The Virulent Nationalism That Led to Srebrenica Is Back in Bosnia

And Russian President Vladimir Putin is eager to exploit it.

di-Giovanni-Janine-foreign-policy-columnist7
di-Giovanni-Janine-foreign-policy-columnist7
Janine di Giovanni
By , an FP columnist and director of The Reckoning Project: Ukraine Testifies.
A woman wearing a headscarf crouches in a prayer position with her palms raised between two gravestones.
A woman wearing a headscarf crouches in a prayer position with her palms raised between two gravestones.
Bosniak woman Mejra Djogaz, 71, a survivor of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, prays between her sons’ tombstones—Omer, 19, and Munib, 21—who were killed in the mass killing at Srebrenica during Bosnia’s 1992 to 1995 war at Potocari memorial center near Srebrenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina, on July 3, 2020. ELVIS BARUKCIC/AFP via Getty Images

“All wars are fought twice,” Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen once wrote, “the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory.”

He was writing about Vietnam, but the sentiment holds just as true in Srebrenica, where Bosnian Serb forces killed more than 8,000 Bosniak, mainly Muslim, men and boys in 1995 in what the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia have both declared as genocide—a designation hard-line Bosnian Serb officials along with their allies in neighboring Serbia continue to deny to this day.

It was the greatest massacre in Europe since World War II. The dead cannot speak, but every year in midsummer, the victims’ families make a grim pilgrimage. A former mining town in eastern Bosnia—once known as a site where infertile women came to drink its miraculous waters—Srebrenica is now synonymous with the terrible dark events that began on July 11, 1995.

“All wars are fought twice,” Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen once wrote, “the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory.”

He was writing about Vietnam, but the sentiment holds just as true in Srebrenica, where Bosnian Serb forces killed more than 8,000 Bosniak, mainly Muslim, men and boys in 1995 in what the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia have both declared as genocide—a designation hard-line Bosnian Serb officials along with their allies in neighboring Serbia continue to deny to this day.

It was the greatest massacre in Europe since World War II. The dead cannot speak, but every year in midsummer, the victims’ families make a grim pilgrimage. A former mining town in eastern Bosnia—once known as a site where infertile women came to drink its miraculous waters—Srebrenica is now synonymous with the terrible dark events that began on July 11, 1995.

Twenty-seven years ago this month, Srebrenica fell to Bosnian Serb forces. It had been under a bitter siege for three years, suffering starvation and constant shelling, destroyed and brutalized. When the Serbs entered the town, they vaguely promised peace. Then, the men and boys were separated from the women while the United Nations peacekeepers, Dutch soldiers, stood by and watched. The men were driven off in trucks to areas outside the town, rounded up in factories or forests, and mowed down with guns.

It was the cruelest way to die.

Their bodies were hurled into mass graves. Some died begging for their lives. Some died after being made to dig their own graves, crying for water and mercy. The Serbs then dug up the remains and reburied them in secondary and sometimes tertiary graves throughout the area—in fields and forests sometimes miles away—to hide their crimes. Many of the victims’ remains are now buried in a memorial in the town as a way of preserving memory and, most of all, the truth. As of 2020, more than 1,000 people were still unaccounted for.

Yet nearly three decades on, Srebrenica remains a terrible, unhealed wound.

 Prominent voices in Bosnia and Serbia consistently downplay or even outright deny the genocide committed by Bosnian Serbs at Srebrenica. The deniers include hard-line politicians—such as Bosnian Serb political leader Milorad Dodik, who has dismissed the Srebrenica massacre as a “fabricated myth”—and Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic. In December 2019, the Nobel Prize in literature was given to Peter Handke, another genocide denier. The Austrian writer had close ties to former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, who masterminded the brutal Bosnian war. In 2006, Handke delivered a eulogy to Milosevic’s grave, and he has written books attempting to exonerate Serbian war crimes.

Indeed, the denial has become so troubling and pervasive that last year, Valentin Inzko—who, at the time, was the top international official in Bosnia tasked with overseeing the civilian implementation of the Dayton Accords, which ended the war in 1995—imposed a law criminalizing the denial of the Srebrenica genocide or other war crimes committed by Bosnian Serbs. The law also introduced criminal penalties for the glorification of war criminals or the naming streets or public institutions after them.

But the virulent nationalism that fueled those atrocities 27 years ago hasn’t disappeared, and powerful forces both within Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as outside of it are whipping it up yet again, threatening to bring back some of the worst days of the past.


The Bosnian war began when the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia began to disintegrate at the start of the 1990s. In March 1992, following Slovenia, Croatia, and Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina—made up of a mix of Bosniak Muslims, Catholic Croats, and Orthodox Serbs—declared independence.

The Bosnian Serbs rejected the declaration and joined forces with Serbia, the largest of the Yugoslav republics. They set up their headquarters in Pale, a bleak mountain town outside of Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and confiscated most of the hardware of the former Yugoslav People’s Army. Their breakaway republic, known as Republika Srpska, waged a bloody war against the Bosnians, laying siege to the city for more than three years.

