What makes humans capable of horrific violence?

Tom Bartlett writes: The former battery factory on the outskirts of Srebrenica, a small town in eastern Bosnia, has become a grim tourist attraction. Vans full of sightseers, mostly from other countries, arrive here daily to see the crumbling industrial structure, which once served as a makeshift United Nations outpost and temporary haven for Muslims under assault by Serb forces determined to seize the town and round up its residents. In July 1995 more than 8,000 Muslim men, from teenagers to the elderly, were murdered in and around Srebrenica, lined up behind houses, gunned down in soccer fields, hunted through the forest.

The factory is now a low-budget museum where you can watch a short film about the genocide and meet a survivor, a soft-spoken man in his mid-30s who has repeated the story of his escape and the death of his father and brother nearly every day here for the past five years. Visitors are then led to a cavernous room with display cases containing the personal effects of victims—a comb, two marbles, a handkerchief, a house key, a wedding ring, a pocket watch with a bullet hole—alongside water-stained photographs of the atrocity hung on cracked concrete walls. The English translations of the captions make for a kind of accidental poetry. “Frightened mothers with weeping children: where and how to go on … ?” reads one. “Endless sorrow for the dearest,” says another.

Across the street from the museum is a memorial bearing the names of the known victims, flanked by rows and rows of graves, each with an identical white marker. Nearby an old woman runs a tiny souvenir shop selling, among other items, baseball caps with the message “Srebrenica: Never Forget.”

This place is a symbol of the 1995 massacre, which, in turn, is a symbol of the entire conflict that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia. The killings here were a fraction of the total body count; The Bosnian Book of the Dead, published early this year, lists 96,000 who perished, though there were thousands more. It was the efficient brutality in Srebrenica that prompted the international community, after years of dithering and half measures, to take significant military action.

While that action ended the bloodshed, the reckoning is far from finished. Fragments of bone are still being sifted from the soil, sent for DNA analysis, and returned to families for burial. The general who led the campaign, Ratko Mladic, is on trial in The Hague after years on the run. In a recent proceeding, Mladic stared at a group of Srebrenica survivors in the gallery and drew a single finger across his throat. Around the same time, the president of Serbia issued a nonapology apology for the massacre, neglecting to call it genocide and using language so vague it seemed more insult than olive branch.

Standing near the memorial, surrounded by the dead, the driver of one of those tourist-filled vans, a Muslim who helped defend Sarajevo during a nearly four-year siege, briefly drops his sunny, professional demeanor. “How can you forgive when they say it didn’t happen?” he says. “The Nazis, they killed millions. They say, ‘OK, we are sorry.’ But the Serbs don’t do that.”

Some Serbs do acknowledge the genocide. According to a 2010 survey, though, most Serbs believe that whatever happened at Srebrenica has been exaggerated, despite being among the most scientifically documented mass killings in history. They shrug it off as a byproduct of war or cling to conspiracy theories or complain about being portrayed as villains. The facts disappear in a swirl of doubts and denial.[Continue reading…]

Print Friendly, PDF & Email