BiH Day Three: The Srebrenica Genocide

30 Mar

Having sufficiently explored Sarajevo by now, our class boarded a charter bus early Tuesday in the AM for a trip to Tuzla and Srebrenica. The trip took us up, over, through and around beautiful mountains, valleys, lakes and streams (see the photo gallery at the bottom for more photos from the trip).

We arrived in the city of Tuzla late because, while trying to leave Sarajevo, we had to drive on a highway going in the wrong direction, turn around on that highway, and then double back in order to use the only entrance ramp onto the highway that we wanted to use to get out of the city and reach Tuzla (another example of the need for improved infrastructure). We began at the ICMP, which is basically a giant CSI operation – it’s a forensic lab and storage center for remains from those killed in the Srebrenica genocide. The primary purpose of the ICMP is to identify the remains in order to provide closure to families. They have a rigorous identification and contacting process they follow, and to date they have identified around 5,500 remains and expect to identify about 6,500 based on recent finds by the end of this year (this is out of the nearly 8,500 mostly unarmed Bosnian men and boys systematically massacred by Bosnian Serb forces in and around the U.N. “Safe Zone” of Srebrenica in July 1995 – more on this below). The reason I say “remains” is that once these men and boys were slaughtered and buried in mass graves, the Bosnian Serb forces used bulldozers and other heavy machinery to dig up and transfer bodies to new cites, in order to cover up their crime. This has led to many body parts of the same victim being scattered in many different sites, so rather than identifying bodies, the ICMP is typically identifying remains – usually a smattering of bones and maybe an article of clothing. We saw the storage room with hundreds of bags, each containing the remains of different victims, as well as a room with forensic scientists with bones laid out on examining tables (like something from CSI, NCIS or Bones):

International funding (both from countries and private donors) ends after this year, so there is much uncertainty for the future of the program, and of course for those nearly 2,000 families who have yet to receive the call that a lost family member’s remains have been found. More on Srebrenica later…

Next stop was the Tuzla Mayor’s Office to meet with the town’s Mayor:

Although he didn’t speak English, the Mayor had a translator interpreting as he laid out a detailed history of the town of Tuzla, ALL of its former Mayors since 1878, the city’s rich history as a center for trade, production and industry (because it is located on top of salt deposits), the many artists, authors and scholars from the town, as well as its history of relative tolerance, co-existence and at times co-operation between different ethno-national/religious groups (Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs). The glue holding Tuzla together seems to have always been economic development around the salt deposits, but after they closed down for environmental and safety reasons, the current Mayor is trying to develop the deposits into lakes for vacationing and recreation with some success so far. Along with other economic development initiatives, he is trying hard to unite the town’s different ethnic groups around a common goal of economic development, which was really interesting to hear from someone with such great vision and drive to improve the town while also minimizing divisions between the groups. I don’t know how successful he will be, but it was a great experience to hear from him.

Next was back on the bus to journey into the Republica Srpska. We stopped briefly in a tiny town close to Srebrenica, which has a mostly Serb population after the war. Compared to everywhere else we went, we definitely got the most stares and looks from the people around us. You got the feeling that we were really in uncharted (and probably unwelcomed) territory. The depiction we were given of the RS was: a now majority Serb-populated area that is ruled by ethno-nationalistic Serb politicians, and since it is extremely centralized, they control the education and media, creating an atmosphere that perpetuates war-time attitudes of fear and division between ethnic groups. I wouldn’t say they’ve all been brain-washed, but from what we heard, people in the RS are pretty close to it – the RS largely stands in opposition to EU membership, as well as efforts to integrate schools, and one person told us that if they had the chance to, they would probably declare independence and maybe even try and join Serbia (who they border) if they could feasibly do it. So it was a weird feeling to walk around this small town even briefly. We met with a local Serb who showed us a room that serves as a war memorial for Bosnian Serbs (mostly soldiers but some civilians too) killed during the war:

