PARIS — One year after Bosnian Serb forces overran the UN "safe area" of Srebrenica on July 11 and killed thousands of Muslim men, the incident is again emerging as a pivotal issue in Bosnia.
The mass executions spurred the Clinton administration and its European allies to act decisively in Bosnia and use NATO bombing and strong-arm diplomacy to bring leaders of the three warring factions to the bargaining table in Dayton, Ohio, last November.
But with the implementation of the civilian aspects of the Dayton peace accord stalled, in large part because of a lack of compliance by the Bosnian Serbs, what occurs around Srebrenica in the next three months may determine whether Bosnia is partitioned and possibly enjoys only a short-term reprieve from war - or finds long-term stability.
Investigators from the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague began exhuming mass graves this week thought to hold the bodies of at least 3,000 Muslim men executed by Serb forces one year ago. Officials at The Hague clearly hope that grisly footage of hundreds of bodies being removed, combined with a hearing held last week featuring eyewitness accounts of the slaughter, may push the US-led NATO peace enforcing troops to arrest Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic and Gen. Ratko Mladic.
Western diplomats say Bosnia has entered a watershed summer. It has become clear that Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic is not going to turn the two Bosnian Serb leaders over to the Tribunal, as the peace accord calls for. Clinton administration officials reportedly are debating what was unheard of only a few weeks ago: risking the lives of American soldiers to arrest Mr. Karadzic and General Mladic - while an American presidential election campaign is under way.
Karadzic has been regularly thwarting the implementation of the peace accord. Despite turning over official power to his deputy, Biljana Plavsic, he is still believed to be in firm control of the Bosnian Serb government.
Mladic, who is living in a heavily guarded military compound only 20 miles from the Srebrenica graves, is doing his best to keep a low profile and comply with the military aspects of the Dayton accord. He spends his time tending several-dozen goats, each of which he has named after a Western leader or former UN commander in Bosnia, according to news reports.
Serbs overplay their hand at Srebrenica
Mladic appears to have learned from his mistakes of last summer, while Karadzic and Western leaders appear to have not. A year ago, the Bosnian Serbs were at the height of their military and political power. The West quickly backed off on NATO airstrikes last May after Bosnian Serbs took hundreds of UN peacekeepers hostage. One month later, Serb forces overran Srebrenica with only token opposition from UN and Bosnian government forces.
But after expertly pushing the limits of Western patience, then skillfully backing down before the West was embarrassed into action, the Serbs massively overplayed their hand at Srebrenica. In hindsight, Mladic's decision to allow the execution of thousands of prisoners was a tremendous blunder that finally brought Western resolve to bear. [Editor's note: The Monitor was the first to report on-the-ground evidence of the massacre last Aug. 18.]
Karadzic continues to thwart the peace process in Bosnia, while the Clinton administration appears to be repeating the United Nation's hesitant, incremental policies that led to last summer's tragedy.
Karadzic's continuing presence will skew the Dayton-mandated Bosnian elections scheduled for Sept. 14, Western observers warn. Bosnian Serbs, still strongly influenced by Karadzic-controlled Bosnian Serb television, will vote for his nationalist Serbian Democratic Party. Croats and Muslims, fearing Karadzic's influence, are likely to vote for their own nationalist parties. Bosnia's de facto partition into three unstable ethnic entities will be cemented by the elections, these observers say.
For Srebrenica's survivors, the bitterness is only rising. Unless Karadzic and Mladic are arrested, some warn they may seek revenge. Small budgets and bureaucratic problems have delayed the exhumation of the graves. A group of Finnish experts trying to identify hundreds of Muslims who died in ambushes was forced to give up after finding only a few dozen corpses this week because of a lack of cooperation from Bosnian Serb authorities. Even if bodies are found, it will be difficult to identify them.
According to the Dayton accord, the survivors of Srebrenica were to have freedom of movement and be allowed to return to the town if they wished. Many now live in former Serb apartments around Sarajevo. But Bosnian Serb authorities have made it clear that the Muslims are not welcome in the areas they control, and US troops, which are responsible for the Srebrenica area, have failed to guarantee freedom of movement. Most survivors still live in poverty a year after the town's fall, and Western aid to them has been intermittent, as it has for many Bosnians.
Serbs still believe there was no massacre
Some Bosnian Serbs admit that executions occurred last summer, but most repeat what Bosnian Serb television has told them - that no executions occurred. The Karadzic-controlled TV station has consistently failed to report that war-crimes investigators are finding bodies as the graves are unearthed.
The goal of nationalists eager to separate Bosnia's ethnic groups through force and propaganda has been successfully carried out in Srebrenica. Western political will to bring war criminals to justice and political stability to Bosnia could reach its toughest test in the next three months.
Between July 11 and Sept. 14 last year, the tide of battle in Bosnia shifted dramatically against Bosnian Serb nationalists. What happens over the same period this summer will apparently determine whether the Clinton administration-brokered peace in Bosnia is sustaining or breaking the cycle of revenge and brutality that has haunted the Balkans.