Stopping the next Srebrenica

A guest blog post from my talented and hard-working U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum intern, Sarah Collman: For the last seven months, I have been helping Michael Dobbs with a research project on Srebrenica sponsored by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. As I immersed myself in the horrific details of the killing of 7,000 prisoners on ...

JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images
JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images
JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images

A guest blog post from my talented and hard-working U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum intern, Sarah Collman:

For the last seven months, I have been helping Michael Dobbs with a research project on Srebrenica sponsored by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. As I immersed myself in the horrific details of the killing of 7,000 prisoners on the orders of Ratko Mladic, I was overwhelmed by reports of massacres taking place practically every day in Syria, in real time. The juxtaposition is startling: history is repeating itself, and we seem incapable of learning any lessons.

There are obvious differences between Syria and Bosnia. The war in Bosnia was fueled by ethnic hatred: Christian Serbs against Bosnian Muslims. The Syrian conflict started off as a movement for democracy inspired by the Arab Spring. But the fact that a small Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam, rules the majority Sunni country has added an important sectarian dimension.

A guest blog post from my talented and hard-working U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum intern, Sarah Collman:

For the last seven months, I have been helping Michael Dobbs with a research project on Srebrenica sponsored by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. As I immersed myself in the horrific details of the killing of 7,000 prisoners on the orders of Ratko Mladic, I was overwhelmed by reports of massacres taking place practically every day in Syria, in real time. The juxtaposition is startling: history is repeating itself, and we seem incapable of learning any lessons.

There are obvious differences between Syria and Bosnia. The war in Bosnia was fueled by ethnic hatred: Christian Serbs against Bosnian Muslims. The Syrian conflict started off as a movement for democracy inspired by the Arab Spring. But the fact that a small Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam, rules the majority Sunni country has added an important sectarian dimension.

While the roots of the conflict differ, the chilling reports of bloody massacres in Homs are frighteningly similar to the events in eastern Bosnia in the early nineties. So far, on the first anniversary of the protests in Syria, more than 8,000 people have been killed, some 18,000 people detained, and 230,000 people displaced from their homes.

There have been numerous reports of shelling and sniping of civilian areas, executions of army defectors with their hands tied behind their backs, and total destruction and cleansing of certain Homs districts such as Baba Amr. Neighborhoods lack food, water, electricity, and medical supplies. This past Sunday security forces massacred 45 women and children, whose bodies were found mangled and burned in Karm al-Zaytoun. Some of the bodies had slit throats and showed evidence of rape. It is all very reminiscent of Sarajevo and Srebrenica.

In July 1995, the international community had relatively limited knowledge about the atrocities in Srebrenica, at least at the time they were happening. Contrast this with Syria, where amateur YouTube videos of the violence are streaming out of the country each day. Raw footage and eyewitness accounts are available for the world to witness.

And what has the world done? Virtually nothing. Condemnation and calling for Assad to step down only goes so far. Clearly, it has not been enough to stop the bloodshed.

The United Nations and the entire international community failed miserably in Srebrenica. Bosnian Serb forces overran the U.N. ‘safe area,’ bused 20,000 women and children out of the area, and executed around 7,000 Muslim men and boys. In a conflict where more than 100,000 people died, it took almost 4 years for action to put an end to the violence.

The violence in Syria is now entering its second year. I understand the complexity of the situation — the strategic location of Syria, the fragmentation of the opposition, reluctance to intervene again so soon after Libya, and the politics of the U.N. But we have witnessed the consequences of inaction many times in recent history, in places like Bosnia and Rwanda.  The challenge facing the international community is to find a way of relieving the sufferings of ordinary Syrians without unleashing fresh disasters. Any ideas?

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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