It was the summer of 1995 in Srebrenica. The destination had once been a peaceful little mountain town, far away from Yugoslavian politics. Now, it was one of the last three government held enclaves in eastern Bosnia. Under the formal protection of the United Nations, more than 40,000 Bosniak refugees were living there in abysmal conditions. The municipal services had broken down and the electricity was mostly out. Garbage was stacked up in the summer heat, and medical services were stretched to the maximum. But worst of all was the constant fear in which the refugees had to live. They were well aware that Serbian artillery was being aimed at them.
For 44 years, Radovan Karadzic had lived a rather ordinary life. As a teenager, he moved from Montenegro to Sarajevo, the capital of the Socialist Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Yugoslavia, to study medicine, and he had initially shown no signs of political ambitions or activism. The change for him and many thousands of others came in 1990 however, with the collapse of Yugoslavia’s communist regime. The spark of democratic participation ignited the region. The new multiparty democracies in Slovenia, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia began to vote at first for greater autonomy, and eventually for full independence from Yugoslavia itself. The Serbs in those regions began to push for their own cultural autonomy, sometimes to the point of territorial separatism. Karadzic got involved in the political scene. He was a founder of the Serb Democratic Party, SDS, which aimed to establish Serbian autonomous regions within Bosnia-Herzegovina.
At first, Karadzic regarded the party as a path to personal recognition, power and fame. His natural charisma and rhetorical eloquence as a leader of the SDS already by the end of 1990 got him the attention of Serbian leader, Slobodan Milosevic, who later made him the chief Bosnian Serb recruiter for the coming war against Croatia. Milosevic was in many ways the political mentor and sponsor of Karadzic, inspiring him to push for a new course of radical separation of Serbian territory from Bosnia.
Over the next years, the conflict between the Serbs and the seceding nations grew into a full-scale war. As the conflict grew more extreme, so did Karadzic’s views, going from a Serb-dominated Yugoslav state to a stand-alone Serb state within Bosnia, to finally, a fully separated Serbian entity, devoid of the Muslim Bosnians – the Bosniaks. Karadzic believed that they, like all other non-Serbs, should disappear from the land that was rightfully his. In October 1991, Karadzic held his “Road to hell” speech, in which he openly threatened the Bosniaks with violence. In May 1992, shortly after Bosnia-Herzegovina declared its independence from Yugoslavia, the first Serb paramilitary forces crossed the Drina and committed atrocities against non-Serbs in northeastern Bosnia. Karadzic prepared for armed conflict with cold calculation. He had, though, no burning ideological hatred for the Bosniaks or Croats, but saw the populist nationalist cause strictly tied to his own political career. He was simply accepted as the leader of the party by his popularity among the Bosnian Serbs and was voted President of Republika Srpska, the Bosnian Serb administration, in 1992. But to follow through with his threats, Karadzic needed a man to provide him with an organised military force that was willing to carry them out. Such a man was General Ratko Mladic, who led the Army of the Republika Srpska – the VRS for short.
Karadzic and Mladic had a difficult partnership. While Karadzic was the educated politician who wore expensive suits while he talked to international diplomats, Mladic was the soldier willing to get his hands dirty. During the early stages of the Bosnian War, they frequently praised each other and pledged their support for the same cause, but it didn’t take long for them to argue about strategy. After Mladic’s soldiers had finally seized the route over Mount Igman following weeks of terrible fighting in order to besiege Sarajevo, Karadzic was willing to give it up for international recognition. Mladic refused and the power struggle between the two began. Karadzic wanted to be in full control of the war, while Mladic wanted Karadzic’s fame. Both aspired to be the champion of the Bosnian Serbs and the ensuing rivalry swayed between cooperation and competition. As each tried to outperform the other in promoting the Serb nationalist utopia, they drove each other to ever more extreme measures. The same went for the Bosnian-Serb Assembly, which became an echo-chamber and further radicalised the ideas of violence against the Bosniaks.
The wars continued into 1995, even after a ceasefire had been negotiated and UN peace-keeping forces had intervened. In the spring offensive, the VRS was losing ground quickly, with ever more losses against the Croatian and Bosnian- Herzegovinian forces. The international community demanded the end of the siege around Sarajevo, with increasing bombing missions against Serbian artillery positions. Karadzic, fearing the demise of his dream, further radicalised. He ordered a new strategy of “harassment and humiliation” against the UN peacekeepers.
