11th July this year marked the 25th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide that took place during the Bosnian war. The genocide was the worst tragedy in Europe since World War II. A memorial service took place just outside Srebrenica, where the remains of nine recently discovered bodies from the mass graves were buried. These mass graves came about through systematic ethnic cleansing conducted by Serb forces during the Bosnian war (1992-1995). Over 100,000 people were killed during the war, with 80% of them being Bosniaks. And over a million Bosniak’s (Bosnian-Muslim) and Croat’s were driven from their homes during the conflict. It is also estimated that between 20,000-50,000 women were raped during the course of the Bosnian war and that trauma continues for many survivors. Thousands of Bosnian’s now live side-by-side with their abusers.
At the Memorial this year, U.K.’s Prince Charles stated that the massacre was “a dreadful stain on our collective conscience.” U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson added that “many perpetrators have still not been held to account,” and that he wished to “stand with the families in their fight for justice.”
Just over 70 men have been convicted of war crimes by the UN. And only a handful of men have been convicted of rape in the last two decades. A gap between this and the mass suffering experienced clearly exists. Moreover, millions have been spent to identify the bones of those killed and dumped in mass graves, but little has been done for those alive and suffering from the trauma. The healing process for many already being stunted by a lack of efforts to convict the guilty participants of the civil war. More support is needed to aid the mental wellbeing of the survivors of the war now more than ever.
Within the former Yugoslavia long-held tensions between the diverse ethnic groups was successfully kept under wraps under the Communist leader Tito. However, following his death in 1980, tensions re-ignited as states began to seek independence. In 1991, Bosnia-Herzegovina joined other republics in declaring independence. This triggered a civil war due to the sheer diversity of the Bosnian population as Bosnian-Serb’s were resistant to independence. Thus, under the leadership of Karadzic, and backed by the Yugoslav army, Serb forces ignited a civil war. The Bosnian-Serb forces began by laying siege to the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo in early 1992. As this continued, ethnic cleansing attacks began across the countryside.
One such location of ethnic cleansing was Srebrenica. Thousands of Bosniak’s (Bosnian-Mulsims) had taken refuge in the UN-protected area. On 11th July, 1995 Bosnian-Serbs attacked Srebrenica under the leadership of General Mladic. As the violence escalated, the UN Dutch peacekeepers relinquished control. The males were deliberately separated and taken away to be executed. Thousands were shot and bulldozed into mass graves. Some reports state that some people were forced to shoot their own children, and others were even buried alive.
In less than two weeks, over 8,000 Bosniak’s were systematically executed. A UN tribunal in the Hague later showcased the sheer amount of planning that had been undertaken to conduct this massacre. As the genocide occurred in what was supposed to be a UN safe area, the UN was ineffective in preventing thousands of deaths due to lack of intervention and its peace talks continually failed. The conflict ended in 1995 after NATO bombed a Bosnian-Serb base allowing for Muslim and Croat forces to gain ground. A peace treaty was signed which divided Bosnia into entities, the Serbian Republic and the Muslim-Croat Federation. These entities would be governed by a central government made up of members from each ethnic group. There would be three presidents to represent each ethnic group in government.
The more we shy away from addressing the very real scars that the civil war and ethnic cleansing has had on Bosnia-Herzegovina, the harder it will be to build it back up. The conviction rate from civil war is lacking, and the people who have been left ostracised and traumatised need ongoing support to rebuild their lives. The victims and crimes must be acknowledged in order to give Bosnians any level of closure. People and nations must be held accountable and learn from their mistakes to ensure that such an atrocity does not take place again.
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