But there are cogent reasons – international,
historical and domestic to Britain – why this year's commemorations
are different, and beg painful, difficult questions that demand
answers as yet unforthcoming but necessary to any reckoning with
this and other atrocities.
The first reason is that next Wednesay, the
question of legal responsibility for the massacre raises its own
stakes to the international level: a district court in The Hague
will deliver its verdict in the case of 6,000 survivors who are
suing the Dutch state for the failure of its soldiers - part of the
United Nations peacekeeping mission - charged to protect the
UN-declared 'Safe Area', but who ejected crowds seeking protection
in its compound as the execution squads arrived in town, and watched
on as the Bosnian Serb units separated men and boys, for massacre,
from women and children.
The verdict will be a landmark one affecting not
only the wider issues of accountability for the massacre, but the
role and obligations of troops taking part in future UN peacekeeping
missions elsewhere in the world.
The case has a legal precedent in a ruling by the
Netherlands’supreme court last September, that the Dutch state was
responsible for not preventing three Bosniak men from being killed
after they were expelled from the base. Liesbeth Zegveld, who
represented one of the Bosnians in the case, Hasan Nuhanovic, said
the verdict was based on the fact that the Dutch battalion in
Srebrenica made a decision to expel the Bosniaks from the compound
instead of protecting them, as was their duty and as they were
ordered. The same argument in law applies to the class action.
A second reason was the visit recently by foreign
secretary William Hague and his glamorous companion Angelina Jolie
to Srebrenica, as part of their tour claiming to reveal and address
rape as the age-old war crime it is. Violation of women occurred in
Srebrenica, but nothing like on the scale of specially designated
rape camps in Visegrad and Foca nearby, which the celebrity pair
omitted to visit.
Hague had said in Sarajevo, of mass rape during
Bosnia's carnage: “Now we know”; and in Srebrenica that his tour
with the actress (and her film about the subject) had, “opened the
eyes of the world” to this abomination. This was preposterous: Hague
was a junior minister in the government who knew perfectly well at
the time what was happening and worse - but did nothing, and worse.
During the Bosnian war, the British government –
along with the United Nations and that of France - appeased (at
best) and encouraged (at worst) the perpetrators at Srebrenica for
the three long and bloody years to which the massacre was the
inevitable conclusion. Three years during which British diplomats
and politicians clasped the hand of Radovan Karadžić, now charged
with ordering the massacre, beneath the chandeliers of Geneva, Paris
and London and connived to keep him in business. They have names:
Hurd, Carrington, Neville-Jones, Owen, Rifkind, Hannay and others.
Three years during which our generals and others from France and the
USA dined with and bestowed gifts upon Ratko Mladic, who also stands
trial for sending in the death squads.
It is, however, logical for Secretary Hague and
Jolie to visit Srebrenica, although it was the site of a massacre
not a rape camp: one goes to Srebrenica de rigeur, because it is an
icon. It is a place in which politicians and statesmen can appear to
care, even shed a seeming tear, and talk about the 'world failing',
but never their own government.
Srebrenica was not an isolated incident. It was
the culmination of the genocidal pogrom appeased and facilitated by
the west over time. Yet, rather than draw attention to all those
other places where smaller but equally vicious massacres took place,
Srebrenica detracts from them. It 'ticks the box’ of appearing to
reckon with Bosnia, without doing so. Who ever hears these days
about Vlasenica, Bjeljina, Doboj, Brcko, Prijedor, Foca, Visegrad,
Caplinja, East Mostar… the list is endless, beyond those bereaved,
shattered and scattered by the slaughter there?
A third reason for the nineteenth anniversary's
singularity is a sudden, unexpected initiative by the British
government to take a lead in 'Remembering Srebrenica'. Last Tuesday,
at Lancaster House in London, an array of politicians and
dignitaries including ministers Eric Pickles and Steve Williams
hosted and provided speeches, canapes and Srebrenica goody-bags at
an event to this end, enacting a resolution by the European
parliament in 2009 that member states commemorate the massacre.
Organised with the estimable 'Remember Srebrenica
UK' movement and charity, there had been a moving event in Luton the
previous Sunday, at which young local people who had visited the
mass graves reported on their experience and emotions, while
survivors of the concentration camps at Omarska and Trnopolje (at
the other end of Bosnia, and of the war - its beginning in 1992),
who had arrived in Luton as refugees, recounted their ordeal and
settlement in Britain.
Four activists of the remarkable 'Mothers of
Srebrenica' addressed that meeting in a community centre with
unbearable power and dignity – as they did in the gilded hall at
Lancaster House 48 hours later, where brochures were available
containing commemorative messages from David Cameron, Nick Clegg,
Boris Johnson, Ed Miliband, Pickles … et al.
Why? Why do Britain's leaders suddenly want to be
seen weeping for Srebrenica, nineteen years later, as William Hague
does for victims and survivors of mass rape? This was the question
that baffled the huddles of Bosnians in their best suits, invited to
Lancaster House from among our diaspora, and it is a good one.
A member of the Mothers' delegation dismissed it,
however: “We don't care what the reason is. We are remembered here,
we are recognised. After Iraq, Syria and all that has happened, we
are forgotten, and at this occasion we are not. That is all we ask”.
But a leading British organiser of the event
confided: “It's to do with the Muslim vote and Muslim extremism here
in Britain. Srebrenica has become the Muslim Holocaust Remembrance
Day at which you have to be seen doing the right thing. Which is
fine – but the price is re-writing Britain's role in Bosnia”. This
is about our domestic politics, but not our domestic reckoning.
