Srebrenica: the Forgotten Genocide

Killing more than 8000 Muslims, under U.N. protection, Srebrenica saw one of the worst acts of genocide since Nazi regimes. Producing over 30,000 refugees, the effects of war and ethnic cleansing continue to be felt today. With a long history of religious and ethnic conflict, causes for Srebrenica can trace back to the Ottoman Empire. Forbidden independence and Yugoslav demise, paint a picture of ingrained nationalistic aspirations for centuries. Attempting to shed light on the events leading to war, this article examines the roots of the atrocities, and what became of those responsible.

Ethnic groups and religions

Situated in the western Balkan Peninsula of Europe are Bosnia and Herzegovina. Corresponding to three major religions, ethnicities are divided into Bosniaks and Islam; Serbs and Orthodox Christianity; Croats and Roman Catholicism. Though they all share the same South Slav heritage, the region has felt the influence of various strong empires, creating vast ethnic and religious diversity. Replaced in the 1990s by ‘Bosniak’, throughout the 20th century, ‘Muslim’ came to be used as an ethnic, not only religious, identifier.

Though the Balkan region has cohabited well with a multi-ethnic population, during the Ottoman Empire and, later in Josip Broz Tito’s leadership, it has been vulnerable to nationalist and territorial aspirations. Today, citizens want sustainable peace, but still hold different ideas for the best configuration of the state.

The History of the Balkan Region


The Ottoman Empire

During the 15th Century, the Ottoman Empire began ruling the Balkan region, introducing it to Islam.  Religious diversity prospered at this time, as the empire allowed autonomous religious communities to coexist under its rule. By the 17th Century, almost two-thirds of the population practiced Islam. The continuing decline of Ottoman power encouraged Balkan nations to oppose Turkish rule, and in 1875 there were revolts and upheavals. The Balkan League, consisting of Bulgaria, Greece, Montenegro and Serbia managed to gain control most (but not all) of the region, but their allegiance quickly disintegrated due to political differences.

Disputes of Power, Territory and Independence

Allowed to occupy Bosnia Herzegovina in 1878, after loyalty with Russia against the Ottoman Empire, Austria-Hungary took power. Plaguing the region were disputes of territory and occupation. After the Balkan League has conquered the remnants of the Ottoman Empire during the Balkan Wars (1912–13), Serbia became more powerful and stated Austria-Hungary was its next target. Playing a key role in precipitating World War One, Gavrilo Princip, a Bosnian Serb nationalist, assassinated Franz Ferdinand. As an heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, this enabled Austro-Hungary an opportunity to attack Serbia. Princip aspired for a unified South Slav state, and later in Yugoslavia Princip became a national hero.


Yugoslavia became the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY) in 1946. The six republics were: Croatia, Montenegro, Serbia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Macedonia.

President of Yugoslavia, Josip Broz Tito

Josip Broz Tito’s Communist Party firmly supported the preservation rather than the breakup of Yugoslavia and reunified it under the slogan ‘Brotherhood and Unity’. In 1946, Yugoslavia became the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY). The six republics were: Croatia, Montenegro, Serbia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Macedonia. His forces proceeded to destroy the class structure, the old social and economic order and lay the foundations for a post-war communist state system. When Tito died, in 1980, Yugoslavia began suffering, in economics and politics, without his leadership.

Yugoslavia Begins to Deteriorate into War

Slobodan Milošević was made President of Serbia in 1989

Slobodan Milošević was made President of Serbia in 1989

Key Figures

Ratko Mladić: Military leader of the Bosnian Serb Army, he is accused of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.

Radovan Karadžić: President of Republika Srpska (Bosnian Serb Republic). The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) led a trial finding him guilty of genocide, over the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, and sentencing him to 40 years in prison.

Slobodan Milošević: President of Serbia, he was exonerated for war crimes committed during the Bosnian war.

