A layman’s guide to war crime

In May of 1992, a Bosnian Serb politician named Momcilo Krajisnik formally decided on the “strategic objectives” of soldiers deployed in eastern Bosnia. The principal objective was to “establish state borders separating the Serbian people from the other two ethnic communities.” The Serb Republic’s legislature commanded the army to clear out the population of Muslims in the Drina River Valley. The Drina was to act as a “corridor” between the Serb Republic and Muslim and Croat communities. Soon, the Bosnian Serb Army, under the command of General Ratko Mladic and President Radovan Karadzic, moved into the Valley and began a campaign of genocide. In Bijeljina, they killed about 50 civilians. In Zvornik, they killed about 1000. In July of 1995, Serb militants committed their most infamous crime when they invaded a town called Srebenica, located in the easternmost part of Bosnia.

The goal of the Serb soldiers, as laid out by Momcilo Krajisnik, was to use the Drina River as a boundary that separated Serbs from Muslims and Croats. This was a key component of the plan for a “Greater Serbia,” laid out by Slobodan Milosevic, the man who was President of Serbia at the time. This notion of a “Greater Serbia” urged Serbian nationalists to reclaim lands which once belonged to them and to then establish an “ethnically homogeneous” state.

According to Stipe Mesic, the former president of Croatia, Milosevic and his partisans’ dream of a “Greater Serbia” necessitated the destruction of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, the socialist state to which Bosnia and Serbia belonged. By extension, the detention, forced relocation and genocide of Bosnian Muslims was an essential step in establishing Serbian sovereignty and ethnic uniformity in the region. Despite it being classified as a safe zone by the United Nations in 1993, Srebrenica had been a target of Bosnian Serb militants since the beginning of the Yugoslav Wars.

United Nations refugee workers called the term “safe zone” a “mockery” because the zones were more akin to prison camps, with little to no food, medicine or protection against belligerents. Tens of thousands of refugees fled to Srebrenica and neighboring towns expecting, perhaps, to be protected by the United Nations Protection Force in a United Nations safe zone. After three years of attempting to starve out the people in Srebrenica, General Ratko Mladic informed President Radovan Karadzic and Momcilo Krajisnik that there was no way to remove Bosnian Muslims from the region “painlessly.” The only reasonable solution was genocide.

In this report to Krajisnik and Karadzic, Mladic did not intend to say that he was unwilling to carry out an order to commit mass murder. Rather, he wished to convey that a campaign of genocide was necessary if the Bosnian Serbs were ever to successfully establish an ethnic partition in eastern Bosnia. On March 8, 1995, President Karadzic issued Operational Directive 7, which commanded army officials to ensure that there was “no hope of further survival or life for the inhabitants of Srebrenica and Zepa.” In July of 1995, soldiers in the Serb Republic’s Army, along with Bosnian Serb paramilitaries, slaughtered more than 7,000 civilians in Srebrenica.

Firsthand accounts of the event are abundant, though they only come from victims, as the soldiers responsible are reluctant to come forward. They would be admitting to participating in the systematic rape, torture and execution of thousands of non-combatants. A great many of them may also not believe that they did anything wrong. The sort of intense nationalism that leads a person to murder for their homeland and people is not the sort that goes away easily.

The crimes that led to the genocide at Srebrenica are atypical in that they did not go entirely unpunished. Slobodan Milosevic, the President who stoked the narrative of a “Greater Serbia,” died alone in a prison cell while being prosecuted by a UN war crimes tribunal.  Momcilo Krajisnik, the Speaker of the National Assembly who demanded an ethnic partition along the Drina River, was convicted of crimes against humanity. Radovan Karadzic was sentenced to forty years in prison. In November of 2017, Ratko Mladic’s verdict was read in his absence, as he had been forcibly removed from the courtroom after shouting “Everything you said is pure lies!” at his panel of judges. They gave him life imprisonment.

It is tempting to view this terrible spectacle in a vacuum, with the prison sentences being the morally comfortable ending. Even though the men responsible for what happened at Srebrenica met something resembling comeuppance, their dream for Serbia lives on. That is why, when Momcilo Krajisnik returned to the Serb Republic after spending over a decade in jail, he was greeted by thousands of cheering, sobbing supporters.


Alex Klein is a staff columnist for the Daily Campus and can be reached via email at alex.klein@uconn.edu.