We were only defending ourselves
Although two decades have gone by, many Serbs don’t want to accept that what happened in Srebrnica was genocide. How long will it take for them to reckon with the past, as the Germans did after World War II?
On July 11, 1995, General Ratko Mladić entered the city in the slanting rays of the late afternoon sun. He spoke to the camera:
“Here we are in Serbian Srebrenica. On the eve of a great Serbian holiday [Petrovdan, the Saint’s Day of the Apostles Peter and Paul, is one of the holiest days in Orthodox Christianity – eds.], we present this city to our nation as a gift. The time has come, after a period of rebellion, to take revenge on the Turks.”
In the photo above, the coffin of a victim of the Srebrenica massacre – one of 127 buried in July 2016, the 21st anniversary of the crime. The bodies of hundreds of the 8,000 killed have never been found
Today, Srebrenica swelters in the same July heat. Old Muslim women sit under the trees covered with white mourning scarves and fan themselves with whatever they have. The air carries the grilled-meat and pita-bread scent of ćevapi. Tables have been set up in the gardens of nearby houses to sell coffee and food to visitors. There’s nothing strange in this; people come from all over Bosnia, and even from abroad, to mark the anniversary of the massacre. Men wash the dust from their feet and women weep over freshly dug graves. Every year, at least several dozen funerals are held as the bodies of more victims are identified.
Just about the only Serbs attending the ceremony are policemen. Since Srebrenica lies in the Serbian part of Bosnia, they must be here. It’s their territory. They stand on the scorching pavement and direct the buses arriving from Muslim parts of the country – from Sarajevo, Tuzla, Zenica. Someone remarks that if they got their just deserts, they’d roast in this heat the rest of their lives.
Near this spot, from July 12 to July 16, 1995, the Serbs murdered about 8,000 Muslim men and boys from the ages of 15 to 77. The exact number of victims may never be determined. According to the International Commission on Missing Persons, 6,930 bodies were identified through 2015. The main identification method is DNA testing. About 1,000 of the missing have never been found, because the murderers tried to covered their tracks, removing bodies from the initial mass graves and burying them elsewhere – in forests, ditches and garbage dumps.
The massacre helped end the civil war in Bosnia. The Dayton peace agreement divided the country into two autonomous parts: the Croat-Muslim Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina on one side, and Repubika Srpska on the other [not to be confused with Serbia proper, which is a separate country – eds.]
The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the Hague have ruled that the 1995 killings constitute genocide. But many Serbs do not acknowledge this fact. They are bitter about the Muslim ceremonies. Many live in the neighboring villages, but none visit the monument to the victims at Potočari. It’s not a place they wish to commemorate.
“When did Srebrenica happen? A hundred years ago! And they keep finding new victims every year. Where do they dig them up? They have no right to bury Muslim bodies in Srebrenica and then say the Serbs killed them. I don’t believe it,” says Vesna (1) , a 22-year-old woman who lives in the Serbian republic.
A national hero
Jovanka brews coffee on a tile stove. She’s already poured cherry brandy into small cups. A few pictures hang on the walls: snapshots of her children, wedding photographs. But two portraits dominate, close together, arranged symmetrically. One is of her dead husband, the other is of General Ratko Mladić.
In 2017, the Hague tribunal sentenced General Mladić to life imprisonment for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. But inside Republika Srpska, his legend is tenderly maintained.
“He did nothing wrong. My father was one of his soldiers, he actually belonged to his guard detail for part of the war. He always told me: ‘Remember, Mladić didn’t kill anybody.’ Did he give such orders, you ask? I asked my mother, she knew the general, too. I asked her to tell me the truth. Mladić would never allow women or children to be killed. Only enemy soldiers who attacked him. He made a point of that,” says Ana Stakić.
Her mother Aleksandra is almost in tears.
“My country is regarded as the aggressor,” she says. “We weren’t the ones who started it – we didn’t attack anybody. We were here on our own land, forced to defend our own homes. We had nowhere else to go.”
WE ARE THE REAL VICTIMS
“They don’t regard Srebrenica as genocide because they see it in a longer chain of events. The city was the focus of various local conflicts. Muslims raided Serbian villages for food and often killed their inhabitants,” says Dr. Rigels Halili, a Balkanist at Warsaw University. “They have a very personal sense of grievance, which is then exploited for political purposes or to build national identity. This process of victimization, the identification of our group as victims who only acted in self-defense, is what cements the national community. This is not just something the Serbs or Bosniaks do, it’s a universal human tendency.”
