Diggers, denial and despair: The macabre story of the Srebrenica cover-up

April 22, 2017


Bosnian Serb genocide deniers are being courted by the Trump White House. Could rising anti-Muslim hatred in Europe lead to another killing spree?



TUZLA, Bosnia-Herzegovina - There is no ventilation in the room where they keep the bodies. There is no central heating in the room the forensics team work in. The cleaners were laid off long ago because there is no money to pay them. The plumbing in one of the lavatories is bust. The rent has gone unpaid for 12 months. The building is a dreary industrial unit with uncleaned windows and broken shutters.


Welcome to the International Commission on Missing Persons in Tuzla where earnest and stretched forensic anthropologists try to identify the victims of the Srebrenica genocide.


'He said he wanted to kill me, he chased us across the field cursing my dead children ... The police did nothing; this is Srpska now'


We had blithely assumed that the international community - and the governments of both Bosnia-Herzegovina and Serbia - would have ensured that the organisation working to find mass graves, painstakingly identify the bodies and then inform the families, would be adequately funded until the very last victim was found. We were wrong: "We wanted to get sniffer dogs to find the remaining graves," the only staff member in the building told us, "but we couldn't afford it."


The rundown building is a perfect metaphor for a genocide that is forgotten by many, ignored by others, and completely denied by many of those most closely involved.

Dragana Vucetic, a 36-year-old Serb, is the director of the centre. A forensic anthropologist by training, she was a child in Belgrade during the terrible civil wars that ripped apart the Balkans in the 1990s.


Dragana joined the International Commission on Missing Persons straight after university and has worked tirelessly in the 13 years since.

Bida Smajlovic, 64, survivor of July 1995 massacre in Srebrenica, stands at a memorial center in Potocari, on March 24, 2016, while pointing at the name of her husband, engraved among names of other victims of the massacre. (AFP)


She showed us half a skeleton in a room next door to the mortuary, laid out on an aluminium table. She holds up a "skeletal inventory" in which they track the bones. Most of the diagram is red, indicating the bones that are missing. "It's a relief every time we identify someone," said Dragana. She described what she knew about the human remains in front of her. They belonged to a male, who was probably killed with a gunshot to the head.


Thanks to modern DNA techniques, the International Commission on Missing Persons has been able to identify him, even though much of his body is missing.

His family have been informed, and they are now ready to bury the remains. Many families, however, delay for years, waiting for more bones to be found. The reason for the majority of these delays is macabre.


Mass graves dispersed with diggers

As Serbian paramilitaries found themselves hounded by international investigators intent on bringing the murderers to justice, they would carve up the mass graves at night with diggers, move the soil and bones to secondary sites, and then perhaps move them again for good measure.


The skeletons of Srebrenica were therefore spread across mass graves up to 20 kilometres apart.


In the mortuary we see half a jaw with five teeth left in a semi-translucent plastic bag. On the shelves above each set of remains are corresponding brown paper bags containing whatever clothes, wallets or other scraps of belongings may have belonged to that person.


Most of the mass graves are now thought to have been found, but Dragana tells us there are one, "perhaps two”, still to go. Now that funding has dried up, they may never be discovered.

From Tuzla we drove towards Srebrenica, some 32 kilometres to the southeast, a haunting journey through villages that had been ethnically cleansed by Bosnian Serb forces and Serb militias during the war. Many Bosnian Muslims have left forever, while newly built churches mark Bosnian Serb possession of the territory.


We also realised that that we were taking the same journey – only in the reverse direction – as the so-called "Death March" of 11 July 1995 when 10,000 Bosnian Muslims fled Srebrenica towards Tuzla after UN forces refused to protect them. Of those 10,000, some 7,000 were killed by Serbian forces.


Eventually we reached Srebrenica, the site of the only genocide in Europe since the Second World War. The UN camp, which failed so terribly in its task to protect, has now been turned into a museum.


As at Tuzla, we were in for a very nasty shock. We had come to Srebrenica to learn about the events that led to the genocide. Chillingly, we learnt something else as well. It dawned on us that the genocide had actually worked.


Act of defiance

With most of the town's former Muslim residents dead or emigrated, Srebrenica is now controlled by Bosnian Serbs, the majority of whom refuse to accept that that genocide took place.


We met a survivor of the genocide who moved back to Srebrenica in an act of defiance, marrying a fellow survivor and having three children.


'They are being taught that the genocide never happened. You turn on the TV and it is like the war never ended'


"For a long time I thought we could make a life here," he told us, but now they want to move away. "Our first child is starting at the local school. They are being taught that the genocide never happened. You turn on the TV and it is like the war never ended."


Nedzad Avdic cannot doubt the genocide took place because his uncle and father, and many other male relatives, were also killed (only the bodies of his uncle and father have been found so far). His story is horrific: he himself survived after crawling away badly wounded from a mound of defenceless men who had been shot dead by the Serbs.


"The denial of the genocide hurts," said Mejra Dzogaz, whose sons were murdered in the hills around Srebrenica. The elderly lady told us her story in the United Nations base from which refugees were expelled by Dutch United Nations peacekeepers in the hours before the killings began.


