Genocide, victims and justice: Srebrenica 20 years on

If reconciliation is not possible today, maybe it could come with a generational change.

Even by Balkan standards, Eastern Bosnia, with its mountains, valleys and forests, is an isolated region with poor transport connections and whose roads are frequently blocked by snow. This isolation is especially acute for some municipalities and local communities (MZs or mjesne zajednice), which today include former refugees and internally displaced people. Most are elderly Bosniaks (who are rather simply categorised as Bosnian Muslims), who returned to their places of origin after the war. A minority in areas where before 1992 they were the majority.

Ruined arms and chemical factories from the Tito era blot the landscape in areas such as Foca and Gorazde. There are also the skull signs, marking the mine fields which often run parallel to the dividing line between the two entities (Croat-Muslim Federation and Republika Srpska) that comprise the Bosnian State. A rural exodus towards Sarajevo, Banja Luka and Belgrade was a fact of life in Eastern Bosnia before the war. Now the economic depression and stagnation is even greater than in the rest of a country being kept alive largely by the international community’s respirator.

The region around the Drina river valley, which inspired Ivo Andric’s novel, The Bridge on the Drina, witnessed large numbers of the massacres and ethnic cleansing that took place during the war. These events made Bosnia the scene of one of the greatest ignominies in modern European history. The CNN spotlight mostly focused on Sarajevo and the three-year siege it was subjected to by Ratko Mladic’s Bosnian Serb armed forces. But the rural areas suffered unspeakable hell. Between April and May of 1992 – shortly after Bosnia’s declaration of independence – virtually all of the key towns fell into the hands of Chetnik paramilitary units and local security forces, with support from Belgrade (somewhat similar to the strategy now being deployed by Russia in eastern Ukraine).

In a matter of weeks, thousands of Bosnian Muslims of all ages and ranks were murdered, often in grotesque fashion, in towns like Foca and Visegrad, barely two hours from Sarajevo. Thousands of women were raped systematically in detention centres set up in hotels and gymnasiums. Almost all of the mosques and the region’s Ottoman heritage were destroyed. This efficient methodology of mass killing and ethnic cleansing seems somewhat reminiscent of the Einsatzgruppen Nazis’ actions in the Soviet Union, as described by Timothy Snyder in Bloodlands.

In this context, the massacre in July 1995 of between 7,000 and 8,000 Bosnians by Mladic’s forces, just after the collapse of the United Nations Safe Haven controlled by the Dutch contingent, is undoubtedly singular in terms of scale. But, from certain perspective, it was a culmination of a broader sequence, albeit less well known, of similar acts carried out across this region at the start of the war. Patterns of bloodshed and violence resulting in new realities on the ground which, with a nip and tuck here and there, the Dayton Agreement would cement in constitutional terms.

Even in today’s Balkans theoretically on the road toward the European Union (Albania, Montenegro, Serbia and Macedonia are membership candidates), some things do not change so quickly.

The political dialectics of genocide

This July sees the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre, the only such event of the many which took place in the former Yugoslavia which has been termed as a genocide by the international judiciary. Radovan Karadzic and Mladic have been put in the dock while Milosevic died in the midst of his trial almost 10 years ago.

But 20 years are hardly long enough. Even in today’s Balkans theoretically on the road toward the European Union (Albania, Montenegro, Serbia and Macedonia are membership candidates), some things do not change so quickly. Sadly, this is true for the narrative about the genocide and the wars of the 1990s in general.

There is not a solid agreement on the recent past, nor about similar events during World War II which form part of the collective psyche and were often prominent in the minds of perpetrators – and their instigators. The issues of genocide, victims and justice remain deeply divisive and inevitably prone to create controversies between the new states born of Yugoslavia’s disintegration, and within societies themselves, more segregated than ever, at least in today’s Bosnia.

Commemorative events at Srebrenica cause controversy almost every year. This anniversary has generated even greater tension than usual: between Bosnia and Serbia; between Serbia and the EU; and, as is the norm in Bosnia’s toxic politics, between the Republika Srpska of Milorad Dodik and Sarajevo. Though Serbia has condemned the massacre, the country’s leaders refuse to call it a genocide and insist on recognition for Serbian victims. This negative to accept the taboo word is tarnishing Belgrade’s newly developed – though fragile – role as a constructive regional actor, crucial for its entry into the EU. In this light, Serbia’s clash with key European states over its rejection of the UK proposed resolution on Srebrenica in the UN Security Council, which were to condemn that genocide – and its denial. This dialectic also has some geopolitical significance as, in different ways, both Serbia and the Republika Srpska had made overtures to Russia to use its veto power against that resolution, which it eventually did, on the grounds of its being “anti-Serbian” and with “destabilising” potential. The argument of risk of ethnic conflict has become a common pressure tool applied to the West, sometimes successfully, by both local and regional actors.

