Twenty-five years on, has the world learnt any­thing from the hor­rors of Sre­brenica?

The National - News - - OPINION - JA­NINE DI GIO­VANNI Ja­nine di Gio­vanni is a Se­nior Fel­low at Yale Jack­son In­sti­tute for Global Af­fairs

Her name was Ferida Os­man­ovic. She was in her twen­ties, the mother of two small chil­dren. At the mo­ment of her death, she wore a white skirt and a red jumper, her dark hair hung for­ward over her face. She was found hang­ing from a tree near Sre­brenica, in north­west Bos­nia, shortly af­ter the town fell to Bos­nian Serb forces on July 11, 1995.

Of all the images from the Bos­nian war, The Lady in the Tree – as Ferida be­came known – is the one I re­mem­ber most clearly. It sym­bol­ises the fail­ure of the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity to pro­tect civil­ians.

That hot sum­mer, the Bos­nian war was wind­ing down af­ter three years. Refugees piled out of the be­sieged town of Sre­brenica, which had fallen to Bos­nian Serb forces. Ferida and her fam­ily al­ready had been dis­placed from their vil­lage; most of the men in her fam­ily killed as part of an eth­nic cleans­ing cam­paign. Her hus­band tried to es­cape, along with 15,000 other men, by hik­ing at night through eastern Bos­nia’s moun­tains and val­leys. The route be­came known as the “Trail of Tears” or the “Marathon of Death”. Like most of them, he never re­turned.

Bos­nia is one of the world’s dark shames, a wound we will never heal and an ex­am­ple of all that has gone wrong with wars that might have been halted. The UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil de­clared Sre­brenica a “safe area” in the spring of 1993. But troops led by Gen Ratko Mladic, who was later found guilty of war crimes, crimes against hu­man­ity and geno­cide, over­ran the UN zone.

I of­ten try to re­mem­ber what else hap­pened that sum­mer, be­cause my own world had shrunk to the coun­try known as Bos­nia Herze­gov­ina. Forbes Mag­a­zine an­nounced Bill Gates was the rich­est man in the world, as Mi­crosoft re­leased Win­dows 95. John Ma­jor was re-elected as leader of the UK Con­ser­va­tive Party. But for my jour­nal­ist col­leagues and I, 1995 was con­sumed by the fall and the mas­sacre of Sre­brenica.

Now, 25 years on, author­i­ties in Bos­nia’s Serb-dom­i­nated Repub­lika Srp­ska en­tity — where Sre­brenica is lo­cated, still do not ac­cept that the 1995 mas­sacres con­sti­tuted geno­cide. This is a stance that is also shared by the author­i­ties in neigh­bour­ing Ser­bia. Glo­ri­fi­ca­tion of war crim­i­nals like Mladic is wide­spread.

Worse, there has been a re­vi­sion­ist his­tory with pop­u­lar Amer­i­can aca­demics such as Jes­sica Stern, who wrote My

War Crim­i­nal ear­lier this year about her fas­ci­na­tion with Radovan Karadzic, leader of the Bos­nian Serbs and the ar­chi­tect of the de­struc­tion of Sara­jevo. In 2019, Peter Handke, an Aus­trian writer who has cast doubt on the Sre­brenica mas­sacre, was awarded the No­bel Prize for Lit­er­a­ture.

Sre­brenica could have been saved. But, ap­pallingly, with help of the UN Peace­keep­ers, men and boys were sep­a­rated from women. Moth­ers later told me how they dressed their teenage sons as girls so they would not be taken to their deaths. Daugh­ters spoke of wav­ing good­bye to their fa­thers as they ran into the woods to join the Trail of Tears, turn­ing around to blow them a kiss. They next saw their fa­thers when they were pulled out of mass graves many years later. Most of those men were hunted down on the Trail of Tears and died like an­i­mals. Some had their throats slit. Oth­ers died ex­e­cu­tion style: shot be­fore fall­ing into graves they them­selves had been forced to dig.

Some of those who sur­vived their gun­shot wounds told me later about how they hid un­der dead bod­ies and man­aged to es­cape by night fall. Over the course of July 9-12, 1995, nearly 8,000 Bos­nian Mus­lim men and boys were mur­dered. Af­ter their deaths, their re­mains were of­ten moved to se­condary and ter­tiary graves so the per­pe­tra­tors could elude fu­ture war crimes in­ves­ti­ga­tors.

