The civil war that engulfed Bosnia-Herzegovina from 1992 to 1995 involved large-scale killing of Bosnian Muslims, forced deportations, torture in concentration camps and mass rape of Muslim women by Serb soldiers. More than 296 Bosnian Muslim villages were burned down or destroyed by the Serb forces. Houses and apartments belonging to Muslims were systematically ransacked and burned down. Civilians were attacked, tortured and killed. The Bosnian Serbs sought to create ethnically pure areas with no presence of Muslims. Systematic ethnic cleansing involved forced expulsion and killing of Muslims and destruction of their homes as well as mosques, cemeteries, madrasas and Sufi hospices. Young Muslim women and girls were kept in detention centres under appalling conditions, where they were humiliated, tortured and repeatedly raped by Serb soldiers.
The estimates of the number of victims during the Bosnian war include around 100,000-110,000 killed and 1.8 million displaced. Most of the victims (66%) were Bosnian Muslims, followed by Serbs (25%) and Croats (8%). More than 83% of civilian victims were Muslim. Some 30% of Muslim civilian victims were women and children. The estimates of Muslim women raped by Serb soldiers range between 20,000 and 50,000. According to the United Nations’ International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia at The Hague, the crimes committed during the Bosnian war of 1992-95 amounted to crimes against humanity. The war crimes, ethnic cleansing and genocide that took place in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1992-95 had the active support and involvement of the Bosnian Serb Army, paramilitary forces and police. Furthermore, they had the active connivance of the Orthodox church, media and civil society. Radovan Karadzic was blessed by an Orthodox priest on the eve of the Bosnian war in March 1992. Significantly, Russia secretly provided heavy weapons to the Bosnian Serbs.
The horrifying atrocities committed on Bosnian Muslims were masterminded by Slobodan Milosevic, president of Serbia, and the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic. Milosevic was brought before the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia for trial. He died in 2006 while the trial was underway. On 13 October 1991 Karadzic had declared: “In just a couple of days, Sarajevo will be gone and there will be five hundred thousand dead, and in one month Muslims will be annihilated in Bosnia-Herzegovina.” Karadzic was indicted by the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia at The Hague for genocide and crimes against humanity. For 13 years Karadzic was at large, secretly protected by the powerful networks of former and current members of the Serbian security forces. He disguised himself as a practitioner of alternative medicine in a quiet corner of Belgrade. He was finally arrested by the Serb security forces on 21 July 2008 and brought to The Hague to face trial. The charges against Karadzic include genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, orchestrating the shelling of Sarajevo and using 284 UN peacekeepers as human shields.
The Srebrenica Massacre
In April 1993 the United Nations declared Srebrenica a ‘safe area’ under UN protection, with a 400-strong contingent of Dutch peacekeepers, Dutchbat. In July 1995, Gen Ratko Mladic visited Potocari, a village in Srebrenica, where more than 28,000 Bosnian Muslims had taken refuge with the United Nations Dutch peacekeeping force. Riding a horse, he looked closely at the faces of men and boys in the crowd and exclaimed with glee, “There are so many! It is going to be a mezze (feast). There will be blood up to your knees.”
In the next few days, from 13th to 19th July, the Bosnian Serb army separated the men and boys from the crowd, loaded them onto buses and trucks, took them to deserted spots and shot them in cold blood. Intercepted radio transmissions indicate that Mladic was present at most of these executions. In many cases the victims were blindfolded and their hands were tied behind their backs. The dead bodies were dumped in freshly dug graves. In some cases, earth-moving equipment was used to remove the dead and to dump them in mass graves.
According to the Bosnian Federal Commission of Missing Persons, 8,373 Bosnian Muslims, including 500 young boys under 18 years, were killed at Srebrenica. The worst massacre in Europe after World War II took place under the noses of the Dutch peacekeepers. In fact, just two days before the massacre, Mladic entertained General Bernard Janvier, Commander of the UN Protection Force, to a feast of suckling lamb. As the Serb army advanced towards Srebrenica, the Dutch peacekeepers, sensing grave danger to the Bosnian refugees, sent repeated requests to the UN officials to allow NATO warplanes to strike at the advancing Serb army, but the requests went unheeded. The Serbs took Srebrenica without a fight.