These manoeuvres between West and East are part of a traditional balancing act which Balkan leaders perform rather skilfully. Yet this time the pendulum effect of this and other crises is raising some alarm within the EU, particularly in view of the conflict in Ukraine and Russian strategy in the Balkans and South-eastern Europe.  

Dodik, now controversial but, ironically, once the West’s great hope in Bosnia, is adept at handling these debates, maximising the disproportionate influence he holds over Bosnia and the region. He uses tactics similar to those used by other populists in Russia and the EU, including a rhetoric of the Geert Wilders and Jean-Marie Le Pen variety. Dodik’s bag of tricks includes nods to Moscow, attacks on Sarajevo and the international community, calls to defend the Republika Srpska and Serbian victims, the threat of independence (with now a referendum potentially envisaged for 2018), the odd isolated gesture, such as his tribute earlier this year to the victims of Srebrenica, coupled with firm denial of genocide (“the greatest deception of the XX century”).                                             

The Wannsee conferences

But Bosnia and Srebrenica are just parts of a regional problem. A few hours down the road from Belgrade, the new state of Kosovo is having to add to its long list of problems the tricky questions of justice and responsibility for the crimes committed by the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK in its Albanian initials). With EU support, a special court is meant to start judging these crimes, though it will be based in the Netherlands (an atmosphere of intimidation endured by local witnesses contributed to frustrating previous trials of UCK leaders). At the end of June, however, the Pristina Assembly had failed to adopt the relevant decisions in the midst of protests and rejection, with victimhood once again to the fore.

Meanwhile, the International Court of Justice passed judgement last winter on mutual Serbian and Croatian accusations of genocide. The ruling absolved them both due to the absence of proof of the subjective element required under international law: the specific intent to “destroy wholly or in part” the other national, ethnic or religious group. The standard of proof needed to attribute responsibility to a state for the international crime of genocide (it has to be “absolutely conclusive” and “the only reasonable conclusion”) is almost impossible, requiring Wannsee Conference parameters.

The standard of proof needed to attribute responsibility to a state for the international crime of genocide (it has to be “absolutely conclusive” and “the only reasonable conclusion”) is almost impossible, requiring Wannsee Conference parameters.

In the case of the former Yugoslavia, it is close to absurd to recognise that the Serbian forces on one side, and the Croats led by Ante Gotovina, on the other, committed objective acts of genocide – but it is not, as it were, “absolutely conclusive” that they did so in subjective terms. As a result, cases in which systematic violence such as that of Srebrenica was also implemented end up being recorded in the collective conscience as minor crimes. This serves to reinforce conspiracy theories and accentuates a perception of double standards and, in short, injustice.

However, looking closely at the events of the devedeseti (the 1990s), at the site, for example, of one of the regular exhumations of mass graves in the region, international jurisprudence seems farther away than ever. One cannot help thinking that there were several more or less formal Wannsee conferences in Belgrade (and Zagreb) and Pale, the Serbian-Bosnian leaders’ command centre, with fateful orders and directives. But the unsettling truth is that there was also a great deal of gratuitously violent behaviour by random Mr Nobodies, erstwhile neighbours, even friendly, if somewhat brutish, beer hall companions. “The banality of evil” that Hannah Arendt spoke of and which was repeated in the Rwandan massacres and Eastern Europe during World War II.

‘Bilo, pa proslo’

So local and regional leaders juggle as best they can, alternating the language that Europe expects with the divisive nationalism that still keeps many of them in the game and which prevents one side from seeing the damage it has done to another. Examples of a bended knee, such as that of Willy Brandt in Warsaw, have so far been rather rare, although there have been a few positive gestures in recent years.

A core problem is the absolute absence of a common narrative, minimally shared by large segments of these societies, in terms of the key facts of the war and its meaning. This problem manifests itself in different ways. First off, there is often a lack of empathy towards the suffering of others and too much denial of the veracity of facts which have been demonstrated but which are blurred by the dominant political discourse (and demagoguery), creating a parallel reality. In a situation where there is not a shared educational system, a symbology is maintained whereby the same individuals are viewed as criminals by one side while often being treated as heroes or martyrs by the other.

Moreover, sometimes toned down, sometimes resurgent, the political bias of Balkanic irredentism (Greater Albania, Greater Serbia etc.) justify attack as a form of defence. As I was able to see in Foca with the May 2011 arrest of Mladic in Serbia, many Bosnian Serbs, young and old, still venerate the general as a defender of their people before the Muslim threat of Sarajevo, just as many Croats view Gotovina as a hero, and likewise many Kosovo Albanians’ attitude towards the UCK. The good old freedom fighter legend.

