by Sharon Machlis Gartenberg © Shanti RTV News Agency
It was a year ago this week that the Bosnian "safe haven" of Srebrenica fell to Serb forces. Thousands of men were slaughtered there - many of them tortured and mutilated. Investigators have called the carnage Europe's worst war-time atrocitiy since WW2.
Survivors describe scenes that are impossible to comprehend. Streets littered with corpses. A river turned red with blood. One man was forced to stab his grandson; a Serb soldier then stuffed one of the boy's organs into the man's mouth.
Some of Srebrenica's refugees, witnessing the mutilation of others, committed suicide to avoid such torture, investigator Jean- Rene Ruez told the International War Crimes Tribunal in the Hague. A survivor, hiding wounded amidst corpses piled in a field, heard one of the killers declare happily: "That was a good hunt."
TV viewers around the world watched several days later as haunted women and children expelled from the enclave straggled into the government-held city of Tuzla. A photo of one woman, stressed beyond all endurance, who had hung herself from a tree there, shocked and horrified people across America. How terrible it is that people in the Balkans do such things to each other, many said.
Massacres, sadly, are not new in human history. Nor are mutilation, torture, and sadism uncommon. But there is something unique about the tragedy of Srebrenica. This time, the "civilized world" was not simply a shocked onlooker. This time, the victims had first been disarmed by the international community, promised protection, and then slaughtered as UN troops watched them being dragged away.
It was even more than the international arms embargo that left the people of Srebrenica defenseless. Serb nationalists besieging the enclave had come close to wiping it out once before, but the UN hammered out a deal: Srebrenica would be "demilitarized," and the UN would protect it.
In effect, that meant the defenders of Srebrenica handed over some of the pathetically few weapons they had. In return, a few hundred peacekeepers were sent in for "protection." However, Serbs choking off the enclave, outside of the "demilitarized zone," remained as heavily armed as ever. And when Serb nationalists began preparing their assault on the town, Dutch peacekeepers were left to fend for themselves.
The Dutch commander in Srebrenica warned in May that Serbs were readying an offensive to take the town. Senior U.N. officials ignored the warning. On July 7, the Dutch peacekeepers called for air strikes as Serb bombardment of the enclave escalated. The call was rejected. On the 10th, while Serb soldiers flooded into the town, a Dutch soldier pleaded for action to "save these people," as thousands of desperate Bosnians gathered outside a hospital seeking sanctuary. The Dutch commander went to sleep that night convinced heavy air strikes would begin the next day, according to the N.Y. Times. But Gen. Janvier, the U.N. commander for Bosnia, vetoed the strikes.
Why was there no attempt to protect the "safe haven" of Srebrenica? Western leaders say they didn't know mass murder was going on, even though Dutch soldiers saw men being led away, heard shots, and saw corpses.
According to several media reports, top U.N. officials had earlier come to a tacit agreement with Serb Gen. Mladic: No air strikes in return for the safe release of 400 hundred U.N. peacekeepers previously taken hostage by Serb troops elsewhere in Bosnia.
As Serbs stormed the undefended enclave last July, a UN officer met several times with Mladic, BBC reported this week. The main topic of discussion: the safety of U.N. troops in the enclave, including 32 taken hostage by Serbs in Srebrenica. The fate of Muslim men being led away by their Serb captors was never even discussed.
Were thousands of unarmed Bosnians sacrificed in order to free several hundred U.N. soldiers -- soldiers supposedly sent in to protect them?
Up to 10,000 men are still missing from Srebrenica; almost all are believed slaughtered. This month, under the hot summer sun, forensic experts have begun the grim task of exhuming the year-old corpses from mass graves in the area. And in the Hague, testimony has been given against Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic -- still free and in power, despite the presence of 60,000 NATO troops in Bosnia -- holding them responsible for what one tribunal judge called "scenes from hell written on the darkest pages of human history."
"There can be no doubt that both Karadzic and Mladic could have stopped this killing whenever they wanted," prosecutor Mark Harmon told the court.
But what of Western leaders who might have stopped the killing -- but instead took weapons away from the victims, promised them protection, and then refused to act as they were murdered? Who bears responsibility for that?
[The Bosnian Serb government has admitted for the first time that
Bosnian Serb forces were responsible for the mass slaughter of
Muslims in Srebrenica in July, 1995, Europe's worst atrocity since
the end of the Second World War.
The details about the massacre of 7,500 men and boys by Bosnian
Serbs in the UN-protected Muslim enclave of Srebrenica were revealed
on Monday night by a local television station in the Bosnian Serb
capital, Banja Luka.--Vesna Peric Zimonjic, "Bosnian
Serbs finally admit truth of Srebrenica deaths," Independent, November 5, 2003]