Srebrenica is synonymous with suffering, loss of home and dignity

srebrenica commemoration

The Hague, Berlin, Belgrade, Zenica, Hamburg, Mostar // ‘How was the massacre that executed more than 8.000 people in Srebrenica possible, why is there currently no hope for reconciliation in the region, to what extent did the Hague Tribunal contribute to bringing justice to victims and their families, why are war criminals proclaimed heroes, and how strong is nationalism on the territory of former Yugoslavia?’ were just a few of the topics raised at the online conference organized by the Green parliamentary group in the German Bundestag in commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the genocide in Srebrenica, entitled ‘Srebrenica: 25 Years of Remembrance, Justice and Reconciliation’.

Claudia Roth, the Vice President of the German Bundestag from the Alliance 90/The Greens, noted in her introductory speech that Saturday, 11th of July will mark the 25th year since the Srebrenica genocide.

On that day, 25 years ago, Bosnian Serbs occupied and killed more than 8.000 boys and men. The massacre went on for days; thousands of people were systematically slaughtered. Srebrenica is synonymous with suffering – the suffering of those who lost those closest to them, with the loss of home and dignity. Srebrenica is synonymous with a poison that spreads nationalism, turning neighbors into enemies. The suffering goes on until this very day. Roth noted that not all of the mass graves and victims’ remains have been found to date.

She pointed out that the International Court of Justice ruled that the Srebrenica massacre was indeed a genocide, which goes to show it was the biggest crime against humanity in Europe since the World War II. The genocide didn’t happen ‘quietly and secretly’, as she stated, but before the eyes of the whole world.

Out of all places, the United Nations zone became a mass grave for thousands of people. That is why Srebrenica represents a major failure of European and international politics – stated Roth while reminding us that more than 10.000 people lost their lives in Bosnia during the war, that whole villages were wiped out, that tens of thousands of women and girls were systematically raped and sexually abused and that they have gotten barely any help and compensation, as well as that survivors usually weren’t recognized as civil victims of war.

According to Roth, Srebrenica remains a powerful reminder that we must fight nationalism and nationalist hatred.

Nataša Kandić, the founder and executive director of the Humanitarian Law Center, said during the video call that she did not expect that, on the 25th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide, the victims’ families would still be waiting to bury at least one bone of their loved ones.

-This anniversary is hard on me since 88 victims of genocide will be buried in unmarked graves because no one can identify them – Kandić said. She said that in February 2005 she received a video of six Muslims from Srebrenica being shot. They were killed by members of a paramilitary formation called ‘Scorpions’.

-I gave the video to the B92 television channel, which was quite popular at the time, and it was aired right away. That was the time of hope, the hope that reconciliation was possible. However, both the President and Prime Minister of Serbia at the time condemned the crime but also declared that the ‘Scorpions’ were never connected to state institutions and that they were a criminal group. That was a message to the prosecutors that they shouldn’t connect Srebrenica to Serbia – Kandić said. She pointed out that Serbia missed its chance to condemn the crime and admit its involvement.

She also pointed to the fact that Croatia stopped cooperating with the Coalition for RECOM in 2005 and that the Republic of Srpska declared last year that no reconciliation will be accepted unless based on the verdict of the Hague Tribunal. Serge Brammertz, the Chief Prosecutor for the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals, successor to the Hague Tribunal, first of all mentioned that the Tribunal was founded in 1993 and that it was the first international tribunal after the Nuremberg trials and that its establishment was very successful.

- Thousands of testimonies and hundreds of verdicts are documents of great importance, which attest to what happened in former Yugoslavia. That is crucial if we have in mind the glorification of crimes and declaring criminals heroes. That precisely is one of the main problems of today. If it wasn’t for the Tribunal, Slobodan Milošević, Radovan Karadžić and others wouldn’t have been prosecuted – Brammertz said.

He explained that the most crucial moment for him as a prosecutor was the capture of Karadžić and Ratko Mladić.

I visited Srebrenica when I became the chief prosecutor in 2008. Some of the victims lost as much as 30 of their family members... It became clear to me that vicitms' families want Karadžić i Mladić in the courthouse – said Brammertz.

When Margarete Bause, memeber of the Bundestag and spokeswoman for human rights and humanitarian aid of the Alliance 90/The Greens, asked why the convicted criminal Milan Lukić wasn't prosecuted for rape despite the testemonies of many women, Brammertz replied that the tribunal had a pioneering role in prosecuting sexual violence in wars on the territory of former Yugoslavia.

- In over 50 percent of our cases we had indictments for sexual violence and many of those indictments resulted in verdicts for that crime as well. We found that sexual violence was used as a weapon of war and an element of ethnic cleansing. We also concluded that investigations into sexual violence have to begin very early, which can be appllied to Lukić's case. It was a case against two cousins (Milan and Sreten Lukić, auth.note), who committed brutal crimes. For example, they locked down a house with more than 80 women, children and elderly and set it on fire. They would kill anyone who tried to escape the burning house. That was a difficult trial and prosecutors focused on mass murders the defendants committed - Brammertz explained, stressing that the sexual abuse of women was discovered later on during the investigation.

