Tomorrow marks 23 years since more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were massacred by Serb forces in Srebrenica. While the July 1995 genocide received worldwide attention, it was not an isolated event. The wars fought on the territory of Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina were rife with genocidal dynamics.
When Serb forces invaded Srebrenica intending to exterminate the Muslim population, the outside world had already been watching ethnic cleansing unfold for half a decade. By July 1995, most of Bosnia and Herzegovina and a third of Croatia had been occupied by Serb forces. Those forces had expelled hundreds of thousands of Muslims and Croats from their homes, undertaken numerous massacres, and established various concentration camps.
The Vukovar Massacre, the Bijeljina Massacre, the Prijedor Massacre, and the ethnic cleansing of Foča are just some of numerous crimes committed by Serb forces, which remain largely forgotten outside of Croatia and Bosnia.
In the concentration camps established by the Serbs, murder, emotional and physical abuse, rape, and torture were part of daily life. Disease and starvation were also rampant. In the Omarska Concentration Camp, for example, around 6,000 Muslims and Croats were incarcerated and approximately 700 were killed, during the summer of 1992.
The international community’s ludicrous blend of ignorance and incapacity to effectively intervene in this situation accelerated the process of genocide already taking place. When the United Nations finally designated Srebrenica a safe zone in April 1993, thousands of Muslims from neighboring areas sought refuge in the small town. Instead of protecting the helpless population, however, the Dutch peace keeping force deployed by the UN engaged in heavy drinking, dancing, and celebrating with the Serb forces led by Ratko Mladić, the “Butcher of Bosnia.”
A sense of guilt over their complicity and obvious disregard for Bosnian lives may have contributed to the EU and UN’s later investigation and commemoration of the Srebrenica genocide, as well as the creation of the first war crimes tribunal since Nuremberg. Established by the UN in 1993 in The Hague, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) brought to justice various Serb political and military leaders, including Radovan Karadžić, who was sentenced to forty years, as well as Mladić, who was sentenced to life in prison.
At their trials, neither Karadžić nor Mladić showed any regret for their actions. Like those war criminals, ordinary Serbs continue to deny the genocidal crimes committed by Serb forces, including but not limited to Srebrenica, committed during the war. Serb media, for example, continues to attack the Srebencia genocide as a fabrication of the West that was used to justify later U.S. and Croatian policies deemed hostile by Serbia.
Milorad Dodik, president of the Serb entity in Bosnia and Herzegovina “Republika Srpska,” continues to vehemently deny the Srebrenica genocide. Dodik has banned discussion of the massacre from school curricula in the entity. Similarly, the Republic of Serbia’s president Aleksandar Vučić refuses to refer to Srebrenica as a genocide. Throughout the 1990s, Vučić was a minister in the Milošević government and a spokesperson for convicted war criminal Vojislav Šešelj. His personal desire to kill Muslims is well-documented.
The international community, in fact, laid the foundations for this genocide denial. Following the Dayton Agreement that ended the war, Srebrenica, along with 49% of Bosnia and Herzegovina, was given to the same Bosnian Serb authorities who had been responsible for developing and implementing genocidal policies. It is little surprise, then, that “Republika Srpska” has continued to embrace the poisonous ideology of the 1990s. Genocide denial is also categorically supported by Serbia’s major ally Russia. In 2015, Moscow vetoed a UN Security Council resolution that would have condemned Srebrenica as a genocide.
Of course, the genocide in Srebrenica is exceptional, given the number of victims. Still, the genocidal dimensions of the wars in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia cannot be reduced to a single event. With people still missing, mass graves still being discovered, and continuing denial of war crimes, the trauma experienced by Bosnians and other victims of Serbian atrocities continues.