In July 1995, approximately 8,000 Muslims, mostly men and boys were killed in Srebrenica, a town in Bosnia and Herzegovina in southeastern Europe, by Bosnian Serb forces led by Commander Ratko Mladić. These killings were later classified as genocide by international tribunals investigating the massacre.
The disintegration of Yugoslavia in 1991 threw the southeastern and central Europe in chaos and led to violent inter-ethinic wars in the region over the next few years. In many ways, the violence perpetrated against Bosniaks or Bosnian Muslims during the Srebrenica massacre was a result of this regional conflict. According to some researchers, this massacre was the worst atrocity against civilians in Europe since the Holocaust.
The Bosnian War that occurred between 1992-1995, witnessed a period of displacement and ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats by the Bosnian Serb army and paramilitary forces. During the war, the Srebrenica massacre started on July 11, 1995 when Commander Ratko Mladić occupied the town of Srebrenica. Thousands of Bosnian Muslim families sought refuge with the Dutchbat, a Dutch battalion under the United Nations forces that had been deployed following the upheaval during the Bosnia War, believing that the area under their control was a safe zone.
This United Nations peacekeeping mission led by the Netherlands failed to stop these murders, and many Bosnian Muslims had sought refuge believing it to be a safe zone. Some researchers say that the failures of this UN peacekeeping mission were so great that not only did it not protect Bosnian Muslims, in some cases, it actively handed over young boys and men to Bosnian Serb forces knowing that they would be killed. This safe zone later fell under the control of the Bosnian Serb forces after the Dutch forces surrendered. Some researchers believe that the 8,000 Muslims who were killed during this massacre were murdered within two week of the start of the occupation of Srebrenica.
It was not only babies, young boys and men who were subjected to atrocities and killings. The massacre also saw widespread crimes against women, where girls and women were subjected to violence and rape. In their testimonies in the aftermath of the massacre, the victims, including girls and women, said that they had not been given any protection by UN forces, despite the forces having witnessed the violence that was being perpetrated in front of them. There were also testimonies where survivors recounted how Bosnian Serb forces had forced Bosnian Muslims to dig their own graves and later shot them to death. 25 years after the massacre, bodies of victims continue to be found in mass graves.
The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia that investigated war crimes that occurred during the conflict in the Balkans in the 1990s, found that efforts had been made by the Bosnian Serb army to remove bodies from these mass graves to other sites in an attempt to conceal the extent of the crimes and killings. This removal of bodies made it difficult to identify victims and investigations by the tribunal showed that in many cases, body parts of the one victim were found in different graves due to this displacement. The tribunal said that this indicated that the killings of the Bosnian Muslims were premeditated and had been extensively planned.
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In 1995, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia indicted Ratko Mladić and Radovan Karadžić, the President of the Republika Srpska, for war crimes against Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica. Then UN Secretary General Kofi Annan submitted his own report on the Srebrenica Massacre in 1999 acknowledging the failures of the UN in preventing the massacre and said: “The tragedy of Srebrenica will forever haunt the history of the United Nations.”
For the Netherlands, the failures of the Dutchblat and reports of the troops participation in various forms in the violence perpetrated against the Bosnian Serbs led to an inquiry by the government in 1996. A report published seven years later acknowledged the failures of this peacekeeping mission and the Dutch government admitted some responsibility for their inability to protect victims during the massacre.
In March 2003, Bosnia and Herzegovina began their own investigations on the Srebrenica massacre, relying heavily on the findings of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, which concluded the next year, with the government admitting that crimes had been committed against Bosnian Muslims. Some nationalists in the country have disagreed with the findings of these investigations. An official apology for the massacre was later issued by the government.
Ten years after the massacre, in 2005, the US House of Representatives officially passed a resolution, recognising it as the Srebrenica Genocide. In March 2016, Radovan Karadžić, the former president of Republika Srpska, was found guilty by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, and was sentenced to 40 years’ imprisonment. A year later, in November 2017, Ratko Mladić was found guilty of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, and sentenced to life imprisonment.
On July 11, 25 years on, commemoration services were held at the Srebrenica-Potocari Memorial and Cemetery in remembrance of the victims of the massacre. During this ceremony, bodies of nine victims that were recently identified were buried in the cemetery. Although mourners had gathered for the service, the crowds were limited due to concerns of the spread of coronavirus. World leaders also issued statements in remembrance of the massacre.
According to some researchers, many Serbian politicians and citizens refuse to call it genocide and public builidngs continue to hold names of people convicted of war crimes against Bosnian Muslims and others who were in positions of power during the massacre but did little to intervene. According to a recent Guardian report, while there is some acknowledgement of the atrocities committed against Bosnian Muslims, in Srebrenica today, many reject the label of genocide.
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