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Editors: John Merriman and Jay Winter
Date: 2006
Publisher: Charles Scribner's Sons
Document Type: Event overview
Length: 1,894 words
Content Level: (Level 4)
Lexile Measure: 1230L

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Srebrenica is the name of a town in East Bosnia (six thousand inhabitants in 1990), which has become a synonym for the largest single act of genocide in post–World War II Europe. In April 1993 the United Nations Security Council proclaimed the town and its surroundings (an area of nine by ten miles) a "safe area." Thus, Srebrenica was a Muslim enclave within a region that Bosnian Serb armed forces had ethnically cleansed. In July 1995, after almost two years of siege, the Bosnian Serb Army conquered the enclave. A small force of UN peace-keepers proved to be unable to defend the area, or at least prevent the wholesale massacre of between seventy-five hundred and eight thousand captured Muslim men, both military and civilians, by the Bosnian Serbs.

The war in Bosnia had broken out in April 1992, as a part of the violent disintegration of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Political leaders exploited ethnic differences in the face of possible independence for Bosnia-Herzegovina. As this new state was proclaimed, ethnic Serbs in Bosnia refused to be part of it. Their political leadership decided to found a Serb Republic in Bosnia. Their armed forces and militias launched an offensive, with the operational and logistical support of the Yugoslav Army. They laid siege before Sarajevo and quickly secured important areas and towns in Central and Eastern Bosnia. Among these was Srebrenica, where a majority of the population was Muslim. The Bosnian Serb militias subjected the conquered areas to ethnic cleansing by means of systematic terror, torture, and killings.


In May 1992 Muslim units from the area managed to recapture Srebrenica and take control once again. Now the town became a refuge for large numbers of Muslim refugees from surrounding rural areas. A continuous series of bloody skirmishes began. In one particular case, Bosnian Serb paramilitaries killed at least four hundred captured men to avenge the death of their leader, Goran Zekič. The Bosnian Serb Army (BSA) cut off the enclave from outside supplies and shelled the town while Muslim units undertook raids to Page 2432  |  Top of Article secure food and to gain tactical progress. All this produced extreme hardship for the civilians. In the enclave, thirty-two thousand inhabitants out of a total population of an estimated total of forty-four thousand were refugees. A humanitarian crisis developed and attracted the attention of international relief agencies and the United Nations.

Diplomatic intervention from the international community remained only partially successful. In June 1992 the United Nations deployed its peacekeeping force for former Yugoslavia (UNPROFOR, or United Nations Protection Force) to Bosnia. The purpose was to facilitate humanitarian aid and, generally, to prevent the warring parties from acts of aggression. As a result of political reluctance, the actual mandate for UNPROFOR remained rather limited and more directed toward peacekeeping while there was an actual need for more robust peace enforcement. This gap was bridged by the expectation that UN presence in itself would deter the warring parties from acts of aggression. Srebrenica in particular would prove this assumption to be completely untrue.

When confronted, early in 1993, with the hardship and desperation of the local population, the French UN General Philippe Morillon (b. 1935) told them in front of television cameras that from now on, Srebrenica was under the protection of the United Nations. The Security Council then declared Srebrenica a United Nations–protected "safe area" (UN Security Council Resolution 819). Consequently, Canadian peacekeepers were deployed to protect the enclave. It still remained unclear if the mandate for this solution, taken on an ad hoc basis, included military defense of the area. "To deter by presence" was the strategy, which—with hindsight—produced a false sense of security among the people in the enclave, who initially were happy to believe that they would actually be defended by UN forces.

In February 1994 the Canadians were relieved by a battalion from the Netherlands (Dutchbat). The Canadian government felt that Canbat had been deployed to the enclave by chance and it remained strongly critical of the whole concept of "safe area." Moreover, the Canadians were very unhappy about their lack of influence in the international process of decision-making about the former Yugoslavia.

UNPROFOR found itself more and more caught between two fires. The Bosnian Serbs blocked supplies, forcing Dutchbat to negotiate all traffic of personnel and supplies with local BSA commanders. This undermined both Dutchbat's effectiveness and standing with the warring parties. From their side, the Muslim army in the enclave refused to implement disarmament, which they had agreed upon when the "safe area" was established. UNPROFOR's mandate and rules of engagement did not allow for a strong military response to the BSA's shelling of the town or for searching the enclave for caches of arms and ammunition. The blockade continuously undermined Dutchbat's operational capacity, a matter that the UN Headquarters could not solve. "Deterrence by presence" proved illusory while life in the enclave grew more and more difficult for tens of thousands of idle, deprived, and starving people.

In early July 1995 the BSA command launched a new offensive to brace the blockade of Srebrenica. As the operation progressed easily, they decided to go for the whole of the enclave. The UN forces had not developed a strategy for dealing with such an eventuality. Moreover, on the highest level there was much political unwillingness to use robust force to stop these offensive actions. Airstrikes were supposed to undermine the peace process in general. Limited close-air support was considered but applied only once, without any effect. Thus, Dutchbat, being unprepared and unable to defend the area, was actually overrun without difficulty by General Ratko Mladić's (b. 1942) troops, who took the town of Srebrenica on 11 July 1995.