International citizens were fired upon, the houses of diplomats were shelled, and soldiers were taken hostage. Many were handcuffed as human shields to munition depots or bridges around Sarajevo, to prevent the bombing of those areas. These war crimes were intended to shock public opinion into demanding the withdrawal from the fighting zones. There were terror attacks in Zagreb and Sarajevo, often using illegal weaponry like cluster bombs or modified ammunition against civilians. It was a success, as the UN buckled to popular outrage and suspended its air strikes, though it was short-lived. But it allowed Mladic to continue his siege around Sarajevo. Karadzic went even further. Upon the suspension of the bombing campaign, he declared all UN resolutions as invalid and that foreign troops held no power in Bosnia anymore. Anyone who still thought otherwise might have had an “accident” very soon.
But the fortunes of war began to turn even more against the Bosnian Serbs, and as the Assembly demanded its leaders turn the war around and lead them to victory, Karadzic and Mladic began pointing fingers. They saw their vision crumble. In late June 1995, Radovan Karadzic made a surprise visit to the headquarters of the heavily armed Drina Corps at Vlasenica. He was now directly bypassing Mladic’s authority and ordered an immediate attack against Srebrenica. The destruction of the enclave there could bring the propaganda victory he needed. Karadzic made sure that the army understood that the Bosniaks there were to be removed, never to return. He boasted that once Srebrenica was captured, they would “chase the Turks around the woods”.
On July 6, the VRS began their ground attack. Srebrenica was heavily shelled, and the Serbian infantry advanced on the outer perimeters of the enclave. The only thing that stood between the unarmed Bosniaks and the approaching Serbs were the lightly armed Dutch peacekeepers. Reduced to only 429 soldiers, of which only around half were actual fighting troops, the Dutch had a few armoured vehicles, but neither enough fuel nor ammunition to withstand an attack. Nor did they have the authorisation to get engaged until they themselves were attacked. The outer Dutch observation post surrendered on the July 8, and on July 11, Karadzic declared the town centre taken. In the chaos and fear, thousands of Bosniaks tried to get into the last remaining UN controlled area on the outskirts of the town, but the UN was powerless to help them. The Serbs soon took over.
Mladic arrived in the evening, and although the “battle” for the town had already been won, he took command of the military forces. He was furious at Karadzic’s victory but was well aware that the taking of Srebrenica was just the first step in his plan.
Find and kill
Trying to be part of the victory, Mladic went out to the refugees and made the false promise that no one would be hurt if they surrendered peacefully. His troops began separating the men from the women, telling them that they would soon be resettled in Bosnia. While the women were driven away packed in buses, the Bosniak men were driven out in the fields and murdered in cold blood. Most of them were gunned down, others stabbed, or even buried alive by the VRS soldiers. Their instructions had been clear. Find and kill. No prisoners.
Thousands of Bosniak men had fled Srebrenica and gathered in the woods, intending to reach Tuzla by foot. With the help of soldiers from the Bosnian-Herzegovnian army, they attempted a breakout. However, they did not get far before they were spotted and ambushed. Many were gunned down as they tried to flee through the woods. Those who surrendered were pressed into warehouses and forced to give up their money to the guards. Those guards then opened fire with automatic weapons and threw hand-grenades on the heaps of dead bodies. More than 8,000 people, mostly men and boys, were slaughtered in the days following the fall of Srebrenica. Many refugees were tortured before their deaths, and there were cases of rape and violence against women. All throughout the region, Bosnians were murdered and bulldozed into mass graves. It was the bloodiest massacre and crime against humanity Europe had seen since the end of the Second World War. And it been planned and carried out by Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, in their hope to create a utopian ethnostate.
As early as November 1995, the UN called for their indictment on the grounds of mass murder, which was later elevated to genocide. The two did not deny their involvement, on the contrary, they proudly boasted of it in front of their followers. But both refused to give themselves up and evaded the law for more than a decade. Karadzic was eventually captured in 2008, Mladic in 2011.
To this day, the exact number of people killed at Srebrenica and in the Bosnian War is still unknown. Although the whole post-Yugoslavian conflict is extremely complicated and especially hard to explain, and certainly a sensitive topic, it serves as a reminder of how dangerously extreme ethnic and religious conflicts can become if they are left unchecked. It also serves as a warning to the international community that we have a duty of care to prevent such things from happening. Many believed that this lesson was learned after the Second World War, but Srebrenica proved them wrong.
If you’re interested in a more visual interpretation of the above story, watch our Sabaton History episode, We Burn – The Road to Srebrenica here: