“All happy nations are alike; each unhappy nation is unhappy in its own way.”
Nearly a quarter of a century has passed since “the worst carnage to scourge Europe since the Third Reich: the war of ‘ethnic cleansing’ in Bosnia-Herzegovina.” The words of British journalist Ed Vulliamy, whose two books Seasons in Hell: Understanding Bosnia’s War (1994) and The War is Dead, Long Live the War: Bosnia: the Reckoning (2012) are essential reading.
In that bitterly fought war, more than 100,000 people were killed, the majority away from the infamous and cowardly siege of Sarajevo, in places the world has long forgotten. Except for Srebrenica. In the countryside, two million people were burned out of their homes. And, towards the end of the bombardment of Sarajevo itself, hundreds of civilians were massacred trying to escape through the forest to Tuzla – an event commemorated each year by a March of Peace.
The Srebrenica massacre, took place in July 1995, when more than 8,000 Muslims, mainly men and boys, were murdered in and around the town. The killings were perpetrated by units of the Bosnian Serb Army of Republika Srpska under the command of General Ratko Mladić. The European Parliament recognised the killings as genocide in 2009, but a UN Security Council Resolution intended to mark the 20th anniversary and condemning the massacre as genocide was vetoed by Russia after lobbying by Republika Srpska and Serbia.
Republika Srpska is one of two political/territorial divisions – the other being Bosnia and Herzegovina – that emerged from the Dayton Agreement of 1995 marking the end of the Bosnian War. It is chilling to see that the old prejudices remain and that few lessons have been learned.
Republika Srpska’s president, Milorad Dodik, is serving a second term as president, having previously served twice as prime minister. When he came to power, hopes were raised that he would bring about reconciliation and greater democracy, although he has publicly raised doubts about what happened during the Bosnian War. In 2015, speaking at a commemoration for Serbs killed in villages around Srebrenica, he called the genocide “a lie”. And while Republika Srpska’s prime minister, Željka Cvijanović, admits “There was a terrible, massive crime committed in Srebrenica,” she, too, refuses to call it genocide.
In 2016, things are far from settled in Republika Srpska. The average income for its 900,000 inhabitants is about 400 euros a month. More than half the population is unemployed. Without regular payments by the European Union and loans from the international community, the government would be unable to pay its officials. And yet Republika Srpska refuses to align itself fully with the EU and denies having any obligations.
To this day, Serbian youth are encouraged to praise Ratko Mladić (the former Bosnian Serb military leader currently on trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, accused of committing war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide). In some places, images of Ratko Mladić and Radovan Karadžić (the country’s wartime president) are brandished at Serbian weddings. Many people deny what took place at Srebrenica and elsewhere and denounce the very idea of reconciliation.
In “Bosnia’s victims 20 years on: survivors of a nightmare with no reckoning” (The Observer 8 April 2012), Ed Vulliamy underlined what is still a sad reality:
“‘Reconciliation’ and ‘post-conflict resolution’ are buzzwords these days and a lucrative industry for the colonial international strata that still live, on tax-free salaries, in Sarajevo. But these words – reconciliation and resolution – are also lies, for what I found, in the absence of reckoning for refugees and survivors, was post-conflict irresolution. Open wounds and nightmares that deepen with time, redeemed – if at all – not by any fantasy of reconciliation, but strength of will, family, alcohol and laughter among those who call themselves ‘the limbo people’.”