In the Bosnian silver-mining town of Srebrenica in July 1995, one of the most notorious modern acts of gendercide took place. While the international community and U.N. peacekeepers looked on, Serb forces separated civilian men from women and killed thousands of men en masse, or hunted them down in the forests.
The events at Srebrenica mark the climax of the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the most vicious and genocidal battlefront in the Balkans conflict. The conflict in Bosnia-Herzegovina began in 1992 and featured largescale genocidal and gendercidal atrocities from the first. These are dealt with in a separate Bosnia case study. One of the largest massacres of the early part of the war took place at a gymnasium in the village of Bratunac in April 1992, when an estimated 350 Bosnian Muslim men were tortured to death and massacred by Serb paramilitaries and special police. Bratunac lay just outside Srebrenica, and would again serve as a killing ground when the city fell to Bosnian Serb forces in July 1995.
Although the Serbs seized Bratunac, they were not able to take Srebrenica itself. The city was defended by Naser Oric, a Rambo-like figure whose troops (and associated squads of civilian torbari, or “bag people”) inflicted a number of smaller atrocities on Serb villages around the Srebrenica pocket. Eventually, in April 1993, Serb forces closed in for a final crushing of the town and Oric’s forces. Serb General Ratko Mladic made it plain that he held a special grudge against the menfolk of Srebrenica, armed or unarmed. In scenes that gripped the attention of the world, hundreds of women and children were evacuated from Srebrenica before the Serb noose tightened and shut off all refugee flow. The plight of the city prompted the international community to declare Srebrenica one of five “safe areas” in Bosnia (the others were Zepa, Gorazde, Tuzla, Sarajevo, and Bihac in northwestern Bosnia). The meaning of the ambiguous term “safe area” was never properly defined, and sufficient forces were never committed to ensuring the safety of the Bosnian inhabitants. As events at Srebrenica two years later so grimly demonstrated, “the safe areas were among the most profoundly unsafe places in the world” (Silber and Little, The Death of Yugoslavia, p. 274.)
In June 1995, Bosnian Serb forces, pushing for a resolution to the ethnic “anomaly” of the Muslim enclaves, closed their noose around Srebrenica and the other “safe areas.” In Srebrenica, mass panic took hold of the civilian population. Women and children gathered at the U.N. base of Potocari, together with about 1,700 men,while most of the “battle-age” males — mostly unarmed non-combatants — took to the hills in a desperate attempt to flee to Muslim-held territory to the west. At Potocari, Dutch troops meekly allowed the Serbs access to the camps and the refugees they held. Then, the following day — July 11 — some 1700 men, disproportionately the elderly and infirm, were separated from women and children. The peacekeepers “stood inches away from the Serb soldiers who were separating the Muslim men, one by one, from their families” (Sudetic, Blood and Vengeance, p. 306). At Serb command, the Dutch drew up a registry of 242 Bosnian men remaining in the camp, again mostly elderly and infirm. Then they handed the men over to the Serbs. Not one of the 242 men is known to have survived. The children and women were bused, with isolated exceptions, to safety in Tuzla. Men, almost without exception, were carted away to their deaths. (Note: Other sources cite 239 as the total number of men named on the list; for an account of how the 242 total was eventually arrived at, see the letter from Hasan Nuhanovic posted to the Women of Srebrenica website. The letter also gives a harrowingly detailed account of the separation of men and boys from the remainder of the population at the U.N. base, and the blatant Dutch complicity in the process. Thanks to Kate Myers for bringing this source to our attention.)
Satellite photo of Nova Kasaba mass graves.
