Twenty Years Since Srebrenica: No Reconciliation, We’re Still at War

Right now, people in the Balkan region are still living a war, this time for the ‘truth’ about ethnic superiority that will shape the attitudes of future generations.

Bosnia and Herzegovina is about to mark the twentieth anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide – a somber moment of remembrance, seen by many as an opportunity to promote the notion of reconciliation between the country’s ethnic groups. The United Kingdom seems to be the leading proponent of such an approach, with a draft resolution commemorating Srebrenica already circulating among the Security Council members and the ‘interested states,’ primarily Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia.

However, a brief glance at the public discourse around the anniversary paints a very different picture, one of no political agenda for reconciliation, of no social project aimed at overcoming the legacy of the conflict from the ‘90s, of a continuing struggle for ethnic dominance. Indeed, can we constructively talk about reconciliation in a country still gripped by war?

It is not a war for territory anymore, with the cannons having fallen silent 20 years ago with the signing of the Dayton Peace Accords, but it is a war nonetheless. A war fought by ‘other means,’ a vicious fight for the dominant narrative of the past, for the ‘truth’ as the foundation of political projects largely rooted in wartime goals of ethnic separation and dominance. This war is mainly fought out in political arenas, but also in the media, in classrooms, churches and mosques, at family dinner tables, and its consequences are bound to have a lasting impact on the region’s stability.

In this war, Srebrenica remains one of the key battlefields. This small mining town in north-eastern Bosnia has become synonymous with the systematic killing of some 8000 Bosniak boys and men in July 1995 by Bosnian Serb forces. The wholesale killings took place over several days after the UN-protected enclave fell to forces led by General Ratko Mladić, the commander of the Army of Republika Srpska (Vojska Republike Srpske), who is today on trial for genocide and crimes against humanity at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in the Hague.

Once the killing was over, the Serb military and police undertook a huge effort to excavate the mass graves and relocate bodies over a large area in eastern Bosnia. The search for bodily remains of victims goes on to this day, with 6241 exhumed and buried at the memorial center in Potočari, the former headquarters of the Dutch UN battalion tasked with protecting the enclave.

Aside from the location of the remaining, well-hidden secondary and tertiary mass graves, there is very little that remains unknown about how the genocide in Srebrenica unfolded. Yet, these basic facts – the number of victims, the systematic nature of the killings and subsequent efforts to hide the bodies, the existence of a plan, and the vast network of participants in the murderous effort, albeit with various levels of genocidal intent – are still disputed by much of the Serbian political, academic and religious establishment.

This despite the largest investigation undertaken in Europe after World War II, numerous trials and judgments at the ICTY, Bosnian courts and, ultimately, the International Court of Justice. This despite the report of the Commission on Srebrenica, a comprehensive inquiry ordered by Bosnia’s Human Rights Chamber in 2004. This despite the cemetery in Potočari, where more than 6000 graves testify to the magnitude of the killings. This despite an overwhelming body of evidence and personal testimonies of survivors collected by official bodies, civil society and academic groups in Bosnia and abroad over the last 20 years.

Milorad Dodik, the president of Republika Srpska, the Bosnian Serb entity in Bosnia and Herzegovina, has fortified his political career with the denial of facts about the Srebrenica genocide, calling it “the biggest sham of the 20th century.” Well aware of the neuralgic point that Srebrenica represents for Bosniaks, Dodik’s rhetoric of denial has become more virulent over the years and set the tone for the discourse on the matter among Bosnian Serbs: “I say that genocide was not committed in Srebrenica. There was no genocide! There was a plan according to which certain foreign and Bosniak politicians planned to impose responsibility upon us Serbs for something we have not done!”

Previous efforts at acknowledgement, including the televised apology to Srebrenica victims in 2005 by then-president of Republika Srpska, Dragan Čavić, which came after the release of the Srebrenica Commission’s report, have been branded by Dodik and his followers as a “betrayal of Serbdom”.

Under the onslaught of politics of denial, all potential explanations of motives and circumstances that made the Srebrenica genocide possible, and the openings for reconciliation these testimonies created, were neutralized and forgotten. Several such admissions were made by officers and high-ranking Serb politicians involved in the Srebrenica slaughter, but none articulated the motive behind this and other crimes committed by Serb forces as clearly as the guilty plea of Biljana Plavšić, a former president of Bosnian Serbs: “The obvious questions become, if this truth is now self-evident, why did I not see it earlier? And how could our leaders and those who followed have committed such acts? The answer to both questions is, I believe, fear, a blinding fear that led to an obsession, especially for those of us for whom the Second World War was a living memory, that Serbs would never again allow themselves to become victims. In this, we in the leadership violated the most basic duty of every human being, the duty to restrain oneself and to respect the human dignity of others. We were committed to do whatever was necessary to prevail.”

