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“The conflicts remain unresolved”

München, 06/15/2015

In 1995, Bosnian Serb forces murdered some 8000 people in Srebrenica. It was the worst atrocity of the wars in Yugoslavia. LMU’s Marie-Janine Calic, an expert on Southeastern Europe, discusses the legacy of the war and the future of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Source: EPA / Fehim Demir / Picture Alliance

What precipitated the fateful escalation that culminated in the massacre on 11. July 1995, at which point Srebrenica had been encircled by Bosnian-Serb units for several years?
By July 1995, the Bosnian Serbs controlled virtually the whole of Eastern Bosnia. To create a coherent block of territory contiguous with Serbia proper, they needed only to take the few surviving Bosnian enclaves, one of which was Srebrenica. In early 1995 Radovan Karadzic, leader of the Bosnian Serbs, clearly asserted that Serbian forces would overrun the enclave. When a large group of armed Bosnian Muslims assembled in Srebrenica in the early hours of July 11, with the intention of raising the siege, General Ratko Mladic ordered his men to occupy the town. He ordered that all males in Srebrenica be arrested – and executed. As well as strategic considerations, nationalistic hatred and a desire for revenge should certainly be numbered among his motives.

As a demilitarized zone, Srebrenica was at the time, at least formally, under the protection of Dutch UN troops. In such a setting, how could the genocidal killings occur?
Calic: The mandate for the UN mission made no provision for the military defense of designated Safe Areas, and UN forces were certainly not equipped for such an eventuality. Of the 430 soldiers stationed in Srebrenica, only 150 were lightly armed. Indeed, they themselves were in a hopeless position, for they too suffered the rigors of the siege. For months that had received no supplies of food, fuel or any other sort of support from outside. On that evening they should definitely had made some attempt to discover where the arrested men had been taken. But they completely misread the situation, and actually helped the Serbian forces to impound the captured Muslims in camps. Their real failure lay in not carrying out their humanitarian duty.

For centuries, people of diverse races and religions had lived peacefully side-by-side in Bosnia. Why did all sense of communal cohesion collapse so catastrophically?
Calic: That process must be understood in the context of the war. One can clearly discern a progressive loss of solidarity between the different ethnic groups as the war zone came nearer. When people are afraid, mistrust can rapidly turn into paranoia, opposition and hatred. One often reads that this hatred was deeply rooted and long nurtured, but that’s not true.

Who was behind the murderous violence and what was its ultimate purpose? How did its instigators create such a climate of hatred and fear that men fell upon their neighbors and massacred them?
Calic: The instances of ethnic cleansing that occurred, of which the genocide in Srebrenica was one, were not the result of spontaneous outbursts of ethnic hatred. They were carried out on the orders of the political and military leadership of the Bosnian Serbs. It was their stated aim to create ethnically homogeneous territories, by any and all means. Deportations, expulsions and mass murder were perpetrated systematically and strategically. The Army made use of paramilitary groups for these operations. Their goal was to terrorize and cause panic; they killed people and destroyed property. Many of these irregulars may have been predisposed to violence and sadism. Many of them were “weekend warriors”, while others were in it for the money and the spoils at the front. And the media fanned the flames of aggression and hatred.

Although this was not the dominant pattern, some locals did lead people they had known for years to their place of execution, as reports from Srebrenica attest.
Calic: The war in Bosnia not only created a situation in which violence was legitimized, bystanders were also actively incited to engage in it. Many people may have persuaded themselves that they were acting in self-defense, pre-empting one’s neighbor from burning down one’s own house. All studies of such extreme situations suggest that no society is immune to bouts of mass murder.

You had spent the preceding months as an advisor to the UN Special Envoy in Zagreb, 400 kilometers from Srebrenica. What are your recollections of the period prior to the massacre, the catastrophe itself and the failure of the international community to prevent it?
Calic: The UNO mandate in Bosnia, and Yugoslavia as a whole, was framed in such a way that it deserved the heading “Mission Impossible”. A peace-keeping force was dispatched to a country in which a fierce war was already raging and, not surprisingly, was unprepared for the situation it blundered into. The UN Special Envoy tried again and again to obtain the resources needed to do the job. Instead of 7500 peacekeepers, a force of 34,000 was needed in Bosnia. But the UN’s member States were unwilling to supply further contingents – in Germany there were constitutional issues at stake. I remember my time in Zagreb primarily as a long series of misjudgments. Even after Srebrenica had been completely cut off, the UN, military experts and intelligence specialists assumed that the Serbs could never take the town, because this would mean endangering the lives of tens of thousands of refugees. And I myself simply could not imagine that 8000 people would be systematically massacred.

What lessons has the UN learned from the disaster?
Calic: The UN has implemented a number of reforms designed to ensure that it can carry out future peace missions more effectively. In the meantime, the principle of a ‘responsibility to protect’ has become the new doctrine. Sovereign States undertake to prevent infringements of human rights in their own territories and, if they are unable to do so, the international community is called upon to intervene, militarily if necessary. International law and courts with international jurisdiction have also undergone further development. And members of the UN, and the EU, are now better equipped to defuse developing conflicts and mount effective peace missions.

