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Anniversary of a massacre: what happened in Srebrenica?

Timeline in pictures and video: on the third day of Ratko Mladic’s trial and the anniversary of the massacre, TheJournal.ie takes a look back at the events of July 1995 – the UN and Europe’s darkest hour.

Some of the 30,000 predominantly Muslim refugees from the eastern Bosnian enclave of Srebrenica wait for transportation on 12 July 1995.
Some of the 30,000 predominantly Muslim refugees from the eastern Bosnian enclave of Srebrenica wait for transportation on 12 July 1995.
Image: AP/Press Association Images

This article was originally posted on 17 May 2012 when Ratko Mladic first appeared at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. It has been reposted today, 16 July 2014, after a court in the Netherlands ruled that the Dutch state was liable for over 300 deaths. The dreadful events at Srebrenica saw 8,000 men and boys perish in one of the worst atrocities ever seen in Europe.

IT HAS BEEN 19 years since the horror of Srebrenica.

Almost unbelievably, the July 1995 massacre was marked just two years ago with the first funeral for 520 newly-identified victims. The coffins at the memorial centre and burial pits dug, women who lost husbands, fathers, brothers, sons and grandfathers stood ready to say goodbye to their loved ones once more.

So far, about 5,000 victims of the massacre have been laid to rest but thousands remain unaccounted for. Over an 11-day period, up to 8,000 Muslim men and boys were slaughtered in a round of ethnic cleansing led by the Army of Republika Srpska (VRS).

The worst massacre in Europe since World War II had happened in the United Nation’s first ever safe area.

This week – which also marks the anniversary of Europe’s darkest hours – TheJournal.ie has taken a look at the events which led to the fall of Srebrenica and its bloody aftermath:

1992-1993

Srebrenica is a town in eastern Bosnia, about 10 miles from the Serbian border. During the conflict, which began in 1992, it was an enclave under the control of the Bosnian Army and housed thousands of Bosnian Muslims from surrounding areas. Operating from Srebrenica, Bosnian forces attack surrounding Serb villages in the early days of the war. However, over the four years, Bosnian Serbs besieged the area and frequently shelled it.

‘A’ marks Srebrenica.

In January 1993, Naser Oric – the guerilla commander of the Army of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina – had doubled Muslim territory in east Bosnia and attacked the Serb-controlled village of Kravica, allegedly committing a number of atrocities against the local population. He was later tried by the ICT but acquitted of all charges.

By March, the Bosnian Serb Army had regrouped and backed with weapons and other resources from Serbia were able to surround the town. Up to 60,000 people had now arrived in Srebrenica for safekeeping.

On 12 March 1993, French General Philippe Morillon (pictured) who was the UN Commander in Bosnia got through the Serb front line and declared the town “under the protection of the UN”. He found an overcrowded, slum-like scenario as the town had little running water, shabby electricity supplies and a scarcity of supplies. He told the residents that they would not be abandoned by the world.

Morillon reassures residents and refugees. (Image: Haris Nezirovic/AP/Press Association Images)

Although the Bosnian government and commanders opposed the move (they believed it was wrong that they had to move their people from their country), over the next month, about 5,000 people were evacuated under the auspices of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Evacuees form Srebrenica look out from a UN truck in Medgas, north of Sarajevo on 20 March 1993. (Image: Michel Euler/AP/Press Association Images)

At the time, the New York Times reported:

But the effort to evacuate a large number of the 40,000-to-60,000 Muslim townspeople and refugees crowded into the Srebrenica enclave has turned into one of the most bitter disputes in a year of United Nations operations here.Leaders of the Bosnian Government in Sarajevo have accused the United Nations of reneging on pledges to save Srebrenica from the attacks and of assisting instead in a Serbian policy of “ethnic cleansing”.

Just over one month later, on 16 April 1993, the town was declared a “safe area” by the UN amid fears that the Serbs would besiege it. The declaration meant the town (and a 30sq-mile radius) was demilitarised by 8 May. A BBC report from that day shows that the details of the UN Security Council plan were “unclear” about how the safe haven would be defended.

Both parties to the conflict signed up to the “safe area” agreement but the Serb army consistently refused to decommission weapons around Srebrenica.