After Josip Tito’s death, Serbian ultra-nationalist Slobodan Milošević rose to power. Previously a communist, Milošević began harnessing the regions nationalism and religious hatred, citing the aim of a ‘Greater Serbia’. Tensions between Serbs and Muslims became inflamed in areas such as Kosovo, an independent province.  Inability to accommodate Serb and Croatian/Slovenian interests made reaching agreements on a modern federation and constitution impossible. Croatia and Slovenia still aimed for independence; Serbs felt, even as the country’s largest ethnic group, that their needs weren’t being met.

Croatia and Slovenia Declare Independence

June 1991, found Slovenia and Croatia declaring their independence from Yugoslavia. Within twenty-four hours, attacks from the primarily Serb Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) began. Storming into Slovenia, the army failed to subdue the separatists and withdrew after only ten days of fighting. Losing interest in Slovenia, Milošević focused on Croatia with a 12% population of Serbs. Claiming to protect the minority population, Serb forces initiated their invasion, aided by Serbian guerrillas in Croatia. The army drove many Croats and Muslims out of Croatia. Suffering 86 consecutive days of fighting, the city of Vukovar became rubble.  After Vukovar fell, the Serbs began executions, killing hundreds of Croat men and burying them in mass graves.

Vukovar, Croatia 1991, after Serb war.

Vukovar, Croatia 1991, after Yugoslav People’s Army attacked.

Choosing not to involve military, United States President George Bush began recognising both Slovenian and Croatian independence. Imposing an arms embargo on the former Yugoslavia, the United Nations was too late as Milošević’s army was already heavily armed and equipped. Despite this, by the end of 1991, the United States managed to initiate a cease-fire agreement between the Serbs and Croats.

Bosnia and Herzegovina Vote for Independence

1992, brought a referendum vote for Bosnian and Herzegovinian independence from Yugoslavia. At this time Muslims made up the largest portion of the Bosnia-Herzegovina population, with Serbs accounting for around thirty-two percent. The referendum forced Bosnia into a choice between Muslims remaining under Serb domination (staying in Yugoslavia) or taking 1.3 million Serbs out of Yugoslavia against their will. Most of the population voted for independence; however, a large majority of the Serbs opposed independence and boycotted the referendum.  Bosnian-Herzegovinian President Alija Izetbegović’s initiatives towards independence gave Serbia a pretext to attack. Similarly, intending to prevent war, the Lisbon Conference planned dividing Bosnia and Herzegovina into three territories on ethnic grounds. Though all parties agreed, Alija Izetbegović withdrew, opposing ethnic division.

Recognition of independence for Bosnia, by the U.S. and European Community in April 1992, created disharmony. Milošević, commanding the Serb army, responded to Bosnia’s declaration of independence by attacking Sarajevo, its capital city. Shooting down helpless victims in the streets, including over 3,500 children, mass shootings, rape, forced repopulation and concentration camps followed. People began identifying this as ethnic cleansing, similar to the Nazis.

Fairly unresponsive, the United Nations imposed economic sanctions on Serbia, only distributing food and medicine to Muslims. Prohibiting military action, the U.N. therefore did nothing to prevent the brutality and killing.

The United Nations makes Srebrenica a Safe Haven (1993)

Srebrenic was made a Safe Haven, by the UN, in 1993

Srebrenic was made a Safe Haven, by the UN, in 1993

U.N. decisions became costly to Muslim Bosnians. On the one hand, the UN Security Council made Srebrenica, and five other towns and cities, a protected area or ‘Safe Haven’. On the other hand, it wasn’t enough to deter the Serb army. Asked to contribute 37,000 peacekeepers, the request of U.N. member states led to disputes, later reducing the number to 7,600. Stripped of their weapons, Muslim people in these areas came to rely solely on UN protection.  However, assured of no military intervention, Serbs continued violence and killings against Muslims, blockading food convoys and preventing U.N. troop rotations.  Steadfast in beliefs, but denying their military involvement, Radovan Karadžić, President of Republika Srpska (Bosnian Serb Republic) stated ‘Serbs and Muslims are like cats and dogs. They cannot live together in peace. It is impossible’.

