After four months interning here, I had resolved to stay silent on many of the issues I encountered in Bosnia. The internet is already flooded with opinions surrounding issues facing contemporary Bosnia, and I did not feel my thoughts would add anything productive to the discussion.
But then I visited Srebrenica. I had been to the Hague, sat in on a hearing of Ratko Mladić, the so-called “Butcher of Bosnia,” and read thousands of pages of war crimes cases from the Bosnian State Court. Further, I used my free time to imbibe in film and books that would help educate me about the war (you will note I say war and not conflict) in Bosnia. Needless to say, I felt it was very important to understand the context surrounding Srebrenica before visiting the memorial site.
On July 6, 1995, the U.N. protected enclave of Srebrenica fell. While the U.N. had declared the enclave of Srebrenica, in the Drina Valley of north-eastern Bosnia, a “safe area” in 1993, the Dutch soldiers station at Srebrenica, for a variety of reasons, were unable to enforce this “safe area.” So, when a Serbian paramilitary unit called the “Scorpions,” and members of the Army of the Bosnian-Serb Republika Srpska, led by General Ratko Mladić, swept in to the valley of Srebrenica, the Blue Helmets had little choice but to surrender the Bosnian Muslim population that had sought refuge from the fighting, especially considering Mladić was holding some forty Dutch soldiers hostage.
Quickly, the Bosnian Serb troops put women and children on buses headed west to territory controlled by Bosnian Muslim forces. In the following three days, over 8,000 Bosnian Muslims, mostly men and boys, were murdered. After the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia declared the massacre at Srebrenica a genocide in the 2004 Prosecutor v. Krstić case, many often overlook that the forcible transfer of over 25,000 Bosnian Muslims also took place at the time of the massacre.
In 2005, on the ten-year anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide, then-UN Secretary General Kofi Annan issued a press release on the Srebrenica genocide. In this press release, Annan affirmed that, while primary responsibility for the terrible events that transpired at Srebrenica lies with the perpetrators themselves, that Srebrenica would forever remain a dark mark on the history of the UN.
Almost twenty years later, more than 6,000 of the Srebrenica victims have been identified and laid to rest. The town of Srebrenica, once part of a thriving industrial valley, now boasts an almost 80% unemployment rate. Understandably, Bosnian Muslims have, by in large, chosen not to return to the area. While the municipality of Srebrenica is vast, town of Srebrenica itself is actually quite small (there are, literally, two streets), but at the top of hill at the end of a long road you can find some amazing natural springs of both iron and sulfur.
Given the ample video documentation available of Srebrenica, as we drove through the town, it felt like I knew the place already. On the right is where Mladić was filmed ruffling the hair of a young Bosniak boy promising him that everything would be fine. Further down the road, as you approach the memorial center on the left you see a lone white building, were countless Bosnian Muslim men were tortured before they were finally killed. It stands, abandoned and unchanged, casting an unnerving shadow on the memorial center and all those who visit it. I should note, at this point, that I did not take any pictures; it didn’t seem right to.
After paying my respects at the memorial center and the grave of a boy named Amer who had been born in 1982, we went to the compound where the Dutch U.N. soldiers had been. Before being expelled, thousands of Bosnians crammed into the ex-battery factory. The innards of the factory were dark and the air dank and oppressive. Chains that once supported some essential working in the factory still hang from the ceiling, lending it the ominous and ironically appropriate feeling of a slaughter house.
Soon, the thunderstorm that had been following us to Srebrenica unleashed torrents of rain on the metal roof of the compound. It became easy to imagine how deafening the noise of thousands of refugees stuffed inside the metal warehouse would have been. It strikes me, too, that despite the fact that the majority of Srebrenica victims have been laid to rest, the place is still thick with fear. I felt very much like an animal being led to a slaughterhouse; you can’t help but know that something is very, very wrong.
I wandered off to a part of the compound that (I think) was meant to be blocked off to the general public, and was greeted by lewd drawings left by Dutch soldiers on the wall. Clearly, the artist had some talent, despite his poor choice in subject-matter. I will not say anything about the Dutch soldiers at Srebrenica; I do not presume to know enough to think I can judge the young men that witnessed that slaughter. It is enough to simply say that many view the inaction of the Dutch with considerable contempt.
I had gone to Srebrenica really hoping it would be an emotional experience. I wanted very much to cry for the murdered men and boys that I had gotten to know through testimonies of their deaths. But it wasn’t. I was not sad, or even angry. Instead, I was disgusted. Not, of course, at the lovely memorial center, nor the people that go to pay their respects. Instead, I think I was disgusted at the fear that still haunts the place. Again, not because fear is disgusting; fear is a very human experience. Instead, I was disgusted that we, the international community, allowed Srebrenica to happen at a place that had been declared a “safe” area. I was, and remain, disgusted at the fact that people are capable of inflicting such incredible hate, hurt, and fear on others that, almost two decades later, it continues to torment contemporary Bosnia.