On 25 April 1993, UN special envoy to Srebrenica Diego Arria said:

If we don’t watch out, this could become a slow-motion genocide.

1994

On 19 December 1994, former US President Jimmy Carter (centre), Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic (left) and Bosnian Serb army commander Ratko Mladic (right) signed a declaration proposing a four-month ceasefire. Still, there was no sign of any decommissioning by Serbs in Srebrenica. (Image: Sava Radovanovic/AP/Press Association Images)

1995

As the situation in Srebrenica deteriorated even further at the beginning of 1995, about 400 Dutch troops were deployed as peacekeepers to Bosnia. The first battalion of Blue Helmets arrived at their base at Potocari. The Dutchbat, as they were known, were only lightly armed.

In May of the same year, Oric was taken out of the enclave by his leaders, leaving an ill-equipped Muslim defence. Meanwhile, the humanitarian situation worsened dramatically. People began to die of starvation as the aid corridor remained closed and few supply convoys got through.

In a letter dated 26 January 1993 (see full version here), the Srebrenica Municipality said that 648 men, women and children had either died from starvation or disease.

As both the military and humanitarian situations deteriorated, NATO, the UN and Sarajevo remained indecisive about air strikes and possible actions to increase the defence capabilities of the Dutch soldiers in the area.

Between 6 and 10 July 1995, the VSR saw an opportunity to begin an offensive as international powers dithered. Bosnian Serb forces laid siege to the so-called safe area where tens of thousands of Muslims were seeking refuge under the supposed protection of the UN. The Serbs did not care about any UN pact, however, and were impatient to move.


At this stage, there were about 600 lightly-armed Dutch forces who refused to return weapons to the Muslim fighters. As Serbian troops advanced, Dutch soldiers put up little resistance but asked for support with Dutch Commander Colonel Ton Karremans believing NATO airstrikes would begin immediately.

On 9 July, 30 Dutch soldiers were taken hostage and residents began to flee to camps south of Srebrenica. Most went to Potocari. One peacekeeper was killed when Bosnian Muslims fired on retreating Dutch troops.

Tensions rose drastically on 10 July with Dutch troops firing warning shots over the Serbs’ heads. Chaos ensued as Bosnian Muslims panicked and troops were under-resourced to deal with the situation.

Some of the scenes were captured on video:


(YouTube Credit: ushmmfellows)

Airstrikes were requested but never came and all five UNPROFOR (UN protection force) observation posts fell within days. Later it transpired that the request for airstrikes submitted by Karremans on 10 July after Mladic refused to retreat was written on an incorrect form.

When the correct form was finally submitted on the morning of 11 July, the planes had already returned to Italy to refuel. As the Dutch had reneged on the promise of strikes, about 20,000 refugees – in complete panic – fled to the main base at Potocari. Only about 5,000 were granted entry by the soldiers.

Two Dutch F-16 fighters dropped two bombs on Serb positions later that day but they were met with threats that the hostages would be killed. Further strikes were suspended as a result.

Eventually, Mladic entered Srebrenica to hold a meeting with Karremans. A deal was made to allow for the release of Dutch hostages. During the messy negotiations, those 5,000 Muslim refugees who had been given entry to Potocari were promised to the Bosnian Serbs. The Dutch say they were assured of the Bosniaks’ safety once their weapons were handed over.

Karremans was photographed toasting his deal with Mladic on 11 July. (Image: Anonymous/AP/Press Association Images)

Later that day, Mladic’s triumphant walk through the town was captured by Serbian cameramen. He is seen here being congratulated by his men and barking orders to take down flags and signage belonging to the Bosnian Muslims. He is also heard directing his men to go straight to Potocari. Meanwhile, several thousand refugees awaited their tragic fate in that town.


On 12 July 1995, the segregation of the Muslim population of the area began. Women and children were bussed out to other Muslim territories while men and teenage boys were kept for “interrogation for suspected war crimes”.

Summary executions of men began and houses were set on fire at random by Serbian troops, according to witnesses. Others who tried to escape through the mountains were shelled as they fled.

About 23,000 women and children were deported over the next 30 hours. Most never saw their husbands, fathers, brothers and sons again. Witnesses also reported beatings and multiple rapes of those who were expelled.

