Srebrenica's search for justice

Peter Lippman
23 August 2006

The Serb massacre of around 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys in July 1995 remains agony to the survivors, professional challenge to lawyers and scientists, and a source of political polarisation among Bosnians and Serbs, reports Peter Lippman.

The discovery of a mass grave in August 2006 near Zvornik in eastern Bosnia containing the remains of 1,150 Bosnian victims of the Srebrenica massacre is only the most recent evidence of the scale of the atrocity perpetrated in and around the town in the days after 11 July 1995.

The larger story of the systematic killing of 8,000 Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) males by Serb forces under the command of Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic is now part of the established historical record (not least thanks to a series of genocide trials in The Hague); the Zvornik excavation emphasises that much of the detail, including the exact numbers murdered and their burial (and reburial) sites is still to be uncovered. As these investigations continue, however, the survivors of the massacre and the families of the victims are left to seek justice and proper commemoration as part of efforts to rebuild their lives. How do they cope, and how do these efforts relate to the way Srebrenica is being remembered and "processed" at a political level?

Also on the Srebrenica massacre in openDemocracy:

Ed Vulliamy, "Srebrenica: ten years on" (6 July 2005)

Michel Thieren, "There was genocide in Srebrenica. And it continues to win…"
(11 July 2006)

The aftermath of the fall of the eastern Bosnian enclave of Srebrenica to extremist Serb forces on 11 July 1995 was one of the most significant events in the history of the 1992-95 Bosnian war, and indeed in the annals of war crimes since 1945. The massacre itself was terrible enough; what made its legacy even more torturous is that many of the remains were subsequently dug up by Serbs attempting to conceal their crime, and reburied in different locations over a wide area from Srebrenica north to Zvornik.

In the wake of Srebrenica, a Croat-Bosniak military coalition recaptured much of the area in western Bosnia that had been controlled by Bosnian Serb forces. The intervention of Nato consolidated the partial rollback of Serb forces, setting the stage for negotiations at Dayton in November 1995 that (the then slow-burning fuse of Kosovo significantly excepted) ended the wars of ex-Yugoslavia. Dayton left the country divided into a Serb-controlled entity called the Republika Srpska, and a Muslim-Croat federation.

The killing in Bosnia ended in late 1995. But eleven years later, peace has not arrived for the survivors. Bosnia remains ethnically divided, a dysfunctional country administered by the international community in an ineffective partnership with domestic politicians. And most of those who lost relatives in Srebrenica are still waiting for the discovery and identification of their loved ones.

A canvas of loss

Working in a relief agency in Tuzla after the war, I had occasion to meet survivors from Srebrenica. Tuzla was the nearest Muslim-controlled town to Srebrenica, and many who survived or escaped the massacre found refuge there. Conquering Serb forces had bussed women and children from Srebrenica to the military line of separation near Tuzla. Thousands of men seeking to flee the killing-fields headed on foot through the mountains. Around a third of them were picked off on the "road of death" by Serb forces.

The expression on the face of a survivor, that of someone who has faced death in intimate circumstances, is something shocking to behold. More than once a widow coming into the relief agency would exclaim to me, "I had six sons!" – and then burst into angry tears. These sons, brothers, and husbands are no more, and the survivors still wait for information about their loved ones. For years they clung to rumours of captive Muslims being used as slave-labour in the mines of Serbia. With time, most gave up on this unreal hope. Survivors also hoped that the government of Bosnia, with the help of the international community, would at least find and identify the remains of the missing men, and prosecute those guilty for war crimes.

Non-governmental organisations representing the survivors demonstrate on the eleventh of every month in Tuzla and Sarajevo, and travel regularly to The Hague. There, they testify about their experience in Srebrenica, hoping that the world will not forget and bury the memory of the atrocity. In spite of the persistent work of the survivors, the hope for truth and justice in the case of Srebrenica has only partially been fulfilled.

An act of commemoration

For years after the war, the municipality of Srebrenica was held in a tight grip by Bosnian Serb politicians, resettled by Serb civilians displaced from Sarajevo and many other parts of the Croat-Muslim federation, and boycotted by the international community. Srebrenica was a dangerous place for its former Muslim residents to visit, and even international troops from the United Nations "stabilisation force" (SFOR) were reluctant to maintain a presence there.

By the end of the 1990s the international community began to apply more serious pressure on the Serb government of Srebrenica, and in 2001 a memorial centre and cemetery was created in Potocari, a suburb north of Srebrenica where Dutch troops had been stationed during the war. The massacres began there, and survivors felt that this was the only appropriate location for a memorial. Meanwhile, after Nato forces established a military post in the neighbouring municipality of Bratunac, Muslims began a gradual, tentative return to the region.

