“These are truly scenes from hell, written on the darkest pages of human history.”
Judge Fouad Riad, International Criminal Tribunal For The Former Yugoslavia
Fifty years after the world said “Never Again” to the horrors of the Holocaust, genocide took place on European soil.
The name Srebrenica has become synonymous with those dark days in July 1995 when, in the first ever United Nations declared safe area, thousands of men and boys were systematically murdered and buried in mass graves. The victims, predominantly Muslim, were selected for death on the basis of their identity. This was the worst atrocity on European soil since the Second World War.
Although Srebrenica is the only mass killing in Balkan wars that has been officially ruled as genocide by the international courts, this atrocity was only the final act in a much broader genocidal strategy—euphemistically dubbed “ethnic cleansing”. The Srebrenica genocide was the planned, systematic, and industrialised conclusion of a four year campaign of forced deportation, torture, mass murder and systematic sexual violence by Bosnian Serb forces in service of their goal to create a “Greater Serbia”.
Genocide does not happen overnight. It begins when hatred and intolerance are left unchallenged or are manipulated for political gain. With the fall of Yugoslavia, politicians in the region used divisive nationalism to gain power and influence. Propaganda and misinformation were utilised to spread first fear and then hatred, breaking apart decades of trust between vibrant and integrated communities and turning neighbour against neighbour.
The lesson from Srebrenica is that no society is invulnerable to prejudice and intolerance. We must all remain vigilant against these forces, and take positive action to build stronger, more resilient communities.
By the summer of 1995, three towns in eastern Bosnia—Srebrenica, Zepa and Gorazde—remained under control of the Bosnian government. The U.N. had declared these enclaves “safe havens” in 1993, to be disarmed and protected by international peacekeeping forces.
On July 11, 1995, however, Bosnian Serb forces advanced on Srebrenica, overwhelming a battalion of Dutch peacekeeping forces stationed there. Serbian forces subsequently separated the Bosniak civilians at Srebrenica, putting the women and girls on buses and sending them to Bosnian-held territory.
Some of the women were raped or sexually assaulted, while the men and boys who remained behind were killed immediately or bussed to mass killing sites. Estimates of Bosniaks killed by Serb forces at Srebrenica range from around 7,000 to more than 8,000.
After Bosnian Serb forces captured Zepa that same month and exploded a bomb in a crowded Sarajevo market, the international community began to respond more forcefully to the ongoing conflict and its ever-growing civilian death toll.
In August 1995, after the Serbs refused to comply with a U.N. ultimatum, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) joined efforts with Bosnian and Croatian forces for three weeks of bombing Bosnian Serb positions and a ground offensive.
With Serbia’s economy crippled by U.N. trade sanctions and its military forces under assault in Bosnia after three years of warfare, Milosevic agreed to enter negotiations that October. The U.S.-sponsored peace talks in Dayton, Ohio, in November 1995 (which included Izetbegovic, Milosevic and Croatian President Franjo Tudjman) resulted in the creation of a federalized Bosnia divided between a Croat-Bosniak federation and a Serb republic.
Though the international community did little to prevent the systematic atrocities committed against Bosniaks and Croats in Bosnia while they were occurring, it did actively seek justice against those who committed them.
In May 1993, the U.N. Security Council created the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) at The Hague, Netherlands. It was the first international tribunal since the Nuremberg Trials in 1945-46, and the first to prosecute genocide, among other war crimes.
Radovan Karadzic and the Bosnian Serb military commander, General Ratko Mladic, were among those indicted by the ICTY for genocide and other crimes against humanity.
The ICTY would eventually indict 161 individuals of crimes committed during conflict in the former Yugoslavia. Brought before the tribunal in 2002 on charges of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, Milosevic served as his own defense lawyer; his poor health led to long delays in the trial until he was found dead in his prison cell in 2006.