A chronicle of deaths foretold
Jul 11th 2005
LIKE all monuments to great pain, the memorial and cemetery at Potocari, on the north side of Srebrenica, have an aura of their own. Their desolate dignity transcends every attempt to use them for political point-scoring. In the long, flat expanse of a former cornfield, with verdant hills rising on either side, lie a small flower-bed, a simple, open pavilion topped by a tiny Islamic crescent, and a plain stone slab inscribed with a Muslim invocation: “May revenge be turned into justice, may mothers' tears be turned into prayers that there should be no more Srebrenicas.”
Then there are the graves: about 1,300 of them so far, and space for many more as bodies are exhumed and identified. Rough mounds of earth, each with a tapering green headstone, with a name and date of birth: horribly often, the victims are teenage boys. Not many graves bear flowers, or signs of recent tending. In this place, where every other woman lost a husband, a father, and often several sons, most of the bereaved now live too far away (in Sarajevo, or even America) to come often.
On Monday July 11th, the cornfield was thronged with people. Not only the families of the dead, but also dignitaries from all over the world gathered to mark the tenth anniversary of Europe's worst mass-killing since the second world war: the murder of up to 8,000 Muslim men and boys by Bosnian Serb forces, overseen by their commander, General Ratko Mladic. (The war-crimes court in The Hague has indicted 19 people for the massacre in Srebrenica, including General Mladic, one of three suspects who has so far eluded capture.) After the speeches at the cemetery, and relatives were to start digging a fresh round of graves for newly identified remains.
This hitherto tranquil area grabbed the world's attention in mid-1992, when Serb forces swept across east Bosnia, expelling, capturing or killing the non-Serbs in their path. Srebrenica was one of six towns which the United Nations, in a fudged response, vowed to keep safe and demilitarised. The town's capture by the Bosnian Serbs on July 11th 1995, followed by the slaughter of men and boys over the next five days, marked the end of a ramshackle UN peacekeeping operation and ushered in the final phase of the war, in which the Serbs were driven back to a point where peace terms seemed conceivable.
The region remains sullen and depressed. Its population is now about 10,000, down from 37,000 before the war: 6,000 are Serbs (some displaced from other parts of Bosnia) and 4,000 Muslim. Most Muslims are recent returnees to farms or flats from which they were ousted in 1992. Many of the area's villages were ruined by war and may never revive.
Muslims and Serbs continue, too, to nurse diametrically opposing versions of history. Take, for example, the nearby village of Kravica. In Muslim memory, the place is notorious because of an agricultural warehouse where, in July 1995, scores of men were killed with bullets and grenades. This was one of at least half a dozen places—along with a soccer field, a school, a quiet riverside, a bend in the road—where mass executions took place between July 12th and 17th. But local Serbs remember Kravica for a different reason. There, in January 1993, on the Orthodox Christmas Day, Muslim forces killed at least 30 people, some say 100. In deep denial of the crimes committed in their name, and dismayed by the world's apparent indifference to their own losses, they are erecting a concrete cross to commemorate their Christmas massacre.
The mayor of Srebrenica, Abdurahman Malkic, a young, jaunty Muslim politician, appears free of personal bitterness, despite his own narrow escape from death in 1995. He too, however, seems doubtful whether this bit of Bosnia can ever revert to its pre-war state. As he grumbles, only a fifth of the region's industrial capacity (based on mining, timber and food processing) is now being used. And it is hard to imagine that this can ever again be the sleepy, moderately prosperous land of hills and lakes where Christian and Muslim youngsters prayed separately but could still fish and flirt together.
Srebrenica's present doldrums are a microcosm of Bosnia as a whole, whose peace settlement imposes a dauntingly elaborate structure to balance ethnic interests. The town is part of the Serb republic (RS) which comprises just under half Bosnia's land, leaving the rest to a federation dominated by Muslims and Croats. Despite the efforts of Bosnia's international overlords, the pan-Bosnian institutions (grouping both the federation and the Serbs) are relatively toothless. As a place led locally by Muslims, Srebrenica gets little aid from the RS, and the other levels in Bosnia's hierarchy have no power to help.
In Srebrenica and the area north of it, almost every building tells a story. Many remain wrecked, or scarred by bullets and shells. Opposite the cemetery is the notorious car-battery factory which served as a base for 600 Dutch soldiers wearing the blue helmets of the UN. That was where thousands of terrified townsfolk headed on July 11th after the town was captured by the Serbs.
