Serbian denial of the Srebrenica massacre

Srebrenica. Editorial credit: ToskanaINC /

Tamim Mobayed questions why after 24 years Serbia continues to deny the massacre of more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica.

Today marks marks the 24th anniversary of the beginning of the Srebrenica massacre that occurred during the Bosnian-Serb war.  The war as a whole remains to be the darkest period in Europe’s post-World War II history, with the massacre at Srebrenica marking what is perhaps the most heinous incident of this grim period.

The events that followed the fall of Srebrenica to the Serb forces resulted in the mass execution of close to 10,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys, as well as the expelling of more than 20,000 Muslim residents of the city. Srebrenica was targeted due its strategic importance to the Republic of Srpska; without Serb ownership of Srebrenica and the land surrounding it, the Republic would have no territorial integrity.

There are many morbid facets to the events at Srebrenica, including the UN’s turning a blind eye to the events, the systematic rape that occurred there (a particularly despicable feature of the whole Bosnian conflict), and more recently, Serbian World Cup fans chanting “knife, wire, Srebrenica” in Vienna.

Orwell and Genocide Denial

In his withering essay “Notes on Nationalism”, George Orwell wrote:

“All nationalists have the power of not seeing resemblances between similar sets of facts…actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits, but according to who does them”. More specifically, Orwell wrote, “The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them…a known fact may be so unbearable that it is habitually pushed aside and not allowed to enter into logical processes, or on the other hand it may enter into every calculation and yet never be admitted as a fact a fact, even in one’s own mind”.

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More ominously, founder of Genocide Watch Gregory H. Stanton places genocide denial as the eight stage of genocide, “Denial is the eight stage that always follows a genocide. It is among the surest indicators of further genocidal massacres. The perpetrators of genocide dig up mass graves, burn bodies, try to cover up evidence and intimidate witnesses. They deny that they committed any crimes, and often blame what happened on the victims”.

The digging up and relocation of bodies at Srebrenica was one of the sinister features of the events in Bosnia. As a result, to this day, many relatives are denied the closure that comes with a burial of a body or body part. This leads to a phenomenon known to psychologists as ambiguous loss; a form of loss that is complicated by the absence of closure.

As a result of the actions of Serbian troops, bodies and body parts are still being found by the admirable work of International Commission on Missing Persons in Tuzla, and a collective service is held every July in Srebrenica. The Commission has been able to find and identify the remains of around 7,000 victims of the horrid events in July of 1995. Last year, 71 victims were finally able to be put to rest.

Serbian Denial

The genocide denial continues taking on many forms. The President of the Republic of Srpska, one of the 2 constitutional entities that comprise Bosnia Herzegovina, banned the teaching of the genocide at Srebrenica, and the infamous siege of Sarajevo, in Srpska’s schools in 2015. Of the 11,000 Bosnians who died during the siege of Sarajevo, 1,100 were children. Srpska’s President, Milorad Dodik, said at the time, “It’s impossible to use here the textbooks…which say the Serbs have committed genocide and kept Sarajevo under siege…this is not correct and this will not be taught here”.

When a United Nations Security Council motion proposed to condemn the killings in Srebrenica as genocide in 2015, Russia, an ally of the Republic of Srpska vetoed the motion, rendering it defeated.

Highlighting just how active the war over the narrative of what happened at Srebrenica remains, Serb residents of Srebrenica attempted to erect a memorial to Vitaly Churkin, the man who was then Russian ambassador to the UN, who voted to veto Security Council’s motion. If there was any doubt about the mean spiritedness of this move, the citizens group behind this move attempted to have the unveiling of the monument on July 8th, thee days before what would have been the 22nd anniversary of the act of genocide. The monument was eventually installed last year, but not in Srebrenica as originally planned.

In an Orwellian act, Serbia passed an amendment to its criminal code in 2016 to punish deniers of genocide and war crimes, seemingly as an attempt to please the European Union, yet left out any mention of the massacre carried out by Serbia’s own troops in Srebrenica. The denial seems to be working effectively within Serbian circles; a survey conducted in 2016 in Serbia found that 70% of respondents denied that what occurred at Srebrenica was genocide.

One of the precursors to genocide is found in dehumanisation. The dehumanisation of Bosnian Muslims, by pseudo-science, continued after the war. Srpska’s President from 1996 to 1998, Biljana Plavsic, said “It was genetically deformed material that embraced Islam…and now, of course, with each successive generation it simply becomes concentrated. It gets worse and worse.

It simply expressed itself and dictates their style of thinking, which is rooted in their genes. And through the centuries, the genes degraded further”. Plavsic was once an academic, and before that, a prestigious Fulbright scholar, highlighting the unsettling relationship that can at times be found between science and barbarism. Driving this point home, one of the most notorious criminals in the Bosnian conflict was Radovan Karadzic; a psychiatrist who spent some time training at Colombia University. While on one hand scientists should be concerned primarily with facts, as Orwell points out, nationalism is one form of ideology that can skew the objective mind into only seeing what it wants to see. Plavsic was eventually found guilty of war crimes due to her active support of ethnic cleansing, but was released in 2009 for good behaviour.

Mladen Grujicic, a Bosnian Serb, made unfortunate history in 2016 when he was elected as the first Mayor of Srebrenica who openly denied that the massacre was genocide. On the now widely proven act of genocide, Grujicic said, “When they prove it to be the truth, I’ll be the first to accept it”. This might be likened to the election of a denier of the Holocaust to the Polish town of Oświęcim, within which lies the site of Auschwitz. Adding insult to injury, Grujicic was invited to a National Prayer Breakfast in Washington, with President Trump, 2 weeks after his election.

The concluding chapter of this macabre affair is found in the realisation that the policy of ethnic cleansing and genocide worked. As evidence by the election of Grujicic, many of Srebrenica’s Muslims did not return to their homes after the war, with the Muslim population decreasing by around a third, while the Bosnian Serb proportion of the town doubling, between 1991 and 2013. The loved ones of the victims at Srebrenica have been faced with the unsurmountable task of trying to rebuild their lives after experiencing the horrors of genocide. The continued denial of the nature of what happened at Srebrenica denies the victims the chance of a mini catharsis that can arrive when a perpetrator accepts their faults.

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