11 July 1995: 20 years ago this month, two decades before ISIS de-sensitized people to mass, up-close-and-personal execution of non-combatants because of religious affiliation, there was Strebrenica. Bosnian Serb forces led by Radovan Karadžić and his military commander, Ratko Mladić executed an estimated 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys who had been under the ostensible protection of a UN “safe haven”.
50 years after the end of World War II and the defeat of Nazism, genocide was not supposed to be happening again. Certainly not in Europe. But it was.
Serbs are not inherently evil – not any more or less evil than any of the rest of us. When I was in the Balkans, I got to know many Bosnian Serbs who were delightful, wonderful, kind people who quite literally wouldn’t harm a fly. But I also met a staggering number whom I knew for an absolute fact had personally committed war crimes, literally with their own hands, and never lost a second of sleep over their actions.
Prior to the Srebrenica massacre, US policy on Bosnia had been ineffectual at best. After it, the US finally became militarily involved in the three-year-old conflict and pretty much bombed the Bosnian Serbs to the bargaining table at Dayton. The Dayton Accords that stopped the fighting in 1995 may have been an imperfect solution politically, but at least they stopped the killing.
And what of Karadžić and Mladić? Karadzic was a fugitive from 1996 until his capture in July 2008. One of the crimes of which he stands accused by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia is ordering the Srebrenica massacre. His fellow inmate at The Hague, Ratko Mladić, stands charged with committing war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. Both of these war criminals, now broken old men, will likely breathe their last breath behind bars.
As for those horrific events that took place 20 years ago, the gunshots still reverberate today:
Srebrenica’s killing fields are still an active crime scene.
To this day, victims are still being identified.
Meanwhile, Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik publicly disputes whether a massacre actually took place.
And Vladimir Putin’s regime in Moscow is actively blocking a UK-sponsored UN Security Council resolution calling the massacre genocide.
Let’s say someone had walked up to a 20-year-old Bosnian Serb sitting at a café in Višegrad in July 1985 and said, “That guy drinking coffee over at the next table? He’s a Muslim. Here’s a pistol. Why don’t you go shoot him in the face.” I’d bet my life savings that our hypothetical Bosnian Serb would have responded with a torrent of expletives and then looked around for the nearest militiaman. Fast forward ten years, though, and the picture was quite different. On that humid and sticky July 1995 day, the participants in that massacre (the largest of many war crimes perpetrated during that conflict) demonstrated – among other things – the tremendous power of propaganda, peer pressure, and de-sensitization to human suffering. The banality of evil, as Hannah Arendt characterized similar work by the Nazis, which had been carried out in Europe just half a century earlier.
Today, in 2015, we again see pure evil, and its associated dynamics, at work in places like Syria, Iraq, and Libya. There is scant difference between those pulling the triggers at Strebrenica 20 years ago and black-clad fighters shooting into a ditch filled with prisoners in Iraq or Syria today.
Remember Srebrenica. Because, 20 years later, it is still with us.