In a landmark 2004 ruling, Theordor Meron, the American judge who presided over the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia at The Hague, observed: “By seeking to eliminate a part of the Bosnian Muslims, the Bosnian Serb forces committed genocide. They targeted for extinction the 40,000 Bosnian Muslims living in Srebrenica….They stripped all the male Muslim prisoners, military and civilian, elderly and young, of their personal belongings and identification, and deliberately and methodically killed them solely on the basis of their identity.”
The United Nations, especially the Dutch peacekeeping force stationed at Srebrenica, must shoulder a large share of responsibility and blame for their failure to prevent the massacre. In November 1999 the UN released a highly self-critical report on its performance during the Srebrenica genocide, stating, “Through error, misjudgement and the inability to recognize the scope of evil confronting us, we failed to do our part to save the people of Srebrenica from the Serb campaign of mass murder.” Kofi Annan, the then Secretary General of the United Nations, said that the United Nations’ failure to prevent the massacre of Muslims in Srebrenica would “haunt our history for ever.”
As of June 2011, the bodies of 6,594 victims of the Srebrenica massacre have been identified through DNA analysis of body parts recovered from mass graves. Of these, 4,524 bodies have been buried at the Potocari cemetery at Srebrenica. Mass graves of the victims of the Bosnian war are still being discovered. In July 2013 a mass funeral of 409 newly-identified victims of the massacre was held in Potocari. Thousands of people reported missing during and after the war are still untraceable.
In 1996 the Dutch government commissioned The Netherlands Institute for War Documentation to prepare a report on the role of the Dutch peacekeeping forces in Srebrenica. The institute conducted more than 900 interviews and collected hundreds of testimonies over a period of six years and submitted its report in April 2002. Hans Blom, director of the institute, stated in the report: “The events that occurred cannot be described as an act of vengeance that got out of hand. Although they occurred rapidly and in an improvised way, the scale and course of the murders clearly indicate that they were organized. Places of executions were sought, transport was arranged and troops were ordered to carry our executions.” The report also said that the conduct of Dutchbat was not beyond reproach. On 16 April 2002 the Dutch government resigned en masse, owning moral responsibility for the failure of Dutchbat to prevent the massacre.
Dutch Supreme Court’s Indictment of the Netherlands
When the Bosnian Serb forces stormed and overran a United Nations compound where the Dutch peacekeeping forces were stationed, Dutch officials ordered three Bosnian Muslim men, who were working for the Dutch forces and were among the thousands of Bosnian Muslims who had taken shelter in the UN compound, to leave the compound. As soon as they left the compound, they were shot down by Serbian troops.
In 2011 a Dutch appeals court ruled that the Dutch peacekeeping forces were accountable for the killing of the three Muslim men and that they should not have handed them over to the Serb forces. On September 6, 2013, the Dutch Supreme Court upheld the earlier ruling of the appeals court and said that the Netherlands was indeed liable for the killing of the three Muslim men. Judge Floris Bakels of the Netherlands Supreme Court said it would be "unacceptable" for countries not to be able to hold their peacekeepers to account. The ruling marks an indictment of the Dutch peacekeeping forces as well as the Dutch state and paves the way for compensation to the families of the victims. Commenting on the ruling, Jezerca Tigani, an official of Amnesty International said, “Nearly two decades on from Srebrenica, this Dutch case marks the first time an individual government has been held to account for the conduct of its peacekeeping forces under a UN mandate.”
The Dayton peace accord, which was signed on 14 December 1995 and which put an end to the Bosnian war, laid down that Serbs, Bosniaks and Croats would work together to reconstruct a federal state where refugees could return. Following the accord, a loose federal Bosnian state was created with the north and the east under the control of Serbs and the rest of the country under the control of Bosniaks and Croats. However, even after 20 years the Bosnian state remains as fragile as ever and reconciliation among Serbs, Bosniaks and Croats remains a distant dream.
The United Nations War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague has ruled that the massacre at Srebrenica was genocide. The International Court of Justice has agreed with the indictment. More than 1,000 witnesses have testified to the massacre at The Hague Tribunal. Ironically, only a few Serbs have been convicted of genocide and brought to justice. The masterminds of the massacre, Gen. Mladic, along with his civilian counterpart Radovan Karadzic are still facing trial at The Hague. A Security Council resolution condemning the Srebrenica genocide and any denial of it was condemned by Serbia and vetoed by Russia.