Articles on the Bosnia Conflict




Serbia Struggles to Face the Truth about Srebrenica
By Tim Judah
June 17, 2005

"The truth has been smashed in our faces, painfully and mercilessly." So thundered Serbia's venerable newspaper Politika on June 4. It was three days after Serbian television had broadcast a film of Serbs executing six young Muslims after the fall of the Bosnian enclave of Srebrenica in July 1995. "The Serbian public is aghast, because it has finally seen that someone…actually committed bestialities in uniform and with Serbian insignia."

In this still from a video shown at the trial of Slobodan Milosevic in The Hague and also broadcast on Serbian television, a member of the Serbian paramilitary unit known as the Scorpions apparently guards two bound Bosnian Muslim prisoners. The video later shows the prisoners being killed. (AP Photo/APTN)

Ten years after the fall of the enclave and the massacre of up to 8,000 Bosnian Muslims (now called Bosniaks) in the days that followed, Srebrenica has returned to haunt the Serbs. But the screening of the now notorious executions video was neither the beginning of the uproar about Srebrenica in Serbia nor the end. According to Braca Grubacic, the analyst and publisher of Belgrade's VIP newsletter, while it is true that Serbs were initially taken aback by the film, "it seems that some have quickly recovered from the shock." 

While many commentators in Serbia and abroad predicted immediately after the showing of the video that it would radically change Serbian attitudes about the crimes committed in their name during the Yugoslav wars, it is far from clear that this is happening. 

In fact the showing of the video and the forthcoming commemoration of the tenth anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre, to which large numbers of foreign dignitaries have been invited, have left many Serbs embittered. While wartime Bosniak victims are honoured, they argue, Serb ones are ignored. 

The Massacre at Srebrenica

For three years, from the early summer of 1992 until 11 July 1995, the Muslim enclave of Srebrenica was besieged by Bosnian Serb forces led by General Ratko Mladic. After it fell, in one of the closing chapters of the Bosnian war, Mladic’s forces began the systematic killing of Bosniak men and boys. Some were separated from their families at Potocari just outside Srebrenica and shot, while the majority died attempting to flee across Serb territory to Bosniak-held land. Many of these were either captured and executed or gunned down in ambushes, even though the vast majority were unarmed. 

In a landmark judgement on 2 August 2001 Bosnian Serb general Radislav Krstic became the first person to be convicted of genocide by the UN's Yugoslav war crimes tribunal in The Hague for his role in the Srebrenica killings. Judge Almiro Rodrigues said that he and his fellow judges had been "convinced beyond any reasonable doubt that a crime of genocide was committed in Srebrenica."  The tribunal's Appeals Chamber later ruled that Krstic should have been convicted only of aiding and abetting genocide, rather than being a primary perpetrator, but it confirmed the finding that genocide had taken place in Srebrenica.  

Ever since the end of the Bosnian war there has been ample information about the massacre in Serbia and the Republika Srpska, the Bosnian Serb entity within Bosnia-Hercegovina, for anyone who was interested or cared to know. However many Serbs either derided claims of a massacre, insisted that if there was one the numbers were inflated, or said that in any case crimes had been committed on all sides. 

In 2002 the government of the Republika Srpska compiled a report in which it claimed that, not only had there not been a massacre, but that in fact the vast majority of the victims of the 1992-95 war around Srebrenica had been Serb civilians. 

After coming under immense pressure from Lord Ashdown, the international community's High Representative in Bosnia, the government of the Republika Srpska then commissioned a new report. Published last year it admitted that crimes had been committed and came up with a list of some 7,800 missing, a figure which tallies with that compiled by the International Committee of the Red Cross. Still Milan Bogdanic, president of the commission that submitted the report, insists that the question of numbers has been "manipulated" because some of those who died were killed in the fighting before the fall of Srebrenica and many of those who died in the columns fleeing afterwards were "legitimate military targets." 

