Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Exploring the Horror of Srebrenica

In a small town in Eastern Bosnia in July 1995 something unimaginable occurred. For two years Srebrenica had been a so-called "safe-haven" for the indigenous population of Bosnian Muslims living in a Serb-dominated region with only a small battalion of UN-Dutch peacekeepers between them and their enemy. But that July, Serb forces overran the town. They evacuated all the women and children and then systematically marched all the able-bodied Muslim men -- 6,000 all told -- into the hills under the helpless gaze of the UN troops. There they murdered them en masse. And those who managed to hide or escape were hunted down and killed individually.

These events in July constituted the single worst war crime since World War II. They brought the UN into disrepute, provoked wide-scale shame and moral outrage in Holland, revealed the infamy of the Bosnian Serbs and enwured that the unpronounceable name of Srebrenica will forever be associated with genocide just as surely as Auschwitz or Katyn.

Srebrenica: Record of a War Crime (Penguin Paperback, ?6.99 or $10.49) is the dispassionate attempt (fittingly enough by a pair of Dutchmen) to explain how the massacre happened. Jan Willem Honig is a lecturer in war studies at King's College, London, and Norbert Both was a former research assistant to David Owen during his long and fruitless quest to help reach a peace deal; and together they have written a book which is as impressive in style as it is horrific in content.

On reading the book it becomes clear how toothless the much watered-down Security Council Resolution 836 was. It defined the job of UN troops in the safe-havens, not as defensive but "to deter attack." By way of consolation, the resolution allowed the residents of the enclaves to keep their arms, thus opening the international community up to the charge that these areas were UN-protected Muslim fortresses. The world community was slow to volunteer forces. And when the Dutch troops did arrive in Srebrenica, they faced disadvantages. They were undermanned, poorly equipped and forced to endure daily humiliation from the Serbs who routinely disrupted the Dutch supply lines; the troops' morale swiftly plummeted as a result.

The authors apportion the blame for what happened next to that amorphous and procrastinating creature -- the international community -- which while it wanted to resist ethnic cleansing, was not prepared to use force or lose men. American foreign policy comes in for general criticism -- and U.S. ambassador to the UN, Madeleine Albright, for particular condemnation -- for combining too much moralizing with too little action too late.

But of course the bulk of the blame must go to the Bosnian Serb leadership -- Radovan Karadzic and General Ratko Mladic -- who, with the tacit approval of Belgrade, carefully planned the slaughter because "basically, all the men in the enclave were regarded as enemies and legitimate targets, and a conscious and deliberate effort was made to kill them."

-- Compiled from The Sunday Times