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Srebrenica in 2012: carving out the space to remember

This week, a funeral for five hundred genocide victims marked the 17th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide in Bosnia.  But with genocide-denial in the regional air, and electoral changes and political manipulation erasing the Bosnian Muslim history of Srebrenica, is the tragedy being both frozen and erased, when what is needed is both remembrance and to move on?

Heather McRobie
12 July 2012

On Wednesday, around 40,000 people gathered in Potocari, near Srebrenica, to commemorate the seventeenth anniversary of the massacre of 8,000 Bosniak Muslims, mainly men and boys, by forces under the command of General Ratko Mladic, in July 1995 – a massacre which both the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and International Court of Justice (ICJ) have declared a genocide, and which is widely accepted to be Europe’s worst massacre since the second world war.

As in previous years, the anniversary is the date set for the annual burial of bodies of the victims of the genocide that have been identified in the previous year, in the official genocide commemoration site at Potcari.   This year, 520 identified and named bodies were buried, bringing the total number of those buried in the official cemetery to 5,657 – the slow and gruelling work of exhumation and identification carried out by the Missing Persons Institute in Bosnia and Herzegovina means around 90% of those reported missing from the fall of Srebrenica in 1995 have now been laid to rest, although many over fifteen years after the massacre.

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Srbrenica flower

As part of the commemoration of the genocide, thousands spent the previous three days participating in the Marš Mira or Peace March, which traces the reverse path of the 15,000 men and boys who fled after the UN enclave of Srebrenica fell to Serb forces; around four fifths of those on the 1995 march died before they reached safe territory.

The commemoration was attended by international community figures as well as Bosnian politicians; neighbouring Croatia marked the anniversary with a minute’s silence in the Sabor (parliament), a potent but less brave act than when, in 2010, Croatia’s President Josipovic apologised – and then unfortunately backtracked -- for Croatia’s role in the 1993 Amici massacre of Bosnian Muslims; recognition of politically expedient atrocities is still always easier. Still, as Women In Black marked the anniversary in Belgrade, wartime General Ratko Mladić’s continuing trial at the Hague – however much of a spectacle it may seem to those who waited 16 years to see him brought to justice – seem to signal a move, at long last, towards an era in which the atrocities of Srebrenica are fully acknowledged in the region as a genocide, a prerequisite for any hope of meaningful healing.

In 2011, Mladić ’s arrest itself was both coup de grace and graceless posturing: Serbian president Boris Tadić declared the capture of Mladić  a conclusion of “a difficult chapter in Serbia’s history” and that the arrest “removed the stain from…the Serbian people” – no acknowledgement either that during the fall of Srebrenica Mladić  was Serbia’s General, or that his sixteen years of comfortable life as a ‘fugitive’ would not have been possible without the Serbian state, at the very least, turning a blind eye.  Like the Serbian parliament’s 2010 resolution condemning the 1995 events in Srebrenica (but not, crucially, using the term ‘genocide’), the arrest of Mladić was both unprecedented in Serbia’s post-war recognition of 1990s atrocities and simultaneously a significant falling-short: a toothless condemnation that didn’t use the word ‘genocide’; the capturing of a war criminal after he’s hung out in your back yard for not far from two decades.  In recent years it seemed this would be the best victims of 1990s Serbian aggression would get – a normalising by minimising, the step forward of half-recognition with the stasis of little action.  As Mladić ’s trial continues – potentially marred by setbacks such as his hospitalisation this week – it remains to be seen whether his eventual prosecution provides any solace for those who have waited so long for justice.

Electoral laws and erasing heritage

This Wednesday was the first July 11 Srebrenica commemoration since the Mladić trial began.  But aside from the anti-climax, so far, of the Serbian General’s courtroom-spectacle, two further factors in particular cloud the prospects of remembering Srebrenica’s tragic past – and, as ever, regional forces tangle themselves up in local particularities: the town of Srebrenica itself, and the actions of both the Republika Srpska entity of the Bosnian state, and the state of Serbia.

