Posted by: sean | July 20, 2005

Serbian denial

I subscribe to a listserve for genocide scholars, and recently, there was a question about the Serbian state’s sponsorship of the genocide at Srebrenica. I mentioned that although the Balkans were not my specialty, I had recently read about a video uncovered by Serbian activist and founder of the Humanitarian Law Center in Belgrade, Natasa Kandic, and shown at the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, which showed Serbian paramilitary troops executing young Bosniaks from Srebrenica. Then I copied an article (no longer available online for free) from The New York Times.

Still image taken from the video.

I shouldn’t have been surprised to immediately receive an e-mail off the list (and then later, a slightly changed version on the list) in addition to a previous message addressing the original question about genocide in Srebrenica. These all came from someone advancing that the video was a fake and that there had been no genocide in Srebrenica.

I shouldn’t have been surprised, because there are more than a few genocide deniers and because according to a poll taken last spring, fewer than half of all Serbs polled even believed that the killings at Srebrenica happened at all. According to Angela Brkic, who has worked excavating mass graves outside Srebrenica, a debate on Srebrenica at the Belgrade Law Faculty was entitled, “10 Years After the Liberation of Srebrenica.” This denial is so strong that several top priority indicted Serbian war criminals, like Karadzic and Mladic, are still free men today.

There has been a narrative of denial built around the wars, and many Serbs still consider themselves to have been the primary victims in the story. This, of course, runs completely counter to the international criminal tribunal. For example, in the case of The Prosecutor v. Krstic, the Appeals court found that genocide had, in fact, been committed. Explaining the judgement, Judge Meron said:

By seeking to eliminate a part of the Bosnian Muslims, the Bosnian Serb forces committed genocide. They targeted for extinction the forty thousand Bosnian Muslims living in Srebrenica, a group which was emblematic of the Bosnian Muslims in general. They stripped all the male Muslim prisoners, military and civilian, elderly and young, of their personal belongings and identification, and deliberately and methodically killed them solely on the basis of their identity. The Bosnian Serb forces were aware, when they embarked on this genocidal venture, that the harm they caused would continue to plague the Bosnian Muslims. The Appeals Chamber states unequivocally that the law condemns, in appropriate terms, the deep and lasting injury inflicted, and calls the massacre at Srebrenica by its proper name: genocide. Those responsible will bear this stigma, and it will serve as a warning to those who may in future contemplate the commission of such a heinous act.

Serbia could learn a lesson by coming to terms with its past, which would mean surrendering indicted war criminals and admitting to past genocide. The current government has made some progress, as was shown by the rapid arrests that were made after the tape came to light, but the Serbian people seem to be stuck in a narrative of denial.

One of my colleagues at work is Serbian, and while she believes that the Serbian government committed genocide and other crimes against humanity, she said that she would never say so in Belgrade, because “they would kill me.” The scariest part of that sentence, as Natasa Kandic can bear witness to, is that she’s not talking about a malevolent autocratic government; she’s talking about average citizens.

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