“We give this town to the Serb nation.… The time has come to take revenge on the Turks.” Seventeen years later, the words still hang in the air like poison gas over Srebrenica. With that speech, Bosnian Serb Gen. Ratko Mladic pronounced the death sentence on more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys. On July 11, 1995, the slaughter began. Bosnian Serb soldiers loyal to Mladic hunted down, tortured and killed the male inhabitants of Srebrenica in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which the United Nations had blithely declared a “safe area” for Muslim civilians. The Serbs expelled the women and children, brutally tearing teenage sons from their wailing mothers. The exceptional savagery of the killings was justified by a story. A story that happened 200 years ago.
In newly conquered Srebrenica, Mladic referred to the 1804 Serb uprising against the Ottoman Empire. The “Turks” put down the revolt in 1813, reinforcing the victim status of Serbs in their national identity. By a bizarre yet deadly transference of historical myth, he cast the 20th century Bosnian Muslims as the legitimate target for perceived past injustices. Any action against them counted as “revenge on the Turks.” (No matter that the Serbs and Muslims share a Slavic ethnic lineage.) There is no national narrative more dangerous than that of victimhood.
Last month, I was in Srebrenica when I first heard Mladic’s speech in a heart-rending video at an abandoned factory that had served as the U.N. peacekeepers’ headquarters. There, in 1995, 5,000 terrified Muslims had desperately sought shelter. I stood alone in the dank, echoing space haunted by ghosts of the refugees. The factory now forms part of the official memorial to the genocide. Mladic’s boastful promise of revenge accounts for a mere 20 seconds of footage. Yet the malevolent hatred in his words filled me with an irrational fear. Evil has that effect.
Later, standing at the burial site of Srebrenica’s boys and men, I wondered how the memorial’s story changed Serb narratives. The answer: It hasn’t. Mladic now stands trial for genocide at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Thus far, he has presented an unrepentant and swaggering demeanor. He is not alone. Bosnian Serb politician Radovan Karadzic, another ICC defendant, adamantly denies his leading role in the killings. According to Serbia’s newly inaugurated president, Tomislav Nikolic, there was no Srebrenica genocide. For many Bosnian Serbs, Mladic is a hero, a victim of international injustice. Their interpretation draws on, and stokes, the national narrative of victimhood.
What must the mothers and widows from Srebrenica feel as they watch the proceedings at The Hague? For one thing, they can’t forget they were betrayed by the rest of the world. In the early 1990s, we heard the stories of Bosnia and dismissed them. Stories with pictures, firsthand accounts and sound effects. Newspapers printed front-page images of skeletal concentration camp inmates. In shaken whispers, Muslim women and girls recounted rapes so brutal and numerous that many victims committed suicide. The Serb artillery trained on Sarajevo reverberated on the nightly news for more than three years. Over and over, survivors have asked me how we could have ignored their suffering during the war.
The stories of 1995 persist. Tales told by Srebrenica’s widows, Serbian politicians, the lawyers at The Hague. How will they affect the present? As monologues, the Srebrenica narratives will continue to increase divisions, undermine justice and potentially spark violence. As dialogues, these stories have the power to promote justice, consensus and reconciliation. If the speakers can listen. If the listeners also have a voice. And if the international powers — the International Criminal Court, the European Union, the U.S. government — pay attention this time.
The ICC will pronounce a sentence on Mladic’s version of history. The EU will decide whether a genocide-denying Serbia can move a step closer to membership. The U.S. will choose whether to continue programs that support liberal democracy in Bosnia. In all these decisions, future concord depends on the stories we tell about past atrocity.
Sarah Kenyon Lischer, an associate professor in the Department of Politics and International Affairs at Wake Forest University, is the author of Dangerous Sanctuaries: Refugee Camps, Civil War, and the Dilemmas of Humanitarian Aid.