Bosnia is still finding bodies from a genocide some leaders claim never happened
The Washington Post February 21, 2022
SREBRENICA, Bosnia — The gravestones stretch for nearly a quarter mile — 7,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys, slaughtered in a matter of days — but the region’s top politician says the coffins are empty. The local mayor has said some of the purported victims are still alive. The commander who led the massacre is portrayed as a hero on posters that periodically appear near the cemetery.
It’s been 26 years since the killings in Srebrenica, a genocide that broke Europe’s never-again vow and constituted the bloodiest period of this nation’s three-year war. Much of the world turned its attention away from the Balkans after the U.S.-brokered peace deal in 1995, and the subsequent trial at The Hague, which handed down war crime convictions and life sentences.
But a battle over reality is now pushing the country to a breaking point.
This is a place where genocide survivors live right next to people who say it never happened — or that it wasn’t so bad. Denialism has long been an undercurrent of Bosnian politics and life. But in recent years, it has intensified, amplified by social media and by Bosnian Serb nationalist leader Milorad Dodik, who has called the massacre a “myth” and a “deception.” In July, a United Nations envoy intervened. Using extraordinary powers granted in the aftermath of the peace deal, he made genocide denial illegal in Bosnia.
That move has spurred a backlash — and fears of a violent dissolution.
Bosnia is divided along ethnic and religious lines: the Orthodox Bosnian Serbs, the Catholic Croats and Muslims who are known as Bosniaks. Serbs are the majority in one of the country’s territories, called Republika Srpska. Bosniaks and Croats primarily live in the other section, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
In all parts of the country, unemployment is high. So is corruption. And Bosnia’s power-sharing system perpetuates the tensions of the war: Each ethnic group is guaranteed a quota of positions, giving politicians little incentive to be conciliatory.
Within days of the genocide denial law, Dodik, the leader of Republika Srpska, halted his fiefdom’s participation in state institutions. He warned that his territory would set up its own tax system, its own judiciary, even its own army — essentially resurrecting the forces that carried out the attack in Srebrenica. In November, a successor U.N. envoy assessed that Bosnia was facing “the greatest existential threat of the postwar period.”
Dodik, who was placed under fresh U.S. sanctions last month, has yet to follow through on the army threat. But two weeks ago lawmakers in his territory voted in favor of establishing a separate judiciary, in defiance of the peace agreement. The potential for new violence remains real. Russia has voiced its support for Dodik’s moves.
In an interview, Valentin Inzko, the U.N. envoy who drafted the genocide law, said he acted after seeing an “explosion of denialism” that the country’s leaders had seemed incapable of stopping. Inzko said he knew there’d be political blowback and described how he’d felt the need to test his convictions before coming to a final decision. So one day before signing the law, he left Sarajevo before sunrise and drove into the countryside. Two hours later, he was alone amid the gravestones of Srebrenica.
“You could feel the presence of those men and boys, my God,” Inzko said.
He returned to Sarajevo by noon, his decision “firm.”
Dodik called the law the “final nail in the coffin of Bosnia.”
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Because it happened relatively recently, and because international investigators swooped in soon after, Srebrenica is one of the most thoroughly documented genocides in the world.
What investigators found was a crime scene that stretched for some 40 miles across eastern Bosnia, with its epicenter in Srebrenica, a mining town that had become a gathering point for some 40,000 Bosnian Muslim refugees during the war. The United Nations had claimed the area was a safe zone, installing peacekeepers to keep the Bosnian Serb army at bay. But the army, commanded by “Butcher of Bosnia” Ratko Mladic, showed up anyway and took control with ease. Serb officers separated the women from the men and boys. “Just don’t panic,” Mladic told the crowd. In fact, the men and boys were being taken to execution sites. People who tried to escape were gunned down by tanks and machine guns.