(The Serbs use the Cyrillic alphabet even though it’s nearly the same language as Bosnian and Croatian, which both use the Latin alphabet). He tried to stay away from answering any controversial questions, and in all fairness, he really didn’t seem knowledgeable enough to answer the in-depth questions we had, so in terms of getting a good perspective representing the Bosnian Serb ethno-national group, I don’t think it is fair to say this guy, or our visit to this town for that matter, is fairly reflective of Bosnian Serbs and the RS. With that being said, it was still an odd experience, and it didn’t run counter to anything we had heard about the RS before we stopped there. But it’s important to keep it all in perspective – and although the Bosnian Serbs are often considered the aggressors in the war because of their aggressive brutal and even inhumane military tactics (i.e. ethnic cleansing in terms of a land grab to create a “Greater Serbia,” the siege of Sarajevo, the Srebrenica genocide, holding U.N. soldiers hostage, etc., and they have had the most years handed out by the International Court of Justice for the Former-Yugoslavia, which tries accused war criminals from the war) as well as the large support they had from Serbia through the Yugoslav People’s Army. The Bosnian Serbs and Serbs position is generally that the war was a civil war, and when Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina declared independence and broke away (they all had better economies than the under-developed Yugoslav republics of Serbia and Montenegro and could therefore benefit from independence because they would keep revenue inside their country rather than having to redistribute it to economically weaker republics), Serbia and the Bosnian Serbs acting to preserve the former Yugoslavia (conversely, they benefitted from the essential revenue-sharing system of the former Yugoslavia among the six republics and were therefore economically threatened by the break-up). Despite this, the Bosnian Serb, Serb, and Yugoslav People’s Army’s seem responsible for most of the aggression, war crimes and crimes against humanity during the war – but to paint them as the bad guys only perpetuates the cycle of ethno-national conflict and division, so it’s important to recognize what happened while focusing on moving forward. Anyway, back on the bus we went, and next stop was perhaps the most significant and striking of the trip – Srebrenica.

As I alluded to earlier, what happened in Srebrenica from July 11-17 1995 has been officially recognized as a genocide. Earlier in the war, the U.N. decided to declare certain towns and areas in Eastern Bosnia “Safe Zones” in order to protect mostly Bosniaks who were fleeing their homes in Eastern Bosnia due to the Bosnian Serb advance and the ethnic cleansing that accompanied it (forced removal of people – in this case by Bosniaks – from a particular area by another group – Bosnian Serbs). Of course, the U.N. lived up to its Bosnian nicknames of “Useless Nation” and “United for Nothing” by providing minimal food, shelter or medical supplies in these small areas that were quickly overwhelmed and overcrowded by fleeing refugees. The U.N. also failed to guard the Safe Zones adequately – in Srebrenica, the soldiers standing guard were a small contingent of lightly-armed Dutch Peacekeepers who were severely outmanned and outgunned by the Bosnian Serbs. They were relatively inexperienced soldiers who were under very strict orders not to engage the Bosnian Serbs unless directly attacked. Furthermore, the U.N.’s fallback option throughout the war had been aerial bombing of Bosnian Serb military targets if they did not respect peacekeeping forces – but the Bosnian Serb forces simply started taking U.N. Peacekeepers hostage, which forced the U.N. to stop aerial bombing and further weakened the peacekeepers ability to protect these Safe Zones. Many of the U.N. troops from various countries who served in Bosnia and Herzegovina during the war suffer from some of the worst known cases of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, since they were usually outmanned, outgunned, unprotected and often had to simply stand aside when atrocities occurred because of their limited orders. One such example was in Srebrenica. In July of 1995, with Bosniak forces making gains due to the Washington Agreement which allied to Bosnian Croats (and Croatia) to fight against the Bosnian Serbs (and Serbia and the Yugoslav People’s Army), things were getting more desperate. General Ratko Mladic, leader of the Bosian Serb forces, with much support from other forces and politicians allied with him, decided to move on the Srebrenica Safe Zone. When the Bosniaks living in Srebrenica at the time learned of the approaching Bosnian Serbs, they fled to the local U.N. base located in an abandoned factory and warehouse. 25,000 people tried to crowd into this warehouse and factory complex, without food, water, clothing or shelter, completely overwhelming the Dutch Peacekeepers. Unable to protect or provide for this massive amount of people, they basically turned them over to the Bosnian Serb forces, whom they were too weak to protect. So, before the Bosian Serb foces arrived, all the Bosniak men and boys decided to flee the town. They began marching in a long column, totaling around 11,000 or 12,000, for the free territory of Tuzla (where we were earlier in the day – Tuzla staged a successful defense of the town on its own for most of the war). However, the Bosnian Serbs intercepted the column and captured or killed all but a few 1,000 of the men and boys. After busing the women and children to other Bosniak controlled areas in the country (that was the whole point of taking Srebrenica – to ethnically cleanse the area of Bosniaks) they bused the Bosniak men and boys to various locations (factories, fields, etc.) in the area surrounding town and proceeded to systematically execute and bury 8,372 unarmed civilian men and boys. As I mentioned earlier, the Bosnian Serbs then attempted to cover up this mass-murder by using bulldozers and other heavy-machinery to transfer bodies from one mass grave site to another, making the identification of the remains extremely difficult. The overwhelming evidence that this was a thought-out plan that targeted a specific group for elimination and that required a massive amount of logistics and coordination to pull off led to the designation of the Srebrenica massacre a genocide according to the U.N. definition.