Attacks on Sarajevo would continue into 1994, including a mortar shell in February, killing 68 people and wounding nearly 200. Due to media reports, the world soon began calling for military intervention against the Serbs. Unlike George Bush, Bill Clinton focused heavily, in his campaign for the presidency, on resolving issues of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. Through the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), Clinton negotiated a cease-fire and removal of artillery in Sarajevo.  Making diplomatic efforts to unify Muslims and Croats against the Serbs, it did nothing to prevent Serb attacks on Safe Havens. Violent attacks on the U.N. peacekeepers began, whereby Serbs used them as human shields and chained them to military targets, such as ammo supply dumps.

 July 1995, Genocide in Srebrenica

After the Srebrenica Genocide, mass graves were exhumed

After the Srebrenica Genocide, mass graves were exhumed and hundreds mourned identified victims in Bosnia.

Primarily, Bosnian Serb forces were targeting North-Eastern Bosnia and so many people fled to Srebrenica. As an enclave, it was a distinct protected area and enclosed as if it were in foreign territory, but at this point, there were only 450 Dutch peacekeepers protecting Srebrenica. Serb shells and rockets landed close to the city, and due to blockades for months at a time, the food was quickly running out. Raiding local town and villages for food, to stay alive, Muslims also began requesting the return of their weapons for defence. Denying Bosniaks’ ability to arm themselves, the UN peacekeepers began requesting NATO airstrikes, to protect Srebrenica, to no effect.

Systematic Killing in Srebrenica

Fearing massacre, Bosnian Muslim men, and boys tried to flee to central Bosnia. Promising safety for the return of weapons; using U.N. vehicles and uniforms to trick Bosnian Muslims; and blocking roads to central Bosnia, successfully enabled Serb attacks. Killing around 3,000 males for trying to escape, by decapitation or gunshot, success became impossible. Taking men ages 12-77 (military age), the course of four days saw the killing of over 8000 men and boys in Srebrenica. As well as being forcibly deported, 23,000 women and children suffered from torture and rape.

On the 11th of July, NATO eventually approved requests for airstrikes, but Serbs had already taken over the offensive.  General Ratko Mladić’s reasoning for the attacks, he claimed, was revenge for the ‘uprising against the Dahije’. Ottoman Turks suppressed an 1804 Serb uprising, which led to many Serbian deaths and abolished Serbian institutions.  Locals Serbs in the area agreed with attacks because of the Muslim raids exercised in the neighbouring villages.

When American spy planes suspected and discovered mass graves, Serbs reburied them to hide the evidence to deny the attacks were genocide.

Post-Srebrenica Peace Agreement, The Dayton Accords 1995

Serbian President Slobodan Milošević, Bosnian President Alija Izetbegović, and Croatian President Franjo Tudjman signing the Dayton Accords 1995

Serbian President Slobodan Milošević, Bosnian President Alija Izetbegović, and Croatian President Franjo Tudjman signing the Dayton Accords 1995

NATO and the U.S. eventually began a military intervention, targeting the Serb army throughout Bosnia.  Fighting with arms supplied by the Islamic world, Bosnian Muslims fought against Serb forces and finally started defeating them. Having the upper hand, and Milošević knowing it, he flew to Ohio representing both the Republic of Serbia and the Bosnian Serbs.  Joining Milošević in peace talks was Franjo Tuđman, the President of Croatia, and Alija Izetbegović, President of Bosnia and Herzegovina. During this time, NATO was deploying 60,000 soliders to preserve the cease-fire.

A Broken System

The Dayton Accords, 1995, recognised Bosnia as two

The Republika Srpska (Bosnian Serb Republic) and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The Republika Srpska (Bosnian Serb Republic) and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

entities: the Republika Srpska (Bosnian Serb Republic) and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Consequently, The Dayton Accords made Bosnia and Herzegovina’s political structure one of the most complicated in the world and based on ethnic divisions that continue today. The central institutions of Bosnia and Herzegovina include a directly elected tripartite presidency. The presidency rotates every eight months between one Bosniak, one Serb, and one Croat member, in a four-year rotation.  Responsible for appointing a multi-ethnic Council of Ministers, the Head of Council then serves as a head of government.

