Silence and Denial Surround Srebrenica Massacre 20 Years On

In the only genocide to occur in Europe since the Holocaust, more than 8,500 Bosnian Muslims were slaughtered by Serb forces in a UN-declared 'safe area.' Despite the evidence, denial of the atrocity continues.

Yair Auron
Yair Auron
A forensic anthropologist of the International Commission on Missing Persons attempts to identify the remains of a victim of the Srebrenica massacre near Tuzla, Bosnia and Herzegovina, June 11, 2015.
A forensic anthropologist of the International Commission on Missing Persons attempts to identify the remains of a victim of the Srebrenica massacre near Tuzla, Bosnia and Herzegovina, June 11, 2015.Credit: Reuters
Yair Auron
Yair Auron

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — Even today, 20 years later, Hatidza Mehmedovic reconstructs the events of July, 1995, in precise detail. Day by day, hour by hour, apart from one black hole – the final hours in the lives of her husband, her two children, her two brothers and other members of her family.

Mehmedovic, who is now 63, had lived since her childhood in the town of Srebrenica in Bosnia-Herzegovina. After the beginning of the war in Yugoslavia in 1991, more than 40,000 Bosnian Muslim refugees gathered in this area that the United Nations declared a “safe area” in 1993. However, in July of 1995 this area was anything but safe: The refugees were abandoned by the Dutch UN unit that was supposed to protect them from the Serbian forces in Bosnia headed by General Ratko Mladic. It is estimated that more than 8,500 Bosnians were murdered there. Their corpses were loaded onto bulldozers, dumped into huge mass graves and later scattered into smaller mass graves in forests prior to the Dayton Agreement that ended the war in Bosnia on December 14, 1995.

Some of the corpses have not been found to this day.

Saturday marks 20 years since the Srebrenica massacre – the first and only genocide so far in Europe since the Holocaust. “How is it possible that this could happen in our times?” asks Mehmedovic rhetorically. “Here, after what happened to you (the Jews) in the 1940s at the hands of the Nazis. The silence and the denial continue,” she says, pointing an accusatory finger at the entire world and at in particular at Europe, which has not done enough, according to her. “The whole world shut its eyes, knew and kept silent.”

In the tidy graveyard that was built in Srebrenica, as of April of this year there were 8,372 graves bearing names of Bosnian Muslims who were murdered by their former neighbors. Beneath most of the tombstones are bits of bones, some of which were identified 15 years or more after the massacre, by means of DNA tests. Among these graves are also remains that were identified as Mehmedovic’s dear ones. She recalls that they phoned from the laboratory to tell her what they had discovered. “I had no idea which of my sons they had found.” Yet despite all she had been through, in 2002 she decided to return home, to her neighborhood, which had changed entirely. Before the war there were 27,000 Bosnians in the town; today there are only 3,000. All her neighbors are Bosnian Serbs. She remembers some of them from back in the days when ethnic origin did not constitute a reason for war. Among them were men and women who had been her friends. When she returned she tried to talk with them about what had happened, but to no avail. “I didn’t know,” “I didn’t see,” “I wasn’t here,” “I too was forced out,” they said to her.

Conspiracy of silence

She wants to break this conspiracy of silence. After the war, together with other women, friends of hers, she founded three support and commemoration groups – “Srebrenica Mothers.” About 200 women are members. They, too, like Mehmedovic, came home with no family. “From here I want to preserve the memory of my dear ones and the other victims,” she says. “From here I will continue to fight against the silence, the lack of action and the denial.” In the wake of the Dayton Agreement, in Bosnia and Herzegovina (as it is known today), one state was established, in which the are two entities: The Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Republika Srpska, which now controls Srebenica and where most of the inhabitants are Serb in origin. The capital of the country, Sarajevo, is in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Sarajevo, which is surrounded by high, green mountains, also saw a lot of destruction and suffering during the war years, which reached their peak in the siege that was imposed on it by the Serbian forces. The siege was the longest in modern history – 1,335 days, longer than the siege the Nazis imposed on Leningrad in World War II. Not only did the nations of the world let this happen, there were also those – perhaps most notably Israel and Russia – that even helped the Serbs.

“There was no safe place in Sarajevo,” ruled a judge at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague. According to General Mladic’s diary, Israel had a direct relationship with the Serbian forces at the time they were committing war crimes and crimes against humanity. The diary was published as part of the trial there of Dusan Kovacevic, the Republika Srpska defense minister during the war. Mladic wrote that Israel had contacted Kovacevic four months before the genocide in Srebrenica.

