Bosnia Serbs Still in Denial Over Srebrenica

Ashdown punishes Republika Srpska for its continuing reluctance to properly investigate the massacre.

Bosnia Serbs Still in Denial Over Srebrenica

Ashdown punishes Republika Srpska for its continuing reluctance to properly investigate the massacre.

Wednesday, 9 November, 2005

Nine years after the fall of Srebrenica and the massacres that followed, Bosnian Serbs are still reluctant to own up to atrocity - and paying a political price for it.

Two high-ranking Bosnian Serb officials were fired last week for obstructing the work of a governmental commission tasked with establishing the fate of thousands of missing Srebrenica inhabitants, many of whom were executed and buried in mass graves close to the enclave.

The international community’s High Representative in Bosnia, Paddy Ashdown, sacked on April 16 the head of Bosnian Serbs’ general staff, Cvjetko Savic, and the chief of the government's Secretariat for the Hague Tribunal, Dejan Miletic.

The institutions that the two dismissed officials headed "did everything to cover up the biggest crime perpetrated in Europe since the World War II", said Ashdown at a press conference held in Sarajevo on April 15.

The dismissals came just days before the Hague tribunal ruled that the Srebrenica massacres were acts of genocide - the first such case in Europe since World War Two.

Ashdown also demanded the sacking of the commission’s chairman, the ageing judge Marko Arsovic. Under him, the body worked just one day a week, while he first mentioned the obstructions it was facing only days before the April 14 deadline for submission of its final report.

Should the obstructions continue, Ashdown warned, the defence and interior ministers would be next to clear their desks. He’s given the commission until the first week of June to finish its work.

The commission, established at the end of last year, was expected to reveal the location of mass graves in and around Srebrenica - where 7-8,000 Muslim men and boys are believed to be buried - but instead submitted a 16-page account of the difficulties it had encountered trying to do its work.

The commission claimed that the state secretariat for cooperation with the Hague court handed over just a fraction of the tens of thousands of documents it had received from the tribunal prosecutor’s office.

It said it also didn’t get replies to inquiries it had made to the ministry of interior and various military intelligence agencies about missing people and possible mass grave sites.

"I cannot believe that the Army of Republic of Srpska knew nothing about the locations of mass graves, and that the people there do not know a single man who took part in those events, while there were hundreds, and maybe thousands of people who directly participated in the massacre," Ashdown said. " It is shocking that you still have to pull the truth out of them like a bad tooth."

The Bosnian Serb government described Ashdown’s criticism as "too severe". The commission failed because of the “lack of sufficient coordination or efficiency in their work”, not because of government unwillingness to help, read an official statement.

Savic maintained that the Bosnian Serb army "did virtually everything to enable the commission members to examine the archive files".

The commission was established at the request of the Bosnian Human Rights Chamber - a state institution that examines citizens' complaints about human rights violations. The chamber responded to some 50 enquries from relatives of men who went missing after the fall of Srebrenica.

The Banja Luka authorities only set up the commission after heavy political pressure from Ashdown’s office. Republika Srpska prime minister Dragan Mikerevic claimed at the time that the government was unable to find the right kind of people to work for such a body.

Given the level of resistance to the setting up of an inquiry, it’s hardly surprising that nine years after the atrocity the two men suspected of planning and perpetrating the crime - the former Bosnian Serb political and military commanders Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Maldic - are still at large.

Many observers suggest that they would not have been able to evade capture for so long without the support of at least some members of the Bosnian Serb leadership.

“A large number of those responsible for the tragedy in Srebrenica are still in senior posts in the police and army…..they abuse their positions and the institutions of Republika Srpska in order to obstruct cooperation with the Hague tribunal," said Branko Todorovic, president of Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in the Bosnian Serb entity.

The only previous attempt by the Banja Luka authorities to investigate the Srebrenica atrocity was little more than a whitewash. The body in charge of cooperation with the Hague court presented a report last September which denied tribunal investigators’ findings about the mass graves in and around the enclave.

The burial sites contained the bodies of people killed not in massacres but fierce fighting, and had to buried quickly in mass graves because of very high temperatures, the report said.

This denial of the Srebrenica massacres is being played out against the backdrop of a veritable mountain of evidence - presented during the past three years at the Hague tribunal - that the killings took place.

Prosecutors have obtained testimonies of scores of witnesses and gathered vast amounts of documents corroborating mass executions, burials and reburials around Srebrenica. One of the key Hague indictees – Drazen Erdemovic – personally took part in executions and provided a graphic account of their brutality and systematic nature.

“There has never been readiness or political will in Republika Srpska to face the crimes perpetrated during the past war," said Tanja Topic, political analyst at the Banja Luka office of the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, a German NGO promoting democracy.

“Events in Srebrenica were denied, covered up and marginalised, and the same happened to the concentration camps and other war crimes. Just as there is no readiness on the part of the government here to arrest the suspected war criminals, there is no willingness to see the truth about the war crimes committed and to talk about them publicly," she said.

This failure to face up to the past, says Ashdown, undermines the very foundations of the Bosnian Serb entity. "Until they publicly present what happened in Srebrenica, Republika Srpska, in spite of the Dayton Agreement, will not be a legitimate state," he warned.

In the short-term, Ashdown pointed out that Serbian denial could jeopardise Bosnia’s hopes of being admitted into NATO’s Partnership of Peace programme at the alliance summit in Istanbul this July. The High Representative said a decision on whether to bring the republic on board would depend on the outcome of the Bosnian Serb commission report into Srebrenica.

Gordana Katana is an RFE correspondent based in Banja Luka.

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