An ex­tra­or­di­nary or­gan­i­sa­tion, the Cen­tre for Miss­ing Per­sons, was set up in Sara­jevo in 1996 at the ini­tia­tive of for­mer US Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton. The man­date was to lo­cate the bones to try to iden­tify bod­ies so fam­i­lies could bury them at the me­mo­rial in Po­to­cari, out­side Sre­brenica. But many still do not have their loved ones’ re­mains. It is dif­fi­cult to de­ter­mine how many peo­ple have yet been found, but as of 2017 it was nearly 6938, lo­cated through DNA anal­y­sis and modern foren­sics.

Over the years, I have sat with dozens of fam­i­lies of vic­tims, record­ing their tes­ti­monies. What does not sur­prise me, but still over­whelms me with sor­row, is how many do not be­lieve their loved ones are dead. Un­less you have the bones, you still have hope they will walk through the door again.

Per­haps the most painful piece of the Sre­brenica puz­zle is that so many of the men in­volved have not been caught or brought to trial. Mladic was caught nine years ago. He was con­victed of geno­cide, as well as five counts of crimes against hu­man­ity and four of war crimes – in­clud­ing eth­nic cleans­ing, bom­bard­ment and snip­ing at­tacks on Sara­jevo and hold­ing UN peace­keep­ers hostage. In all, the In­ter­na­tional Crim­i­nal Tri­bunal for the for­mer Yu­goslavia has passed sen­tence on 90 war crimes de­fen­dants. But that is a scant num­ber con­sid­er­ing an es­ti­mated 12,000-50,000 women were held in rape camps in Eastern Bos­nia. Some were raped up to 16 times a day. At least 100,000 peo­ple are dead. A woman I sat with near Sre­brenica five years ago for the com­mem­o­ra­tion told me she has to face her rapist ev­ery day in her vil­lage. He has never been pros­e­cuted.

What can we learn from these 25 years that have passed? Diplo­mat­i­cally, Sre­brenica is a source of deep em­bar­rass­ment. The Nato in­ter­ven­tion in Kosovo in 1999 was fought largely over the guilt of the in­ac­tion in Sre­brenica.

“What hap­pened in Sre­brenica in July 1995 is the great­est fail­ure of hu­man his­tory, and in par­tic­u­lar the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity re­spon­si­ble for that re­gion,” said Ludy de Vos, who was com­man­der of the Dutch bat­tal­ion serv­ing in the UN peace­keep­ing forces for Sre­brenica.

In 2005, Sec­re­tary Gen­eral Kofi An­nan in­sti­gated the prin­ci­ple of “re­spon­si­bil­ity to pro­tect”. It states that the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity had a duty to in­ter­vene if a state did not pro­tect its own peo­ple. And yet war crimes, for ex­am­ple in Syria, have be­come nor­mal. But the me­mo­rial to Sre­brenica re­mains. If you visit the Me­mo­rial Cen­tre in Po­to­cari, you will see rows and rows of white grave­stones, each mark­ing some­one whose life was cut down too early, count­less men who didn’t live to see their fam­i­lies grow.

The lack of will to bring mur­der­ers to trial has a knock-on ef­fect on the wider ef­fort of in­ter­na­tional hu­man rights. Syr­ian war crimes have be­come a trav­esty; it may be the case that Pres­i­dent Bashar Al As­sad will never go to the In­ter­na­tional Crim­i­nal Court. On most days, the Ye­men and Ro­hingya crises are not even in the global head­lines.

Per­haps this 25th an­niver­sary of the Sre­brenica mas­sacre could serve as a wake-up call to gov­ern­ments, ac­tivists and even to UN Sec­re­tary Gen­eral An­to­nio Guter­res that the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity must put hu­man rights above all else. It is the pil­lar that keeps coun­tries and so­ci­eties stand­ing. Un­less we re­mem­ber what hap­pened in July, 1995, un­less we re­mem­ber the day that Ferida Os­man­ovic took her own life and left two ba­bies or­phaned, we are doomed to re­peat the tragedies of our past.

Moth­ers made teenage sons dress as girls to spare their lives


Grave­stones at The Me­mo­rial Cen­tre in Bos­nia and Herze­gov­ina mark the lives of 8,000 Bos­nian Mus­lim men and boys mur­dered in July 1995


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