Across the Balkans: Srebrenica

An account of a journey from Croatia to Kosovo, by way of Bosnia-Hercegovina and Serbia, and with a detour into Montenegro. This is part VI of a series.

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Srebrenica–Potočari Memorial and Cemetery for the Victims of the 1995 Genocide in eastern Bosnia.

While I was in Sarajevo—hiding from the snow in Austrian cafés and reading Tim Butcher’s book about Gavrilo Princip—I spent a lot of time planning how I would get from Sarajevo to Srebrenica, scene of the 1995 massacre of some 8,000 Muslim men and boys.

I had made friends with the guides at a company called Funky Sarajevo, and they were more than willing to add me to a Srebrenica tour. (It’s about three hours to the northeast.) In winter, however, the tour only ran sporadically, and after seeing Srebrenica, I wanted (a bit like that Austrian railway) to head southeast through the Sandžak to Mitrovica (both are in Serbia, although Mitrovica is now claimed by Kosovo).

In the end, I showed up at the Sarajevo bus terminal for a 7:10 a.m. coach to Srebrenica. It meant setting the alarm in my Austro-Hungarian rooms for 6:00 a.m. and walking through Sarajevo in the darkness.

In a misty gloom I went past the Hotel Holiday, the American embassy, and the Sarajevo train station, all of which had a gothic strangeness in the penetrating cold and fog.

In February, as seen through the prism of a bus window, eastern Bosnia is a sad affair. It was hard for me to guess whether the villages we passed through were Muslim or Serb, but after a while I came to the conclusion that the larger towns, at least closer to the border, were Serb, while the villages strung out through some of the valleys were Muslim. There was a grim forbearance to the landscape, as if it was recovering from a plague (as perhaps it was).

My reading on the bus was David Rohde’s Endgame: The Betrayal and Fall of Srebrenica, Europe’s Worst Massacre Since World War II. I had a copy on my Kindle, and I had read some of the book before leaving Geneva.

Rohde was the Newsday journalist who broke the story of the massacre in 1995, not long after it happened. The book is a rewrite of his earlier dispatches, along with newer reporting on the cover-up that followed the killings.

In Sarajevo I had also gone to the Gallery 11/07/95, which is a permanent Srebrenica exhibition located across the courtyard from the main cathedral. It occupies a large space in Sarajevo’s emotional life, and tells the story of the massacre through a combination of photographs and handheld audio guides.

Much of the exhibit, as with Rohde’s book, recounts how international investigators were able to discover the remains of so many victims and how their families have now been able to give them a proper burial at the memorial site in Potočari, which is a short drive from the town of Srebrenica and where many of the victims were separated from their mothers, wives, children, or siblings. It was also the site of an abandoned car plant from Yugoslav days, which remains standing and is part of the memorial grounds.

On one level, it is easy to tell the Srebrenica story. After the fall of the town in July 1995 to the Bosnian Serb army, some 8,000 men and boys (most had been taken as prisoners of war) ended up dead in ditches in the lands around Bratunac, Potočari, and Srebrenica.

Some were killed in Serb captivity while others were shot trying to escape overland to Tuzla. Others simply died of exhaustion in the woods.

The Bosnian Serb commander who captured Srebrenica was General Ratko Mladić, who for years evaded NATO capture and deportation to the Hague Tribunal.

His eventual trial was important as he was judged guilty not simply of war crimes, but of genocide against the Muslims. At the same time the Tribunal ruled that the state of Serbia had not conspired (with the Bosnian Serb leadership and army) to carry out genocide in the killings around Srebrenica.

As a reading of history, it makes for a tidy story and one that, as the years blur, makes it easy to conclude, whatever the small print in the Hague says, that during the civil wars Serbia planned and executed a holocaust against Bosnian Muslims.

But the more I studied the details of the massacre, the less sure I became in understanding who also bears responsibility for the deaths of 8,000 Muslims in an eastern Bosnian town hard against the Drina river and the border with Serbia.

