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Echoes of the war in Bosnia sound a warning for Russia – and Ukraine

What's happening now in Ukraine is eerily reminiscent of another war in Europe 30 years ago.

By Alix Kroeger

The mountains that form a ring around Sarajevo made it an ideal setting for the 1984 Winter Olympics. Eight years later, they made it all too easy to besiege. Beginning in 1992, Bosnian Serb forces shelled the city and shot at its residents. In February 1994, one of those shells landed in the centre of the city on the Markale market. Sixty-eight people were killed. More than 140 were wounded.

The Bosnian Serbs denied they were responsible. Instead, they claimed the government forces that held Sarajevo – the Bosniak Muslims – had shelled themselves to stir up anti-Serb feeling.

So it was with Bucha, in Ukraine, just a few days ago. It wasn’t us, the Russians said; the other side did it to make us look bad; the dead aren’t really dead, but “crisis actors”.

For technical reasons, investigators never conclusively established who fired the shell that crashed into the market in Sarajevo. Both sides had forces to the north-east, where the shell probably came from, although only one of them was bombing the city centre. There was more willingness to take such denials at face value back then. Shamefully, the first commander of the UN peacekeeping force, Lewis MacKenzie, was among those who gave them credence. There is less tolerance now, following Donald Trump’s presidency, misinformation about the coronavirus pandemic, and bad-faith arguments around climate change. This is a good thing.

If the distortions around the siege of Sarajevo were disturbing, however, those around the Srebrenica massacre of July 1995 reached another level altogether.

For a time, the Serbian government made sincere efforts to acknowledge what had happened. In 2010, the pro-Western president Boris Tadić apologised, acknowledging that the mass killing of 8,000 Bosniak men and boys by the Bosnian Serb army was genocide. His successor, the nationalist Tomislav Nikolić, admitted that Srebrenica was a crime, but not that it was genocide. Serbia’s current president, Aleksandar Vučić, who is also a nationalist, was chased off by a stone-throwing mob angered by his presence when he attended the commemorations at Srebrenica in 2015.

This is key. While in Serbia proper there were at least some apologies and efforts to take responsibility, denial reigned among the political leadership of the Bosnian Serbs. Such admissions as there were came through gritted teeth, mumbled, fingers metaphorically crossed behind backs.

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After 2015, Vučić edged away from even feigning contrition. Last year, he said that as long as he was president, there would be no resolution declaring the anniversary a day of mourning or condemning genocide denial. In this, he was in step with his electorate. Who leads, who follows? One might well ask.

Vučić was re-elected on 3 April with a resounding majority. What is certain is that among the public in Serbia, and even more among Serbs in Bosnia, there is widespread reluctance to acknowledge what happened in July 1995: that the Bosnian Serb army committed genocide at Srebrenica, as established by the testimony of survivors and the judgment of the war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

This is not surprising: it is painful and difficult to admit that one’s own side committed atrocities. Without bold leadership – and leaders who are prepared to accept the associated political risk – there is little incentive to confront the past. There are exceptions, of course. Dogged defenders of human rights continue to speak up for unpopular causes, but they are, well, unpopular. Conversely, when I was working in Belgrade in 2018, I would occasionally see nationalist graffiti or marches in support of the Bosnian Serb commander at Srebrenica, Ratko Mladić. They were not big, but they did not need to be. There was little controversy because there was little debate.

The omens for Russia are not good. Independent media outlets have been silenced. The war must not be called a war but a “special military operation”. Anyone who says otherwise could face up to 15 years in prison, never mind telling the Russian public what really happened in Bucha. In December the Russian organisation Memorial, which was originally set up to commemorate the victims of Soviet repression, was forced to close. The war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia was rejected by many Serbs as biased. The chances of such a tribunal even being convened for Ukraine are slim, to say the least.

Bucha is not Srebrenica. Putin is not Milošević, and he is not Hitler. Each atrocity must be considered in its own right, and remembered by its own name. But we must also learn from the past, and study the commonalities. For Ukrainians now, it will be of little comfort to be reminded that the Bosnian government also clamoured for international intervention, initially without success. A no-fly zone imposed from 1993 to 1995 failed to stop the killing.

Only after Srebrenica, and another shelling of the Markale market in which 37 people died in August 1995, did Nato launch air strikes. Negotiations to end the war then began in earnest, leading eventually to the Dayton accords in November of that year. Those accords have held, but there is little else to celebrate. The state-level government of Bosnia hardly functions; the Bosnian Serb political entity, Republika Srpska, continually threatens to break away. The war ended, but the peace that followed was fragile and looks increasingly tenuous. Ukraine must hope for, and demand more, and this time, the international community must do better.

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