Nevertheless, the Republika Srpska's report was deemed by many to have been a major step towards admitting that a monstrous crime had been committed.  Dragan Cavic, the president of the Republika Srpska acknowledged this when he called the massacre "a black stain on the history of the Serb people." 

Showdown over the Past

The latest sequence of events related to Srebrenica that has rocked the Serbs began on May 17 at the law faculty of Belgrade University. There a so-called "tribunal" was organised by an extreme right wing group called Nomokanon under the title of "The Truth about Srebrenica". An earlier bid to organise the meeting under a title celebrating the tenth anniversary of the "liberation of Srebrenica" had been refused. 

The "tribunal" caused a storm in the Serbian media as a number of well-known figures either denied that a massacre had taken place or attempted to minimise the numbers of those killed. There were tense scenes because the room where the meeting was taking place was packed not just with extreme nationalists who subscribe to the theory of the "liberation of Srebrenica" (which was 73% Bosniak before the war) but also with people from Serbian human rights groups and political activists of various parties protesting about the gathering. Amongst them was Natasa Kandic, one of Serbia's best-known human rights activists. 

Within days two things happened. Disgusted by what had taken place, two liberal members of the Serbian assembly, Zarko Korac and Natasa Micic, submitted to parliament a resolution that not only condemned the massacre but specifically named the crime as genocide. 

Then on May 23 Ms Kandic, the head of Belgrade's Humanitarian Law Centre, paid a visit to Serbia's own war crimes prosecutor and handed him a copy of the video showing members of the Scorpions paramilitary unit executing the six Muslims from Srebrenica. No arrests took place. On June 1 the video was shown during the trial of Slobodan Milosevic, the former Serbian and Yugoslav leader, in The Hague. Ms Kandic then gave the tape to Serbian television, which broadcast it, provoking a new storm in the media. 

Response to the Video

Immediately after the broadcast several members of the former Scorpions militia were arrested and the crime was widely denounced, not only by Serbian premier Vojislav Kostunica and President Boris Tadic (who said he was ready "to go to Srebrenica to pay tribute") but across the political spectrum. 

According to Ms Kandic and prosecutors in The Hague, the Scorpions – many of whose members hailed from the then Serbian-held region of eastern Slavonia in Croatia – were a unit, belonging to Serbia's Ministry of Interior. If this is proved to be the case then it is a "smoking gun" for the Hague prosecution team because it proves official Belgrade's involvement in the massacre. 

Ms Kandic said that the Scorpions had come to Bosnia in 1995 to shore up the Bosnian Serb lines around besieged Sarajevo while General Mladic attacked Srebrenica. In the aftermath of the fall of the enclave Bosniak prisoners had been distributed amongst Serb forces to be killed and, in this case, a member of the Scorpions had filmed the murder. Another kept a copy of the video until its existence was revealed in a Kosovo-related war crimes trial in Serbia last year. After this Ms Kandic tracked down the tape’s owner who agreed last December that it could be used in court on the condition that it not be submitted as evidence until he was safely out of the country. He also told her that he would testify as a "protected witness" about the activities of the Scorpions at The Hague. 

Immediately after the video was shown reactions such as the one expressed in Politika were typical. However in the week that followed it became apparent that a number of things were less clear than they had seemed in the immediate aftermath of the video being shown, and that powerful interests were at work in Serbia to (as one source put it to me) "kill the story".

The remains of the former headquarters of the Dutch battalion of UN peacekeepers at Potocari near Srebrenica. 
The Dutch troops were unable to prevent the enclave being overrun by Bosnian Serb forces.  Photo © Tim Judah

To begin with, the Serbian press began publishing detailed stories about the Scorpions. These claimed that the unit, which in 1991 had operated under the command structure of the then Yugoslav People's Army had only become attached to Serbia's Ministry of Interior in 1999 – if at all. In 1995, sources told the press, it had been attached to the army of the then Republic of Serbian Krajina, (RSK) the would-be breakaway Serbian state in Croatia. Although the RSK army was financed by and generally operated as an adjunct of the Yugoslav Army, this would appear to mean that the video was, in legal terms, perhaps less of a "smoking gun" than the Hague prosecution team had claimed it to be, in terms of linking Serbia and the regime of Slobodan Milosevic to massacre. 