In Serbia itself, one can find activists or NGOs that use the word “genocide” and attempt to document and commemorate war crimes. One such organization is Women in Black, which last year took to the streets of Belgrade to honor genocide victims, or the Humanitarian Law Center. But these are individuals and small groups: civic activists, artists, intellectuals, employees of international organizations.
After a cease-fire was declared in March 1993, more than 2,000 Muslims fled Srebrenica in a UN convoy
Anita Mitić, the head of the Serbian branch of the Youth Initiative for Human Rights, thinks most young Serbs don’t really know what happened in Srebrenica.
“But they react allergically to the word ‘genocide.’ For them, it’s completely unacceptable, especially since they don’t understand the difference between genocide and war crimes. Young people won’t accept that their country is guilty of horrible crimes. They think that if Serbia acknowledges the genocide in Srebrenica, then the blame for the murders will fall undeservedly and unfairly upon the entire nation,” Mitić told the Polish edition of Newsweek.
SERBIAN GESTURES AND DODGES
A leading proponent of this policy of amnesia is Milorad Dodik, the prime minister of the autonomous Serbian Republic, who ordered that any reference to the Srebrenica massacre and the siege of Sarajevo be removed from the school textbooks. “It’s all untrue and we won’t be teaching it,” he explained.
For their part, the politicians in Belgrade have alternated between making gestures of reconciliation and ducking responsibility. In March 2010, the Serbian parliament adopted a resolution condemning the Srebrenica massacre. And in 2013, then Serbian President Tomislav Nikolić issued an official apology.
When Aleksandar Vučić was prime minister of Serbia, in 2015, he went to Srebrenica for ceremonies marking the 20th anniversary of the massacre. The crowd pelted him with stones. He also saw signs declaring “We will kill 100 Bosniaks for every dead Serb.” This was the slogan made famous during the war by Vojislav Šešelj, the founder of the Serbian Radical Party (SRS).
Just a few days earlier, Russia had vetoed – at Serbia’s request – a UN Security Council resolution acknowledging the massacre as an act of genocide.
July 2015: Bodyguards shield Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić from rocks thrown while he was attending ceremonies marking the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre
“There is significant documentation confirming that it was genocide and Serbs have to admit it,” Dragan Mektić, the security minister of Bosnia and Herzegovina, said in an interview with the Croation newspaper Večernji List. “Look at Germany – the Bundestag recently apologized for the Holocaust again. We Serbs must go through a similar catharsis and acknowledge what really happened.” Immediately after the interview was published, Mektić was denounced by his fellow Serbs and officially denied he had said any such thing.
HOW THE GERMANS DID IT
German President Joachim Gauck, during a speech in the Bundestag on the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp, made the following statement: “Without Auschwitz, German identity doesn’t exist.”
The sentence was cited by media around the world. In recent years, the German culture of remembrance (Erinnerungskultur) has been presented as an example to follow. But Germany had to travel a long, hard road before that happened.
“It’s hard to find another country that has focused so intensely on the history of its own crimes,” said Robert Traba, a professor at the Polish Academy of Sciences Historical Research Institute in Berlin. “But before that, there were 20 years of complete denial.”
Many factors contributed to the creation of Germany’s “memory culture” that would be impossible to reproduce in today’s Balkans. The division of Germany and Europe into two systems, capitalist and communist; the economic boom of the 1950s and 1960s; religious gestures by the national leaders and the political climate of reconciliation begun by Winston Churchill in his famous 1946 speech at the University of Zurich, where he called for a United States of Europe, a “blessed oblivion” that would turn its back on the horrors of the past and look to the future.
Even so, some processes – consciousness-raising, education, the exercise of political will – seem to be universally applicable.
March 2016: Women who lost their loved ones in Srebrenica – Vasvija Kadić, Mirsada Kahriman, Rejha Avdić i Jasina Parodić – watch Bosnian Serbian leader Radovan Karadžic being sentenced to 40 years’ imprisonment in The Hague. On the walls, photographs of Srebrenica massacre victims
Just as in today’s Serbia, the process of disseminating knowledge about war crimes in the divided Germany of the 1960s took place mainly among elites.