This July 13, 1995 file photo shows Dutch UN peacekeepers sitting on top of an APC as Muslim refugees from Srebrenica, eastern Bosnia, gather in the village of Potocari.

Peacekeepers handed over the 5,000 promised Muslims who had been sheltering at Potocari to Mladic’s troops on 13 July. In return, 14 Dutch hostages were released.

Over the next eight days, executions of up to 8,000 Muslim men and boys took place in schools, warehouses and other locations. Their bodies were placed in mass graves.

In the next two decades, graves containing hundreds of bodies continue to be found across Bosnia.

#

This 5 July 1996 file photo shows a Finnish forensic expert places a number next to the skull of a Srebrenica victim found in the hills above the village of Kravice, some 15 kms north west of Srebrenica. (Image: Staton R. Winter/AP/Press Association Images)

Another mass grave at Pilica. (Image: Staton R. Winter/AP/Press Association Images)

In the days that followed, there were very few stories of reunions of families. However, this rare one of a father and husband arriving safely to the UN air base at Tuzla after surviving the death march of six days from Srebrenica shows him being welcomed by his daughters and wife.

(Image: MICHEL EULER/AP/Press Association Images)

The aftermath

The Red Cross compiled lists of victims and missing persons for years after the genocide. In 2005, the group said that 5,500 people remain unaccounted for following the events in Srebrenica. A staggering list of all persons unaccounted for in Bosnia after the 1990s conflict can be found here. It is still updated regularly.

A banner held up in London in July 1998 shows the 7,300 names that the Red Cross had confirmed as victims of the massacre by that date. (Image: Ben Curtis/PA Archive/Press Association Images)

In 2011, years after the tragedy had occurred, a mass reburial of 613 victims took place with 40,000 mourners looking on. It had a special resonance after the capture of Mladic in May.

(Image: Amel Emric/AP/Press Association Images)

On 5 July 2011, the Hague court found that the Dutch State was responsible for the deaths of three Bosnian Muslims in the massacre. The unexpected ruling paved the way for compensation claims by families against the Netherlands for not protecting the designated safe area. The judges in the case said that the Dutch troops should not have handed over the men to Bosnian Serb forces as Mladic overran the town.

The court ruled that the Dutch state is responsible for the death of these men because Dutchbat should not have handed them over.

BBC reported after the hearing:

The court said that even though Dutchbat was working under the UN after the fall of Srebrenica, in a situation which they called “extraordinary”, the Dutch government became more involved with Dutchbat and the evacuation, and in that sense they were responsible.

In April 2014, the Dutch government said it would pay €20,000 to relatives of three Bosnian Muslim men murdered after peacekeepers expelled them from the UN compound at Srebrenica in 1995.

Today, the court said:

“The state is liable for the loss suffered by relatives of the men who were deported by the Bosnian Serbs from the Dutchbat (Dutch battalion) compound in Potocari in the afternoon of 13 July 1995.

Dutchbat should have taken into account the possibility that these men would be the victim of genocide and that it can be said with sufficient certainty that, had the Dutchbat allowed them to stay at the compound, these men would have remained alive.

“By cooperating in the deportation of these men, Dutchbat acted unlawfully.”

Back in 1995, Mladic fled into hiding after the war and spent 15 years as a fugitive before international pressure on Serbia led to his arrest in 2011. He is adamant that he has not committed any war crimes of which he is accused, including genocide. His actions were carried out to defend his country, he says. Now a frail 72-year-old, his appearances at the ICTY show a vastly different man to the commander who was given the name the Butcher of Bosnia two decades ago.

In this September 1995 photo, Bosnian Serb commander Ratko Mladic plays pool during the pause in talks with U.N. commander Bernard Janvier in the town of Mali Zvornik. (Image: Sava Radovanovic/AP/Press Association Images)

He now faces 11 counts, including genocide of Bosniaks and Bosnian Croats during the war. Wartime political leader Radovan Karadzic is also being tried as he was also considered one of the ‘masterminds’ of the massacre.

Srebrenica, Bosnian Muslim men carry coffins of their relatives during the funeral mass at the Potocari Memorial Centre. (Image: Sulejman Omerbasic/AP/Press Association Images)

First day: Emotional testimony from first witness in Mladic trial>

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