‘How is it possible to divide the victims, all of whom should have been protected?’
Nineteen years after Srebrenica, the question of who to blame is still raw
Bosnian women of the Srebrenica Mothers’ Association listen to the announcement that the Dutch state was responsible for the deaths of more than 300 Srebrenica victims in a court ruling in The Hague yesterday. Photograph: Bart Maat/EPA
It is difficult to believe, but 19 years after the Srebrenica massacre, newly identified bodies are still being laid to rest almost daily.
Senad Beganovic (14) was the youngest of 175 victims interred in the village cemetery at Potocari just last Friday. He was identified only after his body was pieced together from parts discovered in four mass graves.
If what happened in Srebrenica and much of the rest of the former Yugoslavia remains as raw to the victims’ relatives as if it were yesterday, the fate of Senad Beganovic perhaps explains why. He was one of 14 victims under 18 who were buried last Friday. The oldest was 79. And the 175 coffins lowered into the rows of fresh graves were just a drop in the ocean of some 8,000 Muslim men and boys slaughtered there.
AtrocityThe massacre is often described as the worst single atrocity on European soil since the second World War. In Srebrenica, and in Potocari specifically, on July 11th, 1995, Bosnian Serb troops overran a UN “safe haven” nominally controlled by some 150 lightly armed and inadequately supported Dutch peacekeepers – known as “Dutchbat” – who infamously stood aside, their call for air support having been ignored.
The Muslim male population was then rounded up and methodically massacred across a wide area – in the fields, in the forest where they tried to hide, in the factories and warehouses used to coral them. This is why remains are still being discovered years later and reconstructed through the dogged work of volunteer forensic pathologists.
In February 2007, the UN’s highest court, the International Court of Justice in The Hague, ruled that what happened in Srebrenica constituted genocide. Not far away, in the International Criminal Court, Ratko Mladic (70), former commander of the Bosnian Serb forces, and his former political master, Radovan Karadzic (69), are currently on trial.
They have pleaded not guilty to charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity for allegedly plotting a campaign of ethnic cleansing and masterminding what happened in Srebrenica. Justice, however, is painfully slow.
Relatives of those who died have been unstinting in their demands for accountability. They have already been told by the European Court of Justice, the European Court of Human Rights and the Dutch supreme court that the UN itself is immune from prosecution.
However, in April, they had a limited victory when a Dutch court made a landmark ruling that the Dutch state was responsible for the deaths of three Bosnian Muslim men, employees of the peacekeepers, who were forced to leave the Dutchbat compound and subsequently killed. It was the first time a national government had been held responsible for the actions of peacekeepers acting under a UN mandate.
In another court in The Hague yesterday, there was another ruling, again significant, but shockingly limited and still not enough, according to victims’ relatives.
Emotionally chargedThe judges found in favour of the relatives’ group Mothers of Srebrenica, ruling that the Dutch state was responsible for the deaths of more than 300 Srebrenica victims, again men who were forced out of the peacekeepers’ compound. However, the judges also found it was not responsible for the vast majority of the 8,000 victims.
At an emotionally charged hearing, the judges ruled: “Given the circumstances, Dutchbat should have considered the possibility that genocide would be committed. We believe it can be said with sufficient certainty that, had they been allowed to stay in the compound, these men would have remained alive. By co-operating in their effective deportation, Dutchbat acted unlawfully.”
The court stopped short of finding the Netherlands liable for the majority of the deaths, the judges said, because they had not sought refuge in the Dutch compound in Potocari but had “fled to the woods in the vicinity of Srebrenica”.
“Obviously, the court has no real sense justice at all,” said Munira Subasic, one of the relatives.
“How is it possible to divide the victims, all of whom should have been protected, into different groups – and tell their mothers the Dutch state was responsible for a son on one side of the compound fence but not on the other?”