BACKGROUND ON SREBRENICA, HOW IT ALL STARTED
Hague Judgments Provide Incomplete
Background on Srebrenica
Background on Srebrenica
The International Criminal Tribunal focused its attention almost entirely on the case of the fall of Srebrenica and the systematic execution of thousands prisoners of war. But it ignored the Serb war crimes at Srebrenica that preceded the fall of this ‘UN-protected’ enclave…. Where other Srebrenica-related judgments fail to provide a broader perspective of events leading to the Srebrenica massacre, Orić’s judgment succeeds…
Author: Daniel Toljaga
No serious researcher will ever be able to find all-encompassing information, in the Srebrenica-related judgments, about the serious human rights violations that preceded the first genocide on European soil since the Second World War. The world’s attention, then and later, concentrated on the 1995 Srebrenica massacre – the last act of a long-drawn out tragedy written by the Army of the Republika Srpska under direction of the Bosnian Serb leadership, with military, financial and logistical help from their brethren in Serbia.
The siege of Srebrenica itself lasted for more than three years (May 1992 – July 1995) before General Mladić’s forces and volunteers from Serbia hunted down and systematically killed, in an organized and planned manner, around 8,000 Bosniak men and boys. The killings, fueled by Islamophobia, were accompanied by terror, humiliation, rape, torture, and ethnic cleansing.
What remains less appreciated in academic literature is that during the siege of this enclave, Serb forces employed a range of tactics to make the survival of the inhabitants of Srebrenica impossible. These included, among others, massacres of Bosniak civilians and the destruction of Bosnian Muslim villages in and around the enclave, the imposition of a blockade of humanitarian food convoys causing widespread malnutrition and starvation, the deliberate shelling of civilian objects and aircraft attacks with chemical agents (note: see for example see the Report from Srebrenica Municipality War Presidency dated 3 April 1993 and obtained from the Court Database of the International Criminal Tribunal at the Hague).
In the early months of the war (April – June 1992), Serb forces succeeded in plundering and destroying hundreds of Bosnian Muslim villages, killing 3,166 Bosniaks in the Srebrenica region, and committing ghastly massacres. The killings continued well into 1992 and 1993. People of the besieged enclave resisted Serb attacks by placing ambushes and counter-attacking Serb positions to obtain food for survival.
Despite the seriousness of war crimes committed by Serb forces during the siege, the International Criminal Tribunal focused its attention almost entirely on the case of the fall of Srebrenica and the systematic execution of thousands prisoners of war. But it ignored the Serb war crimes at Srebrenica that preceded the fall of this ‘UN-protected’ enclave.
One would hope that the deliberate slaughter of innocents in the April 1993 Srebrenica Children Massacre would warrant a trial, but no perpetrators were ever identified or brought to face justice. Ambassador Diego Arria, who initiated the visit of the UN Security Council delegation to Srebrenica in April 1993, and was at its head, concluded that the situation in the beleaguered enclave was slow-motion process of genocide. John McMillan of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees summed up the situation in the besieged enclave in one sentence “Apparently, in their pathological drive to acquire territory, the Serbs are willing to kill anybody.” (AP, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, p.A4, 14 April 1993.)
So why has the ICTY failed to investigate a myriad of human rights violations committed by Serb forces during the siege of Srebrenica? It appears that the Hague Tribunal was too busy investigating now greatly discredited Serbian war allegations about Naser Orić, former police officer credited with organizing the defence of the enclave. Orić was put on trial and acquitted on all charges on appeal.
