Serbs confronted by their past
by Ian Traynor, Srebrenica
Ten years on, as the dead are finally buried, battles still rage over Srebrenica
As the convoy of lorries trundled through torrents and thunderstorms over the hills of eastern Bosnia into Srebrenica, Mando was puzzled by one thought. ‘What's all the fuss about?’ shrugged the young Srebrenica Serb as the town swelled with Bosnian mourners.
The lorries bore a distressing cargo - body parts and corpses of some 600 victims of the massacre, finally to be buried today 10 years to the week after they were killed in the terrible denouement to the 1992-95 Bosnian war. The coffins were unloaded and laid out in rows in the vast hall of a disused car battery factory ready for burial this morning. The green boxes were instantly swamped by sobbing headscarved women seeking some form of closure after a decade of praying for the recovery of their loved ones.
‘This is all just a publicity stunt,’ snorted Mando, 28. ‘Sure, people were killed, but why make all this noise? There were 3,600 Serbs killed here. Some say 8,000 Muslims were killed, that it was genocide. But the figures are exaggerated. No one knows the truth. That's a game for kids. All this fuss just gives me a sore head.’
Like many of the Serbs of Srebrenica, Mando still cannot face the truth about his small home town a decade after the Serbs murdered up to 8,000 Bosnian Muslim males within a week in what many see as the gravest political massacre in Europe in the second half of the 20th century.
‘No one will be harmed!’
Tens of thousands of mourners - relatives of the victims, international dignitaries, local politicians, and Western charity workers - will gather in Srebrenica today to mark the onset of the massacre on a Tuesday in July 1995 when General Ratko Mladić, the Bosnian Serb commander, swaggered into the Muslim enclave and announced to more than 40,000 hungry refugees that no one would be harmed.
They had been herded into the mountain enclave, besieged, shelled and starved for almost three years. Gen Mladić's forces then overran the pocket as Dutch UN peacekeepers feebly stood aside. The general handed out sweets to the children and then launched a finely calibrated programme of mass murder, for which he faces charges of genocide at the war crimes tribunal in The Hague, although he remains a fugitive from justice, a spectre haunting today's ceremonies.
‘He's our military leader. I have his picture on my wall,’ said Dalibor Tanasijević, 23, another Srebrenica Serb. ‘There's not a single document to show that Mladić ordered the killings.’ In the run-up to today's anniversary ceremonies the Serbian campaign of denial has moved into overdrive, reaching to the very top of the democratically elected government in Belgrade. In what Western diplomats in the Serbian capital described as a disgrace, the Serbian parliament was unable to agree on a statement condemning the crime.
Last week the government of prime minister Vojislav Koštunica finally released a statement deploring war crimes and equating the Srebrenica massacre with the killings of Serbs in the region during the Bosnian war. The aim was not to excuse or justify Srebrenica, but to relativise and belittle a crime which judges in The Hague have classified as genocide, the sole such event in the Yugoslav wars of the 90s to warrant that category. ‘Ach, genocide,’ snorts Mando. ‘Who knows?’
At the weekend in Belgrade thousands of Serbs gathered in a conference hall to watch a film called The Truth with a Wagner soundtrack and to claim that the Serbs were the real victims. A Belgrade newspaper recently published a 16-page supplement entitled The Book of the Dead, listing 3,287 Serbs from the Srebrenica region who died during the Bosnian war. The guns may have long fallen silent in Bosnia. But history, ancient and modern, remains a battlefield in which statistics are potent weapons.
While Belgrade's committee for the Serbian victims of the Yugoslav wars continues to contest the numbers for the Srebrenica massacre, the village of Kravica outside Srebrenica is to stage a commemoration tomorrow, timed to compete with today's ceremonies. A monumental concrete Orthodox cross has been built in Kravica in memory of the Serbs who died there during the war. Unmentioned is the fact that a farm warehouse along the road in the same village was the venue for the summary execution that week in July of up to 1,200 of the Muslim males rounded up after the fall of Srebrenica.
‘They should be deeply ashamed of themselves, before their god, their families, everything,’ said Asim Sehić, 65, a Srebrenica Muslim who now lives in Sarajevo. He returned to his native town this weekend to bury his son, Mustafa, today among the green wooden stakes and freshly dug graves of the special Potočari cemetery opposite the disused car battery plant that was the Dutch peacekeepers' base in 1995 and then the stage for Gen Mladić's triumphant strutting.
Yesterday the cemetery was invaded by keening women squatting by the open pits, whispering Koranic verse and able at last to tend the graves of husbands, brothers and sons among the 600 victims unearthed from mass graves, identified through painstaking DNA matching techniques.
‘They just lie all the time, the Serbs. I don't know how they can live with themselves,’ said one woman who did not want to give her name.
Fadil Ikanović, 47, who is among hundreds of Bosnian Muslims who have returned to live in Srebrenica or surrounding villages, lost a cousin and three brothers in the massacre. A brother is to be buried this morning. He points up the hill into the thickly wooded slopes. ‘My house is up there, totally destroyed. It's just forest now. I'm living with a cousin. We don't talk to the Serbs, there's no relations. At first they threatened us when we came back. Now we just live our lives and they live theirs.’
Massacred in safe area
- The massacre began on 11 July 1995 when thousands of Muslim men and boys were taken by Bosnian Serb troops from the UN ‘safe area’ of Srebrenica
- UN prosecutors say between 7,000 and 8,000 people were killed, a Bosnian Serb government report put the figure at at least 7,779, and the Bosnian Muslim missing persons commission says it is more than 8,374
- 42 mass graves have been excavated. Experts estimate there may be another 22 locations in the area around Srebrenica
- So far, 2,070 victims have been identified. More than 7,000 body bags with full or partial remains await identification through DNA matching with surviving relatives. Identification is hard: bodies were broken up by excavators that bulldozed them into mass graves. Bodies were also moved from the original graves to secondary locations to conceal the crime
- The UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague has charged 19 people in connection with the massacre. Six have been sentenced, 10 are being tried or await trial and three are at large, including Bosnian Serb wartime leader Radovan Karadžić and his military commander, Ratko Mladić
This report appeared in The Guardian (London), 11 July 2005