Twenty Years Later: Honoring the Victims and Survivors of Srebrenica
What I said at a United Nations commemoration of the genocide in Srebrenica
Thank you, Mirsada, for inviting us to join you in this important and moving commemoration. And thank you for representing Bosnia with such vigor and conviction over this last decade. The people of your country have been extremely fortunate to have you as their representative.
I also thank the Secretary-General, the Deputy Secretary-General, and the General Assembly President for being here today, and with their presence for showing just how important this commemoration is. And above all, Srebrenica survivors here and in the audience, I thank you all for sharing your excruciating memories with us — all of us need to hear them. But it must be searing for you to go back over your own experiences. Thank you Adisada, in particular.
For me Srebrenica brings three words to mind: disbelief, impunity, and resolve.
“Disbelief” comes to mind because almost none of us had the imagination that we needed back in 1995 when it mattered for the people of Srebrenica. I was a 24-year-old reporter in Bosnia when Bosnian Serb forces made their move on Srebrenica, overwhelming the UN peacekeepers in their way. I had lived in Sarajevo during a brutal siege. I was fully acquainted with the horror that hard-line Bosnian Serb nationalist forces, led by Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladić, fully acquainted with what they were capable of in pursuit of etničko čišćenje — ethnic cleansing. But even with that background, and the pessimism it spawned, I admit that I did not expect Bosnian Serb forces to set out to exterminate all the Bosnian men and boys that they held in their custody. And I was not alone in underestimating the events unfolding.
I was, as Mirsada said, a freelancer for the Washington Post at the time, and when I called my editor saying that the Serbs may well be on the verge of seizing the so-called UN “safe area” of Srebrenica, I couldn’t convince my editor to cover Srebrenica’s imminent fall. “Well,” he said, “from what you are telling me, even if things proceed, the Serbs are not going to take the town tonight. It sounds like when Srebrenica falls, we will have a story,” he said.
I want to stress: although what happened in Srebrenica seems obvious now, it was not obvious at the time. And it was certainly not inevitable. We should have believed it could happen. And we should have done far more — all of us — to prevent it from happening.
The word “impunity” comes to mind in commemorating Srebrenica because — to mow down UN observation posts, demand that UN forces open up their gates, and bring television crews with you to document your conquest — you have to feel pretty good about yourself. Twenty years ago Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladić felt really good about himself. He conquered a UN safe area without much of a fight; he convinced peacekeepers sheltering Bosnian civilians to turn them over to him; and, he had himself filmed passing out chocolates to young Muslim children. “Do not let any of the children get lost,” he said in television footage that gets no less chilling with the passage of time. “Don’t be afraid. Nobody will harm you.” Patting the head of a terrified young boy, he said, “you’ll be taken to a safe place.”
Ratko Mladić lied.
Ratko Mladić lied to the families gathered around the UN base in Potocari, and he lied to all of us. He said that those who had done nothing wrong had nothing to fear. He said the men and boys would be screened for war crimes. But he deemed every Bosnian Muslim man or boy in Srebrenica as someone who had done something wrong — simply because they were Muslim. And he ordered the execution of each of them. No man or boy in his custody was spared. The only people who survived these systematic mass executions were those who were machine gunned but hid under the lifeless bodies of their neighbors, family members, and friends. Ratko Mladic operated with impunity. He was not a man who thought he would ever face justice.
Today, Ratko Mladić is in The Hague, a place he openly mocked. He is facing trial. And the women left without sons and husbands and fathers bear witness against him. The long arm of justice has found him, and we should not forget the significance of that, or the significance of the fact that not a single UN criminal tribunal indictee is still at large.
But the impunity Ratko Mladić felt should underscore for us today the importance of creating accountability in the present. Only then will we deter and prevent such outrages in our time.
The last word that comes to mind when I reflect on the genocide in Srebrenica is “resolve.”
Srebrenica heightened our resolve. After the slaughter in Srebrenica, a divided international community came together — intervening militarily to enforce UN Security Council resolutions; pursuing those responsible for the genocide and — though in Mladić’s case it took nearly sixteen years — succeeding in securing his and other perpetrators’ arrests; and, reexamining the entire peacekeeping system that could have allowed such a horror to occur under the very nose of the United Nations, the ICRC, and all the governments of the world, including mine. Ratko Mladić was sure he would never be held accountable, but he is. Bosnian Serb extremists were sure that the genocide would never be acknowledged and that their crimes would not be remembered. But they are. The UN Criminal Tribunal has established the facts of this horror, and the genocide will never be forgotten. Those who deny the genocide in Srebrenica today only embarrass and humiliate themselves.
In closing, let me simply appeal to all gathered here that the resolve induced by the horror of Srebrenica be extended not only to commemorating the past, but to do far more to prevent genocide and mass atrocities in the present. When those indicted for genocide — today — are able to travel freely, when some would find greater fault with an international court than with those alleged to have perpetrated horrific mass atrocities, when Member States of the United Nations would provide money and weapons to regimes that would gas their own citizens, the sense of impunity that Ratko Mladić felt will reign elsewhere, and we will fail those who need us in the present.
We must never forget the genocide in Srebrenica. We must always honor its victims, its survivors.
But we must never forget also that our words will ring hollow if in the here and now we don’t believe the unbelievable, if we don’t end the culture of impunity that exists in so many places around the world, and if we don’t strengthen our resolve to protect those who count on us all.