Where other Srebrenica-related judgments (Krstić, Blagojević, Popović, etc.) fail to provide a broader perspective of events leading to the Srebrenica massacre, Orić’s judgment succeeds. Here are some relevant excerpts from his Trial judgment that offer a bit more balanced background on the Serb terror during the siege of Srebrenica:
When it appeared increasingly unlikely that BiH [Bosnia-Herzegovina] would remain within the SFRY [Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia], the Serbian leadership in Belgrade had already embarked upon a project to create the boundaries of a new Serbian state comprising all ethnic Serbs from the territories of the states breaking away from the SFRY (“New State Project”). This new Serbian state was intended to encompass territories both from Croatia and BiH which were predominantly inhabited by Serbs, as well as areas where the Serbs were a minority. From the outset, the New State Project was to be realised through a campaign of ‘ethnic cleansing’ which included the forcible removal or even the killing of the non- Serb population from the targeted territories in Croatia and BiH. In the second half of 1991, the forceful implementation of the New State Project by means of force began in Croatia. [par.82.]Although the presence of the JNA [Yugoslav Peoples Army] on the territory of BiH formally ended on 19 May 1992, a large number of JNA troops, weaponry and equipment remained in BiH and were merely re- designated ‘Army of the Serbian Republic of BiH’ (VRS). Consequently, the VRS had at its disposal a significant cache of resources, outweighing by far those available to the Bosnian Muslims. [par.86.]By contrast, the newly declared Republic of BiH faced the outbreak of armed conflict almost wholly unprepared. In municipalities where Bosnian Muslims [Bosniaks] formed the majority of the population and controlled the local TO [Territorial Defence], there was occasional armed resistance to the Bosnian Serb military campaign. However, they had at their disposal neither the structures nor the logistics to match the might of the VRS. A UN-sponsored arms embargo further contributed to the imbalance of weaponry between the VRS and the emerging Bosnian Muslim forces. Moreover, in April and May of 1992, the process of constituting and outfitting regular armed forces of the Republic of BiH was rudimentary at best. Thus, during the early stages of the conflict in BiH, those units of the TO controlled by Bosnian Muslims formed their only means of engaging in military action. [par.87.]Srebrenica had become a focal point in the Serb strategy and was consequently gradually isolated by the Serb forces. By April 1992, the JNA [Yugoslav Peoples Army] had set up artillery at all the strategic points and elevations surrounding Srebrenica and many JNA units retreating from neighbouring Croatia were re-deployed to the Podrinje area. On 8 April 1992, Serb forces forcibly took over the town of Zvornik, thereby isolating Srebrenica from Tuzla. On 11 April 1992, the town of Skelani, southeast of Srebrenica, was forcibly taken over by Bosnian Serbs, who thereafter erected checkpoints on the road to Srebrenica. [par.97.]On 17 April 1992, a five-member Bosnian Muslim delegation from Srebrenica, headed by the president of the municipality, Bešim Ibišević, met with Bosnian Serb leaders in the Serb-held town of Bratunac. There, at the Hotel Fontana, the Bosnian Muslim population of Srebrenica was given a 24-hour ultimatum to surrender all weapons and leave town. In response, most of the remaining Bosnian Muslim inhabitants of Srebrenica, some of them lightly armed, decided to hide in the nearby woods and wait for tensions to ease. [par.99.]On 18 April 1992, after shelling, Srebrenica fell to the Bosnian Serbs. Following the takeover, a Serb flag was paraded through town. Serbs forces, accompanied by paramilitaries, plundered goods, damaged houses, and killed many of the remaining Bosnian Muslims. [par.100.]Between April 1992 and March 1993, Srebrenica town and the villages in the area held by Bosnian Muslims were constantly subjected to Serb military assaults, including artillery attacks, sniper fire, as well as occasional bombing from aircrafts. Each onslaught followed a similar pattern. Serb soldiers and paramilitaries surrounded a Bosnian Muslim village or hamlet, called upon the population to surrender their weapons, and then began with indiscriminate shelling and shooting. In most cases, they then entered the village or hamlet, expelled or killed the population, who offered no significant resistance, and destroyed their homes. During this period, Srebrenica was subjected to indiscriminate shelling from all directions on a daily basis. Potočari in particular was a daily target for Serb artillery and infantry because it was a sensitive point in the defence line around Srebrenica. Other Bosnian Muslim settlements were routinely attacked as well. All this resulted in a great number of refugees and