Many of the men were killed in the school gymnasium in Bratunac that had already served as the site of a gendercidal massacre in the Bosnian war. Many hundreds more were massacred at a football field near Nova Kasaba, the worst killing ground of the entire five-day slaughter. Human Rights Watch recorded the testimony of one eyewitness to the gendercidal massacres at Nova Kasaba. The Serbs, he said,
picked out Muslims whom they either knew about or knew, interrogated them and made them dig pits. …During our first day, the Cetniks [Serbs] killed approximately 500 people [men]. They would just line them up and shoot them into the pits. The approximately one hundred guys whom they interrogated and who had dug the mass graves then had to fill them in. At the end of the day, they were ordered to dig a pit for themselves and line up in front of it. … [T]hey were shot into the mass grave. … At dawn, … [a] bulldozer arrived and dug up a pit …, and buried about 400 men alive. The men were encircled by Cetniks: whoever tried to escape was shot.” (Quoted in Mark Danner, “The Killing Fields of Bosnia”, New York Review of Books, September 24 1998.)
A great many of the men who had sought to flee through the hills to Tuzla were doomed as well. The Bosnian Serb commander, Gen. Radivoj Krstic, in a radio transmission intercepted by western eavesdroppers, told his forces: “You must kill everyone. We don’t need anyone alive.” (Mark Danner, “Bosnia: The Great Betrayal”, New York Review of Books, March 26 1998.) Serb forces took special pleasure in isolating trees where men had sought to hide, and riddling them with shrapnel from anti-aircraft guns.
Trapped in the hills under Serb bombardment, sleepless and thirst-maddened, men succumbed to hallucinations, paranoia, and despair. “The psyches of the men ruptured. Muslims mistook other Muslims for infiltrators. They threw hand grenades and fired their automatics at one another. … Men shot themselves hoping the Serbs would show the wounded mercy” (Sudetic, Blood and Vengeance, p. 301). Many committed suicide. Thousands finally surrendered to Serb troops along the “Ring of Iron,” who lured them with the sight of captured UN vehicles and promises of safe passage. All of those captured were taken to nearby fields and warehouses, executed, and buried in mass graves.
Summarizing the catastrophe in 1997, David Rohde — who as a journalist with the Christian Science Monitor won a Pulitzer Prize for uncovering the first mass graves around Srebrenica — offered a blistering critique of the moral lapse on the part of the “safe area’s” alleged guardians: “The international community partially disarmed thousands of men, promised them they would be safeguarded and then delivered them to their sworn enemies. Srebrenica was not simply a case of the international community standing by as a far-off atrocity was committed. The actions of the international community encouraged, aided, and emboldened the executioners. … The fall of Srebrenica did not have to happen. There is no need for thousands of skeletons to be strewn across eastern Bosnia. There is no need for thousands of Muslim children to be raised on stories of their fathers, grandfathers, uncles and brothers slaughtered by Serbs.” (Rohde, Endgame, pp. 351, 353.)
How many died?
The Red Cross lists 7,079 dead and missing at Srebrenica. Other estimates range as high as 8,000 or 10,000. David Rohde notes that the massacre “accounts for an astonishing percentage of the number of missing” from the brutal Balkans conflict as a whole. “Of the 18,406 Muslims, Serbs and Croats reported still missing … as of January 1997, 7,079 are people [men] who disappeared after the fall of Srebrenica. In other words, approximately 38 percent of the war’s missing are from Srebrenica.” By any standard, it was one of the worst and most concentrated acts of gendercide in the post-World War II era — and the worst massacre of any kind in Europe for fifty years.
Who is responsible?
Chuck Sudetic writes of the Srebrenica massacre that “the men who carried out the executions were reportedly under orders handed down by General [Ratko] Mladic and Radislav Krstic, a colonel in the Bosnian army who was promoted to general and named commander of the army’s Drina corps by Mladic within a few days of the killings. Among the units that took part in the killings was the Tenth Commando squad, which answered directly to Mladic’s headquarters … Men from Srebrenica, Bratunac, Kravica, Milii, Visegrad, Bajina Basta, Loznica, Zvornik, and other towns also participated.” (Sudetic, Blood and Vengeance, pp. 317-18.)
