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world wide wednesdays :: what happened?

srebrenica memorial
this month marks the twentieth anniversary of the massacre of more than 8,000 people, mostly men and boys in the bosnian town of srebrenica. sadly, it's an event that's largely forgotten and even at the time it was poorly understood amidst the muddle of the bosnian war and the larger phenomenon of the yugoslav wars. in the early to mid-nineties, the country that the world had known as yugoslavia splintered and disintegrated into more pieces than most of us could keep track of. every month, the players in the conflict seemed to change and the lands in dispute seemed to move. while there was plenty of reporting on the conflicts, there was little explanation forthcoming on the roots of the problems [short- or long-term], which were generally glazed over as "ethnic tensions" coming to the surface.

in retrospect, however, the story of the massacre seems to be a horrifying parable for the world at the end of the cold war, tumbling into a chaotic future. because most people are still not clear on exactly what took place, or what lead up to the massacre, it remains a subject that gets little coverage from media in north america. if any coverage is given, it relates solely to the trials of the perpetrators of the massacre for war crimes and genocide, which are ongoing. in europe, there is more coverage, especially in the wake of some declassified documents that cast new light on the role of the united nations, but it still seems like a lot more is needed in order to understand what happened and, most importantly, to stop something like it from happening again.

first, the bare facts: between the 10th and 15th of july, bosnian serb forces captured the silver-mining town of srebrenica, a designated united nations safe zone in a region of bosnia disputed between the fledgling nation of bosnia-herzegovina and neighbouring serbia [then serbia and montenegro]. as the town was captured, the population of bosniaks [bosnian muslims] was separated by age/ gender. women and very young children were displaced and forced away from their homes. men and boys thought to be old enough to take up arms were taken to nearby fields and shot. it is the most deadly crime on european soil since world war ii. bosnian serb leader radovan karadžić and military commander ratko mladić were indicted for war crimes in 1999, but were only arrested in 2008 and 2011 respectively. both are the subject of ongoing international criminal court proceedings. general zdravako tolomir, another bosnian serb military leader, was arrested in 2007 and convicted in 2012 for crimes related to the massacre, including genocide. his life sentence was upheld in april of this year.

bosniak prisoners in a concentration camp
both the bosnian serbs [in 2004] and the government of serbia itself [in 2013] have apologised for their role in the srebrenica massacre. neither has specifically called it a genocide, and this week russia vetoed a u.n. security council resolution that would have labeled them as such, declaring that it was one-sided and politically motivated.

the story of the massacre at srebrenica has evolved over time. while it was immediately clear that something had gone horribly wrong and that the bosniaks had been victimised by the conquering bosnian serb army, the scope of the atrocities was only slowly revealed. even today, the united nations are in possession of thousands of bags of human remains that have yet to be identified [more than 6,500 have been identified through dna profiles], it is unknown if all of the mass graves from the genocide have been discovered and a bosnian serb government task force has identified between twenty-five and thirty thousand people implicated, including more than 800 who continued to work for the bosnian serb government.

as to the question of whether or not the massacre of bosniaks constitutes a genocide, let's refer to the united nations convention on the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide, ratified in the wake of world war ii:

...any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:

(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

by that definition, it seems pretty clear that the mass murder at srebrenica fits the bill: the violence was entirely directed at a single group, it was clearly intended to eliminate them and the possibility of their resistance. children were forcibly transfered [along with women], members of the group were killed, by forcing survivors out of the town, the bosnian serbs occasioned seriously bodily and mental harm and inflicted on the group conditions calculated to result in their deaths.

so to that end, the arrest and trial of bosnian serb political and military leaders addresses the need for punishment for the crime of genocide. but what about prevention?

bodies in a mass grave at srebrenica, 1996
as stories of the nightmare in srebrenica emerged, the united nations suffered a series of blows from which it has yet to recover. horror stories of desperate bosniaks seeking shelter in the u.n. facilities and being turned away by dutch soldiers crystallised what many were thinking: the u.n. had been impotent in the face of disaster. it had resigned itself to the role of spectator and allowed the genocide to happen, even when its victims were pounding on the door. that image of the u.n. as hopelessly ineffective was resurrected in the early 2000s by president george w. bush in order to build support for his invasion of iraq. why should people believe that the u.n. could keep saddam hussein in check when they'd made such a mess of things in the former yugoslavia?

sadly, it looks like the image of  the u.n. as weak might have been framing things somewhat kindly. recently declassified documents indicate that the major players behind the u.n.- france, the united kingdom and, yes, the united states of america- had chosen rather to allow srebrenica and two other "safe havens" to fall to the bosnian serbs, in the interests of achieving a larger peace deal with the region. although they would later claim that they could not have anticipated the scale of the violence visited on srebrenica or other areas of eastern bosnia, evidence suggests otherwise; colonel joseph kingori, a peacekeeper from kenya, testified that he had alerted his superiors to the fact that bosnian serb military leaders were asking a lot of questions about how the u.n. would react should they [the bosnian serbs] throw every person out of the towns that they captured, save for those who they considered war criminals- basically all of the men.

if that was too vague for them, radovan karadžić himself had promised "blood up to the knees" in the region. and the u.n. security council had published a report in 1993 warning there was a significant risk of genocide should the bosnian serb army capture srebrenica.

but even in light of those facts, the united nations decided that srebrenica was a sacrifice they were willing to make. but why?