A few miles to the north lies the town of Bratunac, then and now a Serb stronghold. The Hotel Fontana is still doing decent business. That is where Serb generals engaged in ruthless, deceitful exchanges with Bosnian and UN leaders—with some captive Dutch soldiers sitting nearby to concentrate people's minds.
Thanks to hundreds of hours of testimony before the war-crimes tribunal in The Hague, it is now possible to piece together the outlines, at least, of what happened in these places. Momir Nikolic, a senior Serb soldier, has given a succinct and plausible version of events. On the morning of July 12th, he attended a meeting outside the Fontana with some fellow officers who told him what was now proposed: “The thousands of Muslim women and children in Potocari would be transported out of Potocari towards Muslim-held territory, [while] the able-bodied Muslim men within the crowd of Muslim civilians would be separated from the crowd, detained temporarily in Bratunac, and killed shortly thereafter.”
Once the task had been made clear, certain details had to be discussed: where in Bratunac to keep the men before their execution, and then where to kill them. Nikolic suggested two schools and a hangar as detention centres, and for the killings he proposed a factory and a mine.
So much for the 2,000 or so men who were part of the crowd that was foolish enough to place itself under Dutch protection. The remainder of Srebrenica's victims were members of a 15,000-strong group of men and boys who began a desperate walk out of the town on the night of July 11th, once it became clear that the expected NATO bombs would not come. Using many tricks (including putting on stolen Dutch uniforms, which convinced some Muslims they were surrendering to the UN), the Serbs managed to capture several thousand of these fleeing men—and then kill them.
In mitigation, it is sometimes pointed out that over the previous three years the Muslim defenders of the enclave had made many forays into Serb villages, killing hundreds of people. These raids were led by Naser Oric, a local warlord who now faces war-crimes charges.
Hence, people argue, there was a strong desire on the part of ordinary Bosnian Serbs to take revenge for these killings. That is true, but it does not take away from the monstrosity of the Srebrenica slaughter. Far from being a flash of rage, the murders were ordered and carried out in a clinical, almost industrial manner—and filmed, for good measure. Then, in September, there was an equally well-organised operation to cover up the crime by burying the remains in fresh graves, sometimes breaking the bodies in the process. In the words of Jean-René Ruez, a French investigator, “The massacres took place over three days, July 14th, 15th and 16th, in a perfectly organised procedure, and on July 17th, all the graves were filled in.”
The horrors of Srebrenica accelerated a series of diplomatic and military events that brought the conflict to an end. Three weeks after the massacre, Croatia's American-trained army drove rebel Serb forces (and over 150,000 Serb civilians) out of its territory. That helped free the town of Bihac in north Bosnia from a Serb stranglehold. In late August, NATO began three weeks of air strikes against the Bosnian Serbs, while British and French artillery pounded Serb positions. That helped Bosnian forces break the siege of Sarajevo and, in partnership with Croat forces, roll back the Serbs until their share of Bosnian land had been cut from two-thirds to about half. For westerners, what followed Srebrenica seemed to change a vicious circle into a virtuous one.
The Haunting Questions
Yet wide-open questions remain about the massacre. Above all, could it have been avoided? To those who were closely involved, the Srebrenica events were in some respects a ghastly surprise, in other ways entirely predictable.
For the previous three years, the world's response to the Bosnian war had been an elaborate effort to dampen the fighting and mitigate its effects without actually intervening. This took the form of a UN operation which policed local ceasefires and distributed aid: a mission which had its own logic, and undoubtedly saved lives, but could not go on indefinitely. In spring 1995, signs appeared that a ruthless end-game was about to begin.
Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian-Serb leader (who is also wanted for war crimes by the tribunal in The Hague, but has vanished), issued a “presidential directive” calling for an attack on Srebrenica, designed to reduce its size and make life there intolerable. Rupert Smith, the British commander of UN forces in Bosnia, gave a semi-public warning in March 1995 that a stance based on mere peacekeeping would soon become untenable. Realising that the Dutch unit's role in Srebrenica risked becoming worse than useless, General Smith urged the Netherlands to consider two options: either standing firmer in defence of the enclave, or extracting its troops. Neither option was acceptable to the Dutch government.