* * *

For example, some of the blame for the events around Srebrenica can be laid on the doorstep of the United Nations, which in its Bosnian peacekeeping efforts declared the town of Srebrenica to be a “safe zone.”

That meant it was under the protection of UN peacekeeping forces but still adjacent to a war zone in which heavy fighting was taking place between Serbs and Muslims.

The Serbs wanted the borderlands near the Drina to be purged of Muslim communities while the Muslims in the area—in all those villages I had seen on the bus ride—wanted to protect their homes and families.

One of the problems with the UN safe zones was that Muslim fighters used them to hide from Serb forces and to re-equip their soldiers. Sometimes even artillery was fired at the Serb positions from within enclaves such as Srebrenica.

Furthermore, the UN never had enough frontline soldiers to do an adequate job, either to protect the safe zones or to separate the combatants.

In Srebrenica, for example, all the UN had on the ground was an understrength Dutch battalion that was poorly trained and led, although in its defense it was assigned an impossible job—that of deploying about two companies to maintain peace in an area of eastern Bosnia that is larger than Amsterdam, and dotted with hills and valleys.

The lack of UN troop strength led to calls for air strikes against nearby Serb positions, but, had they happened, they would have confirmed what the Serbs suspected all along—that the UN and NATO were less interested in peacekeeping and more interested in helping Bosnian Muslims create an independent state.

* * *

By summer 1995, according to Rohde, the Bosnian Serbs hoped to end the war by launching a number of offensives in eastern and western Bosnia, to push the Muslims back and to connect the two parts of Bosnia in an ethnically pure state (what the Republika Srpska became).

Rohde writes:

The Bosnian Serb leadership had apparently decided to bring the war to a spectacular conclusion that summer. The Muslims were only growing stronger with time, so Serb tanks would have to sweep through eastern Bosnia and eliminate Srebrenica, Žepa and Goražde…. Once they took the three Muslim enclaves, the Serbs would have a de facto Serb-only state that stretched from eastern to western Bosnia. They could negotiate from a position of strength in the fall, and Bosnia could finally be partitioned into a Serb half and a Muslim-Croat half.

At the same time, the Bosnian Serbs were not the only army active in eastern Bosnia. Since the beginning of the war, the Serbs claimed, some 2,000 of their citizens and soldiers had been killed around Srebrenica and fifty of their villages had been burned. Rohde writes of earlier actions:

Forty-six Serb men were allegedly missing after the attack on Zalazje on the Serb holiday of St. George’s Day in May 1992. A St. Peter’s Day attack on July 12, 1992, left 120 dead in Zalazje. In Kravica, more than 100 Serbs, including ten to fifteen women, were allegedly killed; civilians were burned alive in their houses when the Muslims took the town in the surprise Orthodox Christmas attack in January 1993.

By summer 1995 the battle to control eastern Bosnia was reaching its crest. Rohde writes:

In July 1995, Serb nationalists viewed Srebrenica as the “epicenter of genocide” that the Muslims had been carrying out against the Serbs for centuries. It was a pretext for invasion, and as the afternoon wore on, it became clear the nationalists didn’t care if Naser Orić [the local Muslim commander] and the Muslim soldiers who may have deserved retribution were in Tuzla or not. They were simply eager to get their hands on any men from Srebrenica.

When it came to rounding up the enemy, the army of Ratko Mladić made little distinction between the Dutch peacekeeping forces in Srebrenica and the Muslim men in the town—although the Dutch were later released and not killed.

The few Dutch checkpoints on the roads around Srebrenica made no difference to the advancing Bosnian Serb army, which little by little in June and July 1995 began to encircle Bosnian forces around the enclave of Srebrenica. Rohde writes:

Whether by design or not, General Ratko Mladić had flushed 10,000 to 15,000 mostly unarmed Muslim men into a ten-square-mile killing zone. Behind them lay the fallen enclave. In every other direction were asphalt roads Mladić was trying to fill with Bosnian Serb soldiers. If Mladić could seal two crucial stretches of road—one running from Bratunac to Konjevi Polje and the other from Konjevi Polje to Milii—Srebrenica’s men would be trapped in the Serb general’s “iron ring.”

