War crimes: Is Serbia's Srebrenica apology genuine?

In what is regarded as one of Europe's biggest war crimes since World War II, more than 7,000 Bosnian Muslims were massacred at Srebrenica in 1995 by Serb forces. Serbia's apology for Srebrenica has met with polarized response in a country still divided over its role in the massacre.

By , Staff Writer

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    War crimes: Serbia's President Boris Tadic speaks at the parliamentary debate over the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, in Belgrade, Serbia, Wednesday. Serbia's lawmakers clashed Tuesday over whether to condemn the 1995 Serb massacre of more than 7,000 Muslims in Srebrenica, illustrating the divisions that still persist over the country's past.
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A resolution of apology by the Serbian parliament yesterday for the 1995 Srebrenica civilian massacre is seen by many in Belgrade as a landmark in the Balkan nation’s often bitter attempt to deal with the worst mass murder in Europe since World War II.

But outside Serbia, the apology-resolution, which passed by two votes, was seen by several Balkan analysts as too little too late, and more of a sop to the European Union in hopes of speeding up Serbia’s integration with Europe at a time of financial woes.

The resolution stopped short of calling the murder of more than 7,000 Bosnian Muslims who were fleeing a “UN safe area” a genocide, saying, “The parliament of Serbia strongly condemns the crime committed against the Bosnian Muslim population of Srebrenica in July 1995,” and extends "condolences and an apology to the families of the victims because not everything was done to prevent the tragedy."

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Belgrade has long been divided over confronting the role it played in Srebrenica – with often-abject denials from Serb officials and mainstream media outlets, even as evidence mounted at The Hague Yugoslav tribunal of the significant assistance given to Bosnian Serb generals and paramilitary groups by Belgrade, including an incriminating video showing executions, which was made public five years ago.

At the same time, many liberal Serb intellectuals and peace groups fought to establish the facts; on the 10th anniversary of the massacre, current Serb President Boris Tadic visited the grave site.

Yet as recently as early March, Radovan Karadzic, the former president of Bosnian Serbs, essentially denied the massacre took place in his opening statements at The Hague, where he is on trial for genocide and crimes against humanity.

“This is a landmark decision from the parliament of Serbia, which is the highest legislative branch of the state,” says Ivan Vejvoda of the nongovernmental organization Balkan Trust for Democracy. “It marks a turn, even though a lot of work had already been done by intellectuals to confront this, and it comes ahead of the 10th anniversary of the peaceful overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic.”

Mr. Milosevic was the Serbian president during the 1990s, and was considered the architect of a “Greater Serbia” project to rid large swaths of the Balkans of non-ethnic Serbs.

Mealy-mouthed apology?

Yet among victim groups, analysts, and historians, the apology doesn't seem entirely genuine. It comes while Gen. Ratko Mladich, sought by The Hague tribunal, and who was in command of Serb forces that conducted the killings, remains at large.

“It is a mealy-mouthed apology done to pacify European public opinion,” says Marko Attila Hoare, of Kingston University, London, and author of a standard modern history of Bosnia. “It doesn’t apologize very much; it appears calculated to say enough to be acceptable to the EU.”

The killing of Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica started on July 11, 1995, and lasted some eight days. Drazen Erdemovic, a Serbian foot soldier with the 10th Sabotage Unit, testified at The Hague that he shot unarmed men at 10 a.m. on July 16, saying they shot a dozen at a time until 3 p.m.

"Srebrenica was a fusion of all the elements of the war in a concentrated time and space," Emir Suljagic, who lived in the "safe area" for three years and is one of few young Muslim males to survive, told the Monitor in 2005. "You had deportation, selection, random killings, executions, organized burial, peacekeepers thwarted - in a small area, in a week."

Yet in a region that famously produces more history than it can consume, Serb nationalists in the parliament called the resolution a “shame” and said it would permanently stain the name of Serbia in world opinion.

'Lifting the burden off future generations'

Comment on the more liberal radio B92 ran in the other direction.

"Condemning the crime against the Bosniaks of Srebrenica, while paying respect to the innocent victims and offering condolences to their families, will lift the burden off future generations," stated analyst Nada Kolundzija.

On Tuesday also, an international court at The Hague ruled that the victims of Srebrenica will not be allowed to bring suit against the UN or the government of the Netherlands, whose peacekeeping troops were guarding the Srebrenica haven.

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