Genocide denial still haunts the Srebrenica debate

A survivor of the genocide recalls his experience at the Remembering Srebrenica National Memorial Event in 2014. Credit: DCLG.

“When crimes begin to pile up they become invisible. When sufferings become unendurable the cries are no longer heard. The cries, too, fall like rain in summer,” wrote the German poet Bertolt Brecht in 1935.

This Saturday marks twenty years since the genocide in Srebrenica, denial of this genocide continues to poison the debate and efforts of reconciliation. The failure to prevent this genocide falls upon parts of Europe, the United States and United Nations.

As of this year, 8,372 graves bear the names of the murdered Bosnian Muslims. Forensic experts continue to find human remains. Radovan Karadžic and General Ratko Mladic await verdicts in trials for directing genocide.

Dutch forces shoulder much of the blame. For example, peacekeepers forced thousands of Muslim families out of their compound after pressure from Mladic’s troops.

Last year, the Hague ordered the Netherlands to compensate the families of over 300 men murdered in the genocide.

Dutch troops were so eager to leave, that outside of one exception, ignored signals of the looming offensive. They failed to report ‘troop movements, new reinforcements coming into the area, and large amounts of fuel being sent to the enclave’.

A recent Observer article claimed the UN provided 30,000 litres of petrol. Serb forces used it to transport individuals to kill sites and plough the dead into mass graves.

Declassified US cables revealed that the CIA ‘watched’ the killing fields from satellite planes. Even with that knowledge, western negotiators did not raise it Serb leaders.

The Srebrenica offensive began at 3am on July 6 1995, to the sounds of heavy shelling. In the days ahead, Dutch troops refused requests to fight on behalf of the Bosnian army. They also blocked local defence forces from accessing their weapons stored in UN buildings. Soon the Dutch forces were overrun on one observation post.

On July 9, NATO jets flew overhead but the UN opted for a ground approach. At that time, an EU effort to get Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic to recognise Bosnia and Herzegovina prevented bombings. It took until July 11 for the UN to call in full air support. The long awaited air strike destroyed a single tank. A UN official later acknowledged the ‘meager’ response.

In 1995, Human Rights Watch published a far-reaching report into Srebrenica and the UN’s failings. It included Dutch forces destroying video evidence of human rights abuses.

To understand the sentiments that drove genocide requires a brief history lesson. Sections of Serb society still lionise Draža Mihajlović, leader of the ultra-nationalist Chetnik movement during World War II. Chetniks carried out a series of atrocities against Muslims in the Drina valley. Fueled by utopian visions of an ‘ethnically-pure Greater Serbia’ they ‘cleansed’ areas by purging them of Muslims and Croats.

Convicted war criminal Mitar Vasiljevic returned to a hero’s welcome in Visegrad in 2010. The parade in the small town included music and a procession of cars. Vasiljevic’s hat bore the Chetniks emblem. On a political level, laws sought to rehabilitate some Chetnik criminals.

Many of the murderers in other parts of the country borrowed the Chetnik look: wild beards, fur hats, and skull-and-crossbone flags. A latent anti-Muslim sentiment transplanted into a different era.

The rewriting of histories, of lies, and omissions happened in the education system.

Sexual violence was also common during the Srebrenica genocide. An estimated 20,000-50,000 women experienced rape or other forms of sexual violence. Impregnated women found themselves in camps until they could no longer seek abortions.

Bakira Hasečić, a rape survivor created the Association of Women Victims of War. Her, and other survivors, are sometimes shunned in society, the perpetrators are not. Injustice is not found in genocide denial alone; but in the injustice that robs individuals of their victimhood – to reconcile and take ownership of it.

Mothers buried their sons and husbands in fragments, limbs, and skulls. Others are not so lucky; some still search for the dead, denied the chance to learn where the murdered rest. How does a person mourn when grief feels as enduring as the dawn?

A member of “Srebrenica Mothers,” an umbrella organisation, of roughly 200 women preserves the memories of the murdered. At a recent Armed Forces Muslim Forum event, the testimony of one mother captured this enduring grief. She spoke of the complicity of individuals who joke and demean her suffering. Of individuals who deny genocide and locations of mass graves.

On a geopolitical level, Russia vetoed a UN resolution to recognise the genocide. The resolution said that “acceptance of the tragic events at Srebrenica as genocide is a prerequisite for reconciliation”.

Russia’s UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin described the resolution as ‘divisive’. Angola, China, Nigeria and Venezuela also abstained. If a permanent member casts a negative vote on a resolution, it fails.

Saturday will bring quiet moments of reflective mourning. But beyond that, the battle for a collective truth that recognises genocide continues.