The Dutch peacekeepers could not defend the Srebrenica enclave, and when captured they traded their own lives for those of the Muslim captives in the town, who, in effect, were swapped for allowing the Dutch to withdraw.

In film footage at the Gallery 11/07/95 in Sarajevo, Muslim men are shown being separated from their families and herded onto buses in Potočari, while in the background Dutch soldiers can be seen doing noting to oppose the deportations, even though the fate of the prisoners must have been clear.

Author Tim Butcher writes in The Trigger: “The political leadership of the international community was yet to be shamed into decisiveness. Precisely what the French general had assured the people of Srebrenica would never happen was happening – they were being abandoned.”

At later enquiries, Dutch soldiers testified that they were too under-gunned and undermanned to defend the UN “safe zone,” and despite many pleas during the days leading up to the town’s fall, NATO declined to intervene with air strikes.

Rohde writes: “The collective failure of the United States, France and Britain, NATO, the United Nations, the Bosnian government, the Dutch and the town’s Muslim defenders to effectively protect the town is one of the great controversies—and mysteries—of the war in Bosnia.”

* * *

The bus from Sarajevo dropped me at the main gate of the Potočari memorial, known officially as the Srebrenica–Potočari Memorial and Cemetery for the Victims of the 1995 Genocide.

It was around 10:00 a.m., and the grounds of the cemetery were empty, although in front of me I could see waves of white obelisk headstones sweeping up and around the surrounding hills, as if so many dominoes in a great diplomatic game.

Before entering the cemetery, I walked across the street to the factory (it had manufactured car batteries), and there along the walls of the empty warehouses I looked at the pictures of a memorial ceremony, most of which showed various world leaders—Bill Clinton, Angela Merkel, Lord Paddy Ashdown, etc.—consoling the families of the victims.

The compelling storyboards avoid the inconvenient truths about German and American complicity in the Bosnian tragedy, beginning with Germany’s determination to support the dissolution of Yugoslavia even though no coherent plan existed to protect the rights and lives of citizens assigned to live in countries not of their own choosing.

Nor should Bill Clinton be able to stand tall with the victims of Srebrenica when his administration was on the wrong side of most decisions involving the war in Yugoslavia.

Most egregiously, it failed to support the 1993 Vance-Owen Plan that might well have ended the fighting two years before it stopped—for the simple reason that Vance-Owen was the work of the UN and the EU, not the Clinton administration.

In 1995, the Clinton administration gave active military assistance to Croatia to cleanse several hundred thousand Serbs from the Krajina region of Croatia while all the while, at the UN and elsewhere, it spoke of the United States as an “honest broker” in the conflict.

In time for the 1996 presidential election, Clinton and his acolyte Richard Holbrooke forced the Dayton Peace Agreement on the combatants.

In one sense it brought “peace in our time” to Bosnia, but in a larger sense it shifted the conflict to Kosovo, left unresolved the issues that destroyed Yugoslavia, and bequeathed to the international community a jury-rigged Bosnian state—the debt for which has yet to be paid.

Another skeptic about the iconography of the genocide at Srebrenica is Diana Johnstone, who questions the accuracy of Rohde’s reporting and suggests that he was a mouthpiece of the Clinton administration that for its own political ends sought to blame the entire conflict on the Serbs. She writes:

In fact, [Rohde’s trip to the killing fields around Srebrenica] did not establish the presence of “graves”, since all he saw, by his own account, was exactly what the aerial intelligence photo had already shown: something that “appeared to be a human” leg. Since he was there, couldn’t he at least make sure what it was? Why didn’t he take close-up photographs that would show more detail than the satellite photo? But in the same Newsweek interview, he indicated that on that trip, he did not even bother to take a camera. And for this amazing reporting, he won a Pulitzer prize. Not only that, he went on to write a book, Endgame, about the Srebrenica massacre in semi-fictional style, where known fact cannot be separated from the author’s imagination, inasmuch as the book presumed to tell the story from inside the minds of its Muslim characters. The result is neither a good novel nor good journalism. On the jacket of this book is a statement by Bill Moyers claiming that: “David Rohde broke the story the old-fashioned way. He followed some rumors, he followed some trails until he came to a leg protruding from the ground. He wrote the story of Srebrenica and the nation suddenly knew of the largest single killing in Europe since Jews were murdered wholesale in the Second World War.” This blurb contradicts Rohde’s own account of the way he “broke the story” – unless the “old-fashioned way” is indeed to follow a U.S. intelligence trail in order to confirm a public accusation made by the United States government representative at the United Nations.

Johnstone’s larger point is that, tragic as the conflict was in Bosnia and around former Yugoslavia, responsibility needs to be shared by all those who played a hand in Yugoslavia’s destruction, including the United States and Germany.

Ratko Mladić and his henchmen may have tightened the noose around Srebrenica, but his rope salesmen came from many corners of the international community.

* * *

From the picture galleries in the car battery factory, I walked back across the road and wandered among the headstones. By now it was closer to noon, and with me were a handful of local women, each of whom wore a headscarf.

A few of them were carrying cleaning tools and rags, and when they found their husband or son in the cemetery they set to work cleaning the marker. I had seen similar women in the films at the 11/07/95 Gallery in Sarajevo, and while these women worked in grim silence, it was easy to imagine their anguish.

From Potočari I caught a ride into the town of Srebrenica, which was about four miles to the south, and there in the main square I waited for the ride into Serbia that I had arranged.

I stood in the town square, and around it I recognized some of the landmarks in the museum films showing the Bosnian Serbs taking control of the town in July 1995.

At the time Mladić, commanding the attacking forces, referred to the Muslims as “Turks”, and, in turn, the Muslims described the Serbs as “Chetniks,” both terms from earlier centuries, although they speak to lingering memories in the Balkans.

The car that I had hired came from a small hotel in Užice, Serbia, and the driver, Andrej, recognized me at once. He explained that the desk clerk had given him my name and cell phone number, and where we were to meet, and after a loop around Srebrenica (now a Serbian town) we set off for the Drina river and the crossing into Serbia.

Before crossing the river, we had to drive through the town of Bratunac, which I had come across in my reading. Even during the worst of the fighting, it had remained in Serb control, and its blocked crossroads, I am sure, contributed to the massacre at Srebrenica, as they would have been a chokepoint for anyone trying to escape the rings around Potočari and Srebrenica.

Even now Bratunac has the feel of the Wild West, and I am sure most of the pickup trucks around town have shotguns under their front seats.

Crossing the Drina river and going through border controls took less than three minutes. The river was wider than I had remembered, and the banks on either side were steep.

The guard on duty just glanced at my passport and waved us through. I had the feeling that he knew the driver but went through the motions of scanning at his ID card. Then we drove in the direction of Užice, a provincial city in southern Serbia, which would have been on the rail line to Salonica when Austria was pressing toward the sea.

I had no choice but to hire a taxi to go from Srebrenica to Užice, as none of the buses, as best I could calculate, connected the towns on either side of the Serbian-Bosnian frontier.

I was relived not to see troops or military vehicles on either side of the river frontier. Maybe there is hope for the Balkans?

As all I had eaten was a bus station feeding at 6:45 a.m., I asked Andrej to stop somewhere for lunch, and he chose a restaurant overlooking a bend in the river. We sat together for a while, but then he excused himself to make some phone calls, and while lingering over coffee I pressed ahead with a book on my Kindle: Julian Borger’s The Butcher’s Trail: How the Search for Balkan War Criminals Became the World’s Most Successful Manhunt.

I knew Borger’s reporting from the Guardian and thought the book, in the nature of a non-fiction thriller, might prove diverting as I wandered across Serbia, especially as many figures in the account would have often crossed the Drina in a car as nondescript as mine.

