At the site of a European massacre, fears of genocide by ballot

April 20, 2012

SREBRENICA, BOSNIA — Six months from now, a municipal election will be held in this isolated mining town, the scene of the largest massacre in Europe since World War Two.

The town’s current mayor, a 33 year-old Bosnian Muslim, says the election will hand Bosnian Serbs control of the town and complete the “ethnic cleansing,” or removal, of all Muslims from eastern Bosnia. Serbs say it is democracy, plain and simple.

Seventeen years ago, Serb forces executed 8,100 Muslim men and boys here in the largest single mass killing of the war in Bosnia. The U.S. and its European allies – who had declared the town a U.N. protected “safe area” – stood by as the Serbs rampaged for days in the summer of 1995.

In local elections since then, a special exemption has been granted that allows Muslims who lived here before the war to vote in Srebrenica – even if they no longer reside here. This year, the country’s High Representative – a foreign overseer with sweeping powers – plans to issue no such exemption. In a visit to the town this week, he called for Serb and Muslim politicians to compromise.

“The challenge in Srebrenica goes far beyond the elections,” said Valentin Inzko, an Austrian diplomat who has pressed local officials to take more responsibility since becoming high representative in 2009. “People want a better life, and the key to that is constructive politics and economic development.”

Under the exemption, Muslims have controlled the municipal government, interned the bodies of 5,137 of the victims in a sprawling memorial here and tried to reverse some of the impact of the killings by slowly moving back. Today Srebrenica’s population, which was 75 percent Muslim before the war, is evenly split between Serbs and Muslims.

And that is where the good news ends. Already a glaring symbol of international fecklessness, the town’s sorry state today sets a new standard for Western half-measures gone astonishingly wrong.

The 17-year effort to move Muslims back to this town began with a whimper. Clinton administration officials, eager to avoid American casualties, made little effort in the late 1990s to arrest the Serb nationalists who carried out the executions. Fears of violent clashes blocked large-scale efforts to return Muslims to Srebrenica.

Frustrated, the roughly 30,000 Muslims who had survived the town’s fall scattered across Bosnia and the world. Roughly 20,000 resettled in Muslim-controlled parts of Bosnia. An additional 15,000 fled abroad; an estimated 7,000 arrived in the United States.

Many of them eventually settled in St. Louis, Missouri, a city with a Bosnian community already 80,000 strong, the largest in the United States. Today, roughly 5,000 refugees from Srebrenica live in St. Louis. The Midwestern American city is home to more Bosnian Muslim survivors of the massacre than Srebrenica itself.

One of the Srebrenica refugees who arrived in the U. S. was Camil Durakovic, the town’s current Muslim mayor. After he survived the fall of Srebrenica at the age of 16, his family resettled in Manchester, New Hampshire. After attending a local high school, he graduated from Notre Dame in 2003 and planned to attend graduate school in the U.S.

A 2005 summer trip to Srebrenica convinced him that his home was here. He started working for the town’s mayor. When the mayor passed away earlier this year, Durakovic, a burly man with a boyish face who wore a pin-striped suit and pink shirt in the town hall today, took over.

In an interview in his office on Thursday, he said returns of Muslim families rose from 2002 to 2005, largely as a result of heavy American and European support. In recent years, though, they have slowed. The economy has not helped. Unemployment is 50 percent in Srebrenica, making it a difficult place to settle for Muslims and Serbs alike. Today, 3,500 Bosnian Muslims live in Srebrenica. Because Serb officials decline to pay their pensions and other government benefits, many Bosnian Muslims maintain their official addresses in Muslim-controlled parts of Bosnia.

As a result, even though half the town’s residents are Serbs and half are Muslims, its registered voters are roughly 60 percent Serb. Unless the high representative or national government grants another exemption allowing Muslims who lived in the town before the war to vote, Serb politicians will likely gain control of the local government this fall. With foreign aid and interest in the town dwindling, Durakovic and other survivors predict that Muslims will flee.

“It will be the finalization of the genocide,” Durakovic told me. “Definitely.”

Radomir Pavlovic, the likely Serb candidate for mayor in the October municipal elections, insisted that Muslims had nothing to fear. But he then echoed the divisive statements of the head of his political party, Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik. Initially perceived as a moderate by the West, Dodik has rejected rulings by the International War Crimes Tribunal that genocide occurred in Srebrenica and has systematically thwarted international efforts to unify the country.

