For years, Ramiz Nukic quarried human remains in the forests around Srebrenica, finding almost daily the bones of someone massacred here in July 1995. The little Bosnian town on the banks of the Drina river had a Muslim majority until Serb forces swooped on it — and butchered some 8,000 residents in a matter of days. They filmed their action, stopping the slaughter only when the camera batteries ran out.
Nukic, who lost his father and brother in the massacre — Europe’s worst since World War II — began looking for their remains after returning home in 1999. The bones he found had helped authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina identify 300 victims until July 2015, when The Independent profiled him 20 years after the massacre. On June 27, The Hague Court of Appeals ruled the Netherlands was “partially liable” for about 350 of the Srebrenica murders, largely upholding a lower court’s ruling from 2014, and underscoring the failure of the international community in preventing the massacre.
A Dutch UN peacekeeping contingent had fled in the face of a Serb attack on their base in Potocari, where the Bosnian Muslims had sought refuge. They were outnumbered as the Serbs hauled men and boys into buses and trucks. Around 2,000 people were executed immediately on July 11, 1995 — subsequently, another 6,000 were hunted down and butchered in the forests. Some were tortured to death, others shot or hanged; some were left to die with booby traps to kill those trying to save them. Piles of bodies were scooped up by bulldozers and dumped in pits. In Kravica, Serb general Ratko Mladic promised 1,000 Bosnian Muslims that they would be united with their families before executing them. The Independent quoted a survivor later recalling at The Hague war crimes tribunal that he “walked over dead bodies” to safety.
The Serbs had launched a campaign of genocide in 1992 for a “racially pure statelet” after Bosnia voted for secession from Yugoslavia. Eastern Bosnia bore the brunt of the campaign, where food embargoes and bombings forced residents out of their homes. The Serbs besieged Srebrenica for three years before they overran it, as 15,000 Bosniaks fled to the nearby mountains. The rest sought refuge at the Dutch peacekeeping base. The invasion had caught them offguard — the UN had declared the town as one of six protected safe areas, and its population had swollen from 9,000 to 42,000 in 1993.
As the Serbs started shelling peacekeepers’ positions, pleas of the Dutch forces for air support went unanswered. This, despite a UN report warning in April 1993 of a “potential massacre in which there could be 25,000 victims if Serb forces were to enter Srebrenica”. In 2016, The Observer quoted Serb politician Radovan Karadžic of having promised the Bosnian Serb Assembly that there would be “blood up to the knees” if his army entered the town.
The Hague court found the Dutch peacekeepers to be ill-equipped and lacking in “strong leadership”. Presiding judge Gepke Dulek-Schermers noted that they “knew or should have known that the men were not only being screened”. The judge added that the victims were in real danger of being subjected to torture or execution, and “by having the men leave the compound unreservedly, they were deprived of a chance of survival”. Dutch soldiers, the judge said, had facilitated the separation of the men and boys among the refugees.
The Observer report spoke of the “mass of evidence” that indicated that the fall of Srebrenica constituted a part of a policy by Britain, France, the US and the UN leadership in pursuit of “peace at any price; peace at the terrible expense of Srebrenica”. It said western powers could not be said to have known the extent of the massacre that would follow — but “the evidence demonstrates they were aware — or should have been — of Mladic’s declared intention to have the Bosniak Muslim population of the entire region ‘vanish completely’.”
A series of events had been building up to the genocide. In July 1992, non-Serbs in Celinac were prohibited from moving around after 4 pm. The Independent reported that they were not allowed to swim, fish, and gather in groups of over three, and to sell or exchange apartments. The world sat on its hands as the situation degenerated with the emergence of concentration camps, mass rapes and killings that culminated into mind-numbing “scenes from hell” written on “the darkest pages of history”, according to a judge in The Hague.
Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, whose idea of nationalism is blamed for the massacre, was prosecuted for war crimes and died in prison. He was among over 20 people indicted for their involvement. Mladic was put on trial in 2011.