20 years on, wrangling persists over what to call Srebrenica | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 11.07.2015
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20 years on, wrangling persists over what to call Srebrenica

In Serbian society, there is still no consensus on what to call the massive loss of life that happened in Srebrenica two decades ago. Many politicians and citizens refuse to describe the mass killings as genocide.

02.07.15 Doku Srebrenica

A scene from a documentary film about Srebrenica

No less than 10 years ago, the current prime minister of Serbia, Aleksandar Vucic, could be seen laminating posters with an emblem adorning the name Ratko Mladic. It was a performance in front of rolling cameras, a symbolic show of support for the former general of the Bosnian Serbs who was wanted on charges of crimes against humanity by the UN tribunal in The Hague.

In July 1995, exactly 20 years ago, Serbian soldiers and mercenaries executed some 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the UN protected zone Srebrenica. The massacre is officially recognized as genocide by international legal authorities.

'Honor the innocent'

It's a term that has provided the impetus for heated debate in Serbia in recent weeks.

Even Vucic, who radically changed his party and policies seven years ago and came to power campaigning as a pro-EU candidate, has refused to say the word "genocide" in connection with Srebrenica.

"Serbians think that what happened there 20 years ago was definitely a massacre and a war crime, but never could it amount to genocide," said Filip Svarm, of the critical weekly "Vreme." Across party lines, Svarm said, there has yet to be a Serbian politician that would take the risk of calling the thousands of murders that happened in Srebrenica an instance of genocide.

Only following intense pressure from the EU, which many in Serbia would like to join, were two leading figures arrested in connection with the massacre. Former President Radovan Karadzic spent a year living in downtown Belgrade, even actively working as a physician. General Ratko Mladic was found in a village in northern Serbia. It is widely believed that the two suspects were aided by Serbian security forces in their attempts to escape being sent to the court in The Hague to stand trial. Their arrests, in 2008 and 2011, respectively, ignited fierce protests in Serbian nationalist circles.

Karadzic und Mladic Archiv 1993 in Pale

Ratko Mladic, left, and Radovan Karadzic in 1993

Barely any of that sentiment is left in present-day Serbia. Vucic has even said publicly that he is prepared to bow before the "innocent victims" of Srebrenica. However, the strongman politician only confirmed that he would take part in a remembrance ceremony at the site of the massacre on Tuesday at around midnight. At the same time, his administration clearly rejected a British-proposed UN resolution that would condemn the massacre with clear language as genocide. Belgrade sought - and received - help from Moscow. Russia vetoed a proposal in the UN Security Council that would have labeled the Srebrenica massacre a genocide.

Perpetrators or victims?

"No Serbian politician can afford to be seen at the remembrance ceremony," said Nenad Uzelac, a political science student at Belgrade University. He started a petition that was ultimately signed by hundreds of his fellow students in Serbia and Bosnia. Uzelac said all Serbians will be seen as murderers if their leaders recognize what happen in Srebrenica as genocide. His argumentation against the use of that term also concerns the fact that women, children the elderly weren't executed.

Serbia's inability to escape the past doesn't come as a surprise to writer and blogger Vladimir Tabasevic, who argued that both sides use Srebrenica as a way to avoid the pressing problems in Serbian society.

"The Serbians are seen as the people responsible, and the Bosnian Muslims the victims. Politicians have constructed a fake national antagonism in order to forget that people have to work and feed themselves," he said.

However, many other activists have claimed Serbia will never be able to look to the future without actively revisiting the horrors of its past. Journalist Dusan Masic caused a storm when he called on citizens in Belgrade to lie down in front of Serbian parliament - to recall the coffins and corpses of the Srebrenica victims - on the anniversary on July 11.

Masic also called on Serbian politicians to take part. A few opposition figures have reportedly expressed their willingness to participate. If the reaction of the Interior Minister Nebojsa Stefanovic is anything to go by, it's clear that Serbia's governing officials will have nothing to do with the action.

"A very dubious idea indeed," was how Stefanovic termed the planned protest.

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