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Bosnia: After Seven Years, Srebrenica's Wounds Still Fester

  • Don Hill

Tomorrow is the seventh anniversary of the massacre at Srebrenica in Bosnia-Herzegovina. In 1995, Bosnian Serb fighters brushed aside Dutch peacekeepers at a United Nations-designated safe haven and killed thousands of Muslim men and boys. RFE/RL reports that, although much has happened since then, little has changed.

Prague, 10 July 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Seven years ago tomorrow, Bosnian Serb fighters faced down a battalion of Dutch peacekeepers known as Dutchbat and invaded the crowded United Nations-declared safe-haven enclave of Srebrenica. They took away some 7,000 Muslim men and boys and executed them.

Since those gory events of the second week of July 1995, Muslim refugees in the thousands remain wary of returning to the killing grounds of Srebrenica.

The accused Bosnian Serb villains of the Srebrenica massacre, Radovan Karadzic and General Ratko Mladic, remain at large.

The Dutch government of Prime Minister Wim Kok has taken responsibility for the Dutchbat failure and has resigned, but remains in office as part of a caretaker crew.

And the relatives of the Srebrenica dead continue to mourn their lost fathers, husbands, and sons.

In Srebrenica, 80 kilometers northeast of Sarajevo, in a Bosnian-Serb-majority area, about 100 Muslims attended a prayer meeting on 5 July in the White Mosque, the first service there since the massacre. It was the opening event of a weeklong commemoration of the tragedy. International peacekeepers and local police monitored the occasion and it passed without incident.

But few Muslims have returned to their pre-war homes in and around Srebrenica.

The U.S. government and the Human Rights and Refugees Ministry in Bosnia established a $2.5 million project on 8 July to bring up to 4,000 residents back to the town. Official statistics say 28,000 Bosnians had lived there before. Minister Kresimir Zubak said that there is a new political readiness to motivate and support refugee returns. The project is to restore and rebuild homes and repair infrastructure.

Upon signing the project protocol in Sarajevo, U.S. Ambassador Clifford Bond said: "We know that the returnee process -- for reasons that we're all aware of -- has been slow in Srebrenica. I hope the signing of this agreement and the implementation of this project will raise the confidence of people to return to the region. And, again, the United States is very proud to be able to participate in the project."

Also on 8 July, NATO-led forces transferred Bosnian Serb Miroslav Deronjic to the UN International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. The tribunal's prosecutors say Deronjic was the top Serb administrator in the Srebrenica enclave at the time it fell to Serb fighters. NATO soldiers had captured Deronjic the previous day.

But the Serb leaders most wanted in connection with the Srebrenica massacre and other crimes that prosecutors allege occurred during the 1992-95 Bosnian war, Karadzic and Mladic, remain at large. Now comes word that Karadzic has used his time in hiding -- reportedly in Serb-run eastern Bosnia -- to prepare a collection of children's poems entitled "There Are Miracles; There Are No Miracles." His publisher says the work is the first of a trilogy.

There are press reports in Bosnia that NATO-led peacekeepers are setting up an operation for next week to capture Karadzic.

In the Netherlands, Srebrenica was a lively topic last April when the Dutch National Institute of War Documentation issued a detailed study of the incident and a week later Prime Minister Wim Kok and his entire cabinet resigned.

But, Hans de Vreij, foreign-affairs editor of Radio Netherlands, said the assassination two weeks later of populist politician Pim Fortuyn during election campaigning distracted the country. Speaking in a telephone interview with RFE/RL, de Vreij said Srebrenica seemed to drop off the Dutch political agenda after Fortuyn's death. "I think public opinion and political institutions have been preoccupied almost solely with the aftermath of this political assassination and have [had] very little time and energy to spend on the Srebrenica aftermath," de Vreij said.

When Kok's government resigned in April, both domestic and international opinion hailed the action as an admirable model of political leaders taking responsibility for their failures. Since then, however, de Vreij said, some analysts suggest that Kok and his ministers may actually have avoided blame. "It was clear that, had they stayed on, there would have been an official parliamentary inquiry that might have forced them to step down in a later stage. And [this way] it seemed to be voluntary," de Vreij said.

In the Dutch elections in May, Christian Democrats won 43 of the parliament's 150 seats and are forming a coalition government with the late Fortuyn's right-wing LDF Party and the liberal VVD Party. Kok's Labor Party took heavy losses in the election. Christian Democrat leader Jan Peter Balkenende is expected to present his government to the Netherlands' Queen Beatrice in the next few days.