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Srebrenica Betrayed, 21 Years Later

  • Gordana Knezevic

A woman weeps as a mass funeral is held on July 11 for some of the victims of the Srebrenica massacre, which resulted in the deaths of thousands of Muslim men over the course of a few days.

A woman weeps as a mass funeral is held on July 11 for some of the victims of the Srebrenica massacre, which resulted in the deaths of thousands of Muslim men over the course of a few days.

Srebrenica was never meant to generate world news. A quiet provincial town nestled in a valley among mountains that rise from the banks of the river Drina, it was once famous for its ancient silver mines (“srebro” means silver).

By July 1995, however, Srebrenica had been a living hell for three years, besieged by Serb forces. When it fell, in the course of only four days, over 8,000 Muslim males, including boys as young as 13, were killed.

July 11 is the official memorial day of the massacre -- the worst in Europe since World War II. Funerals are still taking place in Srebrenica as more of the victims are identified. In the last 12 months, 126 new names -- and new graves – have been added. RFE/RL's ongoing Faces of Srebrenica project aims to find a photo of each victim. So far, there is an image for nearly half of them.

Srebrenica native Nezira Sulejmanovic, 60, is burying her nephew, her brother's son. She says that his body was almost intact -- "only the head was missing." Her own two sons have already been buried at the same memorial cemetery, a few of their bones identified.

"If I could only find a single one of my brother’s bones, I would find my peace," she told RFE/RL’s correspondent in Srebrenica.

WATCH: Bosnian Man Digs For Bones Of Srebrenica Victims

In an attempt to cover up the crime, Serb forces removed the bodies from the Srebrenica killing fields and scattered them at different locations in the vicinity. International and local forensic experts are working together in using DNA evidence to identify the victims. One person from Srebrenica, Ramiz Nukic, has made it his life mission to search for the bones. He has found the remains of 200 people so far.

Sulejmanovic welcomes all, Serbs and Muslims, to attend the memorial: "Leave the war behind. Let it be so that my two grandchildren, my two girls from my only surviving son, are able to come here -- do not allow anyone to sow conflict."

Vucic Controversy

Not listening to the voices of people like Sulejmanovic, who lived the full circle of the Srebrenica tragedy, Srebrenica Mayor Camil Durakovic said that the Serbian leadership is not welcome at this year’s commemoration, insisting that "whoever denies the genocide should not come to our memorial service."

These were the words of a man who last year invited the Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic to visit Srebrenica. At the time he extolled his friendship with Vucic and was angry when a group of hooligans threw stones, targeting the Serbian leader -- who escaped with his glasses broken, but without injury. Durakovic has since tried to temper his words, albeit unconvincingly, by giving different explanations for his unwelcoming stance toward Vucic. On one occasion he said that he was concerned that all the attention would be on Vucic, and that his presence would overshadow the entire ceremony. The fact that Durakovic is facing elections in October may suggest that his real concern is with how his friendship with Vucic might resonate among the local Muslim community.

In Belgrade, although Vucic has been unperturbed by the snub, his party has called for him to "stop talking to Bosniaks." Serb-Muslim relations are in the spotlight again for all the wrong reasons.

On the other hand, the Bosnian foreign minister has ordered his ministry not to cooperate with the organizers of this year's Srebrenica memorial because of Durakovic's unwelcoming message to Serb leaders.

'A Warning To Us All'

Adding more fuel to the fire is a countercommemoration organized by the Serbs in Bratunac, 12 kilometers north of Srebrenica, for Serb victims of Muslim forces. This is part of the competing narratives of war, and its function is to diminish the importance of crimes committed by Serbs in nearby Srebrenica without denying them outright. The Serb Republic's (Republika Srpska, a constituent entity of Bosnia-Herzegovina) Prime Minister Milorad Dodik used the occasion to criticize the international community for not paying attention to Serb victims.

There's something wrong here: One imagines that normal people do not enjoy the role of victims, and yet there is competition over who is a bigger victim. Why is it still so hard to see the pain of others?

In his book Postwar, the late historian Tony Judt described Srebrenica as "a war crime on the scale of Oradour, Lidice or Katyn." The difference is that the Srebrenica massacre was carried out in full view of international observers.

Last year, attending a service for the victims of Srebrenica at Westminster Abbey, Paddy Ashdown, who served as the European Union's High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2002-2006, spoke about the passive complicity of the international community:

"Whether through error, misjudgment, an inability to comprehend, or just inattention, we stood aside when we should not have done. 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."

In the context of competing memorial services, and the exchange of hostile words between Srebrenica, Sarajevo, and Belgrade, we would do well to heed Ashdown's warning -- it is still dangerous to turn our back on the Balkans.

About This Blog

Balkans Without Borders offers personal commentary on contemporary Balkan politics and culture. It is written by Gordana Knezevic, senior journalist and former award-winning editor of the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje, as well as the director of RFE/RL’s Balkan Service between 2008 and 2016. The blog reflects on the myriad ways in which the absurdities of Balkan politics and the ongoing historical shifts and realignments affect the lives of people in the region.

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