IT was 25 years ago today that the Srebrenica massacre began. In what was legally deemed an act of genocide, more than 8000 civilian Bosnian Muslim men and boys were killed by soldiers of the Bosnian Serb Army during the Bosnian War.

The slaughter in Srebrenica went on for 11 days, and during that time many women were raped, some of them repeatedly, and even tiny children were mercilessly killed.

It was the worst war crime in Europe since the Second World War, and the name of the town has become a byword for the worst evils of sectarianism. For this was not about warfare, this was about the inhuman extermination of people because of their religion, their ethnicity.

Yet 25 years on, while the name of Srebrenica resounds, it is likely that a whole generation is ignorant of exactly what happened in that town from July 11-22, 1995. Many other people across the world would also like to forget Srebrenica because of the shame it brought on the United Nations and the Netherlands in particular.


THE Bosnian War followed the disintegration of Yugoslavia, and the start of Yugoslav Wars that eventually resulted in the deaths of more than 100,000 people.

Early in 1992, the regions of Bosnia and Herzegovina declared their independence. By that time, the Yugoslavian army had effectively become the army of Serbia which opposed the new republic, largely because of its Muslim ethnicity.

The Bosnian Muslims, known as the Bosniaks or Bosniacs, were intent on carving out a nation for themselves but the Bosnian Serbs led by Radovan Karadzic – fighting for the self-proclaimed Republika Srpska – took up arms against the Bosniaks, starting with the Siege of Sarajevo in April 1992. To further complicate matters, the Croat ethnic population of Bosnia also joined in the war.

Karadzic was intent on linking all ethnic Serb territories and to do that he embarked on a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing aimed particularly at Bosnian Muslims, Although Bosnian Croats were also attacked. The resultant warfare was brutal, and the world looked on, shocked at the intensity of the fighting on European soil.

The United Nations and particularly the USA intervened, and brokered a peace deal between the Croats and the Bosnian Government in March 1994. Meanwhile, the Serbian government led by Slobodan Milosevic backed the Bosnian Serbs led by Karadzic, and his forces began a systematic ethnic cleansing of Bosniaks.

They had been left to the mercy of the Bosnian Serbs and although NATO forces, particularly aircraft, tried to halt the attacks by Karadzic’s troops, whole towns were besieged and subjected to starvation tactics forcing many inhabitants to flee.

The Bosniaks did hit back and some ethic Serbs were murdered, but that provoked the Serbian army to crack down murderously. Their campaign eventually reached its hideous peak at Srebrenica, a quiet, mainly Muslim, town dependent on local salt mines for its income.


THE United Nations had a “protection force” present as it had been declared a “safe area with no combatants allowed. A Dutch battalion of peacekeepers was stationed in the town but decided not to challenge the Serbian forces led by a fiercely nationalistic general, Ratko Mladic, as they occupied the town and its environs.

Mladic and his men separated the men and boys of the area from their womenfolk. The women of the town were forced to evacuate, with some raped as they tried to get away. Witnesses testified to the murder of children. Some of the men managed to flee to the nearby forests but were all rounded up.

On July 11, 1995, the killing began, mostly with executions by gunfire, although some of the victims were burned alive. The testimonies of witnesses and the corpses of the dead show how savage each killing was.

Age was no barrier – the body of an 82-year-old was found last year, alongside a 16-year-old boy. No-one knows what actually sparked the massacre, but its outcome was beyond horrendous – more than 8000 men and boys are known to have died with nearly 7000 formally identified in the subsequent years. The bodies of the slain are still being found, and eight of the victims will be properly buried today.


THERE is no question that the Serbian forces commanded by Ratko Mladic carried out the atrocity, which it was later revealed was pre-planned, but the Dutch peacekeepers of the UN have been regularly blamed for failing to prevent the massacre.

The Dutch Government had to resign in 2002 when an official inquiry blamed the Dutch force over its failure to act. Most impartial observers concluded the massacre happened because of a lack of Government and UN control, and because sectarian hatred against Muslims was rife among Serbians.

UN secretary-general Kofi Annan formally apologised, saying the UN had made serious errors of judgement, and that Srebrenica was a tragedy that would forever haunt the history of the organisation.


LONG after the war, the Serbian leaders — Karadzic, Mladic and Slobodan Milosevic — were eventually arrested and tried for their role in the massacre by an international tribunal at the Hague. Some 60 others were convicted of crimes ranging from rape to murder.

Milosevic died while on trial, Karadizic and Mladic were found guilty of genocide and are serving 40 years and life respectively – Mladic has appealed against his conviction.