Bartering Our Souls For “Peace” – Srebenica Twenty Years On

As we mark twenty years since the brutal killings in a Bosnian town of over 8,000 Muslim boys and men ranging from ages 12 to 77, we are faced with emerging evidence bringing into focus the unfortunate role of the free world in the commission of what has been called the “worst massacre on European soil since the Third Reich”. Details around how a safe area came to be presented to the Serb death-squads are chilling, no doubt.

Photo courtesy man praying at the gravesites of Srebenica
Photo courtesy man praying at the gravesites of Srebenica
But there is something even more disturbing than the actual genocide itself. This was clearly not the first time an act of ethnic cleansing had shocked the world. If we restrict ourselves to a simple game of numbers, the killing of 8,000 boys and men is a drop in the ocean of genocide that the twentieth century alone has seen. (Wikipedia List of genocides by death toll.) No, the numbers are not interesting. But the politics is.

It is one thing that the Serbian killing machine had overrun Srebenica, and the likes of Mladic had personally overseen the separation of boys as young as twelve and their fathers and grandfathers from their mothers, sisters, daughters and wives. While the women and girls were sent off to “Muslim territory”, a collective term for the horrors that awaited them as they were delivered to their new homes, the boys and their fathers and their grandfathers were transported to the lush fields around the town and cut down by soldiers, men who were beginning to reel under the fatigue of playing executioners.
Killing is hard work, even with guns. To send metal flying at over twice the speed of sound, tearing open the chests and heads of twelve and thirteen year-old boys can take a toll on the sickest of hearts.So, yes, that is all one thing.

But it is another thing for a massacre on a scale of this magnitude to not just occur, but flourish on the watch of a group that was instituted for the very purpose of preventing such oppression, an institution called the United Nations that is held as the positive culmination of the great lessons learned from World War II. Sure, there were hostages – 30 soldiers of a Dutch contingent – whose lives were threatened if Srebenica wasn’t handed over quietly. But now we read of this:

According to declassified US cables details of the killings reached western intelligence and decision makers soon after they began on 13 July; CIA operatives watched almost “live” at a satellite post in Vienna. From that day, spy planes caught what was happening. “Standing men held by armed guard. Later pictures show them lying in the fields, dead,” according to one cable.

A senior state department official insists: “All US partners were immediately informed.” Yet the slaughter was allowed to run its course, no attempt made to deter the killers, or to locate the men and boys, let alone rescue them.

The next day, 14 July, the UN security council said it feared “grave mistreatment and killing of innocent civilians”; it said it had received “reports that 4,000 men and boys have gone missing”. But the diplomats continued business as usual.

Pauline Neville-Jones, then political director at the British Foreign Office, argued as late as 2009: “It still remains to be established whether the Serbs had a long-range intention to do just that [massacre men and boys]. Serb forces engaged in an ethnic cleansing campaign to rid Srebrenica of its Muslims [which] eventually became genocide when the decision was made to separate men targeted for extinction.”

Jean-Claude Mallet, the director of strategy at the French defence ministry, says in an interview: “I had no illusion that atrocities would be committed. We had reported that. But never such as the ones that occurred.”

The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia rejects these views, ruling that the killings were premeditated well in advance. In the conviction of the Bosnian Serb general Radislav Krstic for aiding and abetting genocide at Srebrenica, the court ruled: “Without detailed planning, it would have been impossible to kill so many people in such a systematic manner in such a short time, between 13 July and 17 July.”

The International Court of Justice would rule in 2007: “It must have been clear that there was a serious risk of genocide in Srebrenica.”

France’s foreign minister at the time, Alain Juppé, says in an interview: “We all knew the men would be annihilated, or at least that the Serbs were not sparing the lives of prisoners”. 


And this:

But a new investigation of the mass of evidence documenting the siege suggests much wider involvement in the events leading to the fall of Srebrenica. Declassified cables, exclusive interviews and testimony to the tribunal show that the British, American and French governments accepted – and sometimes argued – that Srebrenica and two other UN-protected safe areas were “untenable” long before Mladic took the town, and were ready to cede Srebrenica to the Serbs in pursuit of a map acceptable to the Serbian president, Slobodan Miloševic, for peace at any price.

But as they considered granting Srebrenica to the Serbs, western powers were also aware, or should have been, of the Bosnian Serb military “Directive 7” ordering the “permanent removal” of Bosnian Muslims from the safe areas. They also knew Mladic had told the Bosnian Serb assembly, “My concern is to have them vanish completely”, and that Karadžic pledged “blood up to the knees” if his army took Srebrenica.

Robert Frasure, a US diplomat working as an international representative, reported to Washington that Miloševic would not accept a peace map unless the safe areas were ceded to the Serbs. His boss, Anthony Lake, the US national security adviser, favoured a revised map that ceded Srebrenica, and the US policy-making Principals Committee urged that UN troops “pull back from vulnerable positions” – ergo, the safe areas.

France and Britain agreed, with UK defence secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind arguing that the safe areas were “untenable”, as defended in 1995. As Mladic’s troops advanced on Srebrenica, the west failed to heed warnings of the town’s imminent fall. Once it had, says General Van der Wind of the Dutch defence ministry, in an exclusive interview with the Observer, the UN provided 30,000 litres of petrol, used by the Serbs to drive their quarry to the killing fields and plough their bodies into mass graves.

As the killing hit full throttle, top western negotiators met Mladic and Miloševic but did not raise the issue of mass murder, even though unclassified US cables show that the CIA was watching the killing fields almost “live” from satellite planes.

The shocking findings of high-level willingness in London, Washington and Paris to cede Srebrenica were collated over 15 years by Florence Hartmann, a former Le Monde correspondent, for a book, The Srebrenica Affair: The Blood of Realpolitik. Hartmann worked as a spokeswoman for the prosecutor at the international criminal tribunal for the former Yugoslavia between 2000 and 2006.


I can’t speak for the British and French roles in all of this. But as an American, my respect for the law of this land, and my faith in its immense potential for goodness, empower me to hold my government to a level of accountability commensurate with its unique position in the world. When words of grief are spoken in Srebenica next weekend, it would be an obscenity at the very least for America to not acknowledge its inaction to attempt (not succeed, but just attempt) to use the intelligence and certain knowledge it had to stop that tragic massacre.

We all tear up when Peter Parker hears the words of his late uncle echo in his mind. “With great power, comes great responsibility.” It is time we own up to the values we espouse, to end the hypocrisy and take ownership of our failings. We must not be wary to go on record and acknowledge such failure. That would be cowardice and against everything we believe in. Rather what we must be wary of are the long term consequences of a silence that makes no sense in a nation that prides itself upon making some noise. It is a silence that will surely undermine and mock our current and future efforts to navigate the bloody oceans of world peace. Let’s show some backbone. Let’s be the proverbial grownup in a house full of children, and stand for the justice we are committed to as a nation.

The souls of the boys and men that perished in the violence of Srebenica twenty years ago may well be alive and at peace. What should keep us awake at night is whether we who are left behind, in our drunken pursuit of a perception of peace at any cost, have lost our souls.

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