The euphoria of independence didn’t last long in most Balkan countries. As the former Yugoslavia fragmented, age-old sectarian, ethnic and tribal rivalries were revived. In 1993 UN forces called in to buffer the antagonism between Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Muslims had designated several ‘Safe Areas’ for civilians. One of these was Srebrenica. By July 1995, as Bosnian Serb forces laid siege to the enclave, Srebrenica was crammed with Muslims under the protection of 600 UN Dutch troops to whom they had surrendered their weapons.
On the afternoon of July 11 Serb commander Ratko Mladic, having humbugged the UN peacekeepers, entered Srebrenica like some beaming Goering, festooned with news crews. Fearing the worst, that night 15,000 Muslim men (civilians and unarmed ex-fighters) attempted a mass break out across the hills. They were heavily shelled and many were recaptured. Next day Mladic ordered that all men between the ages of 12 and 77 be held in trucks and warehouses for ‘interrogation for suspected war crimes’; while convoys of buses deported 23,000 women and children to distant ‘Muslim territory’.
The killings had already begun in the village of Kravica when the UN forces in nearby Potocari handed over 5,000 Muslims in their charge to the Serbs in return for 14 Dutch hostages taken earlier. The 2,000 elderly and infirm men were separated, driven away and killed. Under Mladic ‘ethnic cleansing’ quickly became methodical and organized. If they weren’t hunted down in the forests, unarmed men were pushed into warehouses or just lined up and machine-gunned, with a bullet or bayonet in the neck for certainty. Bratunac, near Srebrenica, was one favored killing ground – because Serbs had already used it in 1992 when they tortured 350 Muslims to death. This time the victims had to dig their own graves before being shot; 400 were simply buried alive, bulldozed into the earth. In total 8,000 men and boys died in the genocide. It was the worst atrocity in Europe since World War II.
When: July 11-15 1995
Where: Srebrenica district, Bosnia-Herzegovina
Death toll: 8,000 men and boys. Almost as ugly as the genocide itself was the Serbs’ attempt to cover up their crime. They moved the mass graves and tried to camouflage them. Srebrenica massacre sites are still being discovered – only 3,000 bodies have so far been found.
You should know: A video of Ratko Mladic shows him strutting through Srebrenica on July 11, saying to camera ‘the time has come to take revenge on the Turks’. After it was shown at the trial of Radovan Karadzic (Mladic’s commander-in-chief) in The Hague, Karadzic said his only regret was that ‘some Muslim men got away’. For the rest of the world, bringing the murderers to justice is one thing – learning that membership of the UN carries a very real responsibility to keep its promises is more difficult. The Bosnian Muslims of Srebrenica had been ‘guaranteed’ a safe haven.