We recently commemorated the 25th anniversary of this terrible massacre, which occurred right in the heart of Europe. This event should ashame everyone, but the old continent should be particularly embarrassed. That’s why it’s important to keep this historic memory alive, so that nothing like it ever happens again.
The events should be analyzed exactly as they happened, with objectivity and without any political pressure, which instead of defusing tense situations, usually ends up triggering the deadliest of incidents.
There has been ethnic cleansing throughout history, especially in the 20th century, a time when liberal principles and fraternal ideals were repeated ad nauseam. Oftentimes, however, actions speak much louder than words.
We are heading towards a geostrategic future in which the most in-demand principle will be stability. The area where this happened is precisely the most battered by the winds of the worst destabilizing factors, namely, racial, ethnic, and religious issues.
This region had previously been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, heir to the old Roman stability. However, the victors of the First World War made sure to fragment the empire in order to render it toothless and better exploit its riches.
After the Second World War came communist Yugoslavia, which brought stability to the area at the hands of Marshal Tito. This dictator united all of the Balkan states under his ferocious communist dictatorship, even though this entailed exiling 300,000 Italians, who had to flee the areas of Fiume and Istria.
Our European historical memory still harbors the massive deportations carried out during and after the Second World War, including the Jewish Holocaust, the religious persecution, and the ethnic cleansing that the Germans endured in their territories, among others.
After the breakup of the Yugoslavian Federation, conflict erupted once more, fueled by a new, ambitious local elite who succumbed to their most basic political instincts. With its limited resources, the UN tried to help create a security framework to avoid ethnic cleansing and the killing of innocent people. Of all of the newly emerging republics, Serbia had the greatest military power, and this, in part, caused disavowal among the international public opinion.
Generally speaking, the West viewed this fragmentation of the old Yugoslavia favorably, as this clearly demonstrated that the communist experiment in the area had been a resounding failure. On the other side, the Russian Federation had its own woes and could do little to alleviate the suffering of their Orthodox Christian brethren in Greater Serbia. Its occupation of the Pristina airport, Kosovo, in 1999 was the only gesture it could muster during that long war. The solution to that conflict would have been remarkably different if Russia had been enjoying the stability it currently does under president Vladimir Putin’s government.
As for the city of Srebrenica in Bosnia, with its majority of Bosnian Muslims, it suffered a cruel assault from the Bosnian Serb forces under General Ratko Mladić, leading to the massacre of thousands of Bosniaks. However, we must not forget that the cities surrounding it, with their Serbian majority, also suffered similar assaults at the hands of the Bosnian Muslims. On November 22, 2017, Mladić was declared responsible for the Srebrenica genocide, guilty of crimes against humanity and war crimes, and was sentenced to life in prison.
A decade before, Bosnia, that republic in the Yugoslavian Federation, had hosted the spectacular 1984 Winter Olympics in its capital, Sarajevo. That event was a huge international success. Looking back today, after the tragic war that befell the country, the fact that these games took place there is mind-boggling. It’s proof that what are today areas filled with peace and harmony can quickly degenerate into territories ripe for massacres.
To fully understand the reality of what happened in Srebrenica, I recommend a one-hour documentary on YouTube entitled Srebrenica: A Town Betrayed, created by a Bosnian Muslim journalist (who can therefore hardly be accused of having sympathies for the Serbs).
In early July 1995, the Bosnian Serb Army launched an offensive that isolated the city of Srebrenica and the surrounding areas.
The Dutch military forces under the international mandate, sent there to protect the Bosnian Muslim enclave, requested air support twice from the United Nations to stop the offensive. However, this air support never materialized. Without the help of the international community, the city was abandoned to its fate, completely surrounded by overwhelming military forces.
The conflict was truly entrenched; unbridled passions flared and the international community was completely powerless to end a civil war right in the heart of Europe. We’re talking about an armed conflict without a clearly discernible front line, with multiple and ever-changing battle lines, and where alliances and cease-fires were barely respected. It was a kind of a free-for-all war that happened everywhere at once, and it was all larded with illegal firearm sales, as arms dealers saw the conflict as a business opportunity.
Srebrenica was a strategically situated city from which attacks were launched against nearby enemy areas. It was one of the main chess pieces for a civil war like that one, and thus expendable –at least according to the aforementioned documentary– in the pursuit of more important interests, both for the commanders and for the final outcome of the chess match.
The most dramatic thing is that this city was under UN protection, more specifically by a Dutch detachment, which instead of defending the helpless population after the Serbian occupation, withdrew from their barracks towards safer positions. This undoubtedly unleashed the Serbians’ fury against the Bosnian Muslims. The Dutch abandonment of the city caused an uproar in the Netherlands and was a source of national embarrassment, to such an extent that a report commissioned by the Dutch Parliament on the role played by its military forces ended up toppling the government responsible and causing new general elections to be held in 2002.
The entire international community was furious at the failed efforts to avoid the events in Srebrenica.
The reality is that spreading the images of this massacre on the international communications channels created a wave of outrage against the Bosnian Serbs. This indignation was ultimately the reason the international community was able to pressure the participants into putting an end to the hostilities, which were definitively halted with the signing of the Dayton Peace Accords in late 1995.
The horrors of Srebrenica must never be seen again: summary executions and massive human rights violations are unseemly in the heart of old Europe.
The massacres and deportations continued in the former Yugoslavia, just on a different scale and under new scenarios. One example was the military operation ‘Oluja’ in the Republic of Serbian Krajina, backed by the most important countries of the European Union, which took place on August 5th, 1995. This operation caused thousands of Serbians to be displaced in the area.
During those months, I was serving in the military intelligence division of the Spanish Legion as a distinguished legionnaire, in the African city of Melilla, and I have vivid memories of those events. My commanders and comrades fell under the bullets of that fratricidal war, funded by foreign strategic interests and fueled by internal political malice. An especially painful event was the death of the legionnaire José León Gómez from a mortar launched by the Bosnian Muslims (who blamed the Bosnian Croats), a group that could not accept the presence of the Spaniards in the city of Jablanica and harried them nonstop. This conflict only ended when the Spanish detachment was replaced by a Malaysian one from the UN.
In any case, the Spanish soldiers found themselves involved in many similar situations to the Dutch, although none as serious as this one. They never abandoned the civil population they were entasked with protecting, which should make us feel proud of the military and humanitarian aid we provided.
As a final conclusion to this article, I would like to reflect on the need to create a framework for stability as a source of peace and progress. The reality is that right now, the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina is a territory in permanent crisis, both politically and economically, and it depends on EU subsidies to survive.
One of the objectives of the European VISEGRAD group is precisely this, and the truth is that it has managed to bring peace to important swaths of this fragment of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire and develop them economically.
Fueling independence-seeking and localist movements may trigger new situations that prove to be as lethal as the one described here. Both Spain and the European Union should remember what happened in Srebrenica and in Bosnia, so that it never happens again, neither on Spanish soil nor anywhere else in Europe.
Guillermo Rocafort is professor of International Relations