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What happened in Srebrenica?
The name Srebrenica puts shivers down my spine. The genocide that took place in the area of Srebrenica in Eastern Bosnia was the biggest war crime in Europe since the Holocaust. It is also considered a huge failure of UN intervention (or lack thereof) to prevent the senseless death of thousands of innocent civilians.
Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 1990s
The countries that once made up the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY) have a hugely complex history. It took us nearly three months of travels through Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Serbia to gain some understanding of what happened here (and why).
Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) was the most ethnically diverse of all the states of the former SFRY: shared by Muslim Bosniaks, Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs. During the breakup of the SFRY in the 1990s, this diversity, however, became a problem.
After Slovenia and Croatia ceded from the SFRY in June 1991, BiH too voted for and declared its independence in March 1992. The referendum, however, was boycotted by Bosnian Croats who wanted to join Croatia and Bosnian Serbs who wanted to remain close to Serbia and create a Serbian state within BiH. The increasing ethnic tensions resulted in the Bosnian War in April 1992.
The war ended with the Dayton Peace Accords in December 1995. The agreement manifested the two states within one country situation you find in BiH today: Serb-dominated territory forming the Republika Srpska, and Croat and Bosniak-dominated territory forming the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Before the Bosnian War, Srebrenica was an affluent mining and popular spa town. Located in Eastern Bosnia, only 10km from the border with Serbia, Srebrenica became a strategic target in the efforts to create a Serbian state within BiH. As Bosnian Serb forces and paramilitary units from Serbia took over more and more territory in Eastern Bosnia, Bosniaks who had fled from these areas started arriving in Srebrenica in late 1992. The town’s population swelled from 10,000 to 60,000.
Surrounded by Bosnian Serb forces, daily shelling and sniper attacks resulted in heavy casualties and siege conditions that made life unbearable for Srebrenica’s residents. In an attempt to stop the attacks and improve the conditions for the town’s inhabitants, the UN Security Council declared Srebrenica a demilitarized safe area in April 1993.
Unfortunately, this did nothing to improve the situation in Srebrenica, quite the opposite: in March 1995, Radovan Karadžić, at the time President of the Republika Srpska (the Serbian state within BiH) issued a directive that instructed his army to create an unbearable situation of total insecurity with no hope of further survival or life for the inhabitants of Srebrenica.
The events of July 1995
A final offensive commenced on 6 July 1995 (called Operation Krivaja by Bosnian Serb forces), and the enclave fell five days later.
In the 11 days following the fall of Srebrenica, more than 8,000 Bosniaks (mostly men and boys) were systematically murdered by Bosnian Serb forces and paramilitary units from Serbia, women and girls as young as 12 were raped, and more than 25,000 women, children and elderly were forcibly deported.
The shocking news footage from July 1995 will be forever edged in our memories:
- the harrowing faces of the men and boys who sought refuge at the UN compound in Potočari, being separated from their loved ones with no chance of escape;
- the women, children and elderly cramped into buses and onto the back of trucks, waiting to be transported to Bosniak-dominated areas within BiH.
Those too young to remember might want to watch Quo vadis, Aida?, an Oscar-nominated feature film by a Bosnian director, screenwriter and producer Jasmila Žbanić, to gain an understanding of the events.
How to plan your Memorial visit?
Established in 2003, the Srebrenica Genocide Memorial is open daily from 0800h to 1600h. Entry is free.
The complex is not actually in Srebrenica but in Potočari where the UN compound was located during the Bosnian War. Potočari is located between the towns of Bratunac and Srebrenica – approximately 130km northeast of Sarajevo/170km southwest of Belgrade.
Srebrenica Genocide Memorial
The Srebrenica Memorial Center has an excellent website for explaining the site, but not so good for helping tourists to visit.
Srebrenica Memorial Museum
You can visit independently at your own pace or join a guided tour in English by contacting the Memorial’s Visitor Service via email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Tours include a documentary screening, a history lesson on the events of July 1995 with Q&A, a walk through the cemetery, and entry to the museum and exhibition halls.
You can also join organised day tours from Sarajevo.
What to expect when you get there?
The road between Bratunac and Srebrenica (R453) splits the Memorial Complex into two parts.
Cemetery with memorial and mosque
To the west of the road, you will find the cemetery with the memorial – listing the names of the 8,372 known victims – and an open-air mosque. The Cemetery is a peaceful place and beautifully arranged: More than 6,600 graves surround the open-air mosque in the shape of flower petals.
New graves are being added as new remains are being identified and old graves are being undug as (more) remains of people already buried are being discovered. The remains of over 1,000 people who lived in the area are still missing to this day.