Despite that, he added, witnesses testified in court about the rapes committed by Milan Lukić and in that way contribued to his life sentence.

Bause recalled that some of the verdicts, such as the acquittal of the Serbian general Momčilo Perišić who was charged with crimes committed in Srebrenica, were surprising. Brammertz answered, saying there were verdicts that were hard to accept, like the aquittal of Perišić, as well as that of Croatian general Ante Gotovina who was charged with crimes during operation Oluja ('Storm').

Bause's question on what we can expect from Mladić's appeal, having been sentenced to life in prison on the basis of committing a genocide in Srebrebnica, the Chief Prosecutor replied that the trial of the former commander of the Republic of Srpska Army is one of the most important in international courts, and that he expects it will be continued, since it was temporarely halted due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Speaking of the role of the European Union in the process of facing the past in this region, Brammertz said that, during the accession negotiations, full cooperation with the Tribunal, now the Mechanism, was required from all of the countries that wish to join the European Union, and that precisely was what contributed to the fugitives being brought to justice.

- Cooperation in the region is poor, as there is no political will for trials to continue. Many criminals stay unpunished in both Serbia and Croatia for the crimes they committed in Bosnia. That is why the EU has to continue supporting the legal institutions, but also be critical towards certain politicians – concluded Brammertz.

Sabiha Husić, director of the women’s organization ‘Medica’, that helps war victims of sexual violence, told the story of when she escaped to Zenica with her parents in 1993.

-I remember when the first refugees came from Srebrenica to Zenica in 1995. We would spend whole days with those women, who were injured and raped, we took care of them in our organization ‘Medica”. We listened to their stories, how worried they were about the male members of their families…. This year we commemorate 25 years since the Srebrenica genocide. Thousands of families are still waiting for information about their loved ones. Despite the pain and suffering, they spread positive messages – not to hate, but to learn from the past – stated Husić, calling on German MEPs to continue supporting facing the past, which is, as she explained, the basis for reconciliation in Bosnia. 

Human rights activist and journalist Štefica Galić, who saved many Bosniaks with her husband during the war, said that the horrors of the past must be clarified and that the victims must be asked for forgiveness because without ‘’catharsis there will be no reconciliation’’.

- Thanks to the Hague Tribunal, all this has been thoroughly documented and I hope that future generations will begin to acknowledge the facts and recognize the truth. Risen from the genocide before the eyes of the whole world, the Republic of Srpska persistently refuses to admit to the truth even after 25 years, and celebrates its criminals as heroes, despite all the Hague verdicts and trials in Bosnia and Herzegovina courts. There is no law prohibiting genocide denial, nor repentance… Bosnia and Herzegovina is a frantic state that is led by nationalist parties that started the war in the first place. How can those build peace and a functional state? We still haven’t resolved the traumas of World War II, nor our wars from the 90s… Language serves to tear us apart, not bring us together, school programs divide children… The system of networked criminals who are not held responsible for anything is ruling now. ‘Mostarisation’ of the entire Bosnia and Herzegovina is underway, under the pretense of ‘promoting European values’. Meanwhile, Serbia and Croatia, Bosnia’s former aggressors, are waging a diplomatic war, importing their fascism, waiting for this country to fall apart, lobbying in the European Union against us. I am begging you not to trust them. It’s our job to seek the truth and speak it loudly so the evil that happened to us never happens again. Never let Srebrenica happen again to anybody - said Galić in a video message.

Annalena Baerbock, member of Bundestag and Co-Chair of the German Green Party, stated at the end of the conference that the message from Štefica Galić will be the mission of the Greens. She stated that the MEPs are aware that hatred and nationalism still aren’t behind Bosnia and Herzegovina.

- There is no culture of remembrance, criminals are being declared heroes, and in some countries, they even hold seats in the Parliament. Many politicians use wars to achieve their goals. They want to create ‘clean’ ethnic territories – Baerbock pointed out, stressing that a land swap between Kosovo and Serbia is not the solution and that it is in fact dangerous.

Stanišić: Višegrad no longer exists

Writer Saša Stanišić who was born in Višegrad and is the winner of the German Book Award for 2019, first read three excrepts from his award-winning book 'Origins'. Stanišić fled with his parents to Germany from wartime Višegrad in 1992. To Manuel Sarrazin's (member of the Bundestag and spokesman for easterneuropean work of the Alliance 90/The Greens) question on what his view on Višegrad is now, he replies that his attitude towards the city is ambivalent.

''In my books I write about an idilyc childhood. It was a nice childhood, in a functioning town, and there were no interethnic problems. However, it is no longer that way, that town no longer exists. There are almost no Muslims left in Višegrad, wounds are very deep, the unemployment rate is so high...The youth wants to leave the town... I hope that one day a normal life there will be possible'', said Stanišić.

An abridged version of this text was published in the Danas daily.