Learning About International Justice on the Ground—The Balkans & War Crimes (Part III)

By Belinda Cooper and Jennifer Trahan

SREBRENICA

The one part of our trip (see Parts I and II for prior travels) that participants are unlikely to forget is a day spent in and around the massacre site of Srebrenica, where 8,300 men and boys were executed in the days starting on July 11, 2005. As we drive to Srebrenica and admire the beautiful mountain scenery and picturesque small farms, it is hard to fathom how ethnic tensions reached that horrible nadir of inhumanity.

Memorial to Serb Victims

Our first visit brings home with great force the stark contrast between Muslim and Serb versions of historical truth—a central concern of transitional justice that most of our students have likely encountered only in the abstract until now. It involves a brief stop at the location of a mass atrocity: the Kravica warehouse, where an estimated 1,000–1,500 Bosnian Muslims were murdered. Because, at that point, we are deep in the territory of Republica Srpska, not a sign marks the spot. Indeed, last summer, the 20th anniversary of the massacre, this site of horror was covered with posters of Vladimir Putin, meant as an anti-EU protest and a call for Russia to veto an upcoming UN resolution on the Srebrenica genocide. By contrast to the lack of commemoration at this site, nearly across the street a large cross looms over a memorial to Serb victims of past wars. Our Bosnian guides always advise caution when we seek to photograph these sites, but last year, due to the tensions unleashed by the 20th anniversary commemorations, we were told not to even leave our bus.

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Kravica Warehouse

 

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Vladimir Putin posters in Republica Srpska

 

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Memorial to Serb Victims

 

In Bratunac, we pass Hotel Fontana—the command headquarters of General Mladic, currently on trial in The Hague, who led the assault on Srebrenica. We have also been able to visit another memorial in Bratunac, this one to Serbs, mainly soldiers, killed around Srebrenica—a further disconcerting example of contrasting “truths” as well as denial on the part of perpetrator societies. The actual town of Srebrenica, where we stop for lunch, is so small that it is hard to imagine it swollen with 40,000 desperate Bosnian Muslim families seeking sanctuary in the so-called UN “safe haven,” which turned out to be neither “safe” nor a “haven.”

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At the Potočari memorial (whose creation was mandated by the international community, since we are still in Republika Srpska, which would have created no such memorial), we lay a wreath to the victims and walk silently among the graves. In the battery factory where men and boys were separated from the women, we tour the memorial room, including the last effects of some of the victims, and read VRS (Army of Republika Srpska) wire intercepts regarding the disposal of “packages” (cynical code for bodies). The use of the word “genocide” throughout the memorial site brings home one powerful legacy of the ICTY: its determination that the massacre at Srebrenica met the legal definition of genocide. The preserved UN (“DUTCHBAT”) barracks, complete with the peacekeepers’ sometimes racist graffiti, provides a graphic reminder of the UN’s powerlessness to prevent that genocide.

As if our visit isn’t devastating enough, we listen spell-bound to a survivor of the column of men who tried to escape the Srebrenica executions by walking through miles of hostile territory. He was one of the few who made it to the Free Territory of Tuzla. We have also had the chance to meet with one of the “Mothers of Srebrenica” who lost all the male members of her family, including her two sons. She returned to Srebrenica, she says, unlike many other Muslims, in order to be reminded of her children by two trees planted in her front yard when they were small. At this point, there is hardly a dry eye in the room–and students begin to understand on a much more fundamental level what, exactly, we are seeking justice for.

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