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Srebrenica at 20 years: How do we study genocide?

- July 11, 2015

A Muslim woman visits the Potocari Memorial Center in Srebrenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina, on Friday. This month marks the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre. (Valdrin Xhemaj/EPA)
On Saturday, July 11, 2015, thousands will gather at the Potocari Memorial Center and Cemetery to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the day the U.N. Safe Area of Srebrenica fell to the Drina Corps of the Army of Republika Srpska (VRS), local police units, and supporting militias from Serbia. Thereafter, over the course of nine days, more than 8,000 people, mostly adult men and boys, were killed by these military units in a massive operation. The fall of Srebrenica precipitated the most murderous single event in Europe since the end of World War II. It has rightly become an infamous instance of organized mass killing. In the trial of the Drina Corps commander, Gen. Radislav Krstic, the International Criminal Tribunal (ICTY) at The Hague ruled that what occurred at Srebrenica constituted genocide. The International Court of Justice upheld the judgment in 2007. Yet, just this week, Russia vetoed a U.N. Security Council Resolution on Srebrenica because it described it as genocide.
Srebrenica poses many intellectual and moral challenges for social science scholars. It is impossible to be neutral when confronted with genocide, or to be unmoved by the testimony of survivors. Having studied Bosnia-Herzegovina, and participated in Srebrenica commemoration events, there are, I would argue, four responsibilities we have as academics in this case. The first is to remember Srebrenica as a massive and sprawling event of gruesome materiality. Thanks to the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) we have a precise accounting of Srebrenica’s victims: 6,930 individual victims have been identified, 6,241 of these buried at the Srebrenica-Potocari Cemetery. More than a 100 will be buried on Saturday. Thanks to the thorough investigative work by the ICTY and others, we know that they were killed in a variety of ways — some at close quarters by organized firing squads, others by machine guns and grenades fired into pits of imprisoned people, others by knives, yet others gunned down on hills and fields as they tried to flee — at a series of diverse locations across northeast Bosnia. Srebrenica’s killing fields encompass an area about 43 miles north to south by 25 miles east to west. Those who were murdered at a killing site were then buried in mass graves dug by heavy earthmoving equipment. These mass graves, however, were soon deemed inadequate to cover up the crime of genocide they represented. So, they were dug up a few months later, as negotiators prepared for Dayton talks, and the decaying remains transported to smaller secondary graves. In a number of cases, these secondary graves were dug up and the body parts removed again and relocated on dump trucks to tertiary graves. The remains of one young victim, Kadrija Music, 23 at the time of his murder, were found in five locations up to 20 miles apart. The Srebrenica genocide was a massive enterprise. It required not an army of perpetrators but also an army of disposers driving buses, diggers and trucks, and coordinators scheduling the buses, diggers, trucks and cleanup crews, telling those involved where to bury the body parts. The total number of Srebrenica-related sites where human remains have been recovered is 407. This includes 93 graves and 314 surface sites. Sarah Wagner’s study of the ICMP and its identification of the missing helps us grasp the technoscientific and human dimensions of the genocide’s gruesome materiality.
Our second responsibility is to understand the genocide in Srebrenica in its local geopolitical context (the broader context is also an object of debate, one I fear may have too much of a J’accuse character). Srebrenica was the culmination of the effort by a largely one-party separatist movement and its army (Radovan Karadzic’s SDS Party and the VRS), aided and abetted by Slobodan Milosevic’s security structures, to establish a new ethnoterritorial entity upon land long the home of people of different faiths. Srebrenica is located in east-central Bosnia, a land west of the Drina River that had seen shifts in its population from majority Serb to majority Muslim in the previous decades. With Kosovo in mind, some radical Serb intellectual nationalists saw a ‘demographic threat’ in Bosnia-Herzegovina. And with the advent of a newly independent Croatia, Karadzic hyped fear of a return of wartime Ustase fascism. Robert Donia’s new biography of Karadzic helps us understand the politics of his time in power. Fearing an independent Bosnia, the SDS/VRS unleashed a war that pitted neighbor against neighbor, group against group, religion against religion, driving non-Serb villagers from the surrounding countryside into towns such as Srebrenica, Gorazdze and Zepa. They imagined creating a unified organic Serb nation, a geo-body with the Drina as its ‘backbone.’ The non-Serbs in these places were in the way, inconvenient real bodies to those desiring coherent homogenous ethnic space. And, on 8 March 1995, Radovan Karadzic plotted the destruction of two of the U.N. Safe Areas, issuing Directive 7 on Srebrenica and Zepa: “create an unbearable situation of total insecurity with no hope of further survival or life for the inhabitants of Srebrenica.”
Third, we need to recognize that the Srebrenica genocide was framed within lies and denial from the very outset. As Nettelfield and Wagner document in Srebrenica in the Aftermath of Genocide, denial was part of the crime itself. Srebrenica revealed to the world the awful truth about the founding fathers of Republika Srpska, Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, how for years they had made their republic by creating a giant crime scene. But this final crime, like the others, had to be hidden, denied and buried (multiple times). And, thus, the frenetic and elaborate efforts to move the bodies, hide the evidence, challenge the facts, evade responsibility and relativize the crime. These practices are part of the afterlife of genocidal practice. Survivors are denied their experience, the event its history, its exceptional awfulness. And, as we see, the current leadership in Republika Srpska, and its allies abroad, the leadership of Serbia and Russia, still cannot look at the event and accept it for what it was. The reasons for this are complex for denial is a multidimensional and only partially conscious process (see Gordy on Serbia’s struggle with guilt, responsibility and denial, and the documentary The Serbian Lawyer). In this, they reveal themselves as still caught within practices of denial, practices that go back to the very crime itself.
Finally, and this is the most difficult, we need to examine with extreme sensitivity how the production of victimhood through the memorialization of genocide can sometimes produce acts of genocide. Those who have studied Bosnia’s war in detail know the powerful mobilizing role folk memory of genocide during World War II played in producing an implacable polarized politics, especially in rural areas. It cannot be stressed enough that genocide is not something whole nations do. It is something armed formations do, something certain political parties encourage, something particular leaders plot, and ordinary men carry out in intimate and mediated ways. Genocide remembrance as Yugoslavia collapsed (unearthing wartime mass graves), however, was captured by ethnopolitical parties and used to demonize whole groups of people. Irreproachable victim status enabled victimization of innocent neighbors and cruel practices without empathy. This is why it is vital that genocide remembrance not be about reproducing the warring-group categories of the perpetrators.
We live in a world where there is the possibility of justice for victims of genocide, where genocide deniers — temporary winners on occasion — are on the losing side of history. Twenty years after the horror of Srebrenica, lets us remember the victims, both dead and living, from this small part of Bosnia, and the perpetrators, most of whom are alive, some within the United States. And let us remember that we all have a moral and intellectual responsibility to recognize the empirical history of this and other events in Bosnia’s cruel war, and to never allow convenient politics, national myths and partial memory to get between us and what unfolded across the fields and hills of eastern Bosnia 20 years ago.
Gerard Toal is professor of government and international affairs at Virginia Tech’s National Capitol Region campus in Alexandria. He is the co-author of Bosnia Remade: Ethnic Cleansing and its Reversal (Oxford University Press, 2011).