top of page
  • Adam Ghannoum

Srebrenica: More Than Just a Failure

Following the aftermath of World War I, the country of Yugoslavia was created. The complex ethnic makeup of the country rendered it a fragile political entity. With hostilities stretching back to the Ottoman period, the mishmash of the Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats, and Bosnian Muslims was held together following World War II only by the dictatorial regime of Josip Broz Tito. However, following his long reign and the collapse of communism and the Eastern Bloc, the country was plunged into a bloody civil war in the 1990s. The Yugoslav Civil War, often forgotten by the American people, is a tragedy of thousands of targeted murders, ethnic cleansing, and genocidal actions based on ethnic and religious hatred. These tragedies were marked by the influence of the United Nations (UN), the United States, and other allies in ways that appeased and aided the genocidal oppressors who took the lives of thousands.

In 1991, starting with the Slovenes and Croats, the different ethnic groups of Yugoslavia began to declare their independence -- leading the Yugoslav government and military to attempt to forcibly halt the widely favored independence movements. Under the command of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, the Serbian state emerged as the primary inheritor of the Yugoslav federal institutions, military, and industries during the initial stages of the war. In the wake of what followed, the Serbian media employed extensive propaganda to demonize ethnic Bosnians and Croats and pitch the Serb population against them. The aim was to foster a feeling of hatred and encourage ethnic cleansing. The propaganda tended to be bizarre in nature, such as recalling tales of ‘Muslims feeding Serbs to lions in the zoo’, and at other times calling for the genocide of many non-Serbs.

Serbia was now not only the most militarized and industrially advanced of the new nations carved out of Yugoslavia, but was also headed by a man that espoused jingoistic Serbian nationalism. Milosevic aggressively sought to reassert control over ex-Yugoslav territories under a Serbian banner in order to anoint himself as a second Tito by pursuing a war “by means of a joint criminal enterprise that combined medieval savagery with calculated cruelty.” The ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims (referred to as Bosniaks) represented a major episode in the Serbian attempt to preserve control over the ex-Yugoslav territories. To cull the Bosniak threat, Milosevic mobilized Orthodox Christian Serbians residing in Bosnian territories, commonly referred to as Bosnian Serbs, and utilized them to commit unspeakable crimes that were green-lighted -- and at times enabled -- by larger European and Western powers.

Although Milosevic presented himself as an innocent bystander in the war, his right-hand man and ex-president of Yugoslavia, Borisav Jovic, recounts a different series of events in his memoir. Not only does he reveal the fact that Serb media and propaganda were puppeteered by Milosevic to curate the public’s hatred for ethnic non-Serbs, but Milosevic carefully constructed and provoked the war for the purpose of ethnically cleansing non-Serbs in Yugoslav lands. In fact, telephone intercepts show that Milosevic was the de facto commander in chief of operations both in Croatia as well as Bosnia, and was constantly supporting the Bosnian Serb paramilitary through weapons supplies and funding from the Serbian defense ministry.

As the Serbs swept through the ex-Yugoslav territories committing war crimes, the United Nations declared an arms embargo on the Balkans under the pretense that it would decrease bloodshed. This arms embargo accomplished the opposite, leaving Bosniak towns and cities unarmed and defenseless against the Bosnian Serbs who had been armed by Belgrade. The European Union and the international community's response to the genocide constituted little more than lip service, with no substantial military intervention until it was too late. The genocide was entirely preventable had the necessary steps been taken earlier to stop the bloodshed.

The Srebrenica genocide is the largest genocide in Europe since The Holocaust. In 1993, the UN declared the city of Srebrenica a safe zone, encouraging tens of thousands of persecuted Bosnian refugees to flee there for safety. The city was assigned to be protected by Dutch troops from the UN Peacekeeping Force alongside NATO air support. The troops, in clear violation of Article 51 of the UN Charter, seized all heavy weaponry from the Bosniak forces prior to the Serbian Offensive. Yet following Serbian shelling, the Dutch troops ashamedly surrendered the city to the Bosnian Serbs with little to no resistance. What ensued was the horrific separation of men and women and subsequent mass executions motivated only by ethnic and religious hatred. Over 8,000 unarmed Bosnian men and boys were gruesomely killed, while many of the women were raped. The purpose of this genocide, as affirmed by the International Court of Justice (ICJ), was nothing short of a campaign of ethnic cleansing that sought to remove Bosniak Muslims from southern Europe. Serbian Slavs’ hatred towards the Bosniaks had grown from a combination of historical components going back to centuries of Ottoman rule and warring partisan groups during WWII. The promulgation of these at times dubious historical claims was conducted through the aforementioned propagandistic Serbian media.

Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic (left) drinks with Colonel Karremans (middle) of the Dutch Peacekeeping force following the non-violent surrender of Srebrenica

Despite the Yugoslav Civil War’s convoluted history, the Srebrenica Genocide and ethnic cleansing of Bosniak Muslims cannot be detached from the influence and decisions of Western powers. Namely, those of the arms embargo, rejected appeals for NATO Air support, and disgraceful UN peacekeeping operations which sealed the fate of the innocent Bosniaks of Srebrenica. In the 28 years since the Srebrenica Genocide, the discovery of the remains of Bosniak victims continues to be an annual occurrence. Throughout these years, hateful rhetoric has been continually espoused, and the parties involved have persisted in the rationalization of their crimes. In the words of Alija Izetbegovic, the first president of Bosnia and Herzegovina, "You have suffered great persecution in the war. You are free to forgive or not the evildoers. Whatever you do, but don't forget the genocide. Because a forgotten genocide is repeated."


bottom of page