Michael Dobbs

The individual stories of Srebrenica

The lines and lines of graves at the Srebrenica memorial site — directly opposite from the former headquarters of the Dutch peacekeeping force — have come to symbolize the worst massacre in Europe since World War II. Mass burials are conducted here on every anniversary of the Srebrenica killings, which were ruled a genocide by ...

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The lines and lines of graves at the Srebrenica memorial site -- directly opposite from the former headquarters of the Dutch peacekeeping force -- have come to symbolize the worst massacre in Europe since World War II. Mass burials are conducted here on every anniversary of the Srebrenica killings, which were ruled a genocide by the Yugoslav War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague. Investigators believe that around 8,000 Muslim men and boys captured after the fall of Srebenica on July 11, 1995, were executed by Bosnian Serb forces commanded by Ratko Mladic.

The Srebrenica graves so far contain the remains of 5,137 Srebenica victims, most of them identified through the DNA procedures that I described in earlier posts. Other families have postponed the burial of their loved ones until more remains can be assembled: they do not want to go through the pain of conducting a series of partial burials, as more and more bones are identified by forensic scientists.

It is difficult to comprehend the tragedy of the Srebrenica killings without relating them to the stories of individual victims. One of the great mass killers in history, Joseph Stalin, understood this phenomenon perfectly, remarking cynically that "a single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic." So let me introduce you briefly to a couple of Srebenica survivors I had the privilege to meet:

The lines and lines of graves at the Srebrenica memorial site — directly opposite from the former headquarters of the Dutch peacekeeping force — have come to symbolize the worst massacre in Europe since World War II. Mass burials are conducted here on every anniversary of the Srebrenica killings, which were ruled a genocide by the Yugoslav War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague. Investigators believe that around 8,000 Muslim men and boys captured after the fall of Srebenica on July 11, 1995, were executed by Bosnian Serb forces commanded by Ratko Mladic.

The Srebrenica graves so far contain the remains of 5,137 Srebenica victims, most of them identified through the DNA procedures that I described in earlier posts. Other families have postponed the burial of their loved ones until more remains can be assembled: they do not want to go through the pain of conducting a series of partial burials, as more and more bones are identified by forensic scientists.

It is difficult to comprehend the tragedy of the Srebrenica killings without relating them to the stories of individual victims. One of the great mass killers in history, Joseph Stalin, understood this phenomenon perfectly, remarking cynically that "a single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic." So let me introduce you briefly to a couple of Srebenica survivors I had the privilege to meet:

  • Hasan Hasanovic, photographed above by the graves of his father and twin brother. Hasan was just twelve years old when Mladic’s forces occupied Srebrenica. He owes his life to his father who met him on the road to Potocari, the headquarters of the Dutch base, and urged him to escape into the forest rather than seek refuge with the U.N. peacekeepers. Hasan walked for seven days across the mountains until he reached Moslem-controlled Tuzla. "I still cannot imagine how I survived," he told me. "I was about to give myself up several times, but people around me gave me sugar and water, and I continued."
  • Samedin Malkic. Samedin was in the third year of high school when the enclave fell. He too crossed over the mountains to Tuzla. Out of the 27 boys in his class, only three survived. The remainder were either captured and killed by Mladic’s forces during the "long march" to Tuzla or detained after seeking refuge at the Dutchbat headquarters in Potocari. (The Serbs separated the men and the boys from the women refugees, killing almost all the men.)

    "Before the war, you used to see thousands of people in the streets of Srebrenica," said Samedin, one of a few hundred survivors who returned to the town after the war. "Now it is a ghost town. You don’t see a single person you know. There is no one left to drink coffee with."

Michael Dobbs is a prize-winning foreign correspondent and author. Currently serving as a Goldfarb fellow at the Committee on Conscience of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Dobbs is following legal proceedings in The Hague. He has traveled to Srebrenica, Sarajevo and Belgrade, interviewed Mladic’s victims and associates, and is posting documents, video recordings, and intercepted phone calls that shed light on Mladic's personality. Twitter: @michaeldobbs

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