casualties. [par.103.]While the Bosnian Serbs enjoyed military superiority, they were outnumbered by the Bosnian Muslims who adopted a type of guerrilla warfare, which in the second half of 1992 and up to early 1993 was quite successful. Between June 1992 and March 1993, Bosnian Muslims raided a number of villages and hamlets inhabited by Bosnian Serbs, or from which Bosnian Muslims had formerly been expelled. One of the purposes of these actions was to acquire food, weapons, ammunition and military equipment. According to the Bosnian Serbs, these actions resulted in considerable loss to Bosnian Serb life and property. [par.104.]As a consequence of the aforementioned Serb attacks, several tens of thousands of Bosnian Muslim refugees flooded into Srebrenica. Most of them had been driven from their homes by the attacking Serb forces. Some had fled to the woods, meandering from village to village before finally ending up in the Srebrenica enclave. Refugees were not registered, but it is estimated that already by December 1992, around 40,000 people were crammed inside the enclave.250 In March 1993, the number of refugees rose to approximately 80,000. [par.108.]Being cut off from all supply routes and overly-congested with refugees had serious implications for all aspects of life in Srebrenica. As early as the summer of 1992, there was a humanitarian disaster in the making. The situation in which people lived was further exacerbated by the fact that the majority of houses in the enclave were not suitable for living. [par.109.]Bosnian Serb forces controlling the access roads were not allowing international humanitarian aid – most importantly, food and medicine – to reach Srebrenica. As a consequence, there was a constant and serious shortage of food causing starvation to peak in the winter of 1992/1993. Numerous people died or were in an extremely emaciated state due to malnutrition. Bosnian Muslim fighters and their families, however, were provided with food rations from existing storage facilities. The most disadvantaged group among the Bosnian Muslims were the refugees, who usually lived on the streets and without shelter, in freezing temperatures. Only in November and December 1992, did two UN convoys with humanitarian aid reach the enclave, and this despite Bosnian Serb obstruction. [par.110.]Toward the end of February 1993, US planes began airdropping food and supplies over the Srebrenica enclave. ‘Operation Provide Promise’ gave some relief to the starving population. Incidents were reported, however, of Bosnian Muslims being injured or killed awaiting a pallet to land or while entering mined territory to retrieve the food and supplies. Fighting among Bosnian Muslims also occurred over the contents of airdrops. [par.111.]Threatened by starvation, almost everyone from Srebrenica participated in searches for food in nearby villages and hamlets under Bosnian Serb control. These searches were very dangerous; many stepped on mines or were wounded or killed by Serbs. Because of the bags in which the searchers carried the food, they were known as ‘torbari’. These torbari also entered Serb villages, alongside Bosnian Muslim fighters during actions, in order to search for food and other items. Most of the time, the torbari greatly outnumbered the fighters themselves. [par.112.]Hygienic conditions throughout the Srebrenica enclave were appalling. There was a total absence of running water. Most people were left to drink water from a small river which was polluted. Infestation with lice and fleas became widespread among the population. [par.113.]The Srebrenica war hospital functioned under these most adverse of circumstances. It lacked almost all the essentials. Nonetheless, between April 1992 and April 1993, more than 3,600 individuals – fighters and civilians alike – received some kind of medical treatment there. Patients suffered in dreadful conditions, as no disinfectants, bandages, aspirins or antibiotics were available with which to treat them. Limbs were amputated without anaesthesia, with brandy being administered to ease the pain. [par.114.]As there was no electricity available, people used makeshift power sources and candles. A small water-wheel generator behind the Srebrenica post office (“PTT building”) provided about two or three kilowatts per hour, which was mainly used to provide light to the hospital and to sterilise equipment. People used whatever they could find, such as ordinary sheets cut into pieces, to clothe themselves. [par.115.]
For more in-depth account of the Serb(ian) war crimes in and around Srebrenica in the first three months of war, you may wish to continue reading: Prelude to the Srebrenica Genocide:Mass murder and ethnic cleansing of Bosniaks in the Srebrenica region during the first three months of the Bosnian War (April-June 1992) and watch Tony Birtley’s reporting from the besieged Srebrenica Video PART 1, Video PART 2, and Video PART 3, as well a rare footage ofSrebrenica War Hospital.