What has led to today’s renewed crisis is the fractured political system set out by the Dayton Accords in 1995. Bosnia was divided into a complex political system that was meant to appease the warring parties by giving them each a piece of the country’s government. The country today consists of two administrative units—the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina—and it is governed by a tripartite presidency that rotates every eight months among three members (Bosniak, Serb, and Croat). There are also 10 cantons, each with their own separate, confusing governments.

The system has caused vast dysfunction. Although the Dayton Accords ended the fighting and brought a fractured country back together, they left deep resentment. The structures that were formed reinforced divided ethnic identities. Reforms have been called for years. Nothing has happened. Today, the agreement seems to be at a breaking point.

That’s due in large part to the separatist moves made by Dodik, the Serb member of the tripartite presidency who previously served as either president or prime minister of Republika Srpska for 15 years. For months, Dodik has taken steps to weaken Bosnia’s multiethnic state institutions while simultaneously establishing parallel institutions in Republika Srpska, which most observers see as possibly laying the groundwork for future secession.

As University of Sarajevo associate professor Hamza Karcic has written for Foreign Policy, “Dodik is following in the footsteps of what Bosnian Serb wartime leaders did exactly 30 years ago in the fall of 1991.”

The fact that Dodik uses nationalism as a tool to stir ethnic tensions—the exact technique that led to the bitter war of 1992 to 1995—and that the international community is not paying enough attention is deeply worrying. But for anyone who recalls those years and how ethnonationalism ripped the country to shreds, it’s more than that: It’s terrifying.


Dodik isn’t alone in his aspirations. Bosnian Serbs make up around 30 percent of the population of today’s Bosnian federation, and many want their own country. Russian President Vladimir Putin seems keen to help them achieve this. Some believe the Russian leader is pushing to make Bosnia a new front with the West.

But do people want another war? A National Democratic Institute poll conducted in Bosnia and Herzegovina in December 2021 found that ordinary residents don’t want interethnic violence. It found that a minority of respondents in Republika Srpska (34 percent) support Dodik’s declared intention to withdraw Republika Srpska from Bosnia’s state institutions, with 35 percent favoring independence for Republika Srpska. However, avoiding interethnic violence (72 percent) and focusing on the economy (69 percent) were seen as more pressing issues than promoting Serb unity (49 percent).

Yet the Russian invasion of Ukraine has raised concerns about how Putin could take advantage of Bosnia’s vulnerability and rising ethnic tensions. Bosnia is exposed and strategically vital. Serbian citizens, including pro-Russia groups in Republika Srpska, have organized massive support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. There is also the element of shared faith: the Orthodox brotherhood that also played out during the Bosnian war.

 Analyst Ismet Fatih Cancar believes there is a greater motive for Putin to intervene than simply disrupting Bosnia. It “would produce a considerable media and psychological backdrop, distracting the world from Russia’s plan to annihilate Ukraine,” he writes in a piece for the Royal United Services Institute.

Even amid the war in Ukraine, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has “found time in his busy war schedule to hold a call” with Dodik, Cancar writes. “The call was presented as the continuation of talks on the implementation of agreements reached in Moscow at a meeting between Dodik and Russian President Vladimir Putin in December 2021.”

So what could happen? Putin could activate Dodik’s secession plan and send members of the Wagner Group, Russian paramilitaries already operating in Ukraine, to possibly provoke armed conflict in Bosnia. That would be disastrous: Paramilitaries from Serbia, such as the one commanded by Zeljko Raznatovic (better known as Arkan)—who was assassinated in 2000—committed some of the most gruesome crimes in the Bosnian war. What might play out is another bloody and horrific conflict where civilians pay the price for their politicians’ follies.


I have returned to Srebrenica many times since the war. The town, once gentle, is nestled in hills and remarkably green fields. On some commemoration days, Serb hard-liners have sat on the hills, throwing stones and jeering at the mourners. Outside, a field is marked by rows and rows of white headstones, honoring the dead. And there are still the bones of 1,000 people who are not accounted for, whose remains lie somewhere in the deep forests or the haunted earth.

For the many families I have talked to, the sadness is profound. There is no sense of closure of justice. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, as time goes on, the number of bodies identified is decreasing. Memories fade, and information is hard to come by. A new generation is growing up in Srebrenica, largely Serb.

But in Potocari, where the Srebrenica memorial is housed, some of the names of the dead are engraved in stone. It is hard—but incredibly important—that we remember that behind these names, there were entire lives that were cut short. We must learn from the catastrophe of Srebrenica and never allow it to be repeated.

No matter what happens in Bosnia, the names of the fallen in Srebrenica will be there forever.

Janine di Giovanni is an FP columnist and director of The Reckoning Project: Ukraine Testifies. Twitter: @janinedigi

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