In 1996, the International Criminal Tribunal indicted Mladic and Krstic for crimes of humanity committed at Srebrenica. Joining them on the list of indicted war-criminals was Radovan Karadzic, leader of the self-styled “Republika Srpska” or Serb-controlled territories in Bosnia. Karadzic was intimately involved in planning the “endgame” in the Bosnian war, for which Srebrenica was to serve as a centerpiece. In July 1999, the Tribunal found that these mass murderers had been operating under “a direct chain of military command” from Belgrade and the Serbian President, Slobodan Milosevic. For the first time, the Tribunal defined the Bosnian war as “an international conflict,” recognizing both Bosnian independence and Serbian aggression . As yet, however, Milosevic remains unindicted for the atrocities he directed in Bosnia.
The United Nations must shoulder a large share of responsibility for allowing the massacre to take place under the noses of its troops. In November 1999, the UN released a highly self-critical report on its performance, stating that “Through error, misjudgment and the inability to recognize the scope of evil confronting us, we failed to do our part to save the people of Srebrenica from the Serb campaign of mass murder.” (See Barbara Crossette, “U.N. Details Its Failure to Stop ’95 Bosnian Massacre”, The New York Times, November 16 1999.)
The blame surely extends to the member states of the United Nations — perhaps especially to its most powerful member, the United States. As The Economist magazine has noted,
The received version [of events] … is that Bill Clinton and Al Gore vowed to “bomb the Serbs” and end the war when they were shocked to learn that thousands of Muslims had been massacred at Srebrenica. But, the reader cannot help asking, was news of this impending massacre — the worst in Europe since 1945 — really not available to America’s two most powerful figures beforehand? At earlier stages in Bosnia’s war, when Muslim strongholds like Gorazde or Bihac had been on the verge of falling, America had worked (without the promise of ground troops) to galvanise its allies — insisting that battle-plans be drawn up, and threats of bombing be issued, so as to warn off the Serbs. Yet in the final days and hours of the advance on Srebrenica, which American intelligence could monitor closely, Washington fell strangely silent. Srebrenica duly fell, with consequences which were unspeakable in human terms, but not inconvenient diplomatically.
Perhaps it is conspiratorial to assume that America’s tardy reaction to Srebrenica reflected calculation rather than negligence. But the question needs asking … (“Inside Out,” The Economist, September 8, 2001).
Extensive forensic investigations of the Srebrenica massacre sites has so far turned up some 3,000 bodies. Only a few have been successfully identified. They are held at a combined memorial and mortuary in Tuzla (see photo at the top of this page). The forensics teams who worked on the Srebrenica and Vukovar sites gathered vital experience in their exhumation of the graves, and were able to employ their skills anew in the Kosovo gendercide four years later. (See Stover and Peress, The Graves: Srebrenica and Vukovar.)
The memory of Srebrenica’s men was kept alive by their womenfolk. They stormed Red Cross offices in Tuzla in early 1996 to protest the stalled investigations into the fate of their missing men, and did so again on the fourth anniversary of the massacre in 1999. Organized as “The Women of Srebrenica,” they have recently launched their own website (www.srebrenica.org). The group’s list of primary demands reads as follows:
- The full facts of Srebrenica should be revealed and publicised.
- All graves should be exhumed and bodies identified without delay.
- Any survivors of Srebrenica held prisoner in Republika Srpska [Bosnian Serb territories] or the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia should be released immediately.
- The people of Srebrenica should be enabled to return to their homes.
- There should be a full & open international investigation into the failure of the UN to protect the Safe Area of Srebrenica.
- All indicted and suspected war criminals, including Radovan Karadzic, Ratko Mladic and Slobodan Milosevic, and all those complicit with genocide, should be arrested and brought to trial.
In Spring 2000, General Radislav Krstic, “the highest-ranking Bosnian Serb commander before the UN War Crimes tribunal in The Hague,” stood trial for the genocidal atrocities at Srebrenica. (See “Peacekeeper Tells of Serb Massacre”, The Sydney Morning Herald, April 8, 2000.) In August 2001, Krstic was convicted and sentenced to 46 years in prison.
In March 2003, the first 600 identified victims of the Srebrenica massacre were returned to the town and buried in a powerful ceremony (see “Srebrenica Finally Buries Its Dead”, BBC Online, March 31, 2003.)