How is the Srebrenica massacre remembered in Serbia?

Background current

In July 1995, Bosnian Serb soldiers murdered more than 8,000 Muslim boys and men in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica. The legal processing has largely been completed. But Serbia still refuses to recognize the crimes of that time as genocide.

A relative at the memorial cemetery for the victims of the Srebrenica massacre in Potočari. (& copy picture-alliance, AA | Mustafa Ozturk)

The Srebrenica massacre is considered the greatest crime against humanity in Europe since the end of World War II. On July 11, 1995, Bosnian Serb units took the city of Srebrenica under the leadership of the military chief Ratko Mladić and killed over 8,000 Muslim Bosnians, men and boys in the days that followed.

The disintegration of the multi-ethnic state of Yugoslavia began at the beginning of the 1990s. Of the six republics of the "Socialist Federal Republic", Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia and Bosnia and Herzegovina declared themselves independent, with only Montenegro and Serbia remaining with the former Yugoslav capital Belgrade. As a result, a war broke out in which, on the one hand, the Yugoslav People's Army fought against the independence movements and, on the other hand, the different population groups in the individual republics fought one another.

Serbian troops are advancing rapidly

In multi-ethnic Bosnia and Herzegovina, according to a 1981 census, the three largest population groups were Bosnian Muslims (39.5 percent), Bosnian Serbs (32 percent) and Bosnian Croats (18.4 percent). Tensions grew between them. While most Bosnian Muslims advocated an independent state, the nationalists among the Bosnian Serbs called for an annexation to Serbia. Many of the Croatian Bosnians, in turn, wanted a union with Croatia. The situation escalated when, in the spring of 1992, the Muslim and Croatian population voted in a referendum to split off from the Serb-dominated rump Yugoslavia. In a short period of time, the unrest turned into a civil war.

Serb nationalists, led by the Bosnian Serb political leader Radovan Karadžić, advanced rapidly because of their military superiority. They soon controlled around two thirds of Bosnia and Herzegovina. They expelled members of other population groups from these areas. They were supported by the Serbian Republic under President Slobodan Milošević.

Bosnian Muslims flee to Srebrenica

Srebrenica, a small town in the east of Bosnia and Herzegovina near the border with Serbia, became a place of refuge especially for Bosnian Muslims after the outbreak of civil war. The United Nations had declared the area a UN security zone, in which Dutch troops were supposed to ensure security. But the around 350 UN soldiers stationed there were neither the UN mandate nor the equipment sufficient to ensure this protection. When Karadžić and Bosnian Serb troops, led by Army Chief Ratko Mladić, captured Srebrenica on July 11, the UN soldiers were unable to resist - a circumstance that has led to discussions about the complicity of the Dutch UN soldiers to this day. At that time there were about 36,000 refugees among 42,000 civilians.

Several thousand of them tried to escape through forests into Bosnian Muslim-controlled areas. Others wanted to go to the UN base in the village of Potočari, six kilometers away. On the evening of July 11, around 25,000 people crowded the site of the former battery factory, most of them women, children and the elderly. Food and water became scarce.

From Srebrenica, the units under the leadership of Mladić soon advanced to Potočari. On July 12th and 13th, the soldiers began to separate women and men. They pretended to be looking for war criminals. Women and children were taken away in trucks and buses and brought to shortly before the Bosnian-Muslim controlled area. The men who remained behind, most of them of military age, were executed and buried by Mladić's men in various places. In order to cover up the mass murder of the more than 8,000 people, the perpetrators dug up a few graves later and distributed the human remains to other areas. The corpses were still reburied after the end of the war.

20 proceedings at the criminal court

Based on Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter, Resolution 827 created the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague in 1993. It should punish genocide, war crimes, violations of the Geneva Conventions and crimes against humanity during the Yugoslav wars.

Several thousand witnesses had reported about the most terrible atrocities of the Yugoslavian war for almost 11,000 days of trial. The so-called Yugoslavia Tribunal was closed at the end of 2017 after its last judgment. By then, the judges had brought charges against 161 high-ranking politicians, members of the military and police from various parties in the civil war. 90 of them were convicted.

Twenty of the 161 accused were also tried for crimes in Srebrenica, including former Serbian President Slobodan Milošević. However, the heart disease politician died in March 2006 before a judgment could be made. Radislav Krstić, a general in the Bosnian Serb forces, was sentenced to 35 years in prison for complicity in genocide.

In 2016, the tribunal sentenced the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadžić to 40 years in prison - on appeal, the sentence was increased to life. The Serbian General Mladić, who is believed to be the main culprit in the massacre, was sentenced to life imprisonment at the end of 2017.

Complicity of the Dutch blue helmet soldiers?

The alleged complicity of the Dutch blue helmet soldiers in the massacre has been discussed many times in recent years. Dutch courts also dealt intensively with this question. In both first and second instance the judges there held the Netherlands complicit in the death of a group of around 300 men. It can be assumed that her death could have been prevented if the blue helmets had allowed these Bosnian Muslim men to stay in the military camp.

Last year, the High Council in The Hague, the highest Dutch court, came to the conclusion that the Dutch soldiers had acted illegally. The chances of survival of the Bosnian men who were later killed, however, were slim in view of the military superiority of the Serbs.

Serbian government denies genocide

The processing of the events of Srebrenica is the subject of political disputes to this day. The massacre of the Bosnian Muslims was classified as genocide by both the International Yugoslavia Tribunal and the International Court of Justice. A resolution tabled by the British in the UN Security Council, according to which the massacre should be classified as genocide, failed in 2015 due to Russia's veto. To this day, high-ranking Serbian politicians refuse to recognize the crimes as genocide - including Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabić. That is why she did not travel to the annual commemoration in Potočari last year. In 2003 a memorial cemetery was inaugurated there, where several thousand victims were buried.

In view of the 25th anniversary, many people around the world will again remember the victims on July 11, 2020 - including in Germany. This year, however, due to the corona pandemic, commemorative events will take place at least partially in digital form.

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