serbia and will not be given to Bosnia. This was despite the fact that the population of Srebrenica municipality in 1992 (37,000) which comprised 72.5% Bosnians and 25.5% Serbs had voted for Bosnia in the referendum. As years went by, the conflict in the East acquired a highly ethnic and religious dimension where Bosnians were on one side and Bosnian-Serbs on the other. What was worse was that the Bosnian-Serbs had the military support of Serbia while the Bosnians had no one except the government in Sarajevo which was itself in need of help.

In terms of ethnic identity, 64.036 (65.88%) were Bosnians; 24,906 (25.62%) were Serbs; 7,788 (8.01%) were Croats; and 478 (0.49) were other nationalities

On paper, the UN had declared some of the critical enclaves in Eastern Bosnia as safe areas under their supervision, but in reality, for the Bosnians there was no protection from a furious and trigger happy Bosnian-Serb army which was bent to throw the Bosnians out of their homes and eliminate them for good. For three years Srebrenica remained under siege while the Contract Group tried to find diplomatic solutions. The talks failed because Slobodan Milosevic refused to accept any solution other than having Srebrenica, Zepa and Gorazde taken out of the Bosnian federation and made part of Serbia. He also insisted that these enclaves should be free from Bosnian population. He used both threat and armed force to achieve his goal.

The Serbian strategy was to make the Contact Group believe that Srebrenica and other enclaves where Serbs lived, even if in minority compared to Bosnians, were indefensible. Their aggressive strategy was successful when after a loss of so many lives, the Bosnian Federation and the Contact Group finally agreed to cede Srebrenica and Zepa to Serbia and keep Gorazde within the Bosnian Federation.

While the Bosnia war was on, Britain increased its troops presence in Bosnia to support UN’s peace efforts. France also followed suit but Russia and the US refused to provide a surge for the safe areas. When the UN and the Dutch government pushed for more robust troop enforcement, the US vetoed it, suggesting instead that that UNPROFOR pull out of the vulnerable positions in the safe areas and focus on its remaining mandate. As the vulnerability of safe areas increased, Serbia became bold. General Mladic ordered the destruction of Bosnian Muslim presence in these enclaves and said that no war criminal will be spared. According to his definition, any Bosnian adult male who was capable of picking a gun was a war criminal.

On 5 July 1995, Bosnian President warned the UN that a genocide may occur against the civilian population in Srebrenica but no action was taken by the peacekeepers. The Muslim population in Srebrenica believed that it was in a safe area which was protected by UNPROFOR. When General Ratko Mladic claimed Srebrenica for Bosnian Serbs on 11 July 1995, all hell broke loose on Bosnian Muslims. The genocide began on 13 July and lasted until 16 July during which 8000 young Bosnian males were systematically removed from their homes and taken blind folded to firing sites and interred in mass graves. There were also numerous incidents of torture, rape, assault and death by starvation and manipulation of medical help prior to the final kill. For the next two months, Bosnians were mercilessly crushed in the eastern enclaves until a ceasefire was agreed in September. The December 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement finally decided the fate of these enclaves. Srebrenica and Zepa were given to Serbia and Gorazde remained with Bosnia. Had Milosevic been tough on the negotiating table he would have ended up also taking Gorazde because the big powers were more interested in peace than in the loss of territory and enclaves for Bosnia.

The total death toll in the Bosnia war was 100,579. Of this number, 57,523 were soldiers and 39,684 were civilians. This included 3,372 children. 89% were men and 10% were women. Most victims were 25-35 years’ old

It is hard to say whether the Serbian leadership had planned the genocide of Bosnian Muslims long ago as part of the war strategy or was it a tactical move carried out as war intensified and the endgame came close, but one thing is clear: Milosevic, Karadzic and Mladic had the power to prevent bloodshed and stop the genocide. The very fact that they did not prevent it but instead fuelled hatred and ordered military action against innocent civilians made them war criminals. They were eventually punished after the trial in the international war crimes tribunal but the dead could not be brought back, and their families who went through the loss of livelihood and psychological trauma could not be compensated. The UN and the Contact Group also failed to see that what was happening in Srebrenica was ethnic cleansing, and when it became too obvious to everyone, they failed to stop it.

Global Political Situation the 1990s

The Bosnian war lasted four years from 1992 to 1995. This was a time of global political uncertainty and reassertion of nationalism and regionalism in Europe and elsewhere. The collapse of the former Soviet Union in 1991 resulted in a new Russian Federation without the symbol of the hammer and sickle, and independence of five new Central Asian Republics. There was also crisis in Mindanao, the Philippines (1990); Tuareg rebellion in Mali (1990-95); Kuwait-Iraq war (1990-91); civil war in Rwanda (1990-94); uprisings and wars in Iraq (1991), Slovenia (1991), Croatia (1991-92), South Ossetia, Georgia (1991-93), Sierra Leone (1991-92), Algeria (1991-92), Djibouti (1991-94), Abhkazia (1992-93), Afghanistan (1992-96), Brundi (1993), Congo (1993), Somalia (1993), Chechnya (1994), and Yemen (1994). These conflicts had sapped the energy of the UN and brought immense pressure on the Western powers to broker peace.

