CCSDD | 28 Years After the Srebrenica Massacre: A Community Rebuilt?
28 Years After the Srebrenica Massacre: A Community Rebuilt?
Haadiya Ahmed, MAIR Candidate ('24)
28 Years After the Srebrenica Massacre: A Community Rebuilt? Haadiya Ahmed July 11, 2023
Dobar dan! Welcome to Srebrenica
A town, a community, a home.
Still tranquility and simmering resilience.
Open arms, cold shoulders
Heart warm, heart guarded
Peace kept, strife disguised.
Disguised behind empty words on legal documents.
Families torn, families reunited.
Rebuilding, reclaiming, peacing life back together.
Together towards a future, a new identity.
A Bosnian identity.
Bosnia is a Muslim majority country, home to nearly 1.8 Muslims. Bosniaks are the largest ethnic population, holding multiple identities: European, Slavic, Muslim, and most of all, Bosnian. 28 years ago, Serbs committed genocide against Bosniak Muslims. For Bosnians, it feels like yesterday. Memories of the atrocities committed are vivid in their eyes. Yet, living alongside their oppressors and fighting through renewed tensions— they move forward. Reclaiming their homes and rebuilding their communities with care for one another.
On a gloomy Wednesday morning, my peers and I arrived in Srebrenica. This was the last full day of our study trip in Bosnia and quite honestly, the hardest. After days of intensive study on mass atrocities committed during the war and the horrific consequences of the genocide, our hearts were heavy arriving into Srebrenica. Walking on the physical land where thousands of lives were lost, felt wrong. Inappropriate somehow. As a Muslim woman myself, I felt their pain. These were my people.
"Srebrenica, a failure of the international community". The sign read, as we stood outside the Srebrenica Memorial Center. A reminder that the fall of Srebrenica in 1995 was not an isolated event. Reactive and rash decisions taken by the Dutchbat III battalion and negligence of the United Nations compromised thousands of lives. An event that seems lost in history yet holds lasting effects to this day.
In the years following the fall of Yugoslavia and the end of the Bosnian Civil War, the region faced sociopolitical upheaval and strong inter-ethnic tensions. The predominantly Muslim nation of Bosnia and Herzegovina was officially declared as an independent state. This kindled opposition from Bosnian Serbs who aligned themselves with the Serb nationalist movement and sought to annex the state, marking it as a rightful part of Serbia. They believed that the conquest of Srebrenica was a step towards achieving this agenda and the Bosniak population must be eliminated. In 1993, the UN Security Council responded to a series of assaults from Serb forces with Resolution 819. The mandate declared that the enclave of Srebrenica and surrounding areas were to be treated as "safe areas". The population would be protected through "all necessary means, including the use of force"1. A UN base was established in Potočari where 200 peacekeepers from Dutchbat III, the Dutch military unit to UN peacekeeping, were stationed. Despite this mandate, Serb transgression prevailed. On July 6, 1995, shelling initiated in southern Srebrenica. Forces led by Radovan Karadžić, President and Supreme Commander of the Republika Srpska, Momčilo Krajišnik, President of the Republika Srpska National Assembly, and Radislav Krstić, VRS Drina Corps Chief of Staff, commenced a systematic massacre in the city of Srebrenica.
This meant the following: an evacuation of Bosniak women and children was announced and male Bosniak refugees were said to be "taken to safety", but instead they were killed. In other instances, men were separated from women and children, lined up, and shot in plain sight. Houses were burned and military troops occupied vacant neighborhoods. The city experienced a shortage of resources, living without electricity, food, medical supplies, and running water for months. Thousands of civilians fled towards Bosniak-held territory. Many sought refuge from the UN, heading straight towards the Dutch army base. Little did they know the battalion was under-resourced, powerless, and unresponsive. Dutchbat commanders outright refused to take them in. They were sent away from the compound on July 13, 1995, and shortly thereafter murdered. Killings took place before the eyes of the Dutchbat (whose sole responsibility was to protect). Testimonies from locals reiterated how UN peacekeepers essentially handed civilians over to the opposition.
