Can Europe Make It?

Srebrenica: the world fails, but never one’s own government

There are cogent reasons – international, historical and domestic to Britain – why this year's Srebrenica massacre commemorations are different, and beg painful, difficult questions that demand answers.

Ed Vulliamy
12 July 2014

Bosnian Muslim citizens weep and pray near coffins prepared for a mass burial at the Memorial Center in Potocari, near Srebenica.RFE/RL/Demotix. All rights reserved.

The earth around Srebrenica yesterday took in the remains of a further 175 bodies – in some cases just a bone or two – alongside the thousands already interred there. Exhumed from mass graves, they had finally been identified by DNA matches with surviving relatives - 'this year's' addition, to what will one day be a cemetery for all the 8,000-plus unarmed men and boys summarily slaughtered in the worst single bloodbath in Europe since the Third Reich.

This was the nineteenth anniversary of the massacre in 1995, ahead of next year's twentieth to which legions of politicians and dignitaries are sure to descend, shed tears and be seen to do so – whether crocodile or sincere. But there are cogent reasons – international, historical and domestic to Britain – why this year's commemorations are different, and beg painful, difficult questions that demand answers as yet unforthcoming but necessary to any reckoning with this and other atrocities.

The first reason is that next Wednesay, the question of legal responsibility for the massacre raises its own stakes to the international level: a district court in The Hague will deliver its verdict in the case of 6,000 survivors who are suing the Dutch state for the failure of its soldiers - part of the United Nations peacekeeping mission  - charged to protect the UN-declared 'Safe Area', but who ejected crowds seeking protection in its compound as the execution squads arrived in town, and watched on as the Bosnian Serb units separated men and boys, for massacre, from women and children.

The verdict will be a landmark one affecting not only the wider issues of accountability for the massacre, but the role and obligations of troops taking part in future UN peacekeeping missions elsewhere in the world.

The case has a legal precedent in a ruling by the Netherlands’supreme court last September, that the Dutch state was responsible for not preventing three Bosniak men from being killed after they were expelled from the base. Liesbeth Zegveld, who represented one of the Bosnians in the case, Hasan Nuhanovic, said the verdict was based on the fact that the Dutch battalion in Srebrenica made a decision to expel the Bosniaks from the compound instead of protecting them, as was their duty and as they were ordered. The same argument in law applies to the class action.

A second reason was the visit recently by foreign secretary William Hague and his glamorous companion Angelina Jolie to Srebrenica, as part of their tour claiming to reveal and address rape as the age-old war crime it is. Violation of women occurred in Srebrenica, but nothing like on the scale of specially designated rape camps in Visegrad and Foca nearby, which the celebrity pair omitted to visit.

Hague had said in Sarajevo, of mass rape during Bosnia's carnage: “Now we know”; and in Srebrenica that his tour with the actress (and her film about the subject) had, “opened the eyes of the world” to this abomination. This was preposterous: Hague was a junior minister in the government who knew perfectly well at the time what was happening and worse - but did nothing, and worse.

During the Bosnian war, the British government – along with the United Nations and that of France - appeased (at best) and encouraged (at worst) the perpetrators at Srebrenica for the three long and bloody years to which the massacre was the inevitable conclusion. Three years during which British diplomats and politicians clasped the hand of Radovan Karadžić, now charged with ordering the massacre, beneath the chandeliers of Geneva, Paris and London and connived to keep him in business. They have names: Hurd, Carrington, Neville-Jones, Owen, Rifkind, Hannay and others. Three years during which our generals and others from France and the USA dined with and bestowed gifts upon Ratko Mladic, who also stands trial for sending in the death squads.

It is, however, logical for Secretary Hague and Jolie to visit Srebrenica, although it was the site of a massacre not a rape camp: one goes to Srebrenica de rigeur, because it is an icon. It is a place in which politicians and statesmen can appear to care, even shed a seeming tear, and talk about the 'world failing', but never their own government.

Srebrenica was not an isolated incident. It was the culmination of the genocidal pogrom appeased and facilitated by the west over time. Yet, rather than draw attention to all those other places where smaller but equally vicious massacres took place, Srebrenica detracts from them. It 'ticks the box’ of appearing to reckon with Bosnia, without doing so. Who ever hears these days about Vlasenica, Bjeljina, Doboj, Brcko, Prijedor, Foca, Visegrad, Caplinja, East Mostar… the list is endless, beyond those bereaved, shattered and scattered by the slaughter there?

A third reason for the nineteenth anniversary's singularity is a sudden, unexpected initiative by the British government to take a lead in 'Remembering Srebrenica'. Last Tuesday, at Lancaster House in London, an array of politicians and dignitaries including ministers Eric Pickles and Steve Williams hosted and provided speeches, canapes and Srebrenica goody-bags at an event to this end, enacting a resolution by the European parliament in 2009 that member states commemorate the massacre.

Organised with the estimable 'Remember Srebrenica UK' movement and charity, there had been a moving event in Luton the previous Sunday, at which young local people who had visited the mass graves reported on their experience and emotions, while survivors of the concentration camps at Omarska and Trnopolje (at the other end of Bosnia, and of the war - its beginning in 1992), who had arrived in Luton as refugees, recounted their ordeal and settlement in Britain.

Four activists of the remarkable 'Mothers of Srebrenica' addressed that meeting in a community centre with unbearable power and dignity – as they did in the gilded hall at Lancaster House 48 hours later, where brochures were available containing commemorative messages from David Cameron, Nick Clegg, Boris Johnson, Ed Miliband, Pickles …  et al.

Why? Why do Britain's leaders suddenly want to be seen weeping for Srebrenica, nineteen years later, as William Hague does for victims and survivors of mass rape?  This was the question that baffled the huddles of Bosnians in their best suits, invited to Lancaster House from among our diaspora, and it is a good one. 