We arrived outside Srebrenica at the memorial cemetery for the victims of the genocide and were given a short tour of the humble cemetery:

All the girls in our group wore the traditional Muslim headscarves out of respect:

There are rows and rows or markers, sort of like the Omaha Cemetery in Normandy, but not nearly as neatly kept:

There is also a short wall which displays the names of each person killed in the genocide:

There is also a kind of outdoor mosque in order to conduct burial ceremonies for each time new identifications are made:

After the tour, our guide took us across the street to the abandoned factory complex which the Dutch peacekeepers used as their base. He led us into the warehouse where all the civilians from the Srebrenica Safe Zone flooded into as the Bosnian Serbs advanced – today the warehouse has a series of framed photos and captions which recount events before and after the genocide, as well as a small display of personal items found in the mass graves and some short bios on the people who they belonged to:

Finally, our guide took us into another part of the factory, into what was set up like a conference room. He first showed us a movie about what happened at Srebrenica, with some striking (and pretty damning) footage of the Bosnian Serb general, Ratko Mladic, as he entered the Srebrenica Safe Zone (Mladic was recently captured in Serbia and is preparing to stand trial for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide at the Hague). But what was really remarkable was that after the movie, our guide told us that he was one of the lucky few thousand who was in that column of men and boys trying to reach Tuzla who managed to escape the Bosnian Serb encirclement. After he told us his personal story about fleeing, we heard from two “Mothers of Srebrenica,” an organization of women who lost husbands, sons and other family members in the genocide. They initially organized after the end of the war to draw the international community’s attention to the fact that an unspeakable crime had been committed in Srebrenica which demanded action. One of the mothers we heard from was the current President of the organization, and she recounted how she lost her husband and two sons, how difficult it was during that time to chose where to go and what to do and to split up with her sons and husband as they choose to join the column and flee the Safe Zone, leaving the women and young children behind. She then told us how difficult the identification and burial processes were after the war, and how today she hopes that all the war criminals are brought to justice in order to allow everyone who suffered during the war to move on.

After hearing these personal stories, I was totally drained. By the time we arrived in Srebrenica we were pretty physically drained after a long day of traveling all over the country, and these testimonies we heard added to that by emotionally draining us. Although these stories had a deep, meaningful and lasting impact on me, I think the combination of the long, draining day and my prior experience visiting the Dachau Concentration Camp, meant that they didn’t have quite the unsettling affect which I remember having after I left Dachau. I think having experienced a tour which was filled with personal stories of unthinkable suffering at Dachau prepared me for what we would hear at Srebrenica in a way that prevented what we heard at Srebrenica from shocking me in the same way. More than anything, what we heard at Srebrenica just saddened me, it deeply saddened me…

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Rachel in Denmark

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