This was in 2002, when there was genuine hope of reconciliation. Thirteen years later, Srebrenica remains a gaping wound on the mangled, crushed body of Bosnia and Herzegovina. A wound wrapped in poisonous bandages of Serb politics of denial and dressed with the toxic balm of mythologized victimhood used as political currency by Bosniak nationalists.

There is hardly a single Bosniak politician in power or opposition who did not succumb to the temptation of profiting from what has become an orchestrated, macabre spectacle of mass burials on 11th July, where masses descend for the televised ceremony, pierced by columns of expensive cars carrying VIPs who must be seen to sympathize with the mothers of Srebrenica only to leave before the first shovels of earth are thrown into the graves. Speeches of “never again” are given, photos are taken, postures of defenders against Dodik’s denial are assumed, the holiness of victims is exalted. But only while the spectacle is televised. On the 12th of July, Potočari and Srebrenica are ghostly, except for the mothers in their empty homes and the customary unit of Serbian Radicals clad in black who parade through town to demonstrate the emptiness of promises given to Srebrenica by Bosniak leaders the day before.

The families of Srebrenica’s murdered victims are stuck between these two seemingly opposing – but in reality mutually reinforcing – parasitical approaches to the facts, the enormous symbolic and emotional significance, and the devastating consequences of the Srebrenica genocide. Along with the rest of the paralyzed society, they are forced to endure a limbo with no acknowledgement and little justice, a limbo constructed by the constant manufacturing of fear and hatred.

As a result, the sea of facts about Srebrenica established beyond reasonable doubt does not serve to help us come to terms with what took place, but to illustrate the absence of genuine political will to acknowledge the long-term effects of genocide endured by the targeted community and the entire society. And never has the destructive effect of this unwillingness to acknowledge been clearer than it is now.

The United Kingdom has been working for some time on the text of a resolution about the Srebrenica genocide to be presented for adoption in the United Nations Security Council. Although the text is still under discussion, the leaked draft indicates an attempt to honor all victims of the conflict in Bosnia, with a particular acknowledgment of the horrors inflicted by the crime of genocide and the need to confront its legacy. “We expect that it will commemorate the victims of the genocide at Srebrenica, and those who suffered on all sides in the war, and that it will encourage further steps toward reconciliation and a brighter future for Bosnia and Herzegovina,” explained Edward Ferguson, the UK ambassador in Sarajevo.

It is not entirely clear what the real benefit of such a document would be for the victims, but the initiative could be seen as an attempt to finally nudge the Serb political actors in Bosnia and Serbia towards some sort of acknowledgement which is more substantive than the previous qualified and largely empty apologies by Serbian presidents Boris Tadić and Tomislav Nikolić. Such an approach could be in line with the renewed push led by the UK and Germany to put Bosnia back on track for European integration. Or it could be a simple attempt to take the festering wound that is Srebrenica off the political agenda once and of all.

Whatever the intent, the Serb leadership would have none of it.

Prime minister of Serbia Aleksandar Vučić rejected the resolution, but being the pragmatist he is, he refrained from hysterics and opted to act instead: his judiciary activated an arrest warrant for war crimes against Naser Orić, a former commander of Bosnian Army in Srebrenica, who is seen as a heroic figure by the genocide survivors, despite allegations made against him by Serb victims and some of his former comrades. Although he was acquitted of similar charges by the ICTY, and despite a track record of political indictments by the Serbian war crimes prosecutor, Orić was duly arrested by Swiss authorities while travelling to Geneva to attend a commemoration ceremony. The uproar by victims’ groups in Bosnia at Serbia’s request for Orić’s extradition was such that they threatened to cancel the central commemoration ceremony and burial on 11 July if he was not released. In the end, the Swiss authorities relented and handed Orić over to Bosnia instead of Serbia. And while the manufactured cacophony of reactions and counter-reactions over Orić’s arrest continues to deepen the animosity between Serbs and Bosniaks, conveniently rendering the future UN SC resolution increasingly meaningless, Vučić has announced he would come to Srebrenica commemoration, but only “if the Bosniaks want it.”

On the other side of the border, Milorad Dodik branded the proposed resolution as “an attack on Serbs” and promptly travelled to Russia to plead for a veto in the Security Council (Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov called the resolution “anti-Serb” but stopped short of promising a veto). Dodik stated that the resolution is an “attack on reconciliation and can cause further inter-ethnic strife in the Balkans with the unjustified pressure on Serbia and Bosnian Serbs.”