A member of the Mothers' delegation dismissed it, however: “We don't care what the reason is. We are remembered here, we are recognised. After Iraq, Syria and all that has happened, we are forgotten, and at this occasion we are not. That is all we ask”.

For July 11 to become Srebrenica Remembrance Day is fine, and overdue, but the price is re-writing Britain's role in Bosnia. This is about our domestic politics, but not our domestic reckoning.

And the fourth reason to focus on this nineteenth anniversary is that the first book has just been published not on the horror of Srebrenica but its aftermath - by two leading scholars on Bosnia, Lara Nettelfield and Sarah Wagner. It is an exhaustive and landmark study: covering the progress of 'Srebrenica in court', at The Hague, the grotesque disinterrment of bodies from mass graves to 'secondary graves' and even tertiary ones to hide the evidence, the fortunes of Srebrenica's diaspora scattered worldwide and the vicious harassment of those survivors – mostly women, of course - who dare to return to their native soil.

But the dark kernel of the book concerns the continued and insistent denial of the massacre by Bosnian Serb authorities and their president Milorad Dodik. As families arrived in Srebrenica this week to bury and remember their dead this week, Mr Dodik made a speech in which he invoked the imperative that, “Serb people will in the future have in some way to recognize and celebrate Ratko Mladić, Radovan Karadžić and myriad others, to repay them in some decent way for their contribution."

There has always been this nagging question: are the deniers and revisionists mad, or are they pretending to be mad? They know perfectly well what happened at Srebrenica; many of them were involved to a greater or lesser degree.

Nettelfield and Wagner suggest an answer, the book's most shocking proposition, by investigating beyond the usual explanation of the deniers' deranged nationalism. They find the strategy and politics of denial - fostering ethnic strife and searing pain for the survivors as they do - to be a means of political self-preservation; denial is the ultimate political 'spin': a hateful, cynical but effective way of maintaining pyramids of power.

The Dayton agreement of 1995 gave the Bosnian Serbs all they wanted from their pogrom of 'ethnic cleansing', and enabled the machinery of war to remain intact, so that, say the authors: “the gains made during the war were at stake for elites and the institutions they represented. In Republika Srpska … the truth about Srebrenica could undercut its claims to legitimate authority and political control over that territory”.

Denial is thus a means to protect “state and entity bureaucracies staffed by individuals with close connections to the genocide” for whom “a full accounting of the crimes would threaten their careers, after decades of material benefits derived from access to state resources and, in many instances, wartime plunder of the Bosnian state.”

And so the subsequent question of accountability arises, not just in Bosnia, but beyond. Dr. Nettelfield says in interview: “This is another thing Srebrenica's survivors achieved: raising the level of discussion about accountability beyond the execution sites, to try and get international leaders, governments and the United Nations held liable, expand the scale of responsibility for what happened”. She adds of Britain's commemorations, at which she was a guest on Tuesday: “What's the point of commemoration, unless there is accountability?”

So two contributions from Tuesday's occasion in London roared louder than all the hosts' rhetoric, despite being the most softly spoken. One came from Mejra Duguz, who lost her husband, sons, brothers and 40 members of her extended family, and said of her return to live in Srebrenica: “Every day I see the men who killed our children. Every day, they laugh in my face, as though to say: 'We killed everything you had. You never had children because we killed them and we kill them every day because we say they never were’. ”

And a 'daughter of Srebrenica' of the new generation, Nirha Efendic, who lost her father and only brother, and pleaded that the British government, “pressure the Republika Srpska to make denial of the genocide a crime”, as Holocaust denial is in France. Now there is something to get on with, to do with these otherwise impotent tears. There’s a start, nineteen years late, better than never, towards what has to be the ultimate goal if peace is to mean anything: the erosion or abolition of Republika Sprska and unification of Bosnia.

Three recent events

The book was completed before three recent events in Bosnia that undercut this institutionalised trampling on the truth: street protests against mass lay-offs due to privatisation, floods, and the World Cup. From outside the narrative of death, came post-war themes which bonded communities regardless of wartime experience: the fight for jobs, necessity to abate the waters and the achievement of Edin Dzeko et. al. in qualifying for Brazil, where they were supported by Bosnian Muslims and Serbs alike, subverting the politics of ethnicity.  

But it remains to be seen which cuts deeper: the entrenched politics of racism and denial, or common interests. The future of the latter serves all ethnic parties, especially Dodik's. That of the latter clearly lies at the level of community, such as the remarkable 'plenums' established to encapture the principles of the protests. For its part though, the international community – including and especially Britain - which facilitated the massacre, continues to pander to those who rule by its denial, as impotent in the face of Dodik's hatemongery as it was to General Ratko Mladic's advance on the 'Safe Area'. 

We knew then and we know now, whatever Hague and Angelina say. And if there is an element of contrition in all this commemoration, it needs to be stated clearly, humbly and without mercy for a prior generation which appeased and encouraged the killers.

Nettelfield and Wagner use a good term: 'the work of remembrance', to describe marchers for peace and justice who interrupt their lives annually to walk, as they did this week, in reverse the 'road of death' along which stragglers tried to escape the execution squads in 1995, usually without success. The 'work of remembrance' does not describe canapes, speeches and goody-bags at Lancaster House, unless they are urgently, cogently and decisively acted upon in Bosnia; for the sake of the massacre's legacy, and that as yet elusive reckoning without which commemoration is useless and peace just a word.


Srebrenica in the Aftermath of Genocide by Lara J. Nettelfield and Sarah E. Wagner is published by Cambridge University Press.  Ed Vulliamy is author of The War is Dead, Long Live The War - Bosnia: The Reckoning, published by Vintage.

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