The Srebrenica massacre occurred in July 1995, during the last year of the war in Bosnia (1992 - 1995). The war resulted in the return of concentration camps, ethnic cleansing, and genocide to Europe, the displacement of nearly half of Bosnia’s entire pre-war population of 4,400,000 persons, and 30,000 “missing.” Bosnian Muslims constitute the majority of the “missing,” displaced, and the dead.

In April 1993, exactly one year after the beginning of the war, the UN established Srebrenica as the first of six UN “safe areas” intended to protect Bosnian Muslim civilians from Bosnian Serb military operations, which aimed to create an ethnically homogeneous and contiguous Bosnian Serb Republic bordering Serbia.

The Bosnian Serbs were determined to obtain control of Srebrenica, as it is only ten miles from the Drina River, the boundary between Bosnia and Serbia. However, they could only incorporate Srebrenica into an ethnically pure Bosnian Serb Republic by eliminating its predominantly Bosnian Muslim population, which comprised around three-quarters of the total in 1991. The remaining quarter was made up of Bosnian Serbs and a small number of Bosnian Croats.

When Bosnian Serb forces captured Srebrenica on July 11, 1995, in complete violation of its protected status as a UN “safe area,” several hundred lightly armed Dutch peacekeepers assigned to Srebrenica offered no resistance and NATO air strikes, widely acknowledged as the only effective means of defending Srebrenica, never materialized. Consequently, the Bosnian Serbs placed 23,000 women and children on buses and deported them from Srebrenica, at times with the assistance of the Dutch peacekeepers. In the next few days, over 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys over the age of 12 were executed. Most were from among the estimated 15,000 men and boys who formed a column on the night of July 11 and began a march through the woods in an attempt to escape Srebrenica and reach safe territory in Tuzla. They were either killed in ambushes or taken prisoner and then methodically executed, often hundreds at a time, in various locations, such as warehouses, which were selected in advance for this purpose.

The Dayton Peace Accords initialed on November 21, 1995, ended the war but partitioned Bosnia into a Muslim-Croat Federation and a Bosnian Serb Republic, thereby recognizing its legitimacy, and located Srebrenica in the Bosnian Serb Republic. This was the final betrayal.

“Never again” did happen again. This time, the world refused to prevent ethnic cleansing and genocide after the formation of the United Nations, after the adoption of the UN 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide, and in an age of instant mass media and communication that allowed the entire world to witness virtually all aspects of the war in Bosnia.

The Srebrenica massacre is being prosecuted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) created by the UN Security Council in 1993. ICTY trials and proceedings have proven the existence of numerous massacres at Srebrenica, thus compelling Bosnian Serb Republic authorities to finally reverse their repeated denials and to officially acknowledge these massacres. Presenting forensic evidence, accounts of survivors and expert witnesses, and admissions of guilt by Bosnian Serb military officers in an international forum, the ICTY has demonstrated that Bosnian Serb military forces carried out premeditated and meticulously planned massacres, which meet the criteria for genocide as defined by the UN Convention on Genocide. In February 2007, in the case of Bosnia versus Serbia, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) also ruled that the Srebrenica massacres constituted genocide.

Once a thriving town in the former Yugoslavia, Srebrenica will forever be associated with the triumph of evil. Now, we must reflect on the meaning of this triumph and on the significance of Srebrenica’s betrayal, for similar challenges confront us in the present and await us in the future.

Lisa DiCaprio
April 2008