By this logic a document acknowledging the Srebrenica genocide and all victims of the war is an attack on reconciliation and a threat to regional stability, but Dodik’s repeated denial of genocide and publicly stated intent to break up Bosnia and Herzegovina are not.

To any outside observer, Vučić’s actions and Dodik’s logic make no sense given their declared commitment to European integration, regional stability and lasting peace. Indeed, they are hard to understand unless contextualized within the continuation of the wartime effort to achieve firm and lasting separation of ethnic groups in Bosnia and a separate state for Bosnian Serbs. In that context, they make perfect sense.

Serb nationalists continue to believe that the framework of the Dayton Peace Accords provides a good reason to hope that the latter goal is a matter of time. At the same time, the battle for the separation of narratives about the recent past is in full swing and almost won. The fruits of it are visible everywhere in the public discourse, but nowhere more so than in the attitudes of the young. Last week, a petition signed by some 400 students of Belgrade University urged Vučić not to go to Srebrenica, claiming that “genocide was invented to prevent reconciliation” and that such an act of acknowledgement would forever brand all Serbs as “genocidal.” Almost none of these students were born when the war in Bosnia broke out.

In circumstances like these, where should we expect the impetus for reconciliation to come from? The UK initiative seems to indicate that the UN Security Council is the address, but it would be very naïve to expect that such processes can take root as a result of outside imposition.

On the other hand, the German ambassador in Bosnia, Christian Hellbach, seems to think it is up to the people: “People in Bosnia and Herzegovina still don’t understand that reconciliation can only happen if the people themselves make an effort to initiate the contact with the other side and not to constantly insist on their point of view and expect others to make compromises.”

I am not sure what experience Mr. Hellbach is drawing on when making this assertion, but it certainly is not rooted in the German experience. Even the famed Franco-German reconciliation did not happen with rivers of ordinary Germans and French streaming to embrace and leave behind decades and centuries of conflict, but were led down that path, strongly and decisively, by leaders like Charles de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer.

In fact, there is no example anywhere on the planet where reconciliation in the aftermath of an ethnic conflict occurred without a national project of rebuilding of trust led by those with broad popular support and legitimacy. Such political, national projects of national unity and reconciliation usually subsume measures of accountability, institutional reform and reckoning with the difficult truths concerning the causes and consequences of violence. To succeed, they require strong, brave political leadership. We have no such leaders. This is what our friends from the UK, Germany and elsewhere in the international community must accept if they are genuinely interested in helping.

This is not to say that the people in Bosnia and Herzegovina of all ethnic backgrounds are somehow immune to the notions of reconciliation. Contrary to the Kaplan-style stereotypes, we are not bloodthirsty tribes seething with hatred and waiting for an opportune moment to slaughter each other.

However, we are not immune to fear-mongering and nationalism. We, like countless other nations, for better or worse, will under the ‘right’ circumstances follow our leaders to war, whatever form it takes. Right now, we are living the war for the ‘truth’ about ethnic superiority intended to shape the attitudes of the coming generations. And in war, there can be no acknowledgement of the enemy’s suffering, let alone reconciliation.


Cover photo credit: Martin Lützenrath/

Liked it? Take a second to support Balkanist on Patreon!
Refik Hodzic

Refik Hodzic is director of communications at the International Center for Transitional Justice. For almost two decades, Hodzic has worked in transitional justice as a journalist, filmmaker as well as an expert in public information and outreach campaigns for international and national courts seeking justice for war crimes. His work is focused on the relationship of post-conflict justice efforts and media, and he has worked primarily in the former Yugoslavia, Lebanon, Colombia, Tunisia and Timor-Leste. Before his current role at ICTJ he consulted for the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), where he developed recommendations for the STL’s outreach strategy and helped implement several high-impact projects. While working with the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia from 2000–2004 and 2006–2010, he served as the tribunal’s spokesman and outreach coordinator for Bosnia and Herzegovina. He was part of the team that established the War Crimes Division of the Court of BiH and was the first head of its the public information and outreach section, where he developed a comprehensive public information and outreach strategy for the court and the state prosecutor’s office. In 2004, Hodzic co-founded XY Films, an independent film and television production company producing documentary films dealing with the legacy of war crimes committed during the 1990s. he has published widely on issues of transitional justice and media, and some of his work includes “Living the Legacy of Mass Atrocities: Victims’ Perceptions of War Crimes Trials,” Journal of International Criminal Justice (2010), Statement 710399, documentary, XY productions (2006), and Justice Unseen, documentary, XY productions (2004).