Tucked away in the mountains of eastern Bosnia sitting on the Serbian border is a small town named Srebrenica. In 1991, Srebrenica had a population of about 35,000 people that sustained themselves through agriculture, mining, a steel factory and tourism that was drawn to its large spa. The picturesque features and natural beauty of this town are the kind one could expect to find on postcards, paintings and other forms of art. When I first Googled Srebrenica several of the images I found, if not for it’s distinct European architecture almost reminded me for a flashing moment of a few place’s I’d been to in New England as a child. Srebrenica was a beautiful small town indeed that many people called home.
We tend to think of ourselves in a modern sense as highly evolved beings with an elevated level of social awareness and consciousness. Reflections on the worst parts of our history are often accompanied with a false sense of security that suggests we are somehow more evolved and different today than our ancestors were.
In 1995 few of us who were in our teenage years in Western countries could relate in any way to the experiences of genocide survivors. Genocide was mostly to be found in books. They didn’t happen during our lives in the developed world. They didn’t happen near us. We didn’t speak the same language as the people who committed these acts. We didn’t speak the same language as those who suffered. Few if any of the cultural concepts involved in any way were things many of us would recognize. Genocide was a completely foreign concept to many of us including myself and while it remains so, to learn that teenagers in Sebrenica were starting to enjoy the same things I did like MTV put me one step closer towards seeing these survivors as people who were in some ways just like me.
In the spring of 1992, as part of the war in the Balkans, Serbian paramilitary forces killed approximately 2000 innocent people in the community of Zvornik on Bosnia’s northern border. That same spring 2700 were killed in Foca while another 3000 were killed in Visegrad. 5200 more were killed in Prijedor and as of today, 96 mass graves have been located and exhumed in that community alone with many more still missing and unidentified.
According to the Bosnian Institute UK, from 1992 to 1995, 296 Villages and hamlets in the region surrounding Srebrenica were destroyed displacing 70,000 people, 3000 of which were systematically slaughtered and executed.
While women endured the horrors of this as well, and in a magnitude few in the west will ever know, we rarely acknowledge that the worst of the genocide was directed at the male population. Feminists will clamor to their keyboards to tell us that the suffering endured by men was at the hands of other men in an attempt to relegate this to an internal male problem to be used as further justification that the problem resides solely within masculinity, one that we can fix with a generous application of more feminism no doubt.
The problem with using an ideological feminist lens is that we cannot afford to be selective in identifying the factors that contribute to genocides like the massacre in Srebrenica nor can we afford to introduce principles and concepts such as patriarchy to the circumstances of a conflict that run counter to almost every major tenet of the theory. Just as surely as feminists will indemnify men alone and side step the role of Serbia’s female leader, Biljana Plavisc who was one of the chief architects and unapologetic coordinators of this campaign of rape and murder in the earlier part of the Balkans conflict, women who had been voting in Serbian elections since 1946 will be spared the responsibility of what their elected officials did on their behalf. Willful ignorance of our history is on par with forgetting it altogether, which will “see us doomed to repeat it”(credited to numerous authors).
When the fighting began in 1992 Srebrenica found itself on one of the major fronts between Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. In March of 1993, the UN Commander in Bosnia declared Srebrenica “under the protection of the UN” and Srebrenica was shortly thereafter declared a safe area in order to dissuade the Serbians from attacking.
In early 1995, the situation in and around the community of Srebrenica, despite being designated a UN “safe area” began to deteriorate as a result of fewer supplies making it into the town. The President of the Republic of Srpska, Radovan Karadzic, issued what was known as “Directive 7”. According to the International Criminal Tribunal on the Former Yugoslavia this was intended to achieve: “…the physical separation of Srebrenica from Žepa as soon as possible, preventing even communication between individuals in the two enclaves. Through planned and well-thought out combat operations, create an unbearable situation of total insecurity with no hope of further survival or life for the inhabitants of Srebrenica.” To this end, Serb forces enforced an embargo that restricted the provision of food, medical supplies and other essentials to the inhabitants of Srebrenica. In May of that year, the town’s Mayor would report that a number of people had died of starvation.
