Anatomy of a Balkan Massacre

By Li, Darryl | Harvard International Review, Fall 2000 | Go to article overview

Anatomy of a Balkan Massacre

Li, Darryl, Harvard International Review

The Failure of International Peackeeping at Srebrenica

The mission as they knew it was over. As the promised air support never materialized and the Bosnian Serbs completed their conquest of the town, new orders came for the Dutch peacekeepers charged with protecting Srebrenica: do not resist the Serbs, do not expose yourselves to any risks, and do what you can to oversee the safe evacuation of refugees. Testifying at the genocide trial of Bosnian Serb General Radislav

Krstic in April, Captain Ron Rutten of the Dutch army described his comrades cordoning off an area filled with Bosnian Muslim refugees and then directing them toward an empty bus while a group of Bosnian Serb fighters sat nearby. A judge asked Rutten's superior, Major Robert Franken, if what was being organized was a deportation rather than an evacuation. Franken meekly conceded this, but the judge did not relent. "So, it was a planned deportation approved by the UN." Franken again agreed. The judge did not press him further, but the admission was clear. The peacekeepers had not only failed to prevent ethnic cleansing, but they had actually assisted it.

Power and Failure

In July 1995, Bosnian Serb forces overran the town of Srebrenica and began a week-long systematic slaughter of over 7,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys. A haven for Muslim refugees fleeing from advancing Serb armies, Srebrenica had long been targeted for Serb attack, and in April 1993, the United Nations designated the town as its first ever "safe area." In January 1995, a lightly armed Dutch battalion was charged with Srebrenica's defense. But throughout the spring of 1995, the Bosnian Serbs tightened their strangle-hold over the town, and against a Serbian force of 1,000 men backed by tanks and artillery, the 350 Dutch troops found themselves helpless to prevent the worst massacre in Europe since World War II.

Committed at the midpoint of a decade marked by genocide and ethnic cleansing, the massacre at Srebrenica has come to symbolize the combination of parochial cruelty and cosmopolitan indifference that lay at the heart of many of the last decade's mass human tragedies. The slaughter unfolded in real time on CNN, a worldwide depiction of a moment when the entire international community stood by and watched.

Apart from its scale, efficiency, and cruelty, what is most striking about the fall of the safe haven is the fact that it happened at all. The international response to the Bosnian Serb Army's assault was truly a farce of superlatives: the pledges of the world's most powerful nations, the availability of NATO attack planes, and the presence of several hundred troops from one of the world's most advanced and liberal nations (the Netherlands) all failed to prevent the debacle. After the callous indifference shown during the Rwandan genocide and numerous other wars, it becomes even more disheartening to see that in the one situation (before the Kosovo war) where the West seemed to take a stand against mass atrocity, it failed miserably.

Defenders of the Dutch peacekeeping battalion (Dutchbat) at Srebrenica rightly point out that the soldiers had no chance of defending the town against the larger, better-armed force of Bosnian Serbs. The report on the Srebrenica massacre issued by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan clearly shows that Dutchbat's requests for NATO air support were repeatedly denied by UN bureaucrats, themselves beholden to ridiculous policies promulgated by the Western powers. Should the top men indicted for the massacre, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, ever be arrested and brought before the UN war-crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, their testimony would shed some biased but not altogether untrue light on just how deep the complicity of the international community runs.

The story of how thousands of Bosnian Muslims were concentrated, disarmed, and then betrayed at Srebrenica is a textbook case of buck-passing all the way down to the victim. …

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