Lesson of Srebrenica

The Srebrenica genocide wasn’t about faith; it was about the ugly face of nationalism where ethnicity mattered over everything else with impunity and bloodshed. It so happened that the Serbs were Christians and the Bosnians were Muslims. When Bosnia was at war with Serbia, the Croats who were Roman Catholics also had a war with the Serbs. However, it may be said that to a certain extent there wasn’t much of a level-playing field for the two sides in the Bosnia war. The Serbs had the support of Russia. They shared their culture and faith with other European powers, while Bosnians were different. They were the descendants of Turks who once went to war against the European powers under the former Ottoman Empire.

The Dayton Peace Agreement of December 1995 failed to provide a peaceful strategic framework for addressing the political fault-lines in the Balkans, with the result that soon after the Bosnia war, the Kosovo conflict erupted following the abolition of Kosovo’s autonomous status by Milosevic in 1997. The Kosovo conflict was however, treated efficiently compared to the Bosnia war because the European powers, joined by the US, had learnt their lessons in Bosnia and used fire power to stop Serbia from carrying out a second genocide of Kosovar/Albanian population in Kosovo.

The performance of the UN in preventing the Srebrenica genocide was appalling given that it had the experience of dealing with the genocide in Rwanda only a year ago in 1994. The UN Security Council had declared Srebrenica as one of the safe areas in the conflict zone. Yet UNPROFOR failed to stop starvation of Bosnians, manipulation of aid and the three-year siege of Srebrenica by the Serbs. The Dutch troops deployed in Srebrenica were unprepared to prevent the genocide, and the UN ignored the humanitarian needs of the people on the ground. Two years later, the UN’s inability to handle another crisis in Kosovo, led the then UN Secretary-General Kofi Anan to call for a review of the entire peace keeping function of the UN and its effectiveness. In March 2000, he convened a panel of experts, led by a former Foreign Minister of Algeria, Lakhdar Brahimi, to recommend improvements in the UN peace keeping capacity. The Brahimi Report later resulted in the establishment of a new and more robust UN peace keeping operation in conflict situations.

Religious separation and political intolerance in pluralistic societies form a lethal combination for conflict and civil strife. In such societies, strong democratic systems supported by participatory democracy and power sharing arrangements are necessary to guarantee pace and harmony between different ethnic, linguistic and religious groups. Much emphasis is required to be placed on celebrating diversity and multiculturalism to safeguard the rights of all citizens. Nascent countries like those which were born out of the breakup of former Yugoslavia lacked these arrangements in their respective constitutions.

The factors leading to the Srebrenica genocide have some parallels with the Kashmir conflict because Indian security forces are heavily present in the occupied territory and have committed gross human rights violations on the indigenous Kashmiri population which is predominantly Muslim, and wishes to be given a chance to decide its future outside the Indian constitution through a UN supervised plebiscite. Like the three critical enclaves in Eastern Bosnia, namely, Srebrenica, Zepa and Gorazde, the disputed Kashmir territory in Northern India comprises the Srinagar Valley, Laddakh and Jammu. The possibility of an Indian government engaging in ethnic cleansing or forcibly trying to change the demography of the areas where Muslims are in majority is always present, more so in a right-wing Hindu India which is opposed to secularism and religious tolerance. The international community, especially the major powers and UNMOGIP, should remain alive to the situation and act before it is too late to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe in Kashmir.

From an Islamic point of view, Allah has created all human beings equal. They are all descendants of Adam and Eve. Allah has divided people into clans and tribes so that they can recognise and introduce each other in their affairs. These differences do not compromise humanitarian principles; on the contrary, they reinforce human rights and humanitarian principles. Islam allows the oppressed to resist oppression when they are forced out of their homes or subjected to become immigrants and stateless people. In the Srebrenica genocide although casualties occurred on both sides, the victims were Bosnian Muslims, and the oppressors were Serbs.

Finally, it is the responsibility of the international community to collectively act when there is aggression, oppression or violation of agreed international principles by one state against another. The UN also has the mandate to discharge this responsibility in intra-state conflict situations under the principle of Responsibility to Act, and most of the times it does act but its political processes are so slow and hamstrung that they come too late to prevent a disaster from happening. Moreover, while the UN does keep peace in conflict areas it ignores the root causes which resulted in conflict in the first place. Until these two shortfalls are corrected, the international system will remain less than perfect and only reactive to human and political failure.

11 July 2019

Resources: 1) Population Loss Project 1991-1995: ‘Bosnia’s Book of the Dead’ – Research and Documentation Centre, Sarajevo, Bosnia Herzegovina. 2) The Guardian, London 4 July 2015. 3) Human Rights Watch, 4) Wikipedia.