Bombshell in the Balkans

Observations on Srebrenica

On 11 July, dignitaries from across the world will gather at Potocari, close to Srebrenica in eastern Bosnia, to watch as the recently identified remains of some 570 victims of the massacre that took place there exactly ten years ago are laid to rest. Speeches will be made, by our own Jack Straw among others, demanding that such an outrage should never happen again. The world's press will retell the terrible story from 1995 and echo that determination - and the next day Bosnia will once again slip off the media's radar screen.

The real story, deemed too complicated or too boring for the average reader, won't get told, for the fact is that Srebrenica has come back to haunt the Balkans. At stake is not just an abstract notion of "facing up to the past", but money (billions worth of of dollars) and the very future of Bosnia. The struggle over the massacre now being waged in courtrooms and on the front pages of Balkan newspapers is the war continued by other means.

The opening shots were fired on 17 May at the law faculty of Belgrade University, where a right-wing nationalistic group held a meeting to celebrate the "liberation" of Srebrenica. Bosniaks (as Bosnian Muslims are now called) were the majority in the region and 8,000 of them were massacred in this "liberation", so it is hardly surprising that liberal and human rights groups were outraged. Two Serb deputies responded by introducing a motion into parliament inviting deputies to condemn the massacre as genocide (it has been classified as such by the UN International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague). And then came the bombshell.

On 1 June, the prosecution in the tribunal's trial of the former Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic played a video apparently showing a Serbian unit executing six Bosniaks after the fall of Srebrenica. "The truth has been smashed in our faces, painfully and mercilessly," thundered Serbia's venerable newspaper Politika. "The Serbian public is aghast, because it has finally seen that someone . . . actually committed bestialities in uniform and with Serbian insignia." Serbia's leaders condemned the killings, but as the uproar died down, cool heads began to appraise the real issue raised by the video.

According to the prosecution, the Serbian unit, called the Scorpions, took its orders from Serbia's ministry of the interior. At first, the ministry claimed that it had taken the unit under its wing only in 1999; then it denied there had ever been a connection. Panic was setting in.

The video, which had been hidden by a former Scorpion for nine years, was dynamite. If the prosecution can prove the link to the Serbian government, then it is the evidence to link Slobodan Milosevic to genocide. But Serbia does not care about Milosevic, so why the panic? Simple. Just down the road from the war crimes tribunal is the International Court of Justice (ICJ), where a Bosnian case against Serbia has been grinding on since 1993. Bosnia accused Serbia of genocide in Bosnia and has doggedly refused to drop the case. If it can be proved that the Scorpions were under Serbia's control, then this will prove a huge boost to Bosnia's case. And if Bosnia wins its case at the ICJ, all sorts of repercussions will follow.

The first is that Bosnia will demand billions in reparations from Serbia. Then the whole postwar settlement of Bosnia will be challenged.

In the Dayton Agreement of 1995 which ended the war, Bosnia was divided into two, a Bosniak-Croat federation and the Serbian Republika Srpska. In the words of Haris Silajdzic, Bosnia's wartime premier and now one of its elder statesmen, the Scorpions video "takes us back to point zero. How the Republika Srpska came into existence - it was based on genocide." If Bosnia wins its case at the ICJ, in other words, the legitimacy of Republika Srpska comes into question. Attempts to turn Bosnia into a functional state will then stall or even go into reverse, as the Serbs withdraw their co-operation.

After the initial shock of the Scorpions video, the Serbs are hitting back. A Serbian paper has published a list of 3,287 Serbs who were either killed around Srebrenica or came from that region and died in the war. Although they were mainly killed in action and can't be compared with the 8,000 massacred by Ratko Mladic's men, most Serbs say "they did the same to us".

On 12 July, a day after Jack Straw and others have departed, the Serbs will commemorate these dead at a seven-metre- high cross they are building just up the road from a factory hangar where up to 1,500 Bosniaks were executed in 1995.

A Serb working on the cross told me that his house had been burned on Christmas Day 1993, when Bosniaks from Srebrenica came raiding. Forty-nine Serbs died, many of them civilians, in what is known as the Christmas Massacre. I asked if locals thought what happened in the hangar was revenge for this. He shrugged and said of the Bosniaks who died in 1995: "It was not such a big thing. Something happened, but it was not as big as they say."

The ghosts of Christmas past will haunt Serbs and Bosniaks for many more years to come.

A longer version of this article can be found at

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