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