The Butcher’s Trail (nothing to do with Tim Butcher) is an account of the Hague Tribunal and how the likes of Slobodan Milošević, Radovan Karadžić, and Ratko Mladić were brought to justice (or at least to the Netherlands). For example, of Mladić, he writes:

In general, the bigger the prize the harder the pursuit. Ratko Mladić, the Bosnian Serb commander who orchestrated the siege of Sarajevo and the capture of Srebrenica, was wanted for genocide and crimes against humanity. Catching him would have been a coup, but he had withdrawn to a mountain stronghold befitting a Bond villain, a nuclear bunker Tito had built at Han Pijesak, in eastern Bosnia [not far, ironically, from Srebrenica]. There he was surrounded by concentric rings of bodyguards.

When not chasing monsters, the book is a meditation on what the war crimes tribunal has meant for future peace and stability in the Balkans.

Only when their enemies were being picked up and carted off to the Hague did many in former Yugoslavia embrace the jurisdiction of a foreign court in adjudicating war crimes in the civil wars; the rest of the time it was viewed as yet another palliative for the great powers—a bit like Bill Clinton’s embrace of the victim families at Srebrenica—enabling them to feel they had “done something” to relieve the suffering in places like Sarajevo and Srebrenica.

Finally, the book addresses the international politics of the Hague Tribunal, as in many cases it was national leaders—Milošević and Tudjman among them—who were the targets of the most-wanted lists and manhunts. Borger writes:

The creation of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 2002, not far from the ICTY’s (the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, which the UN established) headquarters in The Hague, marked a historic and significant transfer of legal authority from sovereign states to an international institution. More than 120 states now give the ICC the power to initiate proceedings against high functionaries suspected of serious crimes, including genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and aggression.

The United States refused to become a party to the ICC process, and moreover refused to recognize that the ICC would ever have jurisdiction over American military or political personnel.

The ICTY Hague would be fine for dispatching warlords who did their killing at mountainous roadblocks but would lack legal standing to go after those who played the same game on the playing fields of terrorism with drones.

* * *

Borger is an excellent reporter, and he tells a gripping story about how the West, in effect, blackmailed the Serbian government to turn over Slobodan Milošević to the Hague. He needed to be brought in, before Serbia would get access to the largesse of the European Community or shortlisted for NATO membership (neither of which has come through).

Milošević had been in power for more than thirteen years and was regarded–at least in West—as the architect of so-called Greater Serbia although under his watch Serbia proper shrank to the size of its 1878 Treaty of Berlin frontiers.

At the end Milošević was living on borrowed time in a Belgrade mansion. Borger writes: “Within a few months, this walled villa at 11 Užička Street, known as the Oval House, was all that remained of his territorial pretensions. It was the last redoubt of Slobodavia. Like a miniature version of Milošević’s Yugoslavia, it was a state built on delusion, crime, and violence.”

One of the sadder byproducts of the apprehension of Milošević and others on the Hague wanted lists is that it put Serbia’s charismatic and engaging prime minister, Zoran Djindjic, on the kill list of the local mafia, for whom the betrayal of certain paramilitary groups to the ICTY was an unpardonable sin.

The last U.S. ambassador to Yugoslavia, William Montgomery, writes in his memoirs: “Djindjic’s decision to go after the Zemun Gang and Legija [local outlaws] with criminal warrants based on the Cume confession was his death sentence. It was seen by the gang and by Legija as an act of betrayal.”

Djindjic was shot dead near his ministry in 2003, ending for more than a decade the chances for Serbia to work more closely with the West and the EU, while Milošević died on trial in the Hague—an angry man, acting as his own counsel, ranting to this accusers about Serbian history.

Johnstone writes: “This was a fool’s bargain. Serbia got virtually nothing for selling its former president. Rather, the planned conviction of Milošević by the ICTY was designed not only to justify NATO bombing, but also to establish Serbia’s guilt for all the wars of Yugoslav disintegration.”

* * *

Bringing in Karadžić and Mladić took much longer, as both the former president of the Republika Srpska and its commanding general had friends in high places across Bosnia and Serbia, and they supplied both men with false identity papers and secure hideouts while on the run.

