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CCSDD | The Women of Srebrenica
The Women of Srebrenica

Priya Swyden, MEPP candidate (’23) at Johns Hopkins University SAIS Europe

The Women of Srebrenica
Priya Swyden
May 11, 2023

We met the Women of Srebrenica inside the memorial center that once served as the UN Dutch Battalion Headquarters. In July 1995, it was here that thousands of Bosniak Muslim refugees sheltered, having fled the Bosnian Serb forces, comprised of men who until recently had been their neighbors. 

The outbreak of three years of horrific conflict in Bosnia can be traced directly to the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991, though its roots go much deeper. The dissolution of the Yugoslav Republics began with declarations of independence by Croatia and Slovenia. An armed conflict between the Yugoslav People's Army and Slovenia's Territorial Defence broke out soon thereafter, but the Yugoslav army was driven out and, with the support of Belgrade, moved onto Croatia where a bloody conflict ensued, and thousands of ethnic Croats were expelled from their homes. By late 1991, it was already clear that Bosnia could be next.

In 1992, Bosnian Serb nationalists moved against the ethnic minority Bosniak Muslim population in the country. Though I have no better word, to describe what followed as a war is "to distort, and more gravely, to dignify the real nature of what has occurred," as David Rieff says in his book "Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West." It was a three-year campaign of ethnic cleansing and genocide committed by the Serbs, while the United Nations, European Union, and NATO, under US leadership, looked on, trying to negotiate peace deals and contain the conflict. The country's capital, Sarajevo, was besieged for almost four years by the Bosnian Serb forces under the leadership of Radovan Karadžic, who came to be known as the "Butcher of Bosnia."  

The conflict reached its denouement with the Srebrenica genocide in July 1995. Eight thousand Bosniak men and boys were taken from the UN- designated safe zone run by the Dutch Battalion and killed within a period of three days. The UN had been present in the city since 1993 after thousands of refugees fled to the eastern region of the country at the beginning of the war. It remained under relentless siege for two years, while diplomats tried unsuccessfully to negotiate peace.  

Through March 1995, the Dutch troops pushed for reinforcements, but the US denied their requests. In May, any prospect of further air strikes collapsed as four hundred UN troops were taken hostage by Serbs in retaliation for NATO's involvement. After that, the UN knew that its safe zones were untenable, and put pressure on the Bosnian president, Alija Izetbegovic, to concede Srebrenica and other safe areas. By early July, the Bosnian Serb army was positioned to overrun the Dutch troops. UN forces surrendered or retreated into the town, and thousands of refugees fled to the main Dutch Battalion Headquarters. Early on July 12th, the Dutch commander in Srebrenica, Colonel Ton Karremans, met Ratko Mladic and agreed to orders to let the Serbs organize the transport of civilians out of Srebrenica. The UN then provided the Serbs with petrol for transport, later used to fuel the trucks that took the eight thousand Bosniak men and boys to the killing fields. 

Srebrenica was the breaking point in Bosnia's war. In August, the Clinton administration initiated its "endgame strategy" for Bosnia and NATO airstrikes forced the Serbs to the negotiating table. The resulting Dayton Agreement established a tripartite government in the country with Bosniak, Serb and Croat representation. Dayton was a diplomatic achievement negotiated under extremely complex circumstances, but it set in place a messy, unsustainable system. To see this dysfunction, one need look no further than the mountain roads when it snows. On the first day of our trip, we took a rickety bus up a narrow road to see the abandoned bobsleigh track built for the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics, later used as an artillery base for Serbian forces during the war. It was snowing heavily, and we got stuck several times because only some sections of the road were plowed. The road curved back and forth across the territory of the country's two federal entities: the Federation of Bosnia – Herzegovina and the Republika Srpska. Though the land itself is all part of the same country, maintenance of the roads is a responsibility divided between the two entities, and only one had plowed their sections.

Those who came back

The women we spoke to are the wives, mothers, daughters, and sisters of the men and boys who were massacred at Srebrenica. Many were expelled from their homes in 1995, but they returned months or years after the war was over. We asked them what motivated their return, and their answers came easily. Srebrenica is the only home they have ever known. It is where they were married and raised their children. It is the place where their sons, husbands, fathers, and brothers died and are buried.  

As these widows and mothers came trickling back into the town, they had nothing but their grief, and each other. Hence, Association "Snaga Žene" – the Strength of Women. Through their friendship, they provide each other with support. They also travel within Bosnia and to other countries in the region to tell the story of what happened in Srebrenica to make sure it does not happen again. The association has been crucial in providing evidence of the genocide and identifying perpetrators, and a key part of their mission is ensuring that the government of Bosnia tells a narrative of truth. In the women's own words, they do not hate anyone, and they focus on the process of speaking, listening, and understanding to try to heal both themselves and their communities.  

