David Harland, HD’s executive director, recalls his investigation of the atrocities in Bosnia and highlights the lessons that have yet to be fully learned.
Few films capture the true human horror of war. As a contender for best foreign film at this year’s Oscars, Jasmila Žbanić’s gut-wrenching masterpiece Quo Vadis, Aida? does that and more.
The film – named for the journey of UN translator Aida as she tries to save her family – is set in Srebrenica, one of six Muslim-majority towns designated by the UN as “safe areas” during the war in Bosnia. It takes place in July 1995, at the moment surrounding Serb forces march in. What happened next was described by a UN court as a “genocidal act”.
The facts are not seriously contested. As the Serbs pushed in, most of the town’s Bosnian Muslim fighters fled the enclave, heading for the relative safety of Bosnian government territory some 100 km (60 miles) to the west. Moving mainly by night, across territory controlled by the Serbs, most of them – including all of Srebrenica’s leaders – made it to safety.
Several thousand of the fleeing Bosnian fighters did not survive. Many surrendered along the way to better-armed Serb forces, who took them by truck and bus to remote execution and mass burial sites. Some died fighting, as I could see a few months later from the empty bullet casings around their bodies.
Sent by the UN to investigate, I was trying to reconstruct the route of that retreat. I followed a snaking trail of rotting bodies across the hills and woodland to the west of Srebrenica.
Just below a fringe of trees that might have provided some shelter, I found three bodies together. One man, who must have fallen first, was at the back of a stretcher. The second, on the stretcher with a bound leg, was killed where he lay. The third was a few paces away.
As the Serb forces advanced, the UN base near Srebrenica was the sudden refuge for 20,000 to 30,000 Bosnian civilians and fortified home to a small UN contingent of Dutch soldiers. General Ratko Mladić, the Serb commander, offered bombastic assurances as he arrived. The outnumbered UN soldiers did not resist as the Serbs took who they wanted, separating the women from the men and boys.
The women were mainly loaded onto buses, driven to the front line and forced to walk over to territory held by the Muslim-dominated Bosnian government. The men and boys were murdered. At one killing site I found, several hundred men and boys had been packed into an agricultural warehouse and shot. Blood stains and human flesh covered the walls, floor and ceiling.
When I next met General Mladić, at his trial for genocide, he expressed no remorse. Despite the eventual conviction of Mladić and others as war criminals, the stain of the atrocities in Bosnia on the UN’s reputation had already led to a decline in Western participation in UN peacekeeping and to more support for US-led military interventions.
But the lessons learned from these events were mainly the wrong ones.
First, for all its successes and failures, the UN saved Bosnia. Without the UN presence in the besieged capital Sarajevo, the Serbs would simply have cut off the food and water, along with the gas and electricity, and the city would have fallen. The UN took over Sarajevo airport from the Serbs and heroically kept it open while operating the longest humanitarian airlift in history.
The UN fed and sheltered millions of people and forged a series of ceasefire agreements that stabilized front lines, allowing aid to flow. During the relative calm, the Bosnian army was able to regroup and grow, until its greater numbers could be brought to bear on the Serbs.
And when the crunch came, it was the UN that broke the siege of Sarajevo. As then-President Alija Izetbegović said, Bosnia could not have survived without the UN.
Second, the US formula for peace was nothing to be emulated. The Dayton agreement, brokered by US envoy Richard Holbrooke, created a Frankenstein country. It divided Bosnia into ethno-religious entities that can block each other, making the country largely ungovernable.
It also enshrined a constitution that locks in place the ultra-nationalist agendas of the Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian presidents who signed it. The people of Bosnia, who were not consulted, have never been allowed to vote on the result.
Worst of all, the tragedy of Srebrenica unleashed a bipartisan US enthusiasm for military intervention in foreign wars. Post-Srebrenica arguments were part of the justification for failed wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, and were evinced to support misbegotten efforts to train and equip forces fighting to overthrow the Assad government in Syria.
The world was right to be shocked by Srebrenica, whose horror is brilliantly evoked in Quo Vadis, Aida?
But that shock produced mainly do-the-opposite reactions with dire results. The trail of bodies I followed out of Srebrenica still stretches far beyond Bosnia’s borders.
David Harland was co-author of the UN Secretary-General’s report The Fall of Srebrenica and was a prosecution witness at the trials of Slobodan Milošević, Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladić. He was an advisor to the makers of Quo Vadis, Aida?