Srebrenica – the origins of the massacre7 min read
11 July 2020 marked the 25th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre, recognised by the International Court of Justice in The Hague as genocide. Often considered one of the worst massacres to take place on European soil since the Second World War, more than 7,000 Muslim Bosniak men and teenagers were killed by the forces of the army of the Serbian Republic of Bosnia, close to the town of Srebrenica, in eastern Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Twenty five years on from Srebrenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina remains a multi-ethnic country with fragmented state structures – the Republika Srpska, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the district of Brčko – still struggling to heal the wounds of the war that ravaged it from 1992 to 1995. Two questions must be asked: what were the roots of this terrible event? and what is the state of affairs in 2020?
In order to fully understand this episode, closely linked to nationalism, a review of the region’s history needs to be undertaken. Indeed, the notion of national category is complex to define and understand in this region of the Balkans, which had long been shared between the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires. In the latter, the inhabitants were grouped into religious categories (the millets) and not ethnic or linguistic ones – that would later serve to legitimise the birth and existence of some of the region’s modern nation-states.
The weakening of the two empires from the second half of the nineteenth century onwards accompanied the emergence of nationalist movements in the region and the desire to draw modern political borders for these new states, in line with Greece or Serbia for instance, which declared their independence from the Ottoman Empire respectively in 1830 and 1878.
The nation state is a concept born in Western Europe and was inspired by the ideas of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, in which “cultural borders merge with political borders” according to the definition of the UNESCO. In the Balkans, however, these new political borders rarely matched with the ethnic or linguistic borders of the different peoples, which became quickly the breeding grounds for the national claims of these embryonic states.
The border delimitation of the new Balkan states were more linked to the aspirations of the great European powers such as Austria-Hungary or Russia, seeking to establish their domination over the region. Pursuing a vision based on the search for a peaceful equilibrium in Europe, the ethnic or linguistic criteria of the new Balkan states were of secondary importance.
Bosnian territory has always been more ethnically and religiously diverse than its neighbours. Three groups shared and still share the territory of the current Bosnia and Herzegovina: Muslim Bosniaks (or simply Bosniaks – the term “Bosnian” is referring to the citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina, regardless of their religion), Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs. Nowadays, in relation to the whole population of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the three groups respectively represent 50,11% for the Muslim Bosniaks, 30,78% for the Orthodox Serbs, and 15,43% for the Catholic Croats, according to the final results of the 2013 population census.
The establishment of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia at the end of the First World War gradually upset this peaceful cohabitation. The newly established multi-ethnic state quickly came up against the national claims of its various constituent peoples, but above all against the ambitions of Serbian Karađorđević kings, seeing themselves as the guiding people of the new South Slav (Yugoslav in Serbo-Croatian) union, and leading to tensions with the other ethnic groups, most notably Croats. This would contribute to the collapse of the Kingdom in 1941 and its descent into inter-ethnic violence.
The Federation of Yugoslavia of Josip Tito tried, from 1943 onwards, to draw clear boundaries of the six new federated republics (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia), thereby seeking to strengthen this spirit of unity in diversity and to freeze nationalist claims which arose in the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. However, the weakening of Yugoslavian state structures from the 1980’s onwards after the death of Tito brought back to light these nationalist claims. Serbian nationalism, fuelled by the idea of a Greater Serbia, was particularly active and nationalist figures such as Slobodan Milošević began to make their voice heard.
This had a particularly significant impact in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In 1991, Bosnian Serbs made up 31.4% of the population, spread across just over half of the territory. While each national group called for a redrawing of the borders, the Bosnian Serbs declared their opposition to the independence of Bosnia and Herzegovina from Yugoslavia – which was mainly promoted by the Bosnian Croats and Bosniaks.
The Bosnian Serbs therefore decided to unite into a Serbian state entity that would have been attached to Yugoslavia – first the Serbian Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina and then the Republika Srpska, abandoning any reference to a Bosnian identity. This entity quickly obtained the military support of Yugoslavia (i.e. Serbia, since only this republic still claimed the name Yugoslavia). Croatia, on its side, intervened militarily in its border region with Bosnia in the name of the security of the predominantly Croat-populated part of Bosnia, and tried on several occasions to negotiate a division of Bosnia between Serbia and Croatia, but a large majority of Bosnian Croats remained in favour of an agreement with the Bosniaks over the Serbs.
When a referendum on the independence of Bosnia and Herzegovina was held at the end of 1991, it was approved by a majority of 98% of Croats and Bosniaks. The referendum, which led to the declaration of independence of the country in April 1992, was boycotted by the Bosnian Serbs and was not recognised by Yugloslavia, nor by the above-mentioned Serbian Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Consequently, a civil war broke out in Bosnia and Herzegovina, leading to clashes between Serb, Bosnian and Croat ethnic groups. It also led to the siege of Sarajevo by the Bosnian Serbs, with the aim to cause the departure of the Bosniaks in order to transform the city into a predominantly Serb entity.
In this context, the Srebrenica massacre can be seen as the incarnation of the ravages of this war and one of its darkest points. Srebrenica, a small town in eastern Bosnia, is a Bosnian Muslim enclave within the territory of the Republika Srpska. In early 1995, after three years of civil war, the Bosnian Serb army, led by General Ratko Mladić, particularly known for his violence, launched an offensive on the town of Srebrenica. The objective of the Serb forces was to regain control of this territory and expel the Bosnian Muslims from it.
Following this offensive, Dutch peacekeepers of the United Nations Protection Force were sent to the area. Ironically, only two years before the massacre, the UN Security Council had recognised the town of Srebrenica as a “safe area” for the Bosniaks civilians who had taken refuge there while trying to flee the conflict. The fact that the massacre could take place there showed the inability of the United Nations to manage and handle this crisis. As a result of the UN peacekeepers’ incapacity to protect the Muslim inhabitants of Srebrenica, General Ratko Mladić’s soldiers killed more than 7,000 men and teenagers, and raped thousands of women.
Ratko Mladić was sentenced on 22 November 2017 by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia to life imprisonment after being found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity. The Hague Tribunal also found Dutch forces culpable for the deaths of several hundred people for failing to protect them.
Despite the massacre being recognised as a genocide by the international community, the event, and in particular its characterisation, still divides the region. One only needs to refer to the negationist and revisionist assertions which are particularly present in the Republika Srpska or in Serbia. Milorad Dodik, the Bosnian Serb co-president, stated at the beginning of 2019 that Srebrenica was a “fabricated myth” built by the Bosniaks for the Bosniaks. Most Serb officials, both from Serbia and Bosnia, do not deny that a massacre was committed in Srebrenica, however often question the number of victims and refuse to call it a genocide. For example, in 2013, the President of the Republic of Serbia Tomislav Nikolić apologised for the “crime” committed in Srebrenica but refused to use the term genocide specifically for Srebrenica. The tragedy and debate surrounding Srebrenica is far from reaching a consensus and is symbolic of the latent nationalist tensions that still exist in the Balkans.