The Srebrenica Massacre: Trust


On this day in 1995, the UN-mandated “safe haven” of Srebrenica fell to the Serb forces commanded by General Ratko Mladić.  Over the next eleven days, at least 8,000 Muslim men and boys, with an unknown additional number of women and small children, were killed by the Serbs in an operation that combined meticulous planning with bestial ruthlessness. This did not occur in some distant, inaccessible spot, but in a European country under the eyes of the international community.  It represented a memorable failure of negotiation to turn aside evil.

The history of Yugoslavia since World War II was a determined effort of amnesia. Yugoslavs would all forget the mutual slaughter of the war years, while the West would forget having handed over Serb nationalist resistance fighters to be executed by Tito’s Communist partisans. It was all part of drawing a line under history – the essence of Europe’s post-war settlement. But this was to ignore a Balkan culture of grievance and revenge that habitually treats the events of five hundred years ago as if they happened this morning.

When the slow-motion collapse of Yugoslavia reached its constituent republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1992, it became clear that any attempt to distribute territory peacefully between its Muslim, Croat and Serb populations would be like trying to unscramble an omelette, since Bosnian Muslims are not a separate  ethnicity from their Christian neighbors, just a separate religion.  The Muslim majority therefore fought to maintain a single, unitary state, while the Serbs fought to carve out a sub-state in which they could have the upper hand.  Their problem was the large number of Muslims living in the territory of this planned Serb enclave – so the Serbs set about driving them out, in a pattern of repeated atrocities to which they gave a new name: “ethnic cleansing.”

As these horrors became public, the outside world did what comes naturally to it: it convened conferences and set up structures. The United Nations extended its peacekeeping mandate, UNPROFOR, to Bosnia. There was debate about rules of engagement. The Vance-Owen plan was succeeded by the Owen-Stoltenberg plan. And Srebrenica was declared a de-militarized “safe haven” for Muslim civilians driven out of the surrounding countryside. Its defense was entrusted to a battalion of Dutch soldiers – which was considered an ideal arrangement because the Dutch have no Balkan history.

Less ideal, however, was that they had no Balkan expertise.  The mild-mannered, tolerant citizen-conscripts found all local traditions equally alien, making it hard for them to pick up the fleeting clues that mean so much in a volatile situation: suddenly empty markets, engines in the night, smoke on the horizon. They attempted to act strictly according to their tangled set of instructions, but, isolated alike from the local population and the political center, they failed to note the purposeful movements in the surrounding hills. When the Serbs attacked, the Dutch backed up the Bosnian army, then didn’t; called for air strikes, then didn’t; blocked the path of the Serb advance, then gave in.  Srebrenica fell.

That afternoon, the Dutch commander asked for a meeting with the Serb general – but Mladić’s idea of negotiation was not in the style of the UN: “You are not a commander. You are nothing. I am in charge here… your soldiers and officers have only one life, just like yourself. I don’t think you wish to lose your life.”  Mladić alternated between death threats and an ominous joviality.  He forced the cowed lieutenant colonel into a mutual toast, which he had filmed and broadcast; he had a pig slaughtered outside the window during the meeting, in a not-so-subtle hint.

By the next day, Mladić had everything he wanted: a free hand with Srebrenica in exchange for the extrication of UN forces.  The UN’s attempt to negotiate a way out of horror failed because, to a man like Mladić, talk is not a means to peace; it’s just another weapon.

This article originates from the blog bozosapiens.blogspot.co.uk

Michael Kaplan