All the confusion blurred the judgement of Dutchbat's command. A division of the Muslim army disappeared with a large number of men and boys from the enclave, in an effort to reach Muslim-controlled territory on foot. BSA units quickly hunted down this column of about fifteen thousand people; many of them were captured and killed. Moreover, the conquering BSA units entered the enclave, pushing panicking refugees toward Dutchbat's compound. These people Page 2433  |  Top of Article thought to find protection, but their hope proved to be an illusion too. The intimidating BSA presence around the compound posed a constant threat of shelling and massacre. Therefore, lieutenant-colonel Thom Karremans (b. 1948), Dutchbat's commander, entered negotiations with Mladic Under the circumstances, Karremans and his staff decided that a quick evacuation of the Muslim population was preferable. BSA commanders called for buses to collect them, but would not allow the men to depart before they had been "screened." BSA units were already committing revenge-killings in the enclave, claiming several hundred victims. The first wave of killings in the enclave seem to have been inspired by the fact that the BSA command gave their men free rein to avenge small-scale attacks directed against Serb villages in 1992 and 1993. These killings and other forms of violence against the Bosniaks in the enclave, including the rape of women, created an atmosphere of utter horror. Owing to their failing communications, Dutchbat's commanding officers did not realize what was happening. They felt compelled to accept the separation of about five thousand men and their deportation to places unknown. The remaining twenty-three thousand women, children, and elderly men were deported to Muslim-occupied territories. Karremans took care to organize the evacuation of his own men. In the whole process, he allowed himself to be bullied and belittled by Mladić before the eyes of the world press. His reputation suffered even more when he gave a first press conference after reaching the UN headquarters, telling journalists that from an operational point of view, Mladić had done a very professional job.

At the moment, little was known about the fate of the column that had tried to escape and of the thousands of men deported by the BSA from the enclave. Still, neither the Dutch nor the UN force command or political leadership took steps to enquire about what was going on, where these people were, and what their condition was. What actually had happened was a dreadful series of improvised mass killings, probably ordered by the Bosnian Serb military leadership. The captured men were brought to places outside the former enclave, some as close as neighboring Bratunac, some far as sixty miles away, and summarily executed. This killing of unarmed prisoners, civilian and military, was evidently motivated by intense feelings of revenge and ethnic hatred, giving evidence of a genocidal mentality among the BSA. Moreover, the conquerors felt the urge to take quick countermeasures against the breakout of the Muslim army, to which they had to adapt their own strategic plan. Much evidence shows that they had not prepared, and did not wish to prepare, to treat the Bosniaks as prisoners of war.


The fall of Srebrenica and other developments in the summer of 1995 produced a shift in the international community toward a stronger policy in Bosnia-Herzegovina. A Bosnian Serb attack on another Muslim enclave, Gorazde, was countered. The shelling of a marketplace in Sarajevo, allegedly by Bosnian Serbs, on 28 August provoked harsh reactions from both the United Nations and NATO. Heavy airstrikes, under the name of "Operation Deliberate Force," compelled the Bosnian Serbs to resume negotiations. On 21 November 1995 the Dayton Agreement produced a political compromise that none of the parties in the conflict could afford to reject.

In the aftermath, the punishment of those suspected of war crimes and genocide was given to a newly founded International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague. Meanwhile, international public opinion started to discuss the United Nations' strategies and policies, both in the field and in the diplomatic spheres. The fact that UNPROFOR did not made a firm stand against the occupation of the "safe area" and the subsequent mass murder have provoked many penetrating questions. Especially in the Netherlands, the whole affair produced collective soul-searching and political commotion for years to come. Controversies about the historical interpretation may continue for decades.


Blom, J. C. H., and P. Romijn, eds. A "Safe" Area: Reconstruction, Background, Consequences and Analyses of the Fall of a Safe Area. Amsterdam, 2003. Full text in English available at . The Page 2434  |  Top of Article Dutch Government commissioned the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation (NIOD) in late 1996 to write a full-scale report on what had happened.

Documents d'Information de l'Assemblée National, no. 62/2002. Paris, 2001. Available at . An investigative committee of the French Assemblée Nationale reported about the French implication in the affair.

Honig, Jan Willem, and Norbert Both. Srebrenica: Record of a War Crime. London, 1996.

International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTF) in The Hague. Available at .

Rohde, David. Endgame: The Betrayal and Fall of Srebrenica, Europe's Worst Massacre since World War II. New York, 1997.

Secretary-General of the United Nations report in 1999 to the General Assembly, pursuant to General Assembly Resolution 53/35. Available at .

Silber, Laura, and Allan Little. The Death of Yugoslavia. London, 1995.


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Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3447000816