The former battery factory and headquarters of the UN Forces’ Dutch Battalion are to the east of the road (and the Cemetery). Furthest north and closest to the road, you will find the Coffin Hall (that’s our name for it – we don’t know what it is called). Every year in July, this usually empty hall houses the coffins of newly identified victims (that’s why we called it the Coffin Hall).
The Memorial Room – a giant factory hall with photo exhibitions showcasing haunting images, and containing remnants of its life as battery factory and of the Dutch UN forces – is adjacent, to the south-east of the Coffin Hall.
The old battery factory has a very eerie feel to it.
The Museum is located in a former office building to the south of the Memorial Room. It comprises
- the permanent exhibition Srebrenica Genocide – Failure of the International Community, which chronicles the events; and
- the SENSE Documentation Centre where visitors can listen to testimonies, watch documentary material and access court documents related to the genocide.
While a little stuffy, the museum is well-presented with a lot of information to go through and digest.
Suggested order for your visit
If you explore the site at your own pace we recommend starting with the Srebrenica Memorial Museum, followed by a visit to the Srebrenica Memorial Room. Afterwards, stop by Coffin Hall and finish your visit to the Cemetery across the road. There is a lot of (very worthwhile) information in the Srebrenica Memorial Museum, and we ran out of time to get through it all (as we did it the other way around).
What to bring for your visit?
Apart from the toilets (near the Coffin Hall and inside the Museum), there are no facilities at the Memorial Complex. Bring food and water (and sunscreen on hot, sunny days). Given it’s a memorial site, make sure you wear appropriate clothing (no shorts or singlets) and be respectful of fellow visitors, often relatives of genocide victims.
How to travel to/from the Memorial by public transport?
You can visit the site independently on a day trip by public transport from Sarajevo, either returning to Sarajevo in the evening or continuing on to Belgrade (that’s what we did). Do note though that, if you do the latter, you won’t be able to leave your luggage at the complex. You may be able to drop it off at the bus station in Bratunac, but we didn’t test that.
There is one bus a day from/to Sarajevo. The bus departs Sarajevo from platform 11 of the main bus station next to the railway station at 7:10. It arrives in Bratunac/Srebrenica at 10:20/10:35 respectively. A one-way ticket cost us BAM25.80 per person. We bought our bus tickets at the counter in the main hall about 20 minutes before departure.
If you take the bus, don’t get off in Bratunac but ask the bus driver to drop you off at the Srebrenica Memorial in Potočari (4km out of town towards Srebrenica), ideally at the turn-off that leads to the Memorial Museum.
The return bus to Sarajevo leaves Srebrenica/Bratunac at 16:30/16:45 respectively and arrives in Sarajevo at 19:55. The bus passes the Memorial Complex and should stop for hailing passengers, but we didn’t test that. Alternatively, it’s a 4km flattish walk from the Cemetery to Bratunac (be aware there is no shade if you visit in summer). You could also grab an earlier bus (there are frequent buses between Srebrenica and Bratunac) or a taxi (that’s what we did: Taxi Bratunac +387 65 814-360).
If like us, you’d like to travel to Belgrade, you have two options:
- Take a taxi from the Memorial to the bus station in Bratunac, then take the bus from Bratunac at 15:00. The bus arrives in Belgrade (at the Central Bus Station next to the old railway station) at 19:00. A one-way ticket cost us BAM17.50 per person.
- Take a taxi from the Memorial to the border and on to the bus station in Ljubovija (12km in total from the memorial site), then take the bus from there to Belgrade at 16:30. The bus arrives in Belgrade at 20:45 and costs roughly the same as the bus from Bratunac.
Either way, the border crossing is very easy and efficient (our bus entered Serbia 15 minutes after leaving Bratunac).
Where to stay?
If you’d like to take your time and explore more of the area, there are accommodation options in Potočari and Srebrenica:
- Hostel Srebrenica (next to Srebrenica’s bus station)
- MX – prenocista (in the centre of Srebrenica)
- Tri šešira Ljubovija (11km away in Serbia)
Buses between Bratunac and Srebrenica are fairly regular throughout the day. Just hail them as they pass the memorial site. Alternatively, grab a taxi (Taxi Bratunac +387 65 814-360).
What else to be aware of?
While travel to Srebrenica is currently restricted due to COVID-19, be aware that every year on 11 July, the local and international community gathers at the Srebrenica Genocide Memorial to remember those who lost their lives and to bury the remains of those who’ve been identified. If you wish to visit the Memorial, it is best to avoid this time to give space to the families who’ve lost loved ones in the genocide.
Be also aware that you may encounter people in the Balkans, Serbs in particular, who may view the events of the 1990s differently. We had such encounters several times during our travels in the region – in Serbia, in Montenegro and even at the bus station in Bratunac. With tensions still palpable in the region, even 25 years after the end of the Bosnian War, it’s best to just listen and tread carefully when voicing opinions, especially as an outsider.