Srebrenica, Europe’s Open Wound
Giovanna Pavesi 10 July 2020

For 25 years, their identities have been carved on a large white marble plaque, a few kilometers from their former homes. To which they never returned, neither alive nor dead. Their names are written one below the other, in alphabetical order and next to that long list, there is only the year of birth, because their date of death is the same for each one of them. The impressive memorial of Potočari, in Bosnia, hosts the 8.372 victims officially recognized in the Srebrenica massacre, known as the worst war crime in Europe since World war II.

Victims were almost all males and almost all Muslims. Between the 6th and 11th July 1995, in the “safe area” of Srebrenica, a Muslim town in a Bosnian region that houses a Serbian majority, generations of men, between the ages of 12 and 77 years old, were systematically erased, in an outbreak of ethnic cleansing perpetrated by units of the Bosnian Serb Army of the Republika Srpska, under the command of Ratko Mladić, together with the paramilitary forces of Željko Ražnatović, also known as “Arkan”. In 1995, Srebrenica, located in the woods of Drina Valley in northeastern Bosnia, was under the protection of a Dutch United Nations contingent. They should have protected civilians from attacks and violence but they stood back, effectively authorizing the atrocities.

After an offensive lasting a few days, Mladić’s units were able to enter in the town, despite the presence of the UN peacekeepers, positioned in a shed located right in Potočari, where the memorial stands today and where, that summer murders, rapes and violence of all kind were allowed to occur. When the Bosnian Serb Army came to Srebrenica, male citizens were separated from the rest of their families and within 72 hours were disappeared. Literally. In public buildings, where today children go to school, thousands of Muslim Bosnians were stripped of their belongings and were tied with their hands behind their back. Then, a truck took them to the woods, where a gunshot wound to the back of the neck ended their lives. The bodies, thrown in mass graves and often deliberately dismembered, were never returned to their families, who in many cases, are still searching for their loved ones, often digging with their bare hands. Every year, pathologists find bone fragments and returns them to those left behind: survivors, children, wives, mothers, sisters. DNA is used to determine to whom the skeleton belongs and in 25 years, doctors have found more than 6 thousand human remains. Psychiatrists believe that having even a small part of the body of a family member can be useful to start a process of closure.


Lights and shadows in court

Nothing in Srebrenica was accidental and the massacre was accomplished with precise brutality. The idea of ethnicity, often used in the Balkan wars as a political device to intensify clashes or fuel hatred between communities, was used as a tool to justify (and authorize) what today is considered the worst extermination in Europe after the Holocaust. Legal authorities, in fact, talked about a “planned and coordinated high-level massacre” and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), established at the United Nations, charged 21 people for the crimes committed in Srebrenica. The first to be identified as responsible was Mladić, accused of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. As the military leader in command in 1995, the Bosnian Serb general was considered to be the main perpetrator of the massacre in the Muslim village. In 1996, the same court confirmed the charges, effectively confirming belief in Mladić’s guilt and issued an international arrest warrant against him.

After being a fugitive for 16 years, in May 2011 he was extradited to the Hague, where, in 2012, his trial began. On the 22nd November 2017, after hearing over 500 witnesses and examining more than 10.000 pieces of evidence, the ICTY sentenced him to life imprisonment. Radovan Karadžić was also indicted and sentenced, in addition to Radislav Kristić, Momir Nikolić, Vujadin Popović and Ljubiša Beara (heads of security all sentenced to life imprisonment for genocide), Drago Nikolić, Radivoje Miletić, Vinko Borovčanin, Milan Gvero, Zdravko Tolimir, Jovica Stanišić, Franko Simatović, Momčilo Perišić (acquitted in 2013), Vidoje Blagojević, Dragan Jokić and Dragan Obrenović.

The court rejected the survivors’ claim for compensation, because genocide (which the Serbs are still having difficulty coming to terms with) was the work of individuals and Serbia could not be held directly responsible for the events of the Bosnian civil war (including Srebrenica massacre). No explicit order was ever sent from Belgrade, even though it was recognized that Karadžić and Mladić depended on the Serbian government, which provided financial and military assistance as well as exerted influence on the political leader and the general. However, the Court found that there was a “serious risk of massacre” and that the Serbia did “nothing to respect its obligations to prevent and punish the Srebrenica genocide”. Serbia, moreover, has been accused of not helping the legal authorities to immediately arrest the culprits as well as of having sheltered some of them during their time as fugitives (in 2011 for example, Mladić lived between Bosnia and Serbia). The Dutch peacekeepers behavior was also a controversial issue and, in 2019, the Dutch supreme court ruled that Holland held a “reduced” degree of guilt in those events.


Looking for reconciliation

But in Bosnia, the wounds are still open and festering. Agostino Zanotti, an Italian activist for human rights and founder of “Adl a Zavidovici”, who spent many years in Bosnia implementing aid and relief projects for Bosnian civilians during the war, believes that “from a political and historical point of view, Srebrenica’s story has not ended: there was no conclusive point, even if the genocide has been recognized. Nationalist politics, which still strongly characterizes the public life, has not faced up to itself and cannot recognize its mistakes. Open question marks remain: why, in July 1995, did someone have ground to act [and commit genocide]? Why did Western fighters not act? And why were the UN peacekeepers isolated or accomplices?

Srebrenica is a place of pain, it is not a place of recovery: the school groups who visit do not find a place of reconciliation but, with the endless number of white tombs, also an endless representation of pain. And this is dangerous, it is a big risk”. The first to be exposed the pain of loss and to the consequences of this social weakness are the young generations, orphans of fathers and brothers, killed in a context that must be deciphered in order to be processed. “If we want to be able to dialogue with young people who are also the victims of a strong economic destabilization, we have to do that especially with opportunities for their future in sight. Many would like to leave this place and many others would like to return, but many frictions persist”, he explains.

Lacerations of the war are still evident and not only in Srebrenica or among the civilian population that returned to the areas devastated by conflict. The multi-ethnic and pluri-religious spirit of Sarajevo that existed before the war, is no longer present. According to Zanotti, that spirit has been “suffocated” by an important “demographic shift”: “People are no longer the same as they were before the war. Today, many of those living in Sarajevo came from the countryside and it is evident”. Walking through its streets you can sense the absence of those who left, perhaps as a refugee many years ago, or those who fell victim to the war. And if a place like Srebrenica evokes pain more often than it does feelings of reconciliation, for Zanotti it is essential that Europe reflect on what happened in 1995, perhaps by setting up a memorial day on the 11th of July: “This genocide is the result of a strategy of ethnic cleansing, of a Europe who was absent or partly complicit. Identifying an enemy, who was at that time the Muslim or the ‘whore’, as the Dutch defined Bosnian women, is still a widespread practice in the European public discourse, and it is from here that we need to begin again. Because, it doesn’t make any sense to talk about Srebrenica if we are not able to ask ourselves about our present. Srebrenica is not just a big stain for Europe, it is also a warning that keeps on questioning us. For this reason, going to Srebrenica does not mean just seeing Europe from its outskirts, but seeing also the dangerous products it nourishes. Srebrenica has been one of them”.


Photo:  Giovanna Pavesi

If you liked our analyses, stories, videos and dossiers, follow us on Facebook and Twitter and share our contents.

To get all of the latest, sign up for our newsletter (twice a month)



Please consider giving a tax-free donation to Reset this year

Any amount will help show your support for our activities

In Europe and elsewhere
(Reset DOC)

In the US
(Reset Dialogues)