“They offered me training for our people at their expense, special weaponry for 500 men, sniper rifles for free,” noted Mladic in his diary. “This is supposed to be in order to fight the Muslim mujahadin forces, which the Mossad claimed had concentrated in Bosnia.” Kovacevic himself confirmed this when he was questioned at the tribunal, in July of 2010. “Yes,” he told the judge. “They were Israeli Mossad people.”

The denial continues

Back to Sarajevo, where between one commemorative monument and another, life seems ordinary. The market square is crowded, the restaurants are full and lively dance music blares from the clubs in the evenings. At touching distance from the nightlife spots are mosques, surrounded by courtyards with open prayer balconies. In the evenings and in the nights one after another worshippers, most of them not young, come, remove their shoes and pray. Yes, the majority of he population of the capital of Bosnia is Muslim. Yet Sarajevo must be the only place in the world were many mosques are adjacent to noisy nightlife spots and to churches and synagogues, as Christians also – Croats and Serbs – and Jews are currently living here in peace.

That, apparently, is the key word now when it comes to Bosnia, and in this case also for the Jews who in the 1990s once again found themselves in battle zones. This, after during the Holocaust period, most of the Jews of Sarajevo perished but there were also those who were saved by their Muslim neighbors and friends. The famous “Sarajevo Haggadah,” too, was saved by Muslims who risked their lives to do so, once during the period of the Nazi occupation and a second time when large parts of Sarajevo were destroyed in the siege during the years 1992 to 1995.

During those years the Christians in the city were also given a certain amount of protection. The Sarajevo leadership did not allow damage to churches in its territory as revenge against the genocide and the destruction of mosques at the hands of Serbia under Slobodan Milosevic.

A significant aspect of the war is Milosevic and the way he is remembered. His trial at the The Hague, on charges of genocide, was aborted when he died. And thus, even today, in Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, many people still see him as no less than a national hero. In general, Serbia pursues a policy of denial concerning everything about the war, as though no crimes were ever committed then, at least none connected to Belgrade.

A woman searches for a relative's name on the coffins of 136 newly identified victims of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, in Potocari, Bosnia and Herzegovina, July 9, 2015. (Reuters)

Israel, too, makes its contribution, just as it refuses to recognize the Armenian genocide. When Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vuči visited Israel about half a year ago, he was received with great, perhaps too great, respect at Yad Vashem. In Israel the Serbs are perceived as anti-Nazis while the Croats, and in particular the Bosnian Muslims, are perceived as supporters of the Nazis. Therefore, in discussions during the time of the war in the 1990s, a number of Knesset members believed it was necessary to support the Serbs.

The reality is more complex. The Serbian police rounded up the vast majority of the Jews of Belgrade during World War II and put them in a concentration camp in the city’s suburbs. From there, about 11,000 were sent to Auschwitz. The current prime minister of Serbia, Vuči, was himself a young officer in the Serbian army during the war in the 1990s. He was on the Sarajevo hills during the siege and today he is a member of Milosevic’s former political party. And nevertheless, he was found worthy of laying a memorial wreath at Yad Vashem.

In the world after Auschwitz, as people continue to recite the slogan “Never again” in many languages, it is possible that ethnic cleansings, war crimes, crimes against humanity and even genocide will happen again and again, but Mehmedovic is not seeking revenge. She fights hatred when she feels it rising up within her. “It does more evil to the victim,” she says. She is focusing her war against the silence surrounding the massacre. “Teachers who took part in the murder went back to teaching in schools, in some which the Bosnians were confined and murdered,” she relates. According to her, now all that is left are remains, bits of bones, and the children do not know what happened in their school in 1995. “But I did not marry bones and I did not give birth to bones,” she exclaims.

According to her, the policy of intimidation and denial is still pursued today in full force. “After a meeting I have with a foreigner,” she says, “I am usually arrested for several days. They want to scare me but I am not scared. If anyone asks me what I want – I want my children but I know that in this world I will never see them. I am fighting so that this will not happen to other children.”

Professor Yair Auron is a genocide researcher. Together with attorney Eitay Mack he has petitioned the Supreme Court to obligate the state to disclose documents connected to Israel’s relations with Serbia during the slaughter in 1995.

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