Although Srebrenica had already been the focus of other military actions as part of this campaign, July 6th would mark the beginning of the next phase of military offensive operations that were known as “Krivaja 95” which was designed to cleanse the town. Thousands of people would flee to nearby Potocari where a small UN contingent had remained although many would eventually flee for their own lives or surrender to Serb forces themselves.
Less than a week later on July 11th in the town of Srebrenica, with little resistance or condemnation from the international community, the leader of the Serb forces, Ratko Mladić would state victoriously that “We give this town to the Serb nation..The time has come to take revenge on the Muslims.” War had been ongoing for three years, there was no secret about what this could mean and what was coming next.
That night 10,000 men and boys who had remained in Srebrenica would decide that it was now time to flee the town on foot in a giant column that some estimate was somewhere between 12-15
kilometers long. It was believed that the best chances of survival were to be found to the north in the free territory of Tuzla which was a 70 mile trek away through dense forests and unforgiving terrain. The Serbian Army attacked the unarmed men of the column with gunfire and bombarded them with artillery sending them running for cover deeper into the forest.
As morning came, Serbian forces would pose as UN officers and use UN equipment to encourage the fleeing men to come out of hiding from the forests with promises that they would be treated with humanity as prisoners of war. Many men turned themselves over to the Serb Army where they would then be coerced into trying to persuade other members of their family and friends to do the same. In many cases it worked and many men surrendered, most of them were executed. Others would commit suicide to escape what they knew would be an even worse fate. Of the 10,000 people who left Srebrenica as part of the column, roughly 3000 would make it to safety. For those who did not, they were either killed as the Serbs pursued them, executed upon surrender or evacuated to the areas where the mass executions would take place.
Not all refugees joined the column bound for Tuzla. Earlier on July 11th, approximately 20,000-25,000 people proceeded to Potocari which was much closer than Tuzla and had one of the last remaining UN outposts. This consisted of mostly women and children, though some witnesses estimate there may have been approximately 1000 men among them. Several thousand people were able to crowd into the large UN facility while others took shelter in warehouses, factories, nearby fields or remained exposed in the open with no where to go. On July 12th, Serb soldiers in Potacari began to separate the men from the women. The UN managed to negotiate the release of refugees into Bozniak territory, though it was noted that few of these survivors were male. Many of the men and boys were being tortured and executed on the spot. Others would take control over their fate by committing suicide. When the men were finally being evacuated, it was not to their salvation, but to a series of locations that included fields, meadows, factories, warehouses and schools along a 35 mile stretch of the Drina River marking the border of Serbia and Bosnia. These were the same locations where the men captured from the column were also taken. It was here where hundreds of men would be executed and buried in graves, some of them still alive.
In order to conceal these crimes, Serbian forces buried the bodies in mass graves, but often dug them up again in order to change the locations. Using bulldozers and trucks, bodies were torn apart, dismembered and intermixed with others making it an incredible challenge identifying victims. In the case of a 23 year old man named Kadrija Music six of his bones were found dispersed across 5 different locations 32 km apart.
Today the grisly reminders of this tragedy remain alive and well as the area around Srebrenica is still an active crime scene with over a thousand people unaccounted for.
Bodies and bone fragments are still being discovered. Many survivors are still waiting for justice against those who committed this atrocity or the discovery of loved ones, mostly men and boys who died horrific deaths and are now buried in unknown mass graves throughout Bosnia.
Finding closure will never erase the pain experienced by the survivors of this tragedy. We can only hope that we continue to move towards a more civilized world where these atrocities are not tolerated. Clinging to false paradigms and convenient ideologies that see this as anything less than a human problem as we remember Srebrenica does nothing to move us in that direction.