Srebrenica was placed under UN protection but the number of soldiers guarding the city was small and the Serbian Army easily captured it and arrested the 7,500 Muslim men.
During the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina in the 1990s, the community of Srebrenica was named a safe haven by the United Nations (UN). That is, men and women could take refuge there under UN protection. Serbian soldiers, seeing that there was only a small number of armed UN soldiers, took possession of this area by force and murdered the more than 7,500 unarmed Muslim men and boys who had been sheltering there.
Bosnia-Herzegovina is a province of the former Yugoslavia, a country that was formed after World War I, and stayed united for about sixty years. President Tito was able to hold it together for all of this time. He had dictatorial power under a communist type of government, similar to but independent of the Soviet Union. When he died in 1980, the different provinces began to express their desires for freedom. The differences between them were not ethnic. As Croats, Muslims, and Serbs they represented different religions, but they had a long history of living together. Bosnia- Herzegovina was mainly Muslim and Serbian, similar in size to West Virginia.
Croatia and Slovenia, in the north, were the first two provinces to declare independence in 1991. The Serbs, the largest group of the largest province, Serbia, resisted these declarations of independence. They were convinced that the country should remain united under their leadership and they took up arms to restore the previous order. Fighting went on for some months between Serbia and the two independent regions but finally, aided by 12,000 United Nations peacekeepers, a cease-fire was established. Bosnia-Herzegovina’s move to independence came next in 1992. This was a much greater challenge to Serbia as it was next door and about one-third of the people in Bosnia-Herzegovina were ethic Serbs. The Bosnian Serbs argued that an independent Bosnia would be dominated by Muslims because their numbers were slightly larger than the Serbs.
Religious elements surfaced for the first time. In the long history of Southeastern Europe some people had become Catholic under the Holy Roman Empire. They were the Croats. In the East, those influenced by the Byzantine Empire converted to Orthodox Christianity. They were the Serbs. Under the dominance of the Ottoman Turks when they occupied this region many became Muslims. These differences of religions had not been a problem in previous times, but the Serbs argued that it would be impossible to share Bosnia with Muslims because of their religion and their numbers. That was the beginning of what came to be known as ethnic cleansing.
Serbs immediately began forcing Muslims out of their part of Bosnia. This was not genocide of the kind seen in Rwanda; rather, it was a case of compelling people to leave their homes and live permanently in another part of the country. Naturally this was resisted and intense fighting ensued, but the violence that erupted was much worse than traditional warfare. Where resistance was strong, mass executions were employed as a terror tactic. Srebrenica, an industrial and prosperous Bosnian town of about 40,000 people, about ten miles from the Serbian border, was an early target for ethnic cleansing. It was attacked and taken over by the Serbian army in April of 1992 and its Muslim residents immediately fled out of it into the forests.
Within three weeks a reversal took place. An armed force of Muslims recaptured the town and to the surprise of the Serbs, who were more heavily armed, they drove on into Serb territory to double the amount of land they controlled. By the end of the year this Muslim force was within five miles of linking up Srebrenica and its immediate surroundings with the part of Bosnia farther west that was firmly in Muslim hands. At that point Serbs counterattacked with a large force of troops, backed by tanks and artillery, forcing the Muslims back and once again taking control of the area around Srebrenica.
The Muslim troops, who were not prepared for an extended war when they shared in the declaration of independence for Bosnia-Herzegovina, were now unable to defend themselves. The United Nations (UN), which was involved in the conflict, banned sales of arms to either side, forgetting that Serbia, as the center of power in the old Yugoslavia, was fully equipped for conflict. It was not long afterward that another action by the UN had devastating consequences for the Muslims. To protect the people of Srebrenica from being forcibly removed, the UN declared the city a safe haven and therefore under its protection.
To safeguard the people under its care, the Secretary General of the UN requested 34,000 troops from member countries for Srebrenica and other safe areas. The United States as well as other countries refused to provide the additional peacekeepers requested and the UN had to settle for less than a quarter of the number needed. Srebrenica was allocated a force of 750 lightly armed Dutch soldiers. In June of 1995, Bosnian Serb forces, claiming that several of their people had been killed by attacks from within Srebrenica, invaded it. The Dutch peacekeepers were outnumbered and were taken hostage. The UN responded with air attacks but within a day they stopped as Serb forces threatened to kill their Dutch hostages. The hostages were released soon after.
The Serbs knew then that they had nothing to fear from the UN because its power could be so easily removed. From that moment the terrible massacre of Srebrenica began to take shape. General Ratko Mladic, the Serb Commander and his assistant general, Radislav Krstic, were in charge along with Radovan Karadzic, the general in charge of all Serb forces. Thousands of Muslim residents of Srebrenica were separated by age and gender and the women and children were sent away on foot or taken by bus to places near Muslim-controlled territory. The males had their hands tied behind their backs as they were taken away, ostensibly for questioning. The litany of lies and false statements from Serb representatives deceived everyone.
At Bratunac on the Serbian border the more than 7,500 prisoners from Srebrenica were shot in a series of mass executions. Serb commanders thought that no one would ever find out what they did. Brutality was usually associated with these executions in the form of sadistic tortures. For example, some were hit with iron bars as they came off the buses, then forced to kneel in prayer before being shot. They were buried in mass graves near Bratunac but later, after news of the massacre was reported, they dug up the bodies and took them to several different locations for burial. Satellite photography was able to identify these new locations and in due course the whole story came out.
