Monday, July 11, 2005

A Decade Late and a Dollar Short

I just wanted to ask everyone to take a moment and remember Srebrenica, as today is the ten-year anniversary of the massacre there. Matt is there today, herding various American functionaries on and off helicopters and making sure everyone has their Evian water and foot lotion. (Much like Ashlee Simpson, traveling diplomats have detailed riders listing their needs when they travel.)

I've been living here two months and don't understand what happened at Srebrenica. I don't understand on an emotional level, and even the facts themselves are pretty murky. Bear in mind this is a country with a three-member rotating presidency, a semiautonomous Serb republic, and multiple competing police forces. You could be a Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim), Bosnian Croat (a Bosnian of Croatian ancestry) or a Bosnian Serb (a Bosnian of Serb ancestry), or a Croat, or a Serb. There is not a single aspect to the region that does not give me a headache. Some days I feel like I need a master's degree in political science just to hail a cab.

Maybe Srebrenica can't really be explained, anyway. The short version is that Serb elite troops, called the Scorpions, invaded the region, which was supposed to be a UN "safe area"...but only protected by a handful of severely overmatched Dutch peacekeepers who had been instructed to fire only in self-defense. This is much like keeping a toy poodle as a guard dog, and being astounded when all your stereo equipment disappears out the back window. The Dutch begged for help, but none ever came (part of a larger problem: as far as I can tell, the international community spent much of the war tripping over itself). The Scorpions tossed the peacekeepers aside, then systematically murdered 8,000 Muslim men and boys and chucked their bodies into mass graves.

Until last month, a majority of Serbs did not believe the massacre had actually occurred. Everyone received asylum in the US, they said. Or they ran into the hills. It's just more slander to heap upon the Serbs, who have suffered enough already. Then the videotape came to light, and it's been airing nonstop all around the world. Several Scorpions videotaped themselves murdering six Muslim men, and made copies for souvenirs (some facts are too ghoulish to wonder about...souvenirs?) The tape, which I've seen parts of, is gruesome and leaves no doubt about what happened. The tape had been dug up by a Serb activist, and she's been getting death threats ever since.

Today, Srebrenica is a part of the Republika Srpska, a semiautonomous, mostly Bosnian Serb region. Technically, it's part of Bosnia-Herzegovina. However, the RS is notoriously fractious: this is where the war criminals hide, the signs are in Cyrillic (Sarajevo uses the Latin alphabet), the police have different uniforms, and no one is quite sure what country they belong to. Again, even a basic understanding of this region requires years of practice.

So, even if you don't understand Srebrenica, please try to. We're a decade late, a dollar short, and hopelessly ignorant. It's the least we can do.

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