The 2010 resolution by the Serbian parliament condemning “the crime committed against the Bosnian Muslim population of Srebrenica in July 1995” was largely seen as a hollow and politically expedient gesture by a Serbia hoping to progress in the EU accession process.  But it was at least a partial step forward – as Slavenka Drakulic wrote at the time, it meant Serbia finally acknowledged “the fact that 8 000 Bosniaks were killed, and officially acknowledge[ed] responsibility for their massacre. Although not bringing about catharsis, this document no longer leaves room for denial.” 2012 Serbia, however, looks set to do little to build upon this half-way recognition: shortly after his election to power, Serbia’s new President, Tomislav Nikolic, explicitly declared “there was no genocide in Srebrenica”.  This, then, is no longer the 2010 Serbian parliament resolution stasis of neither acknowledgement or denial of genocide – the 2012 President has pinned his genocide-denial flag to the mast.  It is hard to see how Bosnia-Serbia relations can move forward in such a climate, and the seventeenth commemoration of the genocide this week is clouded by this regional atmosphere.

With this regional atmosphere as a backdrop, 2012 developments in Bosnia – and particularly in the town of Srebrenica itself – further corrode the necessary full recognition of what happened, and who was responsible, in 1995.  Under the problematic Dayton Peace Agreement constitution that ended the war, Bosnia and Herzegovina was divided into two entities – the Bosnian Muslim and Croat-majority Federacija and the Bosnian Serb-majority Republika Srpska.  (Mladic, now frail and on trial far from Bosnia, still thrives as a potent father-figure of the birth of Republika Srpska: ‘Republika Srpska Bosne and Hercegovine’ was established by the Assembly of Bosnian Serbs in 1991, though the assembly later erased ‘Bosne i Hercegovine’ from its title: the 1992-1995 war, including the Srebrenica genocide, was enacted partly to establish it as a republic). 

So for the last seventeen years, the town of Srebrenica, the site of the worst European atrocity since world war two and the location of the devastating failure of the UN ‘safe haven’, has been in the territory of Republika Srpska.  As the entity’s nationalist politicians deny genocide and, according to a report by Amnesty International last year, glorify those involved in the 1995 Srebrenica atrocities, the view of some Bosnian Muslims that the creation of Republika Srpska was a ‘reward’ for committing genocide and ethnic cleansing on the territory is understandable – today, Srebrenica exists in a territory where its leaders claim genocide did not happen there.

This issue of Srebrenica being within Republika Srpska is complicated by 2012 developments: new election rules approved, this May,  by the international community in the form of the high representative for Bosnia, put an end to the electoral ‘Srebrenica exception’ that allowed Bosnian Muslims expelled from the UN Srebrenica ‘safe area’ in July 1995 to vote in municipal elections in the area where they were once forced to flee the massacre.

As Bosnian Muslims made up an estimated 80% of the population of Srebrenica prior to the war, yet most who survived the genocide now live in the Muslim-Croat Federacija entity, this erasing of their electoral link to the town makes the election of a Bosnian Serb as municipal mayor of Srebrenica much more likely.  Such a possibility has mobilised the nine Bosnian Serb parties to coordinate their activities, and although the Bosnian Serb mayoral candidate Vesna Kocevic “respects the decision of the court regarding genocide”, many Bosniaks from Srebrenica have voiced concerns that the post-1995 Bosnian Serb majority living in Srebrenica could elect a candidate who denies the 1995 massacre. 

After the 1990s campaign of ethnic cleansing, the destruction of the Muslim heritage of the area around Republika Srpska in the form of destruction of mosques and other heritage sites, and a post-war era in which Republika Srpska politicians can deny genocide with impunity, this electoral change seems to many the coup de grace: a further erasing of the Bosnian Muslims who survived the genocide and an attempt to sever their links to Srebrenica under the guise of ‘democratic elections’.  The Bosnian writer and theatre director Gradimir Gojer has described the electoral law as “a new genocide.”

This week’s commemoration of the 17th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide and the burial of 520 more victims of the massacre marks another year of both remembrance and erasing: mothers have buried whole families in the Potocari graveyard, yet in the surrounding region the facts of this massacre are still denied or minimised.  With a neighbouring nation state, Serbia, whose President denies genocide; a federal entity containing Srebrenica whose politicians both deny the past atrocities and stoke current ethno-nationalist grievances for political gain; and, now, an electoral law that further silences the Bosnian Muslim voice of Srebrenica -- seventeen years after a genocidal massacre was committed on European soil, is it too much to hope that there be a consensus, at least of acknowledging what happened, so that there can – finally – be healing?

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