Prior to 1991, the small mountain town of Srebrenica (which means "silver mine") was known for its scenic location, the curative waters of its spas and its nearby lead, zinc and gold mines. After July 1995, the town became infamous as the site of the worst massacre on European soil since the end of the Nazi era.
Over a period of several days in July 1995, an estimated 8,100 Bosniak men (mostly Muslim) were murdered in cold blood. Another 20,000 Bosniaks (mostly women and children) were forcibly deported from Srebrenica. The killings and deportations were carried out by the Bosnian Serb army under the command of Ratko Mladić (who was later indicted for war crimes but remains a fugitive from justice) and special forces from nearby Serbia. The massacre and deportation were part of a Bosnia Serb campaign to "ethnically cleanse" Srebrenica of its majority Muslim population.
Prior to the outbreak of the Bosnian War in 1992, the area around Srebrenica had a population of about 37,000 residents, 73% of whom were Bosniaks, 25% were Serbs and the remainder a mix of other ethnic groups. After war broke out, Srebrenica was taken by the Bosnia Serbs then retaken by the army of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The surrounding area, however – the part of Bosnia called Republika Srpska (in Serbian, Република Српска) or "Serb Republic" – remained under the control of the well-armed Bosnian Serb army. In April 1993, the U.N. Security Council declared that Srebrenica and the surrounding area were a "safe area which should be free from any armed attack or any other hostile act." Lightly armed Dutch U.N. peace keepers patrolled the area. The designation as a U.N. "safe area" would prove to be a cruel irony.
The Bosnian Serbs considered the Srebrenica area to be strategically important to the future of Republika Srpska. Without it, their "republic" would be divided into discontiguous areas separated by potentially hostile Bosniaks. In March 1995, Radovan Karadžić, president of Republika Srpska (and another indicted war criminal still on the loose) issued an order to the Bosnian Serb army to "[b]y planned and well-thought out combat operations, create an unbearable situation of total insecurity with no hope of further survival or life for the inhabitants of Srebrenica." Over the coming months, a humanitarian crisis developed as supplies in the besieged town dwindled. There were reports of people starving to death. On July 9, 1995, President Karadžić issued the order to take the town.
As Bosnian Serb forces started their assault on the town, NATO warplanes (operating under the direction of the UN) launched air strikes hoping to protect the "safe area." The air strikes were hampered by bad weather and were soon abandoned altogether after the Bosnian Serb army kidnapped and threatened to kill the Dutch peace keepers. Fearing the loss of their town, 20,000 to 25,000 Bosniak refugees – the vast majority of whom were women, children, elderly or disabled – made their way to the nearby village of Potočari to seek protection in the UN compound there. Most able-bodied men took to the forest and attempted to join up with units of the army of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The women and children were eventually transported out of the Srebrenica region under the supervision of the UN and Bosnian Serb army. The men were hunted down and rounded up.
Between July 10 and July 19, 1995, almost 7,800 Bosniak males (including many teenagers well below military age) were captured and taken to various holding facilities, such as schools and warehouses in the Potočari area. Many Bosniaks were killed or abused at these facilities. Those who survived were then transported to remote locations, executed (usually by shooting) and buried in mass graves. In an effort to conceal the massacre, the Bosnian Serb army dug up the graves in the autumn of 1995 and reburied the victims in mass graves at more remote locations.
In the years that followed, the bodies of many of the victims were exhumed, identified and reburied at a memorial in Potočari, just north of Srebrenica. The memorial includes an open-air mosque and various understated monuments to those who died. The most moving sight at the memorial, however, is the victims themselves: thousands of graves with identical green markers stretched over a vast field.
Work continues to locate, exhume and identify all the victims. In August 2006, another mass grave containing more than 1,100 bodies was discovered near Kamenica, a village along the Serbian border where other mass graves have already been found. The bodies were badly damaged, leading experts to believe that they had been previously dug up using heavy machinery and reburied at a "secondary" location as the Bosnian Serbs attempted to conceal their crimes. As of August 2006, the remains of some 3,500 Srebrenica victims had been recovered. About 2,500 of the exhumed bodies have been identified through DNA testing and approximately 2,000 of those have been reburied at the memorial in Potoćari.
In 2004, the government of Republika Srpska offered an official apology for the "enormous crimes . . . committed in the area of Srebrenica in July 1995". The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) continues to meet in The Hague and proceeds with the prosecution of indicted war criminals (though two of the key players in the Srebrenica massacre remain at large: Radovan Karadžić, former president of Republika Srpska, and Ratko Mladić, former head of the Bosnian Serb army). In the meantime, the name "Srebrenica" will always be remembered as an act of genocide, the like of which most people thought could never happen again in Europe.