The Dayton Agreement led to the division of Bosnia-Herzegovina into two approximately equal parts, a Croatian-Muslim region and a Serbian region, under a central government with relatively restricted powers. Has that structure worked?
Calic: Dayton fashioned a needlessly complex and ultimately ineffectual State structure, with overcomplicated institutions, voting systems and powers of veto. All attempts to reform this structure and simplify decision-making have failed, because one or other of the parties has boycotted each effort. On the whole, this State has made very little progress. It is still administered by a High Representative with wide-ranging powers. And in the Federation, one of the two autonomous entities in the country, which is itself divided into diverse Cantons and Special Areas, Bosnians and Croatians are still at odds over administrative mechanisms and spheres of influence. Indeed, in some places, like Mostar, politics has come to a standstill. And sadly, the contentious issues all involve questions that were on the agenda from the very beginning of the war in Bosnia.

How would you rate the success of the international efforts to bring those responsible for war crimes to justice? The trial of Ratko Mladic, the commander of the Bosnian Serbs at the time, has dragged on for years and, prior to his arrest, he was able to live openly in Belgrade, despite repeated attempts to have him extradited.
Calic: At the international level, the judicial investigation of the war crimes committed has made great strides. In all, 161 individuals have been brought to trial before the International Criminal Court in the Hague; 147 cases have now been closed, 14 are still underway. The great majority of the accused has now been sentenced, and there are no fugitives in hiding. But the ICC has dealt only with the major criminals. According to UN estimates, at least 20,000 people must have been involved in war crimes in Bosnia alone. The vast majority of them will never appear in court. So it is not surprising that the whole issue of war criminals is still such a live political issue.

The lethal war in Bosnia is long over, but what has become of the old conflicts for power, influence and national identity?
Calic: The Dayton Treaty essentially put them on ice, and they remain unresolved. However, the war itself completely transformed the whole context. Large parts of Bosnia that used to have mixed populations are now ethnically homogeneous. National identities – that of the Bosnian Muslims, for instance – have become more sharply defined, and religion now has a more prominent place. The new emphasis on religion has brought Islamization with it, and accounts for the strange fact that Bosnia is now a haven for terrorist groups and radical Islamists.

How would you characterize the present state of relations between the various ethnic groups in the country? Are there grounds for hope that they all have a common future in Bosnia-Herzegovina?
Calic: There could be – if only the local political elites were willing to do something positive. But the three ethnic groups have become completely estranged, and the State is divided along ethnic lines in every respect – politically, mentally and psychologically. In the Federation the schools are ethnically segregated. Bosnian and Croatian children attend the same schools, but the Bosnians use one classroom and the Croats another. Although they all speak the same language, they use different textbooks, and learn different sides of the truth. That gives one some idea of what the future is likely to look like.

Are there any signs of a process of normalization and, if so, who is working to help them grow?
Calic: In some areas, refugees have returned and people live together relatively normally. In other places, returnees are unwelcome. They cannot hope to recover their property, can’t find work, and may run the risk of being insulted and mistreated. Everywhere, including Sarajevo, everything depends on the ethnic group one belongs to and the contacts one has. Unless there is a fundamental change in the political climate, one cannot expect normal life to sprout from this stony ground.

And what of Bosnia’s future in a European context? How does the EU view the prospects?
Calic: Bosnia is still a potential candidate for membership of the EU. Together with Kosovo, it is the only country in the Western Balkans that has not been given official candidate status. The EU perspective may promote some movement toward reform, but it cannot solve all the problems that this State faces. The goal is far off, the incentive is intangible – given the far more pressing everyday problems. For those who hold political office, what happens tomorrow is much more important than the promise of a distant future. Economic or political incentives have little effect in a context in which Bosnians focus on perceived threats to the vital interests of their respective ethnic groups, have reason to fear for their individual existence, are afraid of being driven out, or believe that their neighbor is a war criminal who has murder on his conscience. There are a few political parties that are not ethnically based and whose policies stand in opposition to the nationalist mainstream, and there are NGOs that are supported by the international community, but they have very little influence. The old parties are the ones in power, and some of their members were among those who started the war – politicians who were there in the 1990s and are still there 20 years later.

Interview: Martin Thurau

Prof. Dr. Marie-Janine CalicProf. Dr. Marie-Janine Calic is Professor of Southeast European History at LMU.

On Monday June 15, 2015, at 6:15 in the evening, Marie-Janine Calic will give a lecture (in German) in the Gasteig Library (Rosenheimer Straße 5) entitled “Bosnia Herzegovina: The Burden of the Past and Hopes for the Future”. The talk is one of series on the topic “Bosnia-Herzegovina: 20 Years After Srebrenica and Dayton”, which is organized in cooperation with the Munich Adult Education Center (Münchner Volkshochschule) by the Graduate School for Eastern and Southeastern European Studies based at LMU and Regensburg University.