Mark Danner

Long Memories: Srebrenica, A Cry From the Grave

Striding triumphantly down the streets of conquered Srebrenica, General Ratko Mladic announced to a television interviewer that "on this great Serb holy day," commemorating "the uprising against the Turks, the time

Striding triumphantly down the streets of conquered Srebrenica, General Ratko Mladic announced to a television interviewer that “on this great Serb holy day,” commemorating “the uprising against the Turks, the time had come to take revenge against the Muslims.” Mladic spoke on July 11, 1995; since the “rebellion of the Dahijas,” when the Serbs had risen up and the Muslims had slaughtered them, nearly two centuries had passed. No matter: Muslims had killed Serbs; revenge must be taken.

In Bosnia, during the 1990’s, the present proved a fragile membrane enveloping the past. In Bosnia, the land was drenched in history and in blood.

As the war raged on, first in Croatia, then in Bosnia, this phrase, “ancient hatreds,” became a favorite of Western politicians who, eager to excuse their own inaction, seized on a crude historical fatalism. George Bush, presented in August 1992 with footage of emaciated prisoners in Serb-run concentration camps, declared the war a “blood feud” — “a complex, convoluted conflict that grows out of age-old animosities” — about which the United States could do nothing.

While Bush’s conclusion was self-serving, the historical observation was not wholly wrong. True, Milosevic, Karadzic, Tudjman and the others proved brilliant at manipulating the state-run television and radio; but they depended, for the effectiveness of their propoganda, on a pervasive fear and paranoia already deeply rooted beneath the surface of their societies, embedded in the intimate histories of millions of families. That Ratko Mladic’s given name meant “warlike” was no accident. He was christened during the bloodbath of the early 1940’s — during a war that took the life of his father, a “chetnik,” who died at the hands of the “Ustashe.” Chetnik, Ustashe, Turk: these World War Two epithets for Serb, Croat, and Muslim resurfaced a half-century later as if a united Yugoslavia — and men and women who called themselves Yugoslavs — had never existed.

When Mladic marched into conquered Srebrenica on that fateful day in 1995, he was also avenging a more recent bloodletting: the Muslim leader Naser Oric’s three years of guerrilla attacks on Serbian villages around Srebrenica.

Oric’s attacks were driven by desperation and geography. Srebrenica, only fifteen miles from the Serbian border, surrounded by a Serb countryside, struggled to survive in an ocean of its enemies. The Muslims, men of the cities, became guerrilla fighters, storming out of the hillsides in daring and bloody raids.

When Mladic seized Srebrenica, he would treat every able-bodied male, armed or unarmed, in uniform or out, as a fighter, a warrior — as a killer who, if allowed to survive, must one day return, seeking vengeance in his turn. Born in war and grief and hatred, Ratko Mladic would see in every man – every “Turk” – an implacable enemy who was fated, if alive, to one day kill Serbs. And so, during a handful of days in July 1995, with an efficiency and thoroughness not seen in Europe for a half century, the general and his men set about their work of extermination.