For weeks, the Army of Republika Srpska carried out mass executions of Bosniak Muslim men and boys. Women and children were subject to horrific forms of terror and assault. It was not until a month later that NATO launched retaliatory air strikes on Serb positions. In November of that year, the presidents of Bosnia, Croatia, and Serbia were convened in Dayton, Ohio, and peace talks were initiated. A US-negotiated ceasefire was reached and the General Framework Agreement for Peace, better known as the Dayton Accords, was established.
The Agreement stands as the formal constitution and outline for the government of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and has not been amended since. When it was first created, the Agreement intended to end the war and heal ethnic divisions. It put forth a power-sharing mechanism that ensured the largest ethnic groups (Serb, Croat, Bosniak) were equally represented at the federal level. It was as we walked through the actual UN compound building, that it struck me. A photo gallery occupying the space where families once crowded in shelter. Bullet holes lining the walls. The conflict lives on. Eminent in the daily lives of community members. Life continues absent of war, yet not absent of hate. These measures to maintain peace failed; the agreement has been neglected, failing to restore the peace it promised. Nearly three decades later, the country is fraught with enduring ethnic divides.
In Potočari, we met with Snaga žene, the Women of Srebrenica— a female-led organization serving community members in need of support or relief due to war and post-war events. Mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, who had lost the men in their lives during the massacre. Women who had rebuilt their homes together, and in the process, become a family to one another. None of us anticipated the warmth and love we would be greeted with. Their lived experiences provided important insights into what post-war reconstruction has looked like at the community level. Today, Srebrenica, under the jurisdiction of the Republika Srpska, is facing a renewed wave of inter-ethnic conflict. President Milorad Dodik of the Republika Srpska, has long advocated for secession, leading a separatist movement to unite the RS with neighboring Serbia. Dodik's populist rhetoric has initiated a nationalist wave across the Balkans, threatening the threads of peace strung over the past 28 years.
Serb-Bosniak relations are deteriorating once again. Community members described instances of blatant racism where their families are routinely subject to harassment in public. For example, a mother shared that her daughter faced discriminatory behavior in schools when wearing the hijab and displaying her Bosniak identity. Interestingly, international security forces, like EUFOR, are largely removed from these events. While we were at the Memorial Center, we encountered EUFOR guards present onsite. Hoping to hear another perspective, we questioned them on EUFOR's response to renewed tensions. Their reply was startling: the guards did not know what we were talking about. Their remarks contradicted everything community members had told us regarding the hostilities they were experiencing. These guards serve the role of monitoring ethnic tensions and maintaining peace, yet they were unaware of the dynamics that locals themselves were telling us about. What we are seeing is an institutional shortcoming. There continues to be a gap between peacekeepers and the communities they are serving. Moving forward, there must be greater collaboration, or at the bare minimum communication, between peacekeepers and locals.
Nearly three decades later, peace has not been restored. It is surprising then that families came back at all to Srebrenica after escaping a genocide. When asked why, their answer was simple. Srebrenica was home. They came back to rebuild their communities and to reclaim their land. Since the genocide, these women have found solace and relief in one another. These women— wives, mothers, daughters left behind—are not victims, they are resilient survivors. They are rebuilding their communities through love and empathy for one another. They envision a world where little girls are not harassed in schools for practicing their faith and wearing the hijab. Where Serbs, Croats, and Bosniak Muslims live side by side.
"We fight hatred with love." I will carry your words with me forever.
Timeline of events leading up to and surrounding the Srebrenica massacre. Srebrenica - timeline. Link.
United Nations. (n.d.). From the field: A genocide timeline; Srebrenica massacre remembered | UN News. United Nations. Link
Haadiya Ahmed is a second-year Masters of International Relations (MAIR) candidate at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). Her regional areas of interest are South Asia and the Middle East and North Africa. Haadiya's research and work revolves around social movement building, settler colonialism, and political reconstruction in post-conflict societies.
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