Srebrenica Is an Open Wound, 20 Years Later

People carry the coffin of one of the 136 newly identified victims during a reburial ceremony on July 11, 2015 in Potocari, near Srebrenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Antonio Bronic/Reuters

This weekend, Bosnians and members of the international community, including former President Bill Clinton, gather at the Srebrenica-Potocari memorial to commemorate what former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan called "a terrible crime—the worst on European soil since the Second World War." But two decades after the Srebrenica massacre, as victims are still being identified and buried, a U.N. Security Council resolution to condemn it as genocide was vetoed by Russia. The political situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina has never been resolved, even after the Dayton Peace Talks ended the war, and the ethnic divisions that started it are still deep.

On this day 20 years ago, General Ratko Mladic, aka "The Butcher of Bosnia," was busy firing away at Srebrenica, which was a U.N.-declared "safe haven." His Bosnian Serb forces captured the town and expelled the Bosniak Muslim fighters who had been defending it, as well as the Dutch U.N. forces supposed to protect the Srebrenica enclave. Over the next few days, around 8,000 Muslim boys and men were rounded up and slaughtered by Mladic's forces, and their families deported. The killers even made the panicked U.N. force compensate them for the fuel they had used while "evacuating" the Srebrenica enclave's Muslim inhabitants in trucks and buses, brought in for the carefully planned atrocity. Boys as young as 8 were ripped from their mothers' arms as the Serbs separated the men from the women, and took the men away.

The massacre has been judged a genocide by both the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the International Court of Justice (ICJ). But on Wednesday, a U.N. Security Council resolution to condemn Srebrenica as a genocide was vetoed by the Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin (who, as it happens, negotiated the release of Dutch hostages held captive by the Bosnian Serbs following the Srebrenica massacre in 1995). He called the resolution "confrontational and politically motivated." Victims of Srebrenica see the veto as a sign that they still do not have the full support of the international community.

"Srebrenica represents the post-war [world]'s worst collective failure, failure of all the institutions that were set up to make the post-war world safe. All of them showed their dysfunction 20 years ago," says writer and analyst Kati Marton, who was due to attend the memorial ceremony.

Related: Remembering the Victims of the Srebrenica Massacre

Marton, a Hungarian American, was in Bosnia during the war. As the head of the Committee to Protect Journalists, she negotiated with Slobodan Milosevic for the release of captured journalist David Rohde, and for reporter access and safety. She is also the widow of the late diplomat Richard Holbrooke, who negotiated the Dayton Peace Accord, and she was in Dayton during the talks. Marton speaks of Srebrenica in unequivocal terms: "What happened in Srebrenica was evil, and anybody who doesn't hate what happened in Srebrenica doesn't understand what happened there." She is also critical of the efforts of ICTY to bring the perpetrators to justice.

"The worst of the worst, namely Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic [political leader of the Bosnian Serbs during the war], have got to be convicted of genocide. That is the only way that the collective guilt which many people have now placed on Bosnian Serbs will be lifted," she says. "It's unforgivable that it's taken so long. Seven years Karadzic has been in custody, four in Mladic's case. It took one year for the Nuremberg tribunals to convict the Nazi criminals."

Even now, many of the murderers and rapists responsible for war crimes during the massacre still live in their villages and the victims have to confront them every day.

When calling for the arrest of Mladic and Karadzic in 1995, Judge Riad of the ICTY stated: "The evidence tendered by the Prosecutor describes scenes of unimaginable savagery: thousands of men executed and buried in mass graves, hundreds of men buried alive, men and women mutilated and slaughtered, children killed before their mothers' eyes, a grandfather forced to eat the liver of his own grandson. These are truly scenes from hell, written on the darkest pages of human history."

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In front of the presidential building in Sarajevo, a woman cries beside a truck carrying the coffins of newly identified victims on July 9, 2015. Dado Ruvic/Reuters

"People feel betrayed," says Velma Saric, the founder of the Post Conflict Research Center in Sarajevo, which works to foster tolerance and positive change in the Balkan region. "Twenty years later all national political parties still use the victims and the genocide for political manipulation, and the Serbian prime minister sends double messages, coming to honor the anniversary while at the same time pushing Russia to veto the resolution in the Security Council."

It took until 2008 and 2011, respectively, for Karadzic and Mladic to finally be arrested in Serbia and sent to The Hague, where they are on trial for genocide and other war crimes. The arrests may have improved Serbian relations with the E.U., but much remains to do in the region.

Bosnia itself struggles with what might very well be "the world's most complicated system of government," a result of the Dayton accords that put an end to the fighting but left the country fragile and divided. Bosnia-Herzegovina has three different presidents: one Croat, one Serb, one Bosniak. The country is divided into two autonomous entities: the Republika Srpska, and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. There is also the Brcko district, formally a part of both the other two but self-governing. The country has 17 levels of executive power.

"We need a change in the attitude of our politicians, and a more efficient system," says Saric.
"Bosnia is the size of Washington, D.C., but has 156 ministries. We need to simplify the system and move closer to the E.U. and NATO, that is the only future Bosnia can have."

A woman searches for the grave of her relatives in Memorial Center Potocari, Bosnia and Herzegovina July 10, 2015. Dado Ruvic/Reuters

This dizzying setup was supposed to be revised in 2005, but no such revision happened, because of a lack of will and energy, Marton says. "There has been real regression," she adds. "In 2004 the Bosnian Serb leaders accepted blame for Srebrenica, apologized for it, now they're denying it." Bosnian ethnic identities and segregation have been further entrenched over the past years with historic revisionism and segregation of schools. Recently the minister of education of the Republica Srpska suggested "there is no such thing as a Bosnian language." There is also general dissatisfaction with the ruling elite of all communities, perceived as mismanaging the economy and only serving their own interests. February of last year saw riots in 20 towns and cities resulting in 200 injured and the torching of a local government building. Originally sparked by a layoff in the city of Tuzla, they quickly scaled up to a general display of indignation with the political and economic stagnation of the country.

Yet amidst these challenges, the army stands out as an exception. Not only is it ethnically integrated, but there are veterans in it who fought each other in the Bosnian war, now working together. Bosnia-Herzegovina has gone from being a receiver of U.N. peacekeeping troops to being a supplier, a source of pride for the army. "Frankly even I have been surprised by the transformation especially as much...remains frozen in time since the signing of the Dayton Peace Accords," writes former Bosnian foreign minister Muhamed Sacirbey in the Huffington Post.

But the work of healing the wounds from the conflict is far from over. On Saturday, as a part of the memorial ceremony, 136 bodies were due to be buried in Potocari village near the town of Srebrenica. A total of 6,930 individuals have been identified so far by the International Commission for Missing Persons. In the cooled storage room of the commission's facilities, masses of green canvas bags are stored on shelves from floor to ceiling, containing remains of victims waiting to be identified. The quest for justice in Srebrenica goes on.