Their voices cried the failure of the international community: A visit to Srebrenica

Arriving at the Srebrenica Memorial Site in the context of our study trip to the Western Balkans, I couldn’t help a flashback to the previous semester, when we visited the Bełżec memorial. The memorial of Bełżec, at the site where a Nazi center of extermination for the Jewish people used to operate along the Lublin-Lviv railway, features a contemplation room. This unique concept consists essentially of a vast, dark and chilly room, almost simulating the stereotypical depiction of passage from life to death; it has extraordinary acoustics, so that even the slightest clap will be heard like a gunshot. The hidden message behind this simple yet rather symbolic infrastructure is that once there is memory, crimes will never be silenced.

In Srebrenica though, the memory is not only present, but also very fresh, as was the soil over certain graves (which are gradually increasing, as modern investigations uncover more and more bodies from mass graves). It was painful to see -in situ- how something so hideous could have happened so recently in history, but also how it is still visibly staining society. Our guide was a very young woman, ethnically Bosniak, who was explaining to us how she does not really interact with Bosnian Serbs, because she does not really find a point of connection with them, described how she can sense them judging her or looking at her in a weird way for wearing a veil, as a Muslim, and how she sees -in their eyes- the perpetrators of the genocide. All over the memorial, those open wounds were omnipresent, and represented even linguistically, as it was apparent that there was a preference for the Latin alphabet, which spoke volumes given the memorial’s location in Republika Srpska, an entity in which there is a clear prevalence of the Cyrillic alphabet.

From what is preceding we can deduce how the international justice has not done its part in appeasing the public sentiment. Milosevic, extradited to the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in 2001 died shortly before the end of his trial (2006). Karadzic was avoiding capture until 2008 but was found guilty of genocide in 2016. Mladic, arrested in 2011, is currently on trial. However, it is estimated that possibly hundreds of people involved in these atrocities remain unpunished. Some of them continue to occupy positions in the in the government and local communities in Republika Srpska. What was equally alarming in the Memorial, which includes the former Dutchbat compound, is the actual attitude that the UN soldiers -those who were supposed to protect the Bosniak population- had towards this community.

For context, with the adoption of Resolution 819 by the UN Security Council, Srebrenica became the first officially designated “Safe Area” in history. On April 18th 1993 -and in virtue of this resolution- UN Protection Force (UNPROFOR) troops arrived in Srebrenica. Upon persistence of the of the Bosnian Serbs though, UNPROFOR commanders brokered an agreement to demilitarize Srebrenica (it is pertinent to add here that Resolution 819 mentioned explicitly the risk of genocide happening in the region). The UNPROFOR established observation posts that facilitated the delivery of humanitarian help, however, Srebrenica remained surrounded by thousands of Serb soldiers; the local population continued to live in total isolation from the rest of the world. When the Canadian Unit of the UNPROFOR handed the protection of the zone to the Dutch battalion (Dutchbat I), which came with more troops than their Canadian counterparts, this raised higher hopes and expectations.

In the Dutchbat headquarters, today part of the Memorial to evoke the tragedy of 1995 and highlight the failure of the international community, one may notice some graffiti from Dutchbat soldiers. As it was destined for the general public, the graffiti was meant for a small circle of military comrades and is, hence, unfiltered; but in a rather problematic way. Shockingly, some of the graffiti feature racist and sexist content, humiliating Bosniaks and especially Bosniak women. Of course, for graffiti with exclusively non-verbal content, it is difficult to determine its origin with certainty, as the former compound has also been under the control of the Bosnian Serb authorities following the departure of Dutchbat. Nevertheless, this form of hate speech and the discriminatory attitudes revealing the true colors of the UNPROFOR soldiers definitely do not go unnoticed (and possibly remain unforgiven) by the Bosniak community.

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