Exhumation of massacre victims from mass graves began almost immediately after the end of the war, but identification of the remains was stymied. By 1998 several thousand remains were stored in tunnels and hangars in the federation, but only a couple of dozen had been identified. There was no efficient technique for identification. To make matters more difficult, the Serb reburial of remains in "secondary graves" had the effect of mixing up body parts, rendering identification attempts only more confusing. Thousands of bags of remains could not be matched to thousands of individual names.

Then, in the early 2000s, DNA identification techniques were improved to the point that large numbers of remains could be identified. The Tuzla-based International Commission for Missing Persons (ICMP) sent workers throughout Europe and the United States, wherever survivors from Srebrenica had relocated, to take blood samples. As a result, well over 2,000 victims have to date been identified. Still, the identification process is not simple and does not result in immediate relief for the survivors. It may happen that part of a body has been identified, but other parts are still resting in undiscovered mass graves. Survivors are generally not notified until at least 50% of a body has been found.

Since 2000, memorial observances have been held each 11 July in Potocari. On these occasions and at other times of the year, identified remains are reburied in the memorial cemetery. In July 2006 I travelled to Srebrenica and observed the eleventh-anniversary commemoration, when 505 identified remains were reburied. This brings the number of victims reburied at Potocari to 2,442.

The Potocari memorial complex, across the road from the derelict battery factory where Dutch troops had been stationed, is set in a valley surrounded by green rolling hills. One cannot look at these hills without thinking of the bombs that were launched from there, daily, while Srebrenica was an enclave and United Nations "safe zone" during the war. The roads and buildings of the municipality, pock-marked by craters and shrapnel holes, testify to the assaults inflicted on the residents under siege.

Within the complex, next to the growing cemetery, stands an open-air mosque. Beside it is a long, curving granite wall engraved with the names of thousands of massacre victims. One of them, Azem Pasalic, was the brother of a good friend of mine, Suljo. Azem's remains were identified recently, and I accompanied Suljo and his family as they reburied Azem.

Suljo and his wife and two children had remained in the enclave throughout the war, under horrifying conditions of hunger and daily violence. Suljo escaped injury, but his wife and children were injured. In the end, they were bussed out, and Suljo trekked through the woods for several weeks. He was one of the lucky ones who survived, but he will forever carry with him the trauma of that experience.

Despite this history, Suljo and his wife Magbula chose to return and to try to rebuild a life in the ruined town. Throwing all their positive energy into recovery, they formed a non-governmental organisation, and then opened a restaurant for the increasing number of returnees. More recently Suljo and Magbula received a donation of ten cows. They rebuilt a barn on some family-owned land in Potocari, and since then have been selling milk to a Tuzla-based company.

Returning to Srebrenica is a brave and difficult thing for displaced Muslims to do. Of more than 20,000 who lived there before the war, only a couple of thousand have come home. Over 80% of the population – returnees and displaced Serbs alike – are unemployed. Most returnees are retirees who survive on a meagre pension. Suljo and Magbula are then among the few in the municipality who can support themselves. They are determined to remain in the only place that they consider home.

As Suljo, his son, and cousins shovelled dirt over Azem's coffin, I watched with great sadness. To lose any relative through violence is shocking. To lose a whole family through what is arguably genocide, and then wait for information about its fate for a decade, is devastating.

Suljo's daughter began crying, and it was all I could do to hold back my own tears. But no one else cried. I understood that this was necessary, for if a survivor were to begin to cry, there could be no end to it.

A contest over history

Srebrenica means different things to the survivors, the international community, Bosnian politicians, and Serbs – nor are these groups always united among themselves.

The survivors live with the heavy burden of their original victimisation, compounded by the ignorance and indifference of the world and manipulation by domestic politicians. They have a sincere desire for peace and recovery, and the memorial complex, the identifications, and the occasional reburials are significant parts of that recovery.

Srebrenica itself may never regain its pre-war health as a regional industrial and tourist centre. There are now far more Srebrenicans in St Louis, Missouri, than in their pre-war homes. But while the identification and reburial of loved ones often reopens the wounds of the war period, ultimately they provide the survivors with at least some measure of desperately-needed closure. The survivors endure the commemorative ceremony and reburials as a moment of crucial significance in their lives.