bosnia and herzegovina is not iraq. it does not possess vast reserves of oil, or vast reserves of much of anything in demand in the rest of the world. as happens with tragic frequency in the balkans, however, the new country found itself in the middle of much larger conflicts, with much more powerful players. the genocide in srebrenica may have been the result of "ethnic tensions", but they were also the result of politics.

mladic [l] and karadžić [r]
while "ethnic tensions" between slavic groups in the region have existed a long time, much of the tensions that gave rise to the situation in the early nineties, as yugoslavia fell apart, can be explained by more recent history. yugoslavia was born in the wake of the first world war, the child of a pan-slavic movement that dated back to the 17th century and which had provided the spark for the great war. so at one point, the inhabitants of the southern slavic territories were interested in giving union a try.

yugoslavia, which translates roughly as "slavic jug", was created from the kingdom of serbia [joined just slightly earlier by the kingdom of montenegro] with the state of croats, slovenes and serbs. as swept up in the romantic ideals of the pan-slav movement as they might have been, the citizens and leaders of yugoslavia did not have an easy union. the serbian king was the head of state, which meant that serbians tended to enjoy a privileged position in society. the parliament was split largely along ethnic and former territorial lines and there was ongoing tension between those who favoured a heavily centralized national government and those who wanted a much looser federation between the states. serbia saw themselves as the centre of the union, whereas the croats, slovenes and montenegrans viewed themselves as equal partners. coalitions were constantly forming and dissolving and the balance of power often fell to the muslim minority, which made no one happy, even when they were on the "winning" side.

by the late 1920s, things had reached a desperate impasse and in 1928 a serbian member of parliament attempted to resolve it by shooting five members of the opposition croatian people's party [whose leadership had been in and out of jail for most of the decade]. the opposition boycotted parliament and the [serbian] king instituted martial law, redrew the country's electoral boundaries, wrote a new constitution that gave him greater powers and abolished secret ballots during elections. during this time, a croatian politician named ante pavelić slipped out of the country and formed an organisation called the ustaše. in 1934, an operative of that organisation murdered the king and everything went even further to hell.

croatian ustaše soldiers beating a victim to death
by the late 1930s, serbia and croatia were ready to gather up their adjoining territories and walk away from the pan-slavic experiment, except that both of them claimed bosnia-herzegovina and neither was willing to cede it to the other. the new king, who was a minor, attempted to make things friendlier again by offering some concessions to the croats, which only served to anger everybody.

and then things got worse. in 1941, the axis powers invaded yugoslavia and started handing parts of it out to adjoining countries. they found political and military allies in the ustaše, who were fascists as well. the ustaše were given control over the country and proceeded to engage in "ethnic cleansing"- often with the aid of bosniak muslims- against serbs [as well as jews and gypsies], in order to consolidate their power. when asked what he would do to those who rebelled against him, pavelić, now the head of government, said that he would have them killed. when pressed to say what would happen if all the serbs rebelled, his reaction was chilling: "then we will kill them all."

the ustaše were eventually toppled in large part through the efforts of the resistance led by josep broz tito, the man who would become synonymous with yugoslavia as its head of state from the end of the war until his death in 1980. tito was able to hold the country together through a combination of force and granting greater autonomy to the regions. as the war ended, however, ante pavelić slipped out of europe and fled to argentina, where he established what he called a [fervently anti-communist] croatian government in exile. tito placed an emphasis on pushing forward and even had representatives contact pavelić about the possibility of seeking reconciliation over what had happened during the war. but for all intents and purposes, the story of what had happened under the ustaše disappeared from history.

sarajevo, bosnia during the war
all during the yugoslavian wars, the phrase "ethnic tensions" was tossed around as if it explained anything. but no one ever brought up how those tensions had been exacerbated by the events of world war ii. or that those who had committed high crimes had gotten away with it. the united nations likely had several goals when they intervened in the bosnian war: keeping serbian-sympathetic russia at bay to prevent another flare-up of the cold war, stopping the conflict from spreading, securing the crucially important trade route of the danube river and protecting the surrounding area [including croatia and slovenia, the more economically developed areas of yugoslavia and hence the most attractive trading partners]. but what seems clear twenty years on is that they did not place a priority on the protection of vulnerable people. the united nations wanted the slavic problem settled and they wanted it done quickly. the fastest way to accomplish that was to let the serbs take the eastern "safe zones".

although the trials of radovan karadžić and ratko mladić are still under way, it is highly unlikely that either man will ever walk free again. former serbian president slobodan milošević, indicted for numerous crimes throughout the yugoslavian wars, died before he could be convicted. chances are that more of the people directly responsible for the genocide in srebrenica will be brought to justice. but as far as those who let it happen, they've moved on. once again, history has wiped the slavic slate clean and left the people behind to try to make sense of what's happened to them. there will likely be some media coverage on what happened twenty years ago, but chances are it will touch only on the "official talking points" of the srebrenica story: the serbs were the bad guys who brutally murdered thousands of men and boys. it won't focus on the background realities: that western powers allowed a bloodthirsty army to rampage into a town and kill thousands of muslim men because they were eager to be done with the region and its "ethnic tensions". that sort of problem-solving doesn't prevent any atrocities in the future. it fuels them.

[p.s. :: i always try to make the limitations of these posts clear, but in this case, i want it to be really clear: i cannot possibly do justice to the complexity of the yugoslavian wars and the interaction of cultures that exist in the slavic republics in one blog post. there are thousands of details, many of them very important, that i've left out here, because if i didn't, you'd be reading a book. feel free to add your own facts/ opinions. it's not my wish to deliberately exclude any salient information. it's just that sometimes, one has to.]


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