Pavlovic, the probable mayoral candidate, expressed views that are widely held among Bosnian Serbs. He said he believed 2,000 – not 8,000 – Muslims died in the executions, blamed “foreign mercenaries” for the killings and expressed sympathy for General Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb commander now on trial in the Hague for carrying out genocide after evading arrest for 16 years.

“Others are more responsible than him and will go unpunished,” Pavlovic told me. “It’s always the pawns that get blamed.”

Denial is nothing new here. After the fall of Srebrenica, Bosnian Serbs insisted that no mass killings had occurred and blocked journalists from investigating them. (Bosnian Serb forces jailed me for 10 days in 1995 after I discovered mass graves near the town while covering the conflict for the Christian Science Monitor.) After the bodies were exhumed, the Bosnian Serbs said too little attention was paid to the Serbs killed by Muslims around Srebrenica. As many as 1,300 Serbs may have died here, as Pavlovic argued, but that number is dwarfed by the 8,100 Muslim dead.

The high representative has until May 9 to grant an exemption for Bosnian Muslim voters here. He should immediately do so. The Dayton Peace Accords mercifully ended the war in 1995, but they created a still-born country with a constitution that makes it easy for corrupt nationalists on all sides to divide the country.

Until desperately needed constitutional reforms are implemented, the Bosnians who lived in Srebrenica before the conflict should be allowed to vote here. Serb nationalists should not gain control of a town that was 75 percent Muslim before the war. Genocide should not be rewarded.

PHOTO: People walk near coffins prepared for a mass burial at the Memorial Center in Potocari, near Srebrenica July 11, 2011. Thousands of grieving Bosnian Muslims buried hundreds of newly identified victims of the notorious Balkan war massacre and expressed hope justice would finally be done with Serb commander Ratko Mladic on trial.  REUTERS/Marko Djurica


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“As many as 1,300 Serbs may have died here, as Pavlovic argued, but that number is dwarfed by the 8,100 Muslim dead.”

This attitude is a good illustration of why many Serbs feel the way they do. I have Serbian neighbors who were ethnically cleansed from Bosnia long before the Srebrenica massacre. Western media does not want to report suffering of people like them, because it would make for a very complex story of an ugly civil war. It is so much easier to throw around words like genocide and blame Serbian side for everything. As a grandchild of a Holocaust survivor, I suggest the author looks up the definition of “genocide” and learn the history of the region before perpetuating his one-sided version of the truth.

Posted by july27 | Report as abusive

Insightful and bitter to know that.Fascism still exists.

Posted by Ismailtaimur | Report as abusive

I live in an area close to the former Yugoslavia. The ethnic hatred that still exists has to be seen to be believed. Serbs, Croats and Bosnians would happily go to war with each other at the drop of a hat. They are not interested in either ethnic cleansing or in territorial control. What they want is complete genocide of the other groups. This has been going on forever. (Read up on what the Croatians did to the Serbs during WWII). In retrospect, Tito was remarkable in that he was the only man ever to keep them apart for any extended period. Unless the international community stays in the area in force, sooner or later the conflicts will start again. My suggestion to the Bosnian Muslims is, if you want a life for yourself and your children, go elsewhere in the world. You’ll never get peace where you are.

Posted by steve778936 | Report as abusive

Fascist apologists also still exist.

Posted by Greenspan2 | Report as abusive

I’ve thought about this question a lot, in the context of other genocides.

Equally disgusting is the extreme nationalist ideology of Ahmadinejad’s people in Iran, who claim that either the holocaust never happened or that it was much smaller than claimed… And further, claim that the West has somehow invented this history in order to make the Arabs suffer.
The rhetoric needs to be shown for what it really is. It’s an attack on humanity. “Islamic” clerics who were widely respected in their communities at the time helped fan the flames of anti-semitism into genocide, persecution and xenophobia. Their intransigence toward Jewish immigration helped to create the Nazi policy of exterminating the Jews. That’s history. Go and look it up if you want. And now, that’s what Ahmadinejad is saying didn’t happen. The people – or, perhaps millions of them – never existed – according to Ahmadinejad.

The Jews who were slaughtered in Europe during WWII… When since then, have they voted?
Should we discriminate against the grandchildren of modern non-Jewish Germans by giving disproportionately favourable voting powers to Jews there now? Ten votes per voter? We cannot do that. They have been lost to us, forever; so far as we can see. All we can do, is vigorously but gently try to repair the wrongs, and not create new wrongs at the same time. Punish those criminally liable, and spare the innocents further inequality…

Should genocide be seen to be rewarded, in that the children of the guilty should be allowed to overrun the children of the victims? Or should we punish the innocent children of the guilty parties? It is a paradox, based on what we know at this juncture.

