Opinion

25 years on: Addressing the continuing wounds of the Bosnian Genocide

**Trigger warning: sexual assault, violence**

In the years of relative peace following the end of the Second World War, there was a growing assumption that Europe had somehow moved beyond the kind of politics which could lead to repetition of the Nazi’s heinous crimes. However, 50 years after the collapse of the Nazis, genocide returned to Europe at the town of Srebrenica in Bosnia following the implosion of Yugoslavia.

Yugoslavia’s fragmentation had started four years earlier in 1991 when Croatia and Slovenia declared their independence, and from the start, the conflict developed an ethno-nationalist dimension. It was in Bosnia, however, that the violence of the war spilt into all-out genocide as Bosnian Serbs sought to “ethnically cleanse” their breakaway republic of Bosniak Muslims.

In an attempt to save the innocent Bosnian Muslims from Serb forces supported by the Yugoslav rump-state, the UN set up a series of so-called “safe zones” which were to be protected by international troops. The town of Srebrenica near the border with Serbia proper was one of these and home to over 40,000 Muslim refugees.  Yet, on the 11th of July 1995 Bosnian Serbs invaded without facing any resistance from UN forces. The massacre which followed their occupation has been ruled Europe’s only genocide since the Second World War, and even within the brutal context of the Bosnian War it was uniquely horrifying.

Women and children, many of whom were raped, were bused out of Srebrenica to Bosniak Muslim territory. Subsequently, over 8,000 men older than 15 who remained were systematically murdered in the next eleven days and buried in mass graves which cover the hills around Srebrenica. The scale of the killings was so vast that new mass graves are still found each year, with the remains of victims symbolically reburied every 11th July. The genocide represented a deliberate attempt to exterminate the Bosnian Muslim community, a fact Serb commanders freely acknowledged when planning the massacre.

The Bosnian War ended just four months after the Srebrenica genocide, as Bosnian and Croat factions united with NATO support to defeat the Serbs. In the years since, the key perpetrators of the genocide such as Serb general Ratko Mladic and politician Radovan Karadžić have been arrested with the latter sentenced to 40 years in prison for his role.

 However, while modern Bosnia is a peaceful country, it is still a deeply divided one. The Serb dominated region has  a high degree of autonomy from the government in Sarajevo. As a result, it is common for Serbs to deny the truth of the genocide, and the newly elected Serbian mayor of Srebrenica (which now has a Serb majority) has said “there was no deliberate attempt to commit genocide here”. Furthermore, rightwing terrorists such as Anders Breivik and the Christchurch mosque attacker referenced the Srebrenica genocide in their manifestos as “inspiration” for their actions.

 In the context of this continued genocide denial and the recent 25th anniversary of the massacre, there have been calls for Boris Johnson to apologies for past comments which appeared to deny the genocide. In 1997 he said that the Muslim victims of the genocide were “not exactly angels”, appearing to blame the victims for their own murder.  In response, the government has claimed the comments were taken out of context, and have pointed out that the international community owes it to the victims of Srebrenica to make sure such genocide never happens again.

The ramifications of the Srebrenica genocide clearly continue to this day. Within the modern nation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, polarisation over the status of the massacre, which many Serbs continue to deny was genocide, is the clearest fault line of a still deeply divided nation. As well as being a cause of conflict within Bosnia, the legacy of the genocide has fueled terrorism among white-nationalists across the globe, who view the actions of the Serb army as a perverse inspiration. However, perhaps the most lasting legacy of the genocide is the commitment by global powers to proactively act to prevent future massacres. It was this spirit which led to the West taking action to prevent ethnic violence in Kosovo in 1999 and Sierra Leone a year later. However, in the post-9/11world it cannot convincingly be said that the global powers have lived up to the standard they set themselves in seeking to atone for their lack of action at Srebrenica. Since then the West has proved unable to prevent ethnic violence in regions like Sudan and Burma, and China where the state’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims has been likened to the “ethnic cleansing” suffered by Muslims in Bosnia.