Amir’s voice, patched through to the United Nations base in Tuzla from the eastern Bosnian enclave in Srebrenica, was faint, but his fear came through in nauseating clarity. It was July 1995, and the Dutch battalion sent to protect the United Nations-designated safe area around Srebrenica had collapsed after United Nations officials refused to call for concerted NATO airstrikes.
“The Dutch are going to pull out — and leave us interpreters behind!” Amir cried, appealing to his United Nations civil affairs boss and me to force the Dutch to rescue him.
Preoccupied with the withdrawal of their own soldiers and overwhelmed by thousands of traumatized Muslim women and children expelled from Srebrenica, the Dutch gave us a bureaucratic “no.”
A second phone call with Amir convinced me to draw up a terse letter, dripping with legalese, declaring that, as United Nations staff members, interpreters were the legal responsibility of the Dutch. It worked; Amir was evacuated when the Dutch battalion withdrew from Srebrenica. But our letter meant nothing for the 8,000 Muslim men and boys with no United Nations connection whom the Dutch left behind in Srebrenica.
Twenty years ago this week, nearly all of them were killed by Serb forces under Gen. Ratko Mladic, in the worst massacre in Europe since World War II. In the two decades since, many of the details about the massacre have emerged, but justice has been incomplete.
Only a few Serbs have been convicted of genocide. General Mladic, along with his civilian counterpart Radovan Karadzic, are only now facing trial in The Hague, having escaped accountability for years through the aid of Serbian sympathizers. Their shared goal, ethnic purification of the Serbian region of Bosnia, is largely accomplished, albeit confined as an entity, still known as Republika Srpska, in divided, dysfunctional Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Now that cold peace achieved after the end of the Bosnian war is fraying; new centrifugal forces — the twin specters of radical Islam and resurgent Russian influence — have combined with the unhealed divisions of the war to further test the country’s cohesion.
Reconciliation among Bosnia’s Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks today, so many years after the war, still seems like a distant proposition. Milorad Dodik, the president of Republika Srpska, recently termed the Srebrenica massacre “the greatest deception of the 20th century.”
After Serbia denounced a U.N. resolution condemning both the genocide at Srebrenica and any denial that it occurred, Russia blocked it in the Security Council. And Mr. Dodik has repeatedly expressed his intention to withdraw Republika Srpska from Bosnia. It is an open question whether any of Serbia’s leaders will join German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, and other officials at the commemoration in Srebrenica on Saturday.
Despite its high-profile attendance, Europe, which shares the blame for the Srebrenica tragedy, long ago lost interest in the country. Today, Brussels wrings its hands at the continuing stalemate and economic stagnation in Bosnia, but offers up only a succession of timid responses. Last month, Mr. Dodik flatly rejected the latest European Union “action plan” for the beleaguered country.
Though remorseful, Brussels still fails to grasp the full meaning of Srebrenica. The ethnic cleansing that became synonymous with Bosnia was not a byproduct of the fighting, but its purpose. The Serb project of building a compact state free of “Muslim domination” required the demographic obliteration of the Muslim Bosniak population along with uninterrupted contiguity with mother Serbia. Srebrenica and two smaller remnant Muslim enclaves near the eastern border, Zepa and Gorazde, frustrated that goal.
Betting that the feckless United Nations would not call on NATO air power to defend the “safe areas,” General Mladic brazenly seized them. Even more brazenly in Srebrenica, he proceeded to exterminate the male Muslim population. When I met him in neighboring Zepa, while the killing and burying of bodies in Srebrenica were still going on, General Mladic was brimming with confidence, celebrating his conquest in front of his adoring soldiers and preening before an ever-present camera.
I asked General Mladic if he would let us evacuate the Muslim men hiding in the forests above Zepa. “Yes,” he said without any irony, “except for the war criminals.”
To allow the likes of Mr. Dodik to threaten the secession of Republika Srpska from Bosnia is a step toward vindicating the wartime Serb project. Srebrenica stands — and must always stand — as a red line against maximalist Serb aspirations.
In fact, this 20th commemoration presents an opportunity for Serbs of good faith to stand not just with the international community, but with Srebrenica’s victims. Serbs everywhere must reject revisionism of the facts and rationalization of the actions of wartime Serb leaders and recognize that their dignity and security lie in embracing the bitter truth.
Srebrenica’s victims will never return. But every July, the world will always remember how they perished — and who sent them to their graves.
Edward P. Joseph, the executive director of the Institute of Current World Affairs and a senior fellow and lecturer at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, served as a United Nations official in Bosnia from 1992 to 1995.