No matter what your position on this question, we can probably agree that the most important first step is to EXPOSE the guilt. PROTECT those exposing the guilt. PUNISH those working against the exposure of the guilt. And EDUCATE the children of the guilty, on the crimes of their forefathers which they must never repeat, on pains of suffering the same punishments that will readily be meted out to the perpetrators of such crimes in the future…

We need to use forensic technology to its full potential, in gathering the evidence necessary to support this process of at least partial healing.

Posted by matthewslyman | Report as abusive

“Should we discriminate against the grandchildren of modern non-Jewish Germans by giving disproportionately favourable voting powers to Jews there now? Ten votes per voter? We cannot do that. They have been lost to us, forever; so far as we can see. All we can do, is vigorously but gently try to repair the wrongs, and not create new wrongs at the same time. Punish those criminally liable, and spare the innocents further inequality…”

Completely agree, otherwise ethnically cleansed 300.000 serbs from Croatia in 1995 should crate majority in e.g. city hall of Knin. What would Croats say about that kind of democracy?

Recently, ruling politicians around the region are doing good job in reconciliation, main decision-makers of this insanities have been jailed and prosecuted, whatsoever, Balkan history has thought people living here that Serbs are worst enemies to Croats and vice verso, whilst Bosnian muslims (people with similar roots, with other religion) were perceived as an enemies of both.

My opinion is that economic prosperity, and only social welfare, in this neglected region could, slowly but surely, erase these inherited thoughts. Unfortunately, all countries around the region have been hit by the world financial crisis, and in such a times extremists are on tide.

Posted by shufla | Report as abusive

As a veteran of SFOR-14, I was very interested in this column. I have been to Srebrenica, and in fact, we were there when the Potikari memorial was dedicated.

But I must take exception to the sentence: The U.S. and its European allies – who had declared the town a U.N. protected “safe area” – stood by as the Serbs rampaged for days in the summer of 1995.

The United States was NOT there in the summer of 1995. The Dayton talks did not conclude until November, and the 3rd Infantry “Brave Rifles” did not enter the area until early December, 1995. This sentence implicates the United States in a terrible atrocity, but it’s the United NATIONS, not the United States, that allowed this to happen.

Posted by DickKelso | Report as abusive

BUTTONS-Carl Sandburg

I HAVE been watching the war map slammed up for
advertising in front of the newspaper office.
Buttons–red and yellow buttons–blue and black buttons–
are shoved back and forth across the map.

A laughing young man, sunny with freckles,
Climbs a ladder, yells a joke to somebody in the crowd,
And then fixes a yellow button one inch west
And follows the yellow button with a black button one
inch west.

(Ten thousand men and boys twist on their bodies in
a red soak along a river edge,
Gasping of wounds, calling for water, some rattling
death in their throats.)
Who would guess what it cost to move two buttons one
inch on the war map here in front of the newspaper
office where the freckle-faced young man is laughing
to us?

Posted by Stanley7746 | Report as abusive

I drank the Serbs-are-bad Kool Aid for a long time. I started thinking perhaps there was more to the entire Serbs-cause-all-the-trouble issue when I met some ethnic Serbian refugees in the US who had been driven out of Bosnia. They had also lost their family farm of 200 years. Yes, indeed, as you hinted, there’s a little more to the whole Balkan mess than you are telling us. But to your point, I think if muslims have not moved back to Srebrenica after 17 years, they probably won’t. Time moves on, they’ve established roots in new places, and there becomes less and less reason to return. If the time hasn’t already passed, Bosnian muslims need to return soon if they wish to continue have the right vote in Srebrenica.

Posted by Squeamish | Report as abusive

Its going to take a miracle for the Orthodox Serbians, the Catholic Croats and, the Muslim Bosnians to live in peace.
Organized established religions have created as many dead in war as has been saved by the holy words.
For us in the States, its hard to wrap our minds around the sensless religious slaughter. I hope it never infects this land.

Posted by Manoli | Report as abusive

Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia should not be allowed to join EU soon. They are not yet living European principles of tolerance and human equality. What they did to each other in the 1990s just shows how far away are they from being ready to join.

Posted by Balkan_guy | Report as abusive