And the fourth reason to focus on this nineteenth
anniversary is that the first book has just been published not on
the horror of Srebrenica but its aftermath - by two leading scholars
on Bosnia, Lara Nettelfield and Sarah Wagner. It is an exhaustive
and landmark study: covering the progress of 'Srebrenica in court',
at The Hague, the grotesque disinterrment of bodies from mass graves
to 'secondary graves' and even tertiary ones to hide the evidence,
the fortunes of Srebrenica's diaspora scattered worldwide and the
vicious harassment of those survivors – mostly women, of course -
who dare to return to their native soil.
But the dark kernel of the book concerns the
continued and insistent denial of the massacre by Bosnian Serb
authorities and their president Milorad Dodik. As families arrived
in Srebrenica this week to bury and remember their dead this week,
Mr Dodik made a speech in which he invoked the imperative that,
“Serb people will in the future have in some way to recognize and
celebrate Ratko Mladić, Radovan Karadžić and myriad others, to repay
them in some decent way for their contribution."
There has always been this nagging question: are
the deniers and revisionists mad, or are they pretending to be mad?
They know perfectly well what happened at Srebrenica; many of them
were involved to a greater or lesser degree.
Nettelfield and Wagner suggest an answer, the
book's most shocking proposition, by investigating beyond the usual
explanation of the deniers' deranged nationalism. They find the
strategy and politics of denial - fostering ethnic strife and
searing pain for the survivors as they do - to be a means of
political self-preservation; denial is the ultimate political
'spin': a hateful, cynical but effective way of maintaining pyramids
The Dayton agreement of 1995 gave the Bosnian
Serbs all they wanted from their pogrom of 'ethnic cleansing', and
enabled the machinery of war to remain intact, so that, say the
authors: “the gains made during the war were at stake for elites and
the institutions they represented. In Republika Srpska … the truth
about Srebrenica could undercut its claims to legitimate authority
and political control over that territory”.
Denial is thus a means to protect “state and
entity bureaucracies staffed by individuals with close connections
to the genocide” for whom “a full accounting of the crimes would
threaten their careers, after decades of material benefits derived
from access to state resources and, in many instances, wartime
plunder of the Bosnian state.”
And so the subsequent question of accountability
arises, not just in Bosnia, but beyond. Dr. Nettelfield says in
interview: “This is another thing Srebrenica's survivors achieved:
raising the level of discussion about accountability beyond the
execution sites, to try and get international leaders, governments
and the United Nations held liable, expand the scale of
responsibility for what happened”. She adds of Britain's
commemorations, at which she was a guest on Tuesday: “What's the
point of commemoration, unless there is accountability?”
So two contributions from Tuesday's occasion in
London roared louder than all the hosts' rhetoric, despite being the
most softly spoken. One came from Mejra Duguz, who lost her husband,
sons, brothers and 40 members of her extended family, and said of
her return to live in Srebrenica: “Every day I see the men who
killed our children. Every day, they laugh in my face, as though to
say: 'We killed everything you had. You never had children because
we killed them and we kill them every day because we say they never
And a 'daughter of Srebrenica' of the new
generation, Nirha Efendic, who lost her father and only brother, and
pleaded that the British government, “pressure the Republika Srpska
to make denial of the genocide a crime”, as Holocaust denial is in
France. Now there is something to get on with, to do with these
otherwise impotent tears. There’s a start, nineteen years late,
better than never, towards what has to be the ultimate goal if peace
is to mean anything: the erosion or abolition of Republika Sprska
and unification of Bosnia.
Three recent events
The book was completed before three recent events
in Bosnia that undercut this institutionalised trampling on the
truth: street protests against mass lay-offs due to privatisation,
floods, and the World Cup. From outside the narrative of death, came
post-war themes which bonded communities regardless of wartime
experience: the fight for jobs, necessity to abate the waters and
the achievement of Edin Dzeko et. al. in qualifying for Brazil,
where they were supported by Bosnian Muslims and Serbs alike,
subverting the politics of ethnicity.
But it remains to be seen which cuts deeper: the
entrenched politics of racism and denial, or common interests. The
future of the latter serves all ethnic parties, especially Dodik's.
That of the latter clearly lies at the level of community, such as
the remarkable 'plenums' established to encapture the principles of
the protests. For its part though, the international community –
including and especially Britain - which facilitated the massacre,
continues to pander to those who rule by its denial, as impotent in
the face of Dodik's hatemongery as it was to General Ratko Mladic's
advance on the 'Safe Area'.
We knew then and we know now, whatever Hague and
Angelina say. And if there is an element of contrition in all this
commemoration, it needs to be stated clearly, humbly and without
mercy for a prior generation which appeased and encouraged the
Nettelfield and Wagner use a good term: 'the work
of remembrance', to describe marchers for peace and justice who
interrupt their lives annually to walk, as they did this week, in
reverse the 'road of death' along which stragglers tried to escape
the execution squads in 1995, usually without success. The 'work of
remembrance' does not describe canapes, speeches and goody-bags at
Lancaster House, unless they are urgently, cogently and decisively
acted upon in Bosnia; for the sake of the massacre's legacy, and
that as yet elusive reckoning without which commemoration is useless
and peace just a word.
Srebrenica in the Aftermath of Genocide by
Lara J. Nettelfield and Sarah E. Wagner is published by Cambridge
University Press. Ed Vulliamy is author of The War is Dead, Long
Live The War - Bosnia: The Reckoning, published by Vintage.