As part of their terror tactics, Serbs engaged in the mass raping of Muslim women, knowing that this would have terrible consequences in the social life of Muslims. In the year 2000, these crimes of mass rapes were recognized as crimes against humanity and successfully prosecuted as such for the first time at the International Court of The Hague. An earlier indictment of the same kind had been made in Tanzania as part of the United Nations trials of the leaders of Rwanda. Mass rapes were part of the atrocities committed by Japanese soldiers in Nanking in 1937. Sadly these terrible acts were not recognized as international crimes for a further sixty-three years.
This massacre at Srebrenica was the worst crime of the Bosnian civil war. The main problem was that the city had been declared a “safe area,” when in fact the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) was incapable of defending it. The UN should have provided a full military force and that force should have attacked the Serbs before they came within the city. The Muslims were promised complete protection, by whatever military action was necessary, and the typical UN approach of impartiality put aside. The prosecution of those involved in mass rape at the International Court of the Hague has already been noted. The capture and prosecution of others who were involved became an ongoing activity.
Late on Friday, June 29, 2001, Slobodan Milosevic the former president of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, who had earlier been arrested by the new government of Serbia, was handed over to the International War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague in Holland. Zoran Djindjic, prime minister of Serbia, made the decision to hand him over to stand trial for crimes against humanity because of the atrocities committed in Kosovo as well as at Srebrenica. He was formally charged soon after his arrival in Holland with mass murder, deportation of Kosovo Albanians, and specific massacres in different places. The date of his trial was not determined. It was recognized that a large amount of evidence has to be assembled before these formal proceedings could begin.
The pursuit of the military men involved in the Srebrenica massacres, Krstic, Mladic, and Karadzic, continued through 2001. In August of that year, General Radislav Krstic was arrested and brought before the War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague, accused of personally helping to plan, prepare, and carry out the killings of at least 7,500 Muslim men and boys. General Krstic had taken command of the Drina Wolves unit of the Serbian Army and these were the soldiers who carried out the massacres. Judge Almiro Rodrigues, head of the three-member panel that delivered the verdict at The Hague, spelled out the charges against Krstic. He was accused of causing the persecutions suffered by the Muslims of Srebrenica, his participation consisting mainly in allowing the Drina Wolves to carry out the executions.
The 255-page indictment included the testimonies of 130 witnesses and the records of more than 1,000 pieces of evidence. There were reports of wives and children being beaten and raped, and of men, some as old as eighty, being starved and beaten before they were killed. Some of Krstic’s victims were herded into a warehouse and shot at close range by Serbian execution squads who used guns and grenades to do the killing. Because those who were killed belonged to an identifiable cultural group— Muslims—Krstic was declared guilty of genocide. In defense, Krstic said that he had not known of the massacres until it was too late to stop them. He had intended to punish his soldiers for what they had done. The prosecuting judge dismissed his statements and sentenced him to forty-six years in prison, the harshest punishment up to that time for crimes against humanity in the Bosnian war.
The massacre of 7,500 or more Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica was Europe’s worst civilian atrocity since World War II. There were serious inequalities from the beginning of the Bosnian war. The Serbs had all the military power they needed to conduct military operations but the others, the Croats and Muslims, were handicapped by a UN decision to ban the sale of military equipment to either side. More than four years after the massacre, Kofi Annan, UN Secretary-General, issued a report on the mistakes made by the UN. Poor judgment and an inability to recognize the truth of the situation were listed as contributing to the tragedy. While Srebrenica was a horrendous instance of genocide it pales in significance when compared with the far greater acts of genocide that began with Germany’s Crystal Night. The atrocities that were initiated in 1938 with “Crystal Night,” were the beginning of a massive program intended to kill every Jew in Germany.
As soon as he came to power as chancellor of Germany, Adolf Hitler began to express his anti-Jewish ideas in public. He attempted first to make life so unpleasant for Jews that they would emigrate. Crystal Night, a one-day boycott of all Jewish shops and offices, based on false charges, marked the beginning of violent action against Jews. Windows were smashed, contents of stores stolen, and any books found were publicly burned. Over 7,500 Jewish shops were destroyed and four hundred synagogues were burnt down. Ninety-one Jews were killed and an estimated 20,000 were sent to concentration camps. After Crystal Night the numbers of Jews who left Germany increased dramatically. It has been calculated that before war broke out in 1939 approximately half the Jewish population of Germany left the country. This included several Jewish scientists who were to play an important role in the fight against Nazi Germany during World War II. A higher number of Jews would probably have left German but anti-Jewish sentiment was not entirely a German prejudice. Many countries were reluctant to take Jews.
Once the Jewish population had been demonized by the various actions of the German government it became easier for Hitler to propose the mass execution of all Jews. Within three years of Crystal Night the gas chambers associated with the concentration camps were in place. Those who were about to be executed were told to strip naked so that they could be given a bath. Doctors pretended to be giving them a physical exam to allay fears and, during this process, they took note of those who had gold teeth. Their chests were marked with a distinctive sign so that after their death the gold could be recovered before the bodies were thrown into the furnaces. Once they were inside the so-called bathroom, the door was shut and locked, poisonous gas released into the room, and everyone died a painful death. For two further years, until Germany was conquered and overrun, the mass executions, referred to by Hitler as the final solution, was extended until approximately six million Jews from central, eastern, and southern Europe had been annihilated.