The bodies were initially buried in mass graves. But weeks later, as it became clear the war might end, they were exhumed and dumped in sites even more remote. The forensic analysts who arrived in the wake of the peace deal tended to find body parts rather than intact corpses, with remains of single individuals scattered across multiple sites. Sometimes bones had been fractured by excavators and bulldozers. Some of the gravesites were hidden away on the farmland of Bosnian Serbs. To this day, remains are occasionally found in the forest.
“These are not well-traveled roads,” said Matthew Holliday, the head of the International Commission on Missing Persons’ Western Balkan program, pointing to a map of gravesites — 95 and counting. “This was an effort to conceal.”
Given how human remains were jumbled in those graves, the process of identifying the victims has stretched on, too. Some 7,000 people have been buried in Srebrenica’s cemetery — their identities confirmed — but experts say the remains of another 1,000 victims have yet to be identified. Some of those remains are missing; others are housed in a prefabricated lab two hours north, where bags of bones and belongings are stacked floor to ceiling.
At the lab, forensic anthropologist Dragana Vucetic said her work made the crimes feel like they had just happened. She spread out the partial skeleton of the latest victim identified through DNA work — a 34-year-old whose skull and torso had been found in different mass graves. A separate brown bag sat below the exam table.
“Those are the clothes he was wearing,” Vucetic said.
She unwrapped the bag, and spread its contents across a silver table. Khaki pants, caked in mud. A thick, tattered shirt.
“Here’s a left shoe,” Vucetic said, reaching once more into the bag.
Sunlight was coming through the blinds, and the air was thick with dust from the clothing. The next step, Vucetic said, would be for the family to come to the lab, confirm the identification, and consent to the burial — in which case there’d be one more gravestone in Srebrenica. She took an inventory of the bones, the clothing, and then she packed everything away.
“Evidence,” she called it.
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Bosnia’s tensions come to a fore, above all, in the area around Srebrenica, where some have dedicated their lives to preserving the memory of genocide and others would prefer to forget it.
In the majority-Serb area, war memorials commemorate the deaths of Bosnian Serbs — but the execution sites of Bosniaks remain unmarked. The genocide memorial center, across the road from the cemetery, is run by the national government and staffed mostly by Bosniaks. It keeps an open board position for a Bosnian Serb; it has never been filled.
Most people in the country, on both sides, had assumed the situation would be better by now. The immediate aftermath of the conflict was a time when all sides became defensive, but within a decade there were signs of a thaw. In 2004, Republika Srpska released a landmark report acknowledging the Srebrenica atrocities. Its then-president gave a televised address describing a “black page” in history. Many survivors of the genocide figured a reconciliation would begin.
But instead, Republika Srpska three years ago annulled the report, drawing up a replacement document — heavily criticized by independent experts — that downplayed the crimes. Close to Srebrenica, posters of Mladic have gone up, and researchers at the memorial center say a local, Russia-funded Bosnian Serb nationalist group is behind the provocations.
“We’re back to zero,” said Hasan Hasanovic, 47, who works at the center.
For Hasanovic, what makes the country so perilous is that he doesn’t know what his neighbors might think. And sometimes he doesn’t want to ask. He pointed to the horizon, hills he had hiked frantically for five days in 1995. He was one of the lucky ones to escape the genocide, unlike his father, uncle and twin brother. Hasanovic noted a white house with a balcony, within view of the memorial center, where men had been separated from women and detained.
“A regular Serb family lives there now,” he said.
He didn’t know of their views.
Many Bosnian Serbs are hesitant about even addressing the issue of the war crimes. In interviews across Republika Srpska, some said that crimes had probably been committed, but they did not rise to the level of genocide. Others acknowledged, with contrition, the scope of what happened. Still more said they were uncertain what to think, but went on at length about crimes committed by Bosniaks against Bosnian Serbs — including an attack on the Christian Orthodox Christmas Day in 1993. They named Bosniak leaders who should have been sentenced in The Hague but weren’t. They mentioned that their own family members, too, had been killed in the war.
