Srebrenica Massacre, after 20 years, still casts a long shadow in Bosnia

As Europe marks the 20th anniversary of the massacre of about 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica, reconciliation has been halting in a region where memories and wounds, personal and political, run deep.

Bosnian Serb nationalist leaders have sought to play down the events at Srebrenica, and leading Bosnian Muslim officials express frustration that the 1995 Dayton accord, which ended the war, granted the Bosnian Serbs autonomy in their territory.

There is division even over what to call the mass killing. Although two international tribunals based at The Hague have ruled that it constituted genocide, Russia on Wednesday vetoed a draft United Nations Security Council resolution that condemned the massacre as a “crime of genocide,” with its ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly I. Churkin, calling the language of the measure “confrontational” and “politically motivated.”

And in the killing fields in and around Srebrenica, the remains of victims — arms, legs and heads hidden by Bosnian Serb forces — are still being discovered, causing more pain for their loved ones.


The Srebrenica-Potocari Memorial in Bosnia on Wednesday. On Saturday, 136 newly identified bodies will be buried; about 1,000 victims remain unidentified.

The atrocity was the worst in Europe since World War II, and the exhumations are a vivid reminder that while the brutal violence of the Islamic State and Boko Haram has dominated the headlines recently, a mass killing took place on European soil for three days starting July 11, 1995, while the world looked the other way.

A few months before the end of the Bosnian war, Bosnian Serb forces under Gen. Ratko Mladic took over a United Nations “safe haven” in eastern Srebrenica, separated the men and boys from the women, bound their hands, led them to fields and shot them.

The bodies were later dumped in mass graves and then scattered to conceal the evidence. Some among the handful who survived did so by pretending to be dead and hiding under corpses.

At the Security Council, where Britain, Russia and the United States had sought to come to a consensus on the text in recent days, the United States ambassador, Samantha Power, condemned the Russian veto. Ms. Power, who worked as a journalist in Bosnia during the war, said backers of the draft resolution had sought to address Russia’s concerns, but Russia balked at the mention of genocide.

“This is a veto of a well-established fact,” Ms. Power said. “Russia’s veto is heartbreaking for those families, and it is a further stain on this council’s record.”

But Serbia, Bosnian Serbs in Bosnia and Russia, which is a close ally of Serbia, had criticized the British-drafted resolution as being one-sided, divisive and “anti-Serb.”



A woman watched the "March of Peace" on Wednesday near Nezuk, Bosnia and Herzegovina. The march retraced the route, in reverse, that was taken by Bosnian Muslims fleeing Serb forces. 

China warned against bringing the measure to a vote, asserting that doing so would damage the unity of the Council. China, along with Angola, Nigeria and Venezuela, abstained. Russia cast the sole no vote. Ten countries voted in favor.

On Saturday, a remembrance of the massacre will be held at the Srebrenica-Potocari Memorial in Bosnia, where rows of tombstones testify to the cruelty of the war. Past and present world leaders, including the presidents of Croatia, Montenegro and Slovenia, are expected to gather at a commemoration for the victims. News reports said former President Bill Clinton, whose administration brokered the accord that ended the war, would also attend, although that has not been confirmed.

Paddy Ashdown, a former diplomat from Britain who was the European Union’s high representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina from 2002 to 2006, said at a ceremony in Westminster Abbey this week that the world must never again stand silent in the face of genocide. “We could have prevented this horror,” he said. “We chose not to. We should therefore remember Srebrenica, not just to bear witness to those who suffered, but also as a warning to us all of what happens when we turn our back.”

The Serbian news media reported that President Tomislav Nikolic of Serbia, who has previously apologized for Srebrenica but has declined to call it a genocide, would not attend the ceremony. An aide told Danas, a Serbian newspaper, that for Mr. Nikolic to attend, a senior Bosnian Muslim official would need to make a similar gesture at places where Serbs suffered.

Nevertheless, Serbia, which is seeking to join the European Union, has made significant progress in its historical reckoning.

After years of evading capture — aided by the willingness of successive governments in Serbia to turn a blind eye and by a Serbian public skeptical of justice at The Hague — Mr. Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb wartime political leader, were arrested. They are now being tried on war crimes charges at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.


A worker digging a grave at the Srebrenica-Potocari Memorial in Bosnia ahead of Saturday's ceremony for the 20th anniversary of the massacre. CreditDado Ruvic/Reuters

In March, Serbia arrested eight men suspected of having participated in the atrocity by killing more than 1,000 Bosnians at a warehouse in Kravica, near Srebrenica. The arrests were described by prosecutors as the first effort by the Serbian police to detain anyone accused of involvement in the killings at Srebrenica.

In Kosovo, a former province of Serbia, which defied Belgrade by declaring independence in 2008, the Serbian leadership and ethnic Albanian leaders have achieved a fragile power-sharing agreement.

Yet Srebrenica continues to cast a long shadow. Bosnia remains one of Europe’s poorest and most ethnically divided countries, and the massacre has remained a source of political contention.

The Dayton accord divided the country of Bosnia and Herzegovina into two entities, the Muslim-Croat Federation and the Serbian Republic. That agreement ended a war in which more than 100,000 people were killed, a majority of them Muslims. But the complex power-sharing system has helped to paralyze decision making in the country.

In Srebrenica, the search for human remains continues. Two decades later, relatives still scour the nearby forest for bones. According to the International Commission on Missing Persons, 6,930 victims have been identified from 17,000 body parts found in dozens of mass graves. But around 1,000 victims from the massacre have still not been identified. Burials of 136 newly identified bodies are to be held on Saturday.

Munira Subasic, the president of the Mothers of Srebrenica association, who lost 22 relatives in the massacre, including her husband and son, this week lamented that many mothers were still unable to bury their dead.

“Some mothers are still searching for the bones of their children,” Ms. Subasic said. “That is our life now — our biggest problem and our greatest mission.”