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Remembering Srebrenica


A survivor of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre work on memorial quilts at BOSFAM.
Source: The Advocacy Project 

July 11-12 marks the date of the Srebrenica Massacre during the Bosnian War. In a town in Bosnia named Srebrenica, as many as 8,372 men and boys were killed in a genocide orchestrated and implemented by the Bosnian Serb Army of Republika Srpska (VRS) under Ratko Mladic and a paramilitary unit from Serbia called The Scorpions. Twenty-five years have passed since then. History teaches difficult lessons, and each passing year make marking the painful memory all the more important.

The Srebrenica Massacre
In April 1993, the UN had declared Srebrenica a safe area, under UN protection. However, aside from this, no attempt was made to demilitarize the Army of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina and to remove the VRS from the region surrounding Srebrenica. During the first year of the Bosnian war, heavy fighting unfolded in Srebrenica, which also experienced major military and artillery attacks and the ethnic cleansing of Bosniak civilians by the Serb forces. There were several military incursions in many Serbian villages around Srebrenica, resulting in heavy casualties and murders of both Serbian military and civilians. In some testimonies, later, these incidents were used to present a motivation for the genocide that followed, in the guise of the desire for revenge.

On July 11, 1985, the women, children, and the elderly were taken away in buses to the north-eastern part of Bosnia, to a place called Tuzla, with the information that the men and boys would follow suit. But in that time, the men and boys were murdered brutally and their bodies were piled into mass graves – except for very few that managed to escape through the forests nearby. This marked the worst war crime and atrocity in Europe since the Second World War. 

The women of Srebrenica
The Srebrenica Genocide left behind several women: mothers, daughters, wives, and sisters of the farmers – the primary breadwinners in the agrarian region. Following the massacre, the women continued to fight for the land. Returning to farm and picking up from where their husbands, brothers, sons, and fathers had been abruptly cut away through the genocide, these women continued to till the lands, and reclaimed their right over them. Though the women turned gender roles on their heads by stepping into the role of breadwinners and relying on the grants that were offered under the Dayton Accords, the domestic burden continued with the search for the men, and the added load of trauma, as well. The women took care of their families, educated their children, and worked on the fields while coping with the trauma and pain that the genocide had left behind in its wake.

Even as the pursuit of everyday life continued, the women mobilized for peace and justice. To them, this war was not about the ethnic divisions as much as it was about the political greed and pursuit of power. While preserving the memory of the men who had been murdered through their dedicated efforts for memorialization, the women also came together in the hope of pressing for justice.

The International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) was constituted as a transitional justice measure. The women played a very important role in the pursuit of justice after the genocide. Their testimonies and evidence of their expulsion were a significant path to proving the deliberate intent to commit genocide – because in addition to the killing, their expulsion from the area to the northeast proved that this was a deliberately orchestrated crime with every intention to destroy the Bosnian Muslim community. The ICTY based its affirmative decision that this crime constituted a genocide, on this key piece of evidence. The women fought for many years after: some as lawyers, some as witnesses, and all of them, fighting together and coping with the challenges of recounting their painful stories and reliving their trauma over and over again in the pursuit of justice. With their testimonies, Milosevic, Karadzic, and Mladic – the Serbian President, regional leader, and military commander during the war – were arrested, tried for war crimes and genocide.

The saddest part, though, was even as the women worked hard for peace, the peace process itself excluded them. In the words of Ambassador Swanee Hunt, founder of InclusiveSecurity, in her book Worlds Apart: Bosnian Lessons for Global Security, "…[M]ost women leaders in Bosnia were virtually unknown to the international community.... When [the US-led] team drew up the guest list for the Dayton negotiations, they failed to consult with grass-roots organizers. Instead, the United States invited to the peace table those who had waged the war. Those who had waged the peace were excluded."

References:
Srebrenica, 25 years later: Lessons from the massacre that ended the Bosnian conflict and unmasked a genocide July 8, 2020 (Read)

Perspective: Women, War, And Reflections On Srebrenica (July 11, 2015) (Read)