There is something fittingly telling about the way the 25th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre will play out on 11 July. For those who don’t know, it’s the biggest single atrocity on European soil since World War Two, where Bosnian Serb troops slaughtered 8,372 Muslim men and boys after overrunning the designated UN safe area in eastern Bosnia.
Because of COVID-19, there’ll be no large gatherings at the site of the former UN camp (Dutch Battalion) at Potocari, and those who do come will have to wear masks. Western leaders will address the commemoration via video link.
And Bosnian Serbs will for the first time stage their own ceremony, organised by a group called ‘Eastern Alternative’, who say this date has to be marked because “this is when attacks on and murders of Serbs from the so-called UN-protected zone stopped”.
So there. The divide between the local Muslims and Serbs remains as gaping as ever, even if life eventually returned to Srebrenica, the way it always does, and the two groups now live side by side.
I was one of the first reporters rushed to the scene, or as close as possible, back in that scorching July, to wait for the first buses with refugees. The human drama that unfolded at a makeshift camp that soon became home to thousands of desperate women and children defies description, as it became clear their men were not coming.
I prefer not to remember how the world, the EU included, stood by and watched as tragedy struck.
I prefer not to remember following UN and local investigators a year later, as they started uncovering mass graves, scattered all over the area to avoid quick detection, filled with decomposed bodies and the sweet, all-pervading stench of death.
And what exactly have we learned in the past 25 years?
a) international justice is slow and erratic, and singularly unable to bring real closure. It took 20+ years to try and convict the two masterminds, Bosnian Serb political leader Radovan Karadžić and his military commander, Ratko Mladić aka the ‘Butcher of Bosnia’. Meanwhile, their cult following lives on, wherever anti-Muslim extremism is en vogue.
b) faced with real violence or armed conflict in its neighbourhood, the EU freezes, like a deer caught in the headlights, because it lacks the proper political and military muscle and invariably gets bogged down in conflicting national interests of its member states.
c) no one really cares, apart from Bosnian people and Balkan scholars.
Because if we really did, we would do our best to prevent anything like this from happening again. But it is happening again, look no further than Syria, Libya, or Yemen.
Incidentally, Srebrenica happened just as we were celebrating 50 years of the end of WWII. Twenty-five years from now, many of us will no longer be around, and even fewer will remember what happened that scorching July in the wooded mountains of Bosnia.
PS. If you have difficulties visualising a field with 8,000 graves, have a look at this aerial video, courtesy of www.dron.ba.
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