Remembering Srebrenica: Suzanne Bardgett, Director of the Holocaust Exhibition at London's Imperial War Museum, Describes the Setting Up of the Srebrenica Memorial Room at the Scene Where the Bosnian Genocide of July 1995 Began to Unfold

By Bardgett, Suzanne | History Today, November 2007 | Go to article overview

Remembering Srebrenica: Suzanne Bardgett, Director of the Holocaust Exhibition at London's Imperial War Museum, Describes the Setting Up of the Srebrenica Memorial Room at the Scene Where the Bosnian Genocide of July 1995 Began to Unfold


Bardgett, Suzanne, History Today


THE SREBRENICA-POTOCARI CEMETERY on the road between Bratunac and Srebrenica in Bosnia Herzegovina is an unforgettable place. Rows of white gravestones stretch across a gentle hillside--not unlike a First World War cemetery in northern France. But the men and boys who lie buried there--there are 2,907 graves so far--were all victims of a genocidal murder committed lust twelve years ago.

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On the edge of the city of Tuzla some 55km away lies the morgue and laboratory complex run by the International Commission of Missing Persons (ICMP), which has provided forensic assistance at the exhumation and identification of thousands of missing persons in Bosnia since the conflict ended. Visitors are shown into the vast refrigerated hall where the bodies and body parts of Bosnian Muslim men and boys are lined up in some 4,000 bags on shelves, awaiting identification. In an adjacent store are thousands of pieces of clothing and objects found with the dead when they were exhumed from the mass graves.

These two places were my swift but effective introduction to the Srebrenica Memorial Room project. It was Lord Ashdown, the UN-appointed High Representative in Bosnia Herzegovina from 2002-05, who had the idea of creating a memorial room. He had visited the Imperial War Museum's Holocaust Exhibition and seen the historical parallels and the possibilities for Bosnia. Although it was too soon for an exhaustive historical account, he felt some kind of museum-style display could be provided for visitors to the cemetery. The Foundation that oversees the memorial complex under the chairmanship of Beriz Belkic, president of Bosnia Herzegovina in 2001-02, recruited the mainly Bosnian team who created it. The Imperial War Museum provided advice on content and visitor service aspects, with additional historical input from King's College London. Funding came from the British and Dutch governments.

The United Nations had created six safe areas in Bosnia in 1993, including Srebrenica, but the notion was flawed: under the terms of the UN mandate, its troops had to act with neutrality, protecting deliveries of aid, not the people who were under threat. Early in 1995 the Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic attacked the Srebrenica enclave, halting its supplies. As the situation deteriorated, the question of air strikes by NATO was raised, but opinions were divided and it was agreed that they should only be used in extreme cases.

On July 10th, 1995, Mladic's forces began a final offensive on Srebrenica. The commander of the UN Dutch battalion stationed at a factory complex in nearby Potocari asked for air support but nothing came. Realizing their imminent danger, tens of thousands of Muslims fled to the Dutch battalion's headquarters. The Dutch allowed around 5,000 refugees into their fenced compound and then declared it full, leaving 20,000 outside to await their fate as the Serbs arrived.

The next day the Serb soldiers separated out the women, children and men over a certain age and put them on coaches that were driven to Muslim-controlled territory. The men who remained were taken away and killed with bullets or grenades in fields and warehouses, and on football pitches. Thousands of Bosnian Muslim men tried to make their way through the woods to Muslim-controlled territory but were pursued by the Serb forces and faced a terrible ordeal as hunger, extreme heat and appalling injuries took their toll. The number killed after the fall of Srebrenica is now thought to have been more than 8,000.

There has been much soul-searching and analysis since. When a lengthy study commissioned by the Dutch from the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation appeared in 2002, the entire Dutch government resigned. Two years later, under pressure from Lord Ashdown, Republika Srpska, the Serbian entity established by the Dayton Peace Agreement in the eastern half of the country, produced its own report--a step towards acknowledging the guilt of its own people.

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