Despite the international community leading efforts to replace the unwieldy and costly political structure, reforms are opposed by the country’s nationalist leaders. Previously Bosnia and Herzegovina have been incapable of integrating into the European Union, however, in September this year, the EU accepted their application.

Regardless of the Dayton Accords calling for war criminals to be handed over for prosecution, in 1995, arresting Karadžić and Mladić did not occur. Karadžić and Mladić subsequently went into hiding, protected by ultra-nationalists and some members of the government.

Was There Justice for Srebrenica?

Ratko Mladić

Ratko Mladić

Ratko Mladić, military leader of the Bosnian Serb Army

Spending fourteen years on the run, after the defeat of Serb military, Mladić had a bounty of $5 million on his head.  Considering Mladić a national hero, politicians, the army and the general population protected him. Freely he ate at restaurants and could be seen in public, despite his status as an internationally wanted criminal. If loyalty was in doubt, his allies would identify people’s children and threatened their lives.

When Milošević lost power, Mladić left military protection and turned to isolation and privation. At some point, he lived only a few doors down from Karadžić, who was also in hiding, but neither was aware of it. Mladić rarely ventured out and banned mobile phones.

Seeing Mladić as a Slav military hero, Russia saw western powers hunting him as a threat to their ally Serbia.  To capture Mladić was to inflict upon Russian strategy and Mladić could reveal evidence of Russian support for the Republika Srpska at the height of ethnic cleansing. The BIA, Serbia’s Security Information Agency, discovered this support and Russia soon dropped it. Trailing Mladić’s family, the BIA’s suspicions of odd behaviour, around his cousin’s house in Lazarevo, led to the discovery of Mladić residing there.

Ratko Mladić’s trial began in June 2011 and is still ongoing before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague.

Slobodan Milošević

Slobodan Milošević

Slobodan Milošević, President of Serbia

Fighting in Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia and Kosovo, occurred under Milošević’s Presidency of Yugoslavia. The ‘Greater Serbia’ dream had collapsed. Falling from power in 2000, the new Serbian government ceased an opportunity handing him to the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague for crimes against humanity.

Despite being President for thirteen years and four wars, he denied responsibility for any atrocities, stating ‘I did my best to defend my people and I did not make any move detrimental to the interests of the country, people, and citizens’. He later claimed that they arrested him because of foreign enemies collaborating with political opponents, in other words a conspiracy to overthrow him.

Dying of a heart attack in his cell, in 2006, Slobodan Milošević’s trial was therefore inconclusive.


Radovan Karadžić

Radovan Karadžić

Radovan Karadžić, President of Republika Srpska (Bosnian Serb Republic)

Similarly to Mladić, Serb areas of Bosnia-Herzegovina still consider Karadžić a hero. Karadžić had passed as a New Age healer, under the alias Dr. Dragan Dabic. Concealing himself behind a thick beard and shaggy hair and evading arrest, until his capture in Belgarde, Serbia, in 2008.

Concluding a five-year trial this year, the ICTY convicted him of ten out of eleven charges. Karadžić’s crimes were: genocide in the area of Srebrenica in 1995, of persecution, extermination, murder, deportation, inhumane acts (forcible transfer), terror, unlawful attacks on civilians and hostage-taking. Following his failure to plea, a plea of not guilty was entered on his behalf on 3 March 2009.

With the court acquitting Karadžić of the charge of genocide in other municipalities in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1992, his sentence consists of forty years in prison. O-Gon Kwon, the ICTY judge overseeing the trial, stated Karadžić shared the common purpose of killing the Bosnian Muslim males of Srebrenica and that he significantly contributed to it. Being the only person able to intervene, and protect those being killed, his inability to act and prevent massacres holds him responsible.

Working towards supporting all those affected is the charitable organisation, Remembering Srebrenica. Tackling hatred and intolerance and voicing the stories of hundreds of survivors.

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