Florence Hartmann, spokeswoman of the prosecution in The Hague, dismissed this story. She said that the Scorpions were indeed a unit of Serbia's Ministry of Interior and that the prosecution would soon produce evidence to prove this. The fact that they operated, technically, under the RSK army was a front, she said, because they helped operate oil production for Serbia in eastern Slavonia, which by then was under a UN mandate. Thus she argued, they could hardly operate openly as a police unit from Serbia. 

Failure of the Resolution

Next, the question of the resolution to be passed by the Serbian parliament took on a renewed impetus but immediately ran into trouble. Whereas before the showing of the video the parliamentary speaker, Predrag Markovic, could brush off the demand for a resolution with various excuses, now something clearly had to be done. Besides, President Tadic, who has been invited to the Srebrenica commemoration on July 11, now wanted a resolution so that it would be not be possible to portray his going to the ceremony, or any act of contrition that he made, as a personal gesture rather than one which had substantial political backing within Serbia. 

It was clear however that the assembly would never recognise the Srebrenica killings as genocide, because this would give an enormous fillip to Bosnia's genocide case against Serbia & Montenegro which is still ongoing at the International Court of Justice. Apart from the political cost of losing this case, Serbian leaders fear that a Bosnian victory would open the way for enormous claims for reparations. 

President Tadic’s Democratic Party (which is in opposition) therefore sought a compromise resolution that condemned the killings in Srebrenica but stopped short of acknowledging genocide.  However in an increasingly acrimonious atmosphere the motion for a resolution collapsed (at least for the moment) on June 14. The problem arose because the government relies on the votes of Mr Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia and the extreme nationalists of the Serbian Radical Party, who are also the largest party in parliament. Anything beyond a vague acknowledgement that crimes had been committed by all sides during the wars would not be supported by them. 

Is Mladic Facing Arrest?

At the same time, and especially in the wake of the Scorpions video, stories also began to circulate that General Mladic, who is widely believed to be in Serbia was soon to be arrested and sent to The Hague. Indeed, Nicholas Burns, US Under Secretary of State who visited Belgrade on June 9, declared himself so satisfied with Serbia's recent cooperation with the Tribunal – to which some 16 Serb and Bosnian Serb indictees have gone under varying circumstances since last October – that the US was lifting its suspension of aid against Serbia. About General Mladic he said: "We are confident that his days in relative freedom are numbered." 

After this came stories that the government was negotiating his surrender, something it was quick to deny. However there is still a widespread belief amongst well connected people in Serbia that the general will soon be on his way to The Hague, although it remains likely that he will have to be arrested rather than surrendering. 

If General Mladic is arrested and extradited there will almost certainly be little emotion shown in public on his behalf. Many Serbs, even if they believe the general to be innocent, are not willing to accept that ten years after the end of the Bosnian war the future of their country should remain mortgaged to his fate.  Yet it is also clear that many Serbs still fail to grasp the enormity of the crime committed at Srebrenica – and if this is case in the "motherland" it is even more so in Republika Srpska. 

In a recent poll in Serbia half of those questioned said they did not believe that Serbs had committed war crimes during the wars of the 1990s.  Since the video was shown a new poll has found that one third of the public believe it to be a fake.


A few miles from Srebrenica, in the Serbian village of Bibici – which was occupied by Bosniaks during the war and to which local Serbs only returned in 1995 – local bus driver Radivoje Bibic summed up the mood in the run up to the July 11 commemoration. Using the derogatory term of "Turks" to describe his Bosniak neighbours, he said of the killings of July 1995, "What they asked for they got. They deserved it. "


Tim Judah has written widely on the Balkans. 
He is the author of
The Serbs: History, Myth and the Destruction of Yugoslavia and Kosovo: War and Revenge.

Originally published at


Balkan Witness Home Page

Articles index




Contact Balkan Witness

Report broken links