Karadžić was arrested in Belgrade in 2008. His cover at that time was as a new-age faith healer and online merchant of various feel-good products. He even had a website and, for a while before his capture, had taken his miracle cures on the road to Vienna and other European cities, posing as a Croat, Petar Glumac.

Thanks to friends in the network of the former Yugoslav National Army, Mladić managed to stay on the lamb until 2011, when he was taken in a raid in northern Serbia at time when the EU was pressuring Serbia to turn over the last of the Bosnian Serb war criminals.

Like Karadžić, Mladić was given a life sentence in the Hague, but in many respects their convictions came too late for them to have a positive effect on Serb relations with NATO and the EU.

By that point, few in Serbia or Republika Srpska saw much of a future in co-operating with either the UN or European organizations, and while a “track” toward the EU remains the goal of many in the Belgrade government, few want to run for re-election by pledging more co-operation with the West.

In Serbia, the ICTY is perceived as a Nuremberg-like proceeding set up to apportion war guilt to the Serbs. Of the 161 indictments that the court handed down, some 94 were against Serbs. Of the others charged, 29 were Croats, 2 were Bosnian Muslims, 9 were Albanian and 4 were Macedonian or Montenegrin. (The counterpart of Slobodan Milošević in Croatia, President Franjo Tudjman, escaped the proceedings when he died of cancer in 1999.)

Although he’s a believer in the ICTY, Borger writes:

In Serb eyes, the justice meted out by the Hague Tribunal was partial in more ways than one. Crimes against Serbs, they say, have largely gone unpunished. They point in particular to the killings of hundreds of mostly elderly Serbs in Croatia in the aftermath of Operation Storm in August 1995, and the murder of Serb civilians at the hands of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) guerrillas after the 1999 war. There was outrage over the acquittal of Orić, the Bosniak commander in Srebrenica, and of Haradinaj, the former KLA commander. The latter’s trial was marked by the death and disappearance of several of the witnesses.

And he quotes a London professor for whom the tribunal turned into an exercise of political reprisal: “The acquittals, wrote Eric Gordy, a lecturer in the politics of Southeast Europe at University College London, marked ‘a sad end to the story of a court that was founded with little hope, encouraged some, then jettisoned it all.’”

Few are as scathing in condemning the ICTY as Johnstone, who believes it was set up to assuage the conscience of the West (for having done little to stop the violence) and to pin blame on a convenient scapegoat (the Serbs) for all the problems in the Balkans. She writes:

The fact that the ICTY set up its operations in The Hague led many people to assume it was somehow related to the International Court of Justice in the same town. The two are entirely separate, in origins and in function. The ICJ rules on issues of international law, a matter clearly within the competence of distinguished jurists. The ICTY is called upon to judge disputed facts in distant places, a far more problematic task…. The Tribunal makes its own rules and privileges the Prosecution.

She concludes: “However, by portraying Serb attachment to Yugoslavia as an aggressive nationalist plot to create ‘Greater Serbia’, the secessionists transformed this obstacle into an asset. Serbs’ desire to stay in Yugoslavia was transformed into the main argument for destroying it.”

Later I met a man who said of Yugoslavia’s dissolution: “Why wouldn’t Germany and Austria want it [Yugoslavia] in many pieces? It had been a strong country, and now, when they looked south, they would see only weak ones? Turkey, too, would like to increase its influence in the Balkans.”

Depending on how you count, former Yugoslavia has been turned into seven (possibly eight, if you add in Republika Srpska) countries, all of which dwell in a nether world of international politics (where, sadly, war is one of the few exportable commodities).

Next up: Serbia and its discontents. Read the earlier installments here.


Matthew Stevenson is the author of many books, including Reading the Rails, Appalachia Spring, andThe Revolution as a Dinner Party, about China throughout its turbulent twentieth century. His most recent book, about traveling in France and the Franco-Prussian wars, is entitled Biking with Bismarck. His new book is: Our Man in Iran.