The UN secretariat, in one of its more honest moments, said the defence of the so-called safe areas would be impossible unless member states contributed more troops. In another telling portent, the Bosnian government itself gave signals that it was open to territorial swaps, as part of a final settlement: for example, Srebrenica would be handed over to the Serbs in return for some other territorial prize, such as the Sarajevo suburb of Vogosca. Perhaps the most mysterious event in spring 1995 was the withdrawal from Srebrenica of its chief defender, Naser Oric.
Yet despite all these omens, the ease with which the town fell to the Serbs amazed even the best-informed of observers. They met no resistance on the ground or in the air. Even a modest show of force by NATO would have saved many lives; and a modest attempt by the town's local defenders to keep the attackers at bay would have bought some time, enough time to shame the world into intervening. Why did neither thing happen? The Bosnians held off from active defence because they thought NATO would provide air support; the UN refrained from seeking NATO support, at least in part, because it feared for the lives of the Dutch soldiers.
The Dutch have reluctantly blamed themselves, and been blamed by others, for failing to use whatever limited room for manoeuvre they had. A similar exercise in self-criticism was undertaken by the UN secretariat, and the diplomats and generals who acted in the UN's name, in the final days of its peace mission.
But placing excessive blame on the UN as an institution is surely to miss the point. Especially in times of acute crisis, the UN tends to lose any collective identity of its own; everyone involved thinks first and foremost as a national of his or her own country. Whatever failed in Srebrenica, it was not the UN but its member governments, which might have intervened to save the menfolk of the town, but did not.
As insiders vividly recall, the Srebrenica crisis triggered a virtual breakdown in the UN's esprit de corps: General Bernard Janvier, the French head of UN operations in ex-Yugoslavia, was taking orders from Paris rather than UN headquarters in New York. If the French (both military and political) were reluctant to strike the Serbs, it was partly because they had worked very closely with the Serbian security chief, Jovica Stanisic, to secure the release of French and other UN soldiers taken hostage by the Bosnian Serbs in May. Meanwhile, General Cees Nicolai, the acting UN commander in Sarajevo, was thinking first as a Dutchman, with Dutch lives his main consideration.
A Continuing Task
Perhaps the hardest question of all is how much western governments knew, and when. The savviest Bosnians will tell you that from the moment Serb forces marched, unopposed, into Srebrenica, it was a chronicle of deaths foretold: an orgy of killing was entirely to be expected, and the Dutch (and other western governments) were being culpably naive when they accepted Serb promises to abide by the Geneva conventions on the treatment of prisoners-of-war and civilians.
If locals relying on their street-sense knew the score so well, how was it that western governments, with their panoply of signals intelligence, satellite photography and military observers, did not know what was going on—and if they did know, why was there such a deafening silence from western capitals during the five days after the enclave's capture, when the massacres were in progress? Is it too conspiratorial to suggest a link between the “usefulness” of Srebrenica's fate, and the fact that it was allowed, over five days, to unfold?
For many Bosnians, there are hard questions not just about the inaction of western governments, but about their own government's weakness of will. As a veteran of the Bosnian army who escaped death only by scrambling through the hillsides, with four companions, for a terrifying week, Mayor Malkic gives a disarmingly frank answer to these dilemmas. If Bosnian Muslims bear some blame for failing to protect Srebrenica, then the responsibility lies as heavily on people like himself, who were actively involved in its defence, as it does on the Sarajevo authorities. Having said that, “the Bosnian government bears a responsibility that cannot be avoided…[And] of course the main culprits are the aggressors, the Serbs.”
Visiting the cemetery in September 2003, Bill Clinton also gave a remarkably blunt, and politically astute, analysis of the political effects of the massacre. “Srebrenica”, he said, “was the beginning of the end of genocide in Europe. It enabled me to secure NATO support for the bombing that led to…peace.” In other words, without Srebrenica, America could not have won the support of its European allies for a sharp switch to a war-fighting (and thus war-ending) strategy in Bosnia.
On this reading, at least, Srebrenica was a sort of genocide to end all genocides (in one part of the world, anyway). It was also a necessary prerequisite to the dropping of the “bombs for peace”—which, by triggering a final, vast wave of forced population movement, left Bosnia's military balance, and above all its ethnic balance, in a state acceptable to the region's power-brokers.
For the bereaved mothers and widows gathering at the cemetery this week, that surely raises a hard question: was the shock of a massacre the only thing that could make the western powers change policy, and settle their own differences? Was there no other way?
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