Why 'never again' recurred

Ten years later, many survivors are eager to remind the world that Srebrenica was not an isolated horror.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The genocide of Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica started, but did not end, on July 11, 1995. It took eight days.

On July 13, for example, Serbian forces deported 20,000 thirsty and dazed women and children. On July 16, Drazen Erdemovic of the 10th Sabotage Unit was ordered at 10 a.m. to shoot unarmed Muslim men brought by truck to a farm in Branjevo. His squad shot a dozen at a time until 3 p.m., leaving 1,100 dead. So far, Mr. Erdemovic is the only foot soldier to plead guilty for his action at the Yugoslavia war crimes tribunal here.

Now 10 years later, many witnesses and survivors are eager to remind the world that Srebrenica was not, as it is sometimes presented, an isolated horror conducted by a clutch of crazy hillbillies - nor simply the worst slaughter in Europe in 50 years.

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Rather, they see it as an extension of a racial superiority campaign, and sparked by sophisticated Serb hate propaganda in Belgrade that acted like a blowtorch on a bale of hay in the Balkans.

The killing fields of Bosnia, they say, represent an "again" - on a continent that swore "never again." Video evidence at the war crimes tribunal here shows Milan Jolovic, a Serb "Wolf" brigade commander, after the Dutch UN peacekeepers have left on July 14, saying into his radio set, "Get on with it. There is nothing anyone can do to us now."

In Srebrenica, according to the tribunal indictment, Gen. Ratko Mladic finished a job begun in 1992 - to rid the Drina river valley of non-Serbs, and to do so unchecked by any great power.

"Srebrenica was a fusion of all the elements of the war in a concentrated time and space," says Emir Suljagic, who lived in the "safe haven" for three years and is one of few young Muslim males to survive. "You had deportation, selection, random killings, executions, organized burial, peacekeepers thwarted - in a small area, in a week."

The meaning of Srebrenica transcends the grisly crimes. It was a crucial turning point, analysts say: The genocide exposed the failure of a British- and French-led policy that appeased Serb forces, and it brought the US and NATO in to stop the war. It led to an "abetting genocide" sentence at the international tribunal in 2000 for Bosnian Gen. Radislav Kristic - and contributed to the arrest of Serb President Slobodan Milosevic, considered the architect of the Balkan wars.

"It was the culmination of the failed British-French policy from 1992," says Quentin Hoare of the Bosnian Institute in London. "After Srebrenica, it became impossible for the US Congress and the Clinton administration not to do something."

Ed Vulliamy, author of "Seasons in Hell," one of the earliest firsthand accounts of the war, argues that "Srebrenica was iconic - since for three years there were little Srebrenicas happening all over Bosnia." And "it was iconic of the brutality of men like [former Serb leader] Radovan Karadzic and General Mladic, and iconic of the [diplomats] who did deals with these men, and eagerly shook their hands under the chandeliers of Europe."

Serbian acknowledgment

On Monday, a 10th anniversary event in Srebrenica ("place of silver") amid light rains brought signals and statements of regret from UN and British diplomats, and the presence of Serb president Boris Tadic, seen as a rare Serbian acknowledgment of the crimes, amid the reburial of 610 persons. Still, the event took place as Mladic and Karadzic, indicted as engineers of the genocide, remain at large.

Mladic, particularly, is remembered in a scene captured by TV cameras near Srebrenica. He was standing in front of a large crowd of unarmed civilians as UN forces withdrew, patting the head of a young boy, and saying, "Don't be afraid. Take it easy. Thirty buses are coming ... to deliver you.... No one will hurt you."

Later that day a heavily breathing Mladic stated on Belgrade TV, "... we are giving this town to the Serbian people. The moment has finally come for us after the 19th century rebellion against the Turks, to take our revenge on them..."

One concern among survivors is that Srebrenica not become such an "exceptional" icon that it detracts from the reckoning, lessons, and truth-telling that remains before genuine reconciliation is possible.