But what stood out was their sense that politicians were using the issue for personal gain. People described environmental issues, corruption, their low salaries — the problems their leaders weren’t paying attention to. They suspected the preoccupation with genocide wasn’t in their best interest.
Down the road from Srebrenica, a Bosnian Serb coal miner answered the door in the late afternoon, a bit groggy. He’d been a child during the war. Now, at 32, he was preparing for an overnight shift. His home was on some of the war’s bloodiest ground — directly across from an infamous warehouse, where roughly 1,000 Bosniaks from Srebrenica were killed with automatic weapons and hand grenades over several days in 1995. The coal miner said he’d heard how the warehouse had functioned as a co-op before the war — a place where farmers could sell fruit and vegetables.
He said he didn’t know the story of what happened there in 1995.
“Nobody told us anything,” he said.
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Inzko, the envoy who criminalized genocide denial, said Bosnia’s dynamics are often confounding — and sometimes beautiful. He’s seen Bosniaks who’ve helped to renovate the Catholic churches of Croats. He knows groups of friends — Croats, Serbs and Bosniaks — who shot at one another in the war and now get together for drinks. He calls the country a place of “many small Nelson Mandelas.”
“But when you get to the level of politics, you can’t find a Willy Brandt,” he said, referencing the former German chancellor who knelt at a memorial to Jewish victims of the Nazis.
Critics say Dodik has done more than anybody in the country to exacerbate Bosnia’s tensions. Earlier in his career, he had flattered the United States, acknowledged the genocide, and talked about the importance of Bosnian reconciliation. Madeleine Albright, the former U.S. secretary of state, had called him a “breath of fresh air.”
But Dodik’s nationalist rhetoric has built over the past decade. While some opponents see a cynical ploy to win votes, others say he has developed a conviction that Bosnian Serbs have been wrongly painted as a genocidal people and need to be defended. One government official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe an unofficial opinion, said Dodik has borrowed some of the tactics of President Donald Trump by relishing provocations, making unsubstantiated claims and relying on an unquestioning Bosnian Serb media — including a TV station owned by a company closely linked to his family.
The Biden administration in January sanctioned both Dodik and the TV station, citing graft, bribery, as well as Dodik’s “ethno-nationalistic rhetoric.”
Dodik’s office did not respond to interview requests. But one of his close political allies, Nedeljko Cubrilovic, speaker of the National Assembly of Republika Srpska, said in an interview that Bosnian Serbs had felt attacked by Inzko’s law. Cubrilovic compared Inzko to Hitler, and noted that the diplomat had left Bosnia — his term having finished — only days after signing the law.
Still, experts and some politicians say the law is working — kind of. In an interview, Sefik Dzaferovic, the top Bosniak leader, said the climate in Bosnia would have been “completely different” and less toxic had a similar law been introduced in the late 1990s. Edin Ikanovic, who tracks hate speech at the memorial center, said he has seen a dip in genocide denial from Bosnian Serb accounts in recent months. (Cubrilovic declined to speak about the subject of genocide, saying, “I don’t give comments on things that don’t need comments.”)
But the law hasn’t stopped accounts from projecting the same misinformation from neighboring Serbia — where some of the misinformation migrated. And the law didn’t stop Dodik, at a recent nationalist celebration, from standing next to a released war criminal, Vinko Pandurevic, in a symbolic show of support.
Inzko’s successor as U.N. envoy, German politician Christian Schmidt, was coy about whether he would have written a similar law. Russia has called for the envoy position to be scrapped altogether, arguing that Bosnia should no longer be under a form of international oversight. Schmidt has faced calls to revoke his predecessor’s law — including from Dodik himself.
Schmidt, though, said European countries, including his native Germany, have laws criminalizing the denial of internationally recognized crimes. He said that Bosnia is now no different — and the rule applies to everybody in the country, not just Bosnian Serbs.
“I won’t revoke it,” he said.
The Washington Post’s Raisa Busatlic contributed to this report.