"We are still hoping the deniers will turn round finally and think about us and all the other mothers, but all they want to do is deny. If you turn the TV on all you can hear is them denying. We cry and cry and they still deny."


The mother told us that the first time she returned to her home, a neighbour threatened her. "He said he wanted to kill me, he chased us across the field cursing my dead children. Luckily my neighbour came. The police did nothing; this is Srpska now."


Srpska is the semi-autonomous northern and eastern region of Bosnia-Herzegovina which includes Srebrenica and borders Serbia. Since the war ended Srpska has been dominated by Bosnian Serbs.

Mejra Dzogaz told us that many of the same men she remembered carrying out the killings she now sees around the town, some holding offices at the local council or senior ranks in the local police force.



"I put so much sugar in my coffee every morning," she added, "but no matter how much I put in, it still tastes bitter."


Every year, the international community gathers in the cemetery at Srebrenica to commemorate the genocide.


The ceremony remains an important reminder that a genocide in Europe has happened since the Second World War, and that leaders should always be on their guard to avoid it happening again.


This year, the preparations for the memorial must be in doubt. Last October a Bosnian Serb nationalist politician, Mladen Grujicic, was elected mayor of Srebrenica. “When they prove it to be the truth," Grujicic has said, "I’ll be the first to accept it."

Mladen Grujicic, mayor of Srebrenica, with Zeljka Cvijanovic, prime minister of the Republic of Srpska, at the 65th National Prayer Breakfast in Washington on 2 February 2017 (Republic of Sprska Government)


Like many Bosnian Serb nationalists, he still refuses to use the word genocide about the atrocities of July 1995 - even though Srebrenica is now regarded as the most well-documented and best evidenced war crime in history.


"I always said that what happened in Srebrenica was a terrible crime against the Bosnian population and that there were also terrible crimes against the Serbian population." Grjujicic has said, adding that "I leave it to competent institutions to qualify it."


Genocide denial

This is genocide denial. He ignores the fact that the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia have both clearly ruled the killings "genocide".


A United Nations Security Council motion proposing to condemn the Srebrenica killings as genocide in 2015 was vetoed by Russia, Serbia and Republika Srpska's ally, but both the US Congress and the European Parliament have also passed resolutions calling the massacre a genocide.


The chairman of Remembering Srebrenica, Dr Waqar Azmi, said: "It is a cruel irony that the election of a new mayor of Srebrenica, who is a genocide denier, was made possible only because of the ethnic cleansing of its Muslim population." In Serbia itself, one 2015 poll showed 54 percent people do not question the crime's brutality, but an extraordinary 70 percent still deny it was "genocide". In November 2016, Serb legislators excluded Srebrenica from a new law forbidding genocide denial more widely.


Grujicic does not hold a minority view among political leaders in both Srpska and Serbia, and Bosnian Serbs who now live in the Republika Srpska.


In Serbia itself, one 2015 poll showed 54 percent of people do not question the crime’s brutality, but 70  percent still deny it was "genocide". In November 2016, Serb legislators excluded Srebrenica from a new law forbidding genocide denial more widely.


With such a palpable atmosphere of denial everywhere we went, one question lingered on - could such a crime happen again?


It is as if European Jews who survived the Holocaust had found themselves being ruled by the same criminals who denied the gas chambers existed, and who themselves had ordered the killings.


There is more than a little crossover between the anti-Muslim Chetnik Serb nationalist ideology, and anti-Jewish German Nazism.


"It was genetically deformed material that embraced Islam," Biljana Plavsic, the president of the Republika Srpska from July 1996 to November 1998 - regarded as the ideologue who provided the pseudo-intellectual underpinning for the genocide - once said.


She was later sent to The Hague and convicted of war crimes. "And now, of course, with each successive generation it simply becomes concentrated," she continued.


'It really hurts when people deny the murder of your family. It is just like a dagger to the heart, as if they never even existed'

- Lilian Black, chair of the Holocaust Survivors' Association


"It gets worse and worse. It simply expresses itself and dictates their style of thinking, which is rooted in their genes. And through the centuries, the genes degraded further."


Plavsic was a former Fulbright scholar and acclaimed biologist, lending a chilling air of scientific callousness to the "Greater Serbia" ideology of Slobodan Milosevic.


Lilian Black, the chair of the Holocaust Survivors' Association and director of the Holocaust Heritage and Learning Centre for the North, was also on the trip.

Black was shocked by the culture of denial in Srpska, and drew comparisons with her own family's experiences.


"It really hurts when people deny the murder of your family. It is just like a dagger to the heart, as if they never even existed. When we got the Nazi records from the International Tracing Service in Germany of our family’s persecution it was a truly cathartic experience," she said.


"It was like saying yes they were here and this is what happened to them. It doesn't change their fate, but it is somehow a means to helping us accept what happened."


Bosnian Serb nationalists' Trump links

Hungary was only a few hours drive from where we were standing, where Prime Minister Viktor Orban has recently framed his own anti-refugee policy on distinctly religious grounds.


"Those arriving have been raised in another religion, and rep