Twenty years ago, American journalist David Rohde came across a decomposed human leg. It was sticking out of the ground in a village in eastern Bosnia. The leg was one of the first indications to the outside world that rumours of a massacre were true. It was mid-1995 and the location of the leg, as it turned out, was only a few miles from the original site of the massacre where over 8000 people had been killed in a UN enclave that had been created to protect them.
Twenty years on, with the July anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre – or genocide, as it’s sometimes referred to – many have yet to come to terms with the greatest mass murder committed in Europe since World War Two. The uncomfortable questions raised by the event still cast a shadow over all those involved, from victims to survivors, from perpetrators to United Nations soldiers and NATO commanders, from diplomats to prime ministers and presidents: Could it have been prevented? Why was nothing done to prevent it? Where does the responsibility lie?
Rohde’s book, based on his Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting, was remarkable at the time for revealing the multi-layered, inextricable and often inexplicable developments surrounding the murders. But it easily stands the test of two decades. The reason is simple: the fundamental questions remain. They are, in fact, a constant to be posed again and again in ever-renewing geo-political circumstances. Given the roots of the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, and indeed the roots of so many conflicts, few would feel that the lessons have been learned. Even if they have been, the devil is always in the practice. As Rohde’s investigation makes clear, there were many moments on the road to Srebrenica when things could have taken a different turn. Could timely NATO close air support or air strikes have made a difference? Could the Dutch UNPROFOR chain of command overseeing the enclave have been better? Could western military assessments have been more accurate or collective political resolve stronger? Could the Bosnian Muslims have mounted a more organised defence themselves or been aided by the UN to accomplish it? And could the intentions of the principal agent of the massacre, the Serb General Ratko Mladić, have been foreseen?
There was, Rohde concluded, no evidence of an over-arching US, UN, European or western conspiracy to sacrifice the Bosnian Muslims of Srebrenica for greater political ends. There was nothing to suggest arcane deals that gambled with the lives of civilians. There were, by contrast, mistakes. Lots of them. And of course there were killers. Lots of those, too.
Through the perspectives of seven key ‘characters’, including a Bosnian Serb, a Bosnian Croat, two Bosnian Muslims and two Dutch UN peacekeepers, Rohde showed how a landscape comprising neighbourly, ethnically unified, reference points could degenerate into alienation, mistrust and, ultimately, savagery. Like the famous Stanford University experiment – in which a homogenous group is divided into prisoners and guards resulting in a progressive behavioural change so that individuals act out their assigned roles – civilians, once homogenous, chose or were forced to choose sides. Even if they resisted choosing, they still suffered the consequences of nationalist and ultra-nationalist forces bent on redrawing the map by expropriating land and cleansing it of its indigenous population. The apocalyptic madness is also reminiscent of the fearful atmosphere of László Krasznahorkai’s 1989 novel, The Melancholy of Resistance: a mysterious circus arrives in town exhibiting an enormous decaying whale whose presence triggers riotous insanity among the inhabitants.
In the end, it took one of the largest aerial campaigns in NATO’s history, followed by the tortuous route to the Dayton accords, to restore an uneasy and bitter peace in the wake of a conflict that claimed up to 200,000 lives. The International War Crimes Tribunal, established in 1993 and the first of its kind since Nuremberg, will be remembered foremost for its association with that war. As Rohde pointed out, supporters of the Tribunal saw it, and see it still, as an essential instrument in addressing, and hopefully breaking, the cycles of historically-motivated revenge that underpinned the entire conflict. Srebrenica, ‘Silver City’, or ‘Argentaria’ as it was called by the Romans who mined it for its precious metal, still catches light and projects it, all these years later.
Who could ignore the similarities with a range of other, contemporary, conflicts? Who could ignore the possible benefits of timely intervention, such as Tony Blair’s in Sierra Leone in 2000? Who could fail to ignore the result of a lack of intervention, such as Rwanda in 1994? But perhaps the biggest point of Rohde’s book, after the exhuming of bodies from mass graves has been done, is that promises made should be kept. If those making the promises represent the United Nations, and if those promises include guaranteeing safety, then something went very wrong, all too easily wrong, in Srebrenica. The name of that place still protrudes from the ground of European history like a decomposing leg. It reminds us, more than anything, that madness is never far away.
David Rohde’s Endgame: The Betrayal and Fall of Srebrenica (2012) is available from Amazon, priced £12.82.
Nick Barlay’s Scattered Ghosts: One Family’s Survival through War, Holocaust and Revolution is published by I.B.Tauris. For details of this and other works, see www.nickbarlay.com