It’s hard to say sorry, but it’s even harder to say you’re sorry for a genocide. The word just sticks in the throats of those who should be saying it, as the Turks have been demonstrating for the past hundred years in the case of the Armenians of eastern Anatolia. And the Serbs have just shown themselves to be just as tongue-tied in the case of the Bosnian Muslims slaughtered at Srebrenica.
Saturday, July 11, was the 20th anniversary of the murder of between 7,000 and 8,000 people when Srebrenica was taken by Bosnian Serb forces in 1995. The town’s population was swollen by refugees who had fled there to escape the “ethnic cleansing” that was being carried out against Muslims elsewhere in eastern Bosnia, because it was a United Nations-designated “safe area” defended by NATO troops. Or rather, not defended.
When the Bosnian Serbs, having surrounded Srebrenica for three years, finally moved to take it in July 1995, the U.N. and NATO commanders refused to use air strikes to stop them. And the Dutch troops who were there to protect the town decided they’d rather live and let unarmed civilians die.
So all the Bosnian Muslim men and boys between the ages of 14 and 70 were loaded onto buses — the Dutch soldiers helped to separate them from the women and children — and driven up the road a few kilometers. Then they were shot by Serbian killing squads, and buried by bulldozers. It took four days to murder them all.
The crime has been formally declared a genocide by the U.N. war crimes tribunal for former Yugoslavia. Both the Bosnian Serb president of the time, Radovan Karadzic, and the Serban military commander at Srebrenica, General Ratko Mladic, are awaiting verdicts in trials for directing genocide. You would think that even the Serbs cannot deny that it was a genocide, but you would be wrong.
There are certainly some Serbs, like journalist Dusan Masic, who are willing to call it what it is. His idea was to have 7,000 volunteers lie on the ground before the National Assembly in Belgrade on Saturday, symbolizing the approximate number of Muslim victims at Srebrenica. “On July 11, while the eyes of the whole world are on the killing fields near Srebrenica”, he said, “we want to send a different picture from Belgrade.”
“This will not be a story about the current regime, which has failed to define itself in relation to the crime that happened 20 years ago,” he continued, “or about a place where you can still buy souvenirs with images of Karadzic and Mladic. It will be a story about … a better Serbia.” But the better Serbia has not actually arrived yet.
Serbia’s interior minister, Nebojsa Stefanovic, didn’t like the picture Masic wanted to send. When right-wing groups threatened to disrupt the demonstration last Thursday, Stefanovic banned it in order to guarantee “peace and security in the whole of Serbia.” And the Serbian government had already asked Russia to veto a U.N. Security Council resolution describing the Srebrenica massacre as a “genocide”.
Russia was happy to oblige, and vetoed it last Wednesday. Maybe Moscow was just sucking up to the Serbs, whom it would like to steer away from their current ambition to join the European Union — but maybe Russian President Vladimir Putin was also thinking that he didn’t want any precedent for some future attempt to describe what he did during the second Chechen war in 1999-2002 as a genocide.
Words matter. Serbia’s Prime Minister Aleksandr Vucic, who seems to have changed his mind about Srebrenica since his early days in Serbian politics, still cannot bring himself to use the word “genocide” when he talks about it. Back in 1995, the prime minister was a radical nationalist who declared in the Serbian National Assembly, only a few days after the Srebrenica massacre, that “If you kill one Serb, we will kill 100 Muslims.”
By 2010, however, he was saying that a “horrible crime was committed in Srebrenica.”
Vucic even traveled to Srebrenica on Saturday to take part in the commemoration of the events of 20 years ago, a brave gesture for a Serbian prime minister who must contend with an electorate most of whom do not want to admit that Serbs did anything especially wrong. But he still doesn’t dare say the word “genocide”. The voters would never forgive him.
Most Serbs would acknowledge that their side did some bad things during the Balkan wars of the 1990s, but they would add that every side did. They will not accept the use of the word “genocide” — whereas that is the one word Bosnian Muslims have to hear before they can believe that the Serbs have finally grasped the nature and scale of their crime.
That’s why, when Vucic was at Srebrenica paying his respects in the cemetery, some Bosnian Muslims started throwing stones at him. His glasses were broken, and his security detail had to hustle him away.
It was a stupid, shameful act, and the Bosnian Muslim authorities have apologized for it. But like the Turks and the Armenians, the Serbs and their neighbors will never really be reconciled until the Serbs say the magic word.
Based in London, Gwynne Dyer is an independent Canadian journalist, military historian and syndicated columnist whose articles are published in 45 countries.