Reconciliation is a loaded word in Bosnia. The process has barely begun – and one could argue it never stood a chance. Dayton did not erase the longstanding ethnic tensions or nationalism, rather entrenched them. Nor did it hold Bosnian Serbs or the politicians in Belgrade fully accountable for what happened, rather rewarded them. For the women of Srebrenica, the only path forward to reconciliation – and eventually maybe forgiveness – is full accountability for and recognition of the suffering endured. The women described it as transitional justice, however defining what this means in practice is difficult, and nearly thirty years later, mechanisms for achieving such justice are few and far between. Ad hoc courts and tribunals requiring reparations for victims have only been partially applied. The Hague convicted some leaders of the Republika Srpska and Yugoslav Army, but many of the everyday citizens who turned against their neighbors remain free and unaccountable. What is particularly painful for these women is that there isn't even truth – to this day Bosnian Serb leadership like Milorad Dodik deny the genocide ever happened, convicted war criminals are regularly celebrated, and the Srebrenica massacre is glorified in Serb-dominated areas around the country. 

In many ways, the entire narrative of the war has been co-opted by Serbian authorities in government who are complicit in the erasure of what Bosnia's Muslims endured. The Bosnian tourism authority's promotion of the Vilina Vlas Hotel in Visegrad shows just how far this goes. During the war, the hotel became one of Bosnia's infamous "rape camps," used by Serb paramilitary forces to detain Muslim women and girls and subject them to sexual violence, torture, and murder. In the war's aftermath, however, the Serbs who controlled Visegrad reopened the Vilina Vlas as the spa hotel it used to be. In 2020, with support from the municipality of Visegrad, a promotional campaign with the slogan "We are waiting for you in Visegrad" was launched for the hotel, which is described in its advertising as a summer oasis and spa retreat, with no reference to its past. 

It is even common in places like Srebrenica for survivors to see the perpetrators of these crimes daily. After expelling Bosniak Muslims from towns around the country, Serbs moved into their homes and stayed there, even as survivors came back to try to resume their lives. The women of Srebrenica must live alongside these war criminals as if nothing ever happened. They are the parents of the Serbian children who play with their own. They are schoolteachers and grocers, their lives untouched by the tragedy they inflicted on those around them. Forced to live alongside the very perpetrators of these crimes, it is impossible to imagine reconciliation, never mind peace or forgiveness. As one woman said, "How can we forgive when we see those who killed our families and raped us walking on the same street? It is impossible without transitional justice." 

Not only is the war's narrative obfuscated by Serbian officials, but tensions along ethnic divisions remain extremely high. The women told us of how at the school in Srebrenica – which, despite their efforts to change it, remains named after a wartime Serbian leader – a Muslim girl was attacked by a dozen Serbian boys for wearing a headscarf. And external observers on the ground either do not recognize or understand just how deeply the trauma of the war and the divisions it entrenched have transferred onto the next generation. As we left the memorial center, we met a group of EUFOR soldiers recently stationed in the region. They asked us what we thought about reports that tensions were rising and told us that to them everything seemed fine.  

The world as it is 

Talking to the women of Srebrenica is the most damning indictment of the UN's paralysis, the EU's indifference, NATO's delay, and America's lack of will in Bosnia. It makes one thoroughly understand the conviction with which Rieff writes his relentless prosecution of the West in Slaughterhouse. While he recognizes that an earlier, more forceful intervention by NATO would have been "neither cheap nor easy," he concludes it would have been better than leaving Bosnia at the mercy of UN peacekeeping which only mirrors the "impotence and sterility of a system of world order that is supposedly enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations." Nor was he alone in his critique of the West's half-hearted response and lack of coherent strategy towards Bosnia. By the time Srebrenica occurred, it was clear the UN's safe zones were vulnerable and many policymakers were calling for NATO to decidedly stop the war.  

What Rieff does not have is the benefit of hindsight. Recent history from Iraq to Libya shows that sometimes Western interventions are not always the deus ex machina that some believe they can be. At the time, there was no easy answer to what a US-backed intervention by NATO should look like or how to address the country's precarious situation in the war's aftermath. Certainly, Dayton achieved diplomats' most immediate objective, to end the war. As President Izetbegovic said after the agreement's signing, "It may not be a just peace, but it is more just than a continuation of war. In the situation as it is, and in the world as it is, a better peace could not have been achieved." That the arrangement set forward by Dayton was not meant to last forever is literally written into its very design, but the symptoms of its dysfunction – corruption on all sides, lack of accountability, and a distorted post-war narrative – have left little room for alternatives, and so the country is suspended in an impossible situation with no obvious resolution. 

When face to face with the women of Srebrenica, however, its impossible to reconcile this realist counterweight with the reality of what happened. Rieff's point – despite his repetitive writing and 100-word sentences – is clear and indisputable: the West failed Bosnia. The international community should have done more, more quickly. The scale of atrocity and suffering could have been limited. And though Slaughterhouse was published several months before Srebrenica occurred, that the massacre still happened – despite the warning signs – only strengthens his argument. Srebrenica should have been prevented. Peace at such a terrible expense is no true peace at all.  

Bosnia's war is recent history, not an event confined to historical memory but one still being written about and interpreted. We could sense it in the spaces between the thousands of white marble tombstones where Srebrenica's men rest. We could see it in the bullet holes in the buildings around Sarajevo and in the faces of the women of Srebrenica. We could feel it in the way they hugged us. We could hear it in their voices when they told us how much it meant that we had come to listen to their stories.

Priya Swyden is an MEPP candidate ('23) at Johns Hopkins University (SAIS). Her research focuses on transatlantic relations, European security, conflict and post-conflict dynamics, and NATO. She is on Twitter @priya_swyden.


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