“The problem of the Holocaust was introduced to the media mainly through the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem. The message was then amplified by coverage of various trials concerning the Auschwitz camp in the early 1960s,” says Klaus Ziemer, a political scientist at Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski University in Warsaw. “But really, this consciousness didn’t exist in the broader sense until the American miniseries ‘Holocaust’ was broadcast on German television in 1979. That’s when public education began in earnest.”
THE SCORPION TAPES
The only moment of self-reflection for the Serbian public to date came when videotapes from the Scorpions – a paramilitary group active in the early 1990s – surfaced during the war crimes trial of former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic in The Hague.
The Scorpions were a volunteer outfit who fought on the side of the Bosnian Serbs. They copiously recorded their road to Srebrenica on camera, filming themselves and the executions of prisoners they killed.
The videotapes were discovered by Nataša Kandić, a Serbian human rights activist. The videotapes were shown by most television stations in the Balkans and shocked the Serbia public. “But it was a one-time scandal that never made it into the schoolbooks,” notes Dr. Halili.
The decisive factor in Serbia could be its desire for membership in the European Union.
“The driver for Western Germany’s remembrance policy was its desire to rejoin the Western community of nations. They wanted to become part of that reality and be able to tell their own story,” says Professor Traba.
Photographs from the exhumation work at Srebrenica was shown during the trials at The Hague. This victim was blindfolded and his hands tied behind his back at the moment of execution
Unlike the Bosnian Serb republic, there is a real multi-sided discussion going on in Serbia and number of NGOs that are truly independent of the state. In Republika Srpska, on the other hand, politicians keep a tight lid on the public sphere and the flow of information.
The effect has been to keep Bosnia and Herzegovina an unstable, divided country for the past 23 years. Neither side wants to accept a common identity dictated by the Dayton agreement. The Croats, Bosniak Muslims and Serba each cultivate their own ethnic memories, their hallowed dead and their heroes. This has completely polarized the country. Serb politics are based on martyrdom and nationalist legends; Muslim identity is built on their own suffering and myths. Human drama is weaponized and exploited by politicians of all sides. Using the collective term “Bosnian,” like constructing a common culture of remembrance, seems painful and impossible.
“The first step is stability. Until that is achieved, we can forget about reconciliation or common remembrance,” says Professor Traba. “When conflicts keep breaking out, it’s impossible to have a conversation. Instead, people think in simple categories: us, them, enemy, danger.”
DENISA PREFERS SILENCE
In 1993, the UN Security Council established six “safe areas” in Bosnia. They included Srebrenica and nearby Žepa. These areas were supposed to be defended by units from UNPROFOR, or the UN peacekeeping force. However, two years later, they proved powerless in the face of the Bosnian Serb forces; they failed in their basic mission of protecting civilians.
A former battery factory in Srebrenica was the base for the Dutch peacekeeping battalion that tried to protect the UN “safe area” in Srebrenica. The soldiers – later blamed for allowing the massacre to take place – scrawled obscene drawings on the walls
Denisa Kulovać, a Muslim woman, walks along a gravel road and doesn’t look eager to talk. We had made the ride to Žepa together, to see her grandparents’ land and the ruins of their home destroyed during the war. General Mladić got there a week after he took Srebrenica. Supposedly, he told the locals: “Allah, the UN and NATO won’t save you now. The only person who can do that is me.”
“After that, most of the people – mainly women and children – got on buses and were taken to Sarajevo or Zenica. Everybody had to leave, we were given very little time. It was a decision of the Serbian Republic’s army,” Denisa says reluctantly.
“And what about the men?”
“It was different with them. Some escaped on foot, the others met a different fate… That’s how I prefer to express it.”
Denisa turns around and walks away. She lives an hour’s drive from Žepa, in a small village. She has Serbian neighbors with whom she shares a yard, a stairwell and a porch where they sit in the afternoons, smoking cigarettes and grinding chilis for ajvar, the traditional roasted red pepper sauce. The subject of ethnic cleansing or genocide doesn’t come up. Everyone has their own problems – no work and no prospects, the same gray, bullet-pocked houses.