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Bosnia-Herzegovina: Ten Years After Srebrenica

By Vlado Azinovic An investigator marks bullet shells at the site of a suspected mass grave in northeast Bosnia in 1996 Dozens of roundtable discussions and international conferences will be taking place this month in Bosnia, the United States, and elsewhere to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the fall of Srebrenica.

More than 7,000 men were killed in that small Bosnian town based solely on their religious or ethnic orientation or background.

The events around the tragedy -- often cited as the single largest act of genocide in Europe since the Holocaust -- simply defy common sense. It is therefore imperative that we attempt to understand how it happened and how we might best prevent such atrocities from occurring in the future.

Regardless of one's approach to the events of Srebrenica, one thing clearly stands out: While there was indifference, and there were indeed prejudices and miscalculations, the unwillingness to fully confront the evil was paramount. I fear that the same absence of will persists to this day.

The Warning Signs

We now know that as early as mid-June, three weeks prior to the attack on Srebrenica, at least five Western intelligence services and their respective governments knew that the offensive was imminent. Over the years, a number of intelligence and government officials have confirmed the existence of intercepted conversations between Serbian General Momcilo Perisic in Belgrade and General Ratko Mladic in Bosnia in which those two men planned the attack. It has also been reported that U.S. intelligence services had aerial and satellite images of the Bosnian Serb army's preparations for the onslaught.
Srebrenica arguably represents collateral damage of post-Cold War ambiguities; just as Sudan's Darfur region represents collateral damage of the post-9/11 world. Both were dealt with pragmatically, within the realm of real or reasonable politics.

For six consecutive days prior to the attack, the UN military commander in the Former Yugoslavia, French General Bernard Janvier, rejected requests from his subordinates in Sarajevo and Srebrenica for NATO air strikes around the town to deter the Serbs' attack. Janvier reportedly received his orders directly from the presidential palace in Paris.

So there was sufficient indication that the UN's "safe haven" in Srebrenica would be attacked. There was enough intelligence pointing to Mladic and Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic's intentions to have acted on it. But nothing was done.

Relatively Minor Operation

By the standards of Bosnia at the time, the Serbian attack on Srebrenica was a relatively small operation. The town was taken in a matter of days and with only a marginal cost to the Serbs. It was one of the easiest Serbian victories of the war.

Barely 2,000 Bosnian Serb soldiers participated in the actual attack, backed by a total of 10 armored personnel carriers or tanks and some 40 mortar-launchers. The Bosnian Army in Srebrenica had some 6,000 troops, but there were too few weapons to arm them. A CIA analysis claims that just one-third to one-half of these troops carried weapons of any kind; and the weapons they had were mainly an assortment of hunting rifles, antique firearms, or poorly maintained small arms.

So particularly given its size -- but also for other reasons -- there were a number of options available to prevent the Srebrenica massacre.

Having failed to prevent genocide in Srebrenica, Western governments committed themselves to ensuring that those responsible are brought to justice and that evidence is provided for fair trails. But instead of justice being served, it has been obstructed by a similar lack of will.

Two of the main forces suspected of having been behind the atrocities committed in Srebrenica -- Bosnian Serb leader Karadzic and Serbian General Mladic -- were indicted by the UN International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia on 14 November 1995 and charged with "genocide, crimes against humanity and violations of the laws or customs of war."

Apparently neither the CIA nor U.S. Special forces, nor for that matter any other Western intelligence service on the ground in Bosnia, had ever been instructed to track down or apprehend Karadzic or Mladic. For years, the two men moved freely amid some 60,000 heavily armed NATO troops who had come to Bosnia in 1996 to safeguard the peace agreement. And to this day, Karadzic and Mladic remain free men.

Information collected by Western intelligence services about events in Srebrenica has been shared only reluctantly, if at all, by their respective governments with the war crimes tribunal in The Hague. Chief prosecutors at the tribunal have repeatedly complained that information released by Western governments is often incomplete, irrelevant, or late.

Reminiscent Of WWII Horrors

What happened in Srebrenica epitomizes the Bosnian tragedy. Massacres, ethnic cleansing, detention camps -- all reminiscent of the horrors of World War II -- were happening again. And yet there was insufficient will to stop them.

Everyone had their reasons: American attention was directed inward; pan-European institutions that might have been employed were still in their infancy; the United Nations does not wish to act independently (and neither is it encouraged by its member states to do so). There was confusion throughout the West in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War.

So, in a sense, Srebrenica arguably represents collateral damage of post-Cold War ambiguities; just as Sudan's Darfur region represents collateral damage of the post-9/11 world. Both were dealt with pragmatically, within the realm of real or reasonable politics.

George Bernard Shaw once wrote: "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man."

One could be forgiven for wishing that -- at least sometimes -- the lessons of Srebrenica might inspire more people to join the ranks of the unreasonable.

(Vlado Azinovic is a senior editor with RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service. This text was adapted from his remarks at an RFE/RL roundtable in Prague on 27 June.)

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