One of the most notorious gendercides of the Yugoslav Wars took place in the Bosnian town Srebrenica over several days in July 1995, when Serb forces separated the Bosnian Muslim men and older boys from the rest of the community, and then killed thousands of them. This event is widely regarded as the horrifying climax of the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Later, the U.N. Peacekeeping operation came under heavy criticism, as many of the killed males were elderly and infirm men who had sought protection at and around the U.N. base in Srebrenica. Also, the international community had declared the town Srebrenica a “safe area”, but with very vague ideas about what that designation actually entailed and how much resources that would be required to really keep civilians safe.
Summarizing the event in 1997, David Rohde – who as a journalist with the Christian Science Monitor won a Pulitzer Prize for uncovering the first mass graves around Srebrenica – did not mince his words.
The international community partially disarmed thousands of men, promised them they would be safeguarded and then delivered them to their sworn enemies. Srebrenica was not simply a case of the international community standing by as a far-off atrocity was committed. The actions of the international community encouraged, aided, and emboldened the executioners. (…) The fall of Srebrenica did not have to happen. There is no need for thousands of skeletons to be strewn across eastern Bosnia. There is no need for thousands of Muslim children to be raised on stories of their fathers, grandfathers, uncles and brothers slaughtered by Serbs.” (Source: David Rohde, “Endgame: The Betrayal and Fall of Srebrenica”, Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1997, pp. 351, 353.)
The Red Cross lists 7,079 dead and missing from the Srebrenica events, and David Rohde notes in his book that the massacres at Srebrenica accounts for an astonishing percentage of the number of missing from the Yugoslav Wars as a whole.
“Of the 18,406 Muslims, Serbs and Croats reported still missing (…) as of January 1997, 7,079 are people who disappeared after the fall of Srebrenica. In other words, approximately 38 percent of the war’s missing are from Srebrenica.” (Source: David Rohde, “Endgame: The Betrayal and Fall of Srebrenica”, Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1997, p. 353.)
When the massacre in Srebenica took place in July 1995, the region had been plagued by war and genocidal and gendercidal atrocities for several years. There was for instance the Bratunac massacre of April 1992, where an estimated 350 Bosnian Muslim men were tortured to death by Serb paramilitaries and special police. The village Bratunac is located just outside the town Srebrenica, and even though the village fell into the hands of Bosnian Serb paramilitaries in 1995, the town did not.
At the time, Srebrenica was defended by troops and civilian squads headed by officer Naser Oric, who commanded the Army of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina in the Srebrenica enclave of eastern Bosnia.
In April 1993, Serb forces under General Ratko Mladic closed in on Srebrenica. In scenes broadcast worldwide, hundreds of women and children were evacuated from Srebrenica. General Mladic had made it clear that he had come for the men – armed or unarmed.
Eventually, the Serb forces cut off the refugee flow regardless of age and gender. The international community declared Srebrenica one of the “safe areas”, but what that entailed was (and remains) unclear, and sufficient foreign forces were not sent to Srebrenica to safeguard the civilians. As Little and Silber grimly points out, “the safe areas were among the most profoundly unsafe places in the world“. (Source: Allan Little and Laura Silber, “The Death of Yugoslavia”, Gardners Books, 1996, p. 274)
In June 1995, mass panic spread throughout Srebrenica as Bosnian Serb forces closed their noose around the town, as a part of the Bosnian Serb plan to rid themselves of the “ethnic anomaly” that the Muslim enclaves in Bosnia constituted.
The events at the U.N. base
In Srebrenica, men, women and children gathered at the United Nations base Potocari, which was controlled by Dutch troops (peacekeepers). The adult men who came to the base were mostly old, infirm or in other ways incapacitated, as most of the able-bodied male Muslim population of battle-age had fled to the hills instead.
Eventually, the U.N. peacekeepers closed the camp and did not allow any more refugees in. When the Serb forces arrived, they did not enter the base immediately, but they separated out the women and girls from the group outside and sent them away.
Later, the U.N. peacekeepers adhered to the Serbian demand to begin sending out the refugees. The Serbs separated most of the male and boy refugees from the women and other children, in front of the peacekeepers, and the boys and men were later killed.
The peacekeepers also adhered to the Serb request to create a registry of the 242 Srebrenica men remaining in camp, and then hand over the men to the Serbs. (Note: Some sources instead say there were 239 men on the registry.)
With few exceptions, the women and children were sent by bus to relative safety in Tuzla.
- Chuck Sudetic, “Blood and Vengeance: One Family’s Story of the War in Bosnia”, Penguin Books, 1999, p. 306
- Hasan Nuhanović, “The Courage to Speak Out: Hasan Nuhanović”, Remembering Srebrenica, https://srebrenica.org.uk/survivor-stories/the-courage-to-speak-out-hasan-nuhanovic
The mass executions of males
Over five days, mass executions of Muslim Srebrenica males took place in various locations, including a football field near Nova Kasaba – which became the main killing-ground for a five-day long gendercide – and the school gymnasium in Branuac, a village near Srebrenica. As mentioned above, this gymnasium had already been used for a gendercidal massacre in 1992.
An eyewitness report from a man who survived the massacres at Nova Kasaba notes how the men were forced to dig mass-graves before being shot.
“[They] picked out Muslims whom they either knew about or knew, interrogated them and made them dig pits. (…)During our first day, the Cetniks [Serbs] killed approximately 500 people. They would just line them up and shoot them into the pits. The approximately one hundred guys whom they interrogated and who had dug the mass graves then had to fill them in. At the end of the day, they were ordered to dig a pit for themselves and line up in front of it. (…) [They] were shot into the mass grave. (…) At dawn, (…) [a] bulldozer arrived and dug up a pit (…), and buried about 400 men alive. The men were encircled by Cetniks: whoever tried to escape was shot.” (Source: Quoted in Mark Danner, “The Killing Fields of Bosnia”, New York Review of Books, September 24 1998.)
Serb forces enters the hills
As mentioned above, many Muslim men – especially those of battle-age and capacity – took to the hills as the Serb forces closed in on Srebrenica. The Serb forces went into those areas and killed men there as well, e.g. by shooting shrapnel from anti-aircraft guns.
In a radio transmission intercepted by western eavesdroppers, the Serb commander General Radivoj Krstic was heard saying “You must kill everyone. We don’t need anyone alive.” (Source: Mark Danner, “Bosnia: The Great Betrayal”, New York Review of Books, March 26 1998.)
In the hills, many of the men began to crumble from fear and thirst, and developed hallucinations and paranoia. Murders and suicides were not uncommon occurences.
“The psyches of the men ruptured. Muslims mistook other Muslims for infiltrators. They threw hand grenades and fired their automatics at one another. (…) Men shot themselves hoping the Serbs would show the wounded mercy.” (Source: Chuck Sudetic, “Blood and Vengeance: One Family’s Story of the War in Bosnia”, Penguin Books, 1999, p. 306.)
Eventually, thousands of Muslim men who were still alive in the hills surrendered to Serb troops, as they were lured in by the sight of (taken) UN vehicles and promises of safe passage. All of those who surrendered were executed in nearby fields or warehouses, and buried in mass-graves.