Dennis and Dionne Newton

Dennis and Dionne Newton
Dennis & Dionne Newton

Saturday, February 4, 2017

"These are truly scenes of Hell, written on the darkest pages of human history" - Judge Riad

A New Phrase Enters the Lexicon

In the mid-1990s a horrible new phrase entered the English lexicon; "ethnic cleansing." The first known use was in a Washington Post article from August 1991. The article said that "Serbia's aim is obviously the ethnic cleansing of the critical areas." The Post writer had invented a phrase to best describe the atrocities of wars in the Balkans. It stuck in the popular lexicon. I remember becoming aware of the phrase soon afterwards. At the time, I was far, far away from the unbelievable realities of "ethnic cleansing." This week, however, Dionne and I visited the site of the worst of the ethnic cleansing; Srebrenica.

A Sarajevo example of common Bosnian graffiti urging the remembrance of Srebrenica.

Silver Mine

There is nothing particularly interesting about Srebrenica per se. Meaning "silver mine," the town had about 36,000 inhabitants (a little bigger than my hometown, Rock Springs, Wyoming) and was known as a mining center and for a nearby spa. It was majority Bosniak (Muslim) before the war but there was a sizable Serb population in the surrounding area. And it's location, Eastern Bosnia, meant it was less than 100 km from Serbia.

One of the main squares at Srebrenica. There is not much left in town. It is certainly no longer a town of 36,000.
I was expecting to find more in Srebrenica than we did. It was hard to find a restaurant. We finally gave up after we walked into the main shopping center looking for food and did not find any viable options. Fortunately we were able to find a toalet. Still hungry, we drove to main attraction for visiting Srebrenica...the memorial cemetery.

Patrons at a little cafe in Srebrenica sit in front of a city mural circa. 1930.
A burnt-out building just off the main street.

A U.N. Designated Safe Area

Due to its proximity to Serbia, Eastern Bosnia was the site of many of the most horrific massacres of the Bosnian war. The U.N. responded to reports of mass killings by designating "safe areas" where refugees who had been displaced could gather. Srebrenica was one of these safe areas. It was guarded by between 400-600 Dutch U.N. soldiers who were there to protect the refugees. Nearly 60,000 Muslim refugees gathered there.

“After my village was attacked and burnt down by Bosnian Serb forces in May of 1993, we fled to the UN safe haven, certain the world would protect us. The conditions were abysmal. We lived in a house with 60 people, without electricity or running water, and only one toilet."
Memories of a Survivor.

Surrounded, the U.N. soldiers were in a precarious position. The Serbian forces would not allow many food supply trucks into Srebrenica. Many refugees starved to death. The situation deteriorated until it was clear that the Serbs were massing forces to take Srebrenica. Many of the men decided to leave the town and take their chances hiking across the mountains to Tuzla. Others began to gather at the U.N compound (called Potočari). But everyone knew the Serb forces were coming. It was only a matter of time.

Bosnian banners fly outside of the Memorial. It was built at Potočari, the site of the U.N. compound.

The Dutch soldiers were in a tight spot. According to Malcolm's Bosnia: A Short History, "the Dutch commanding officer in Srebrenica had urgently requested NATO air strikes; this request was transmitted to Zagreb, where senior U.N. officials spent several days considering it. On July 11 NATO planes were authorized to take action; but after hitting two Serb tanks they were ordered to cease their attack because the Serbs were now threatening to kill thirty-two Dutch soldiers" (whom they had earlier taken hostage). Cut off from NATO support and concerned about their own safey, the Dutch became, at best, passive observers, and, at worst, knowing accomplices. So great was the failure of the Dutch that Secretary-General Kofi Annan would later say "the tragedy of Srebrenica will forever haunt the history of the United Nations."

The Dutch left graffiti on the walls of the Potočari compound.

"No One Will Harm You" - Ratko Mladic

The faced little resistance as the entered Srebrenica on July 11th, 1995. Approximately 12,000 refugees had fled into the mountains and another 25,000 had gathered at the U.N. compound. The Dutch initially accepted about 5,000 people into their compound (mainly women and children). But ultimately they were all ordered to leave after the Serbs had gained control of the town. Basically the were handed over to the Serbs.

Commemorative stone outside the cemetery.

Because this took place in the late 20th century, much of this action was recorded on camera. The Serbian commander had told the refugees to not "be afraid, just take it one will harm you." To my horror, I watched video of him entering Srebrenica, kissing his fellow commanders, smiling, and then turning to his soldiers and saying "on to Potočari, the time has come to take our revenge on the Muslims." Others report him saying that "they would kill all the men and throw them in the Drina river to feed fish and these men would never again kill Serb children in the Serb Drina valley. But they would let the women go so they can suffer."

A headstone has been added for every known victim. More are added each year. Our partners at the Red Cross help identify and verify victims of the massacre. 

"I Distinctly Recall Hearing Screams Coming From the River...But I Never Turned Back to See What Was Happening" - Memories of a Survivor

An estimated 100,000 people died during the Bosnia war. During the 3-year siege of Sarajevo, it is estimated that 10,000 people died there. I will post about the Sarajevo siege at another date.

Names of some of the victims from Srebrenica.

During the 5-day siege at Sarajevo, over 8,000 people were killed. It was not a battle. It was not a fight. It was a slaughter. It was a massacre. A holocaust like extermination of a minority whose only distinguishing feature was their religion. I do not wish to delve into the details. Males, age 12 and older, were separated from the females. They were then systematically killed. Some after a prolonged march. Some on the spot. I watched some videos of men being executed. Their hands were tied. They were in a line. They were told to walk to a certain spot and then they were shot in the back. It was all so workman as it unfolded. And so devastatingly painful to my soul as I watched.

8372 and counting...  We will never know how many lost their lives.

"I Can Still Hear Those Screams Today" - Memories of a Survivor

Living in D.C. for over 10-years, Dionne and I visited the Holocaust museum several times. I am forever haunted by some of the images found within that museum. But at least I could take some hope that we, as a collective mankind, had learned from these horrors. My visit to Srebrenica shattered that illusion. Mankind has not learned anything.

After the war, the U.N. undertook the task of locating the remains of the victims. The Serbs attempted to cover-up what had happened in Srebrenica. Satellite imagery from the U.S. was critical for locating the mass graves.
Many here in Bosnia are haunted by the ghosts of Srebrenica. The people hide it well. They have different ways for dealing with the pain. There is a sense of community here. A weird sense of a humor. But the ghosts are still there. Many can "still hear the screams today."

A worker exhumes a dead body from a mass grave.
The Western world knew that Srebrenica was going to happen. The indicators were there. We are culpable. It could of been prevented. But the Western world talked itself out of doing anything. I want to close with the following quote...which is as applicable today as it was in 1995...

If you would like more information about Srebrenica, I recommend watching one of the following YouTube videos. (about 10 minutes long) (short two minute summary) (longer video that is subtitled in English)

I Pray As Well - "That Srebrenica Never Happens Again To No One and Nowhere."

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