When a war is so fratricidal, it destroys the fabric of society and that, sooner or later, frustrates almost any international initiative designed to put such a country on a “normal” footing. This remains the case of Bosnia, which, besides its permanent political and institutional logjam, sees its existence repeatedly questioned by at least one of its constituent parts, just as in 1992, making ordinary governance almost nigh possible.

The irreconcilability of some narratives is clear on the ground when, for example, assessing the impact of the judicial processes on societal perceptions of justice, including victims’ views. Several Serbian organisations in Eastern Bosnia criticise what they see as a general lack of prosecution of crimes committed against Serbs, such as those Naser Oric, the Bosnian army general in the war, is accused of. The same Oric is considered by relatives of Srebrenica victims as a hero and its recent arrest in Switzerland, on the basis of a Serbian extradition request, led them to threaten with the cancellation of this week’s commemoration (Oric was eventually extradited, but to Sarajevo, which decision was predictably criticized by Serbia). An often overlooked fact is a sort of manipulation or mediatisation of genocide and of the idea of ethnic violence on the part of certain organisations and interests. This pattern, sometimes blowing out incidents out of proportion, contributes, as self-fulfilling prophecy, to create ethnic or community tensions –or fears of them. In this regard, the role of religious leaders has been and remains often a very negative one. For some field experts, they too are part of the problem – and not the solution as the international community stubbornly insists.         

Another common approach, though, is that of maintaining a semblance of normality. Many local authorities in the Republika Srpska, facing major financial and social difficulties, often try to bury the past and emphasise development and tourism in this beautiful but depressed region. One could see from this prism the Andricgrad project in Visegrad, overseen by the film director Emir Kusturica and launched in 2014 to mark the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Gavrilo Princip (a martyr for many Serbs). Yet Visegrad, however, lacks a single commemorative plaque for the massacres of 1992. The past, for many officials and citizens alike, is an inconvenience.

This tacit agreement to keep silent is part of the political scene in certain levels, as does, in others, the dialectic of the genocide, hate speech and the continual controversies. Moreover, away from political centers, many young people, in places as Bosnia and Kosovo, sometimes opt for an apolitical stance on the war and its tragic consequences. They prefer to focus on their immediate material needs and migrate to Western Europe if they can, another of the often overlooked region’s dramas.

This tacit agreement to keep silent is part of the political scene in certain levels, as does, in others, the dialectic of the genocide, hate speech and the continual controversies.

Sometimes the most energetic activists, a social minority, demand democratisation and good governance from the elites, considering these the real priorities instead of the past and its ghosts, unsolvable distractions from what really matters today. This is the idea behind the common saying bilo, pa proslo (Let sleeping dogs lie).

Reconciliation within Europe?

The push for some form of reconciliation in the Balkans has mainly been led by committed civil society organisations. There is also growing regional summitry, framed within a discourse of boosting relations, “Europe”, and looking to the future – although there is a big difference between what some of these officials say when on a diplomatic visit and their regular talk at home. Some of these dynamics and challenges are not exclusive to Bosnia, or the Balkans, but are usual in societies affected by conflicts, massive violations of human rights (genocidal or not) and conflicting narratives.

Overall, often the perspectives about the Balkans vary between those who only want to see the region through the prism of the 1990, its Srebrenicas and ethnic conflict, and those who only want to talk about “advances” and extol –sometimes a little too much- the transformational potential of European integration.

Naturally, the reality is more complex, intertwining new dynamics, some of which are positive and others less so, with old dynamics. But it is naïve to think that the integration of the entire Balkans in the EU is, as goes the official rhetoric, an antidote for practically all of the problems which beset the region. From bad governance and democratic setbacks; the breakdown of power-sharing agreements such as Dayton, and violent incidents, such as in Macedonia a few weeks back; geopolitical moves by Russian and other actors; and the reigning social content itself, “Europe” is presented as the sole path with no alternative and the ultimate peace tool or game changer for the whole region.

If reconciliation is not possible today, maybe it could come with a generational change. And forgetting. But, without organic changes in a society, as we are seeing today in the EU, the legacy of the past –and of past systems- tends to be resilient and reappear, in myriad of ways, to condition both present and the future.

As Tony Judt argued in his visionary “A Great Illusion”, “Europe” can deal with some problems; other things it cannot do. There was no “Hour of Europe” 20 years ago, in the midst of a golden era for the EU and hell for the Balkans. Official policy and conventional wisdom nowadays largely argues, almost in autopilot, that the problems described will just resolve themselves once in the EU. With the Union in the midst of political fragmentation and the European project in crisis – of which the Greek tragedy is just a chapter-, this would seem an astonishing act of wishful thinking.     

Adapted version from the original piece in Spanish, for Política Exterior,July 2015

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Head of ECFR Madrid Office & Policy Fellow

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