"I worry that Srebrenica may become a smokescreen to hide all the other crimes and atrocities. Take Foca [a village in Bosnia]," says Kemal Pervanic, a blue-eyed Muslim intellectual with a blond pony tail who survived the Serb-run Omarska torture camp. "Who talks about Foca? Thousands of us were murdered there.

"I am passionate about reconciliation. But we need truth first."

Nor has the international community finished its reckoning. Very few UN or Western officials whose policies aided the Serb ethnic cleansing project have yet faced history, analysts say.

"Was there ever a more inept, less effective and positively counterproductive organization than...the UN protection force in Bosnia?" asks William Montgomery, former US ambassador to Croatia and Serbia, respectively. "Where are the leaders of the international community who ... helped bring events in the Balkans about? ... We are rightly looking for full accountability from the parties in the region. I am sorry that we are not doing the same for ourselves."

The tribunal in The Hague, which has indicted 146 persons for war crimes in Bosnia and Croatia, has become the center of gravity for dealing with the war - and it is where most of the facts about the war have come to light. [Editor's note: The number of indictments in the original version was incorrect.]

Mr. Suljagic, a UN interpreter whose biographical account "Postcards from the Grave" was released last week, says there are two main myths about Srebrenica.

One is that it was only a brief bloodletting, when it was planned for many months. Second, that it was carried out only by a few thugs. "To kill 8,000 people in three days you have to have logistics," he says. "There have to be truck drivers, people to tie hands, put on blindfolds, bulldozers."

In Srebrenica, one group that carried out much of the carnage was the 65th Protection Regiment, the tribunal has found, a group that took care of Mladic's own safety, and could be compared to a Nazi Waffen SS force in terms of its brutality.

Last month, a video of Serb paramilitary "Scorpions" who filmed themselves executing Muslims provided a literal "smoking gun" at the tribunal, and has caused a stir in Serbia.

Yet denial remains stubborn. At a forum on the war in Belgrade this spring, a balcony of young Serbs made a three-finger national salute and shouted the name "Radovan Karadzic" approvingly. A retired Serb military expert also stated it was a "heinous lie that anyone planned" the Srebrenica genocide. Rather, he said, it was due to "chaos." General Kristic's defense lawyer in the tribunal stated the massacre of 8,000 men in Srebrenica may have been the work of "French intelligence" agents. The same point was picked up by Mr. Milosevic, who told the court in 2002, that the slaughter was the result of renegade Serbs directed by French agents. His trial is currently in the defense phase.

Serbian denial

Even with photographic evidence, many Serbs at the tribunal have denied involvement. One Dusko Jevic-Stadja, shown in uniform in a videotape standing next to Mladic in July, 1995, denies any harmful action. An exchange with prosecutor Peter McCloskey goes like this:

Question: On 12 July did you see men and women separated? Answer: No.

Question: Did you ever see any Muslim hit or kicked? Answer: No.

Question: Any reports that Muslims were being physically hurt reach you? Answer: No.

War crimes investigators say that in the Srebrenica region, an area some 20 by 40 miles wide that includes several dozen villages, only one Serb resident had come forth to offer information.

Last year Mr. Pervanic revisited the Omarska prison camp where he was held for nearly a year. He was escorted by a guard, who, as Pervanic points out, was wearing the same double-headed eagle insignia on his uniform that guards at the camp wore in 1993, when he was rounded up for being a Bosnian Muslim.

"A lot of the younger kids I talk to in Bosnia today think the war was caused by a few nutty peasants," says Peranovic. "I tell them my village was attacked by the Serb army, by tanks, by troops."

Prosecuting War Criminals

The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) was established by the UN Security Council in 1993. Former president Slobodan Milosevic's trial is ongoing, but 10 key suspects remain at large.

The ICTY has successfully handled dozens of cases. The maximum sentence that can be imposed is life imprisonment. Prison terms are served in one of the countries that have signed an agreement with the United Nations to accept persons convicted by the ICTY.

Tribunal Indictments to date: 146

Judgments rendered: 55

Sentenced: 37

Acquitted: 2

Not Guilty: 3

Appealing: 13

Recused: 2

Source: ICTY

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