Meanwhile, Muslim nationalist figures who lead the Bosniak government have, since before the end of the war, utilised the massacre at Srebrenica to sustain ethnic polarisation and garner domestic political support among their ethnic constituency. At present, ordinary Bosnians have precious little trust for any of their political representatives – but with the ethnic homogenisation forged during the war, it is extremely difficult for individuals to act as secular citizens rather than as members of an ethnic-based voting body. Provocations and acts of violence perpetrated by nationalists among all three ethnicities serve to keep Bosnian society polarised.

This dynamic is persistent, and it increases especially in a pre-election period (nationwide elections in Bosnia are scheduled for October 2006). The rhetoric of anger and exclusivism continues to heighten people's sense of victimisation, driving them to circle their wagons and vote for the same nationalist representatives who have never ceased to fail them in the past decade.

This syndrome was, sadly, evident at the 11 July 2006 memorial event, attended by Muslim clerics, some prominent Bosniak politicians, a couple of international figures, and no prominent Serbs. Bosnia's top imam, Reis Mustafa efendija Ceric, officiated. He was one of the pre-war founders of the Muslim nationalist party (SDA), headed for many years by the late president of Bosnia, Alija Izetbegovic.

The SDA is all-powerful in most parts of Bosnia where Muslims form the majority population, and presides over endemic corruption from the kiosk level to the three-member national presidency. Corruption involving crooked privatisation, smuggling, nepotistic or preferential hiring, and kickbacks, is rife throughout Bosnia and the Muslim population is not spared the effects of such criminal networks of influence.

To the world, most of this corruption passes unnoticed, although international officials working in Bosnia are quite aware of it. This is what the war brought. The result has been one of the lowest standards of living in Europe, as the warlords and profiteers-cum-politicians now run the country – under the not-so-watchful eye of the international community.

Reis Ceric spoke soothing and wise words to the assembled mourners, calling for prosecution of the guilty, tolerance, and eventual reconciliation. But knowing that this is the language of nearly all politicians in Bosnia, it was impossible not to read cynicism between the lines of Ceric's speech. Its evasions of the truth of contemporary Bosnian experience, coupled with the unimaginable pain of the tens of thousands of assembled mourners, left a bitter impression.

Peter Lippman is a writer and human-rights activist from the United States who has worked extensively in Bosnia and much of ex-Yugoslavia since the early 1980s

A pattern of manipulation

The next day, 12 July, found Srebrenica occupied by semi-military units of the Serb police forces. That day is the anniversary of the 1992 killing of some Serb civilians on the outskirts of Srebrenica by Bosniak troops – led by Naser Oric, Slobodan Milosevic's former bodyguard turned Bosnian nationalist fighter, who was convicted at The Hague for related crimes on 30 June 2006. Serb politicians in the Republika Srpska have chosen to use this anniversary, for domestic consumption, as a counter to the anniversary of the genocide. I watched as Serb visitors from elsewhere strolled through town wearing T-shirts inscribed with the slogan, "Republika Srpska – we are all Mladic."

Ratko Mladic, the commander of the Bosnian Serb army during the war, personally oversaw the massacre of Bosniaks at Srebrenica. He is still wanted by The Hague court, and still eludes justice, almost certainly under the protection of powerful figures inside Serbia – a factor that has also become a running sore in the relations between the Serbian government of Vojislav Kostunica and the European Union. The international community regularly calls for Mladic's apprehension, but he remains a hero to some Serbs, and a nightmare to the Srebrenica survivors.

Thus the legitimate pain of Serb civilians, survivors of a war that was certainly traumatic to them as well, remains a political asset to corrupt and manipulating leaders. Some Serbs, including courageous civil-society activists, journalists and everyday citizens, recognise the war crime that took place at Srebrenica and campaign for justice over it and other massacres and depredations that took place during the war; but their voice is small amid a political culture dominated by historical denial and coarse nationalist rhetoric.

On the bus back to Sarajevo, after the commemoration, I spoke with a fellow-passenger who told me he had lost his father, three brothers, and his disabled mother in the massacre. "I wish to God I had been killed too", he told me. Then, referring to the Serb politicians who must pass the vast cemetery at Potocari in order to reach Srebrenica, he asked: "How could they not be ashamed?"

The same question could be asked of the international officials who throw money at Srebrenica but do not implement serious measures for Bosnia's recovery; or indeed of those in the west (including journalists and intellectuals of the left) who deny that the atrocity ever took place. It is not they, but those who remain committed to establishing truth, justice, and responsibility for what happened at Srebrenica and elsewhere, who will build a better future for Bosnia.

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