Joyce McMillan: Srebrenica massacre a warning against attacks on liberalism

The Srebrenica massacre of 1995 shows political ideology is not just a game for intellectuals and politicians, writes Joyce McMillan.

Bosnian Muslim refugees from Srebrenica seek refuge at a UN base in Potocari in July 1995 (Picture: AP)

Places are just places; but then something horrific happens there, and a particular place becomes something much more than a field, or a street, or a riverbank. The old battery factory at Potocari, which I visited earlier this week along with a group from the charity Remembering Srebrenica Scotland, lies on the road between the two small Bosnian towns of Bratunac and Srebrenica, near the country’s eastern border. To all appearances, it’s just an old 1970s-style factory shed, standing in a field by an ordinary roadside amid the rolling, heavily wooded hills and mountains that are typical of most of Bosnia.

Images of the factory and its workers from the 1970s and 80s show a community of working-class European people enjoying a time of peace and relative prosperity; they could be of Linwood, or Dagenham. Little cars pass through the entry gates, the factory social club thrives, and families grow up on the pay of the plant’s workers, who come from all of the republics and ethnic groups in the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia – including the Croatians and Slovenians to the north west, the Serbs to the east, and the mainly Muslim Bosnians in the middle.

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Then, though, came war; not a war that the people around Srebrenica ever thought could touch them, but a war that would nonetheless devastate tens of thousands of their lives. After the death of the country’s relatively light-touch Communist leader Marshall Tito, in 1980, the leaders of revived forms of Serbian and Croatian nationalism saw their chance, and began to pump out propaganda suggesting to their people that the other ethnic groups in Yugoslavia were the cause of their problems, inferior and untrustworthy populations who needed to be controlled or destroyed; the Serbs in particular saw the whole of Yugoslavia as theirs to dominate, and some began to draw maps showing the whole area as ‘Greater Serbia’.

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By the summer of 1991, when Croatia and Slovenia declared their independence from a crumbling Yugoslavia, the Serbian government had taken control of the whole massive Yugoslav army, and was ready for war; and in 1991-92 they advanced far into Bosnia, claiming huge areas of the territory, clearing out non-Serb populations in what became known as “ethnic cleansing”, and laying siege to the Bosnian capital Sarajevo, a relaxed and sophisticated international city which had famously hosted the Winter Olympics in 1984.

The international community went into diplomatic overdrive, sending UN troops to secure Sarajevo airport, and declaring a no-fly zone over the country; they also declared some other areas with high Bosnian Muslim populations to be UN protected zones. One of those was Srebrenica; and in 1994, a battalion of Dutch UN troops arrived to protect the safe zone, setting up headquarters in the old battery factory.

So when, in July 1995, the Bosnian Serb army began its final assault on the town, it’s not surprising that while most of the younger men in the population – about 10,000-15,000 – formed a column and took to the hills, in an attempt to walk to relative safety in Tuzla 45 miles away, the rest of the people surged three or four miles up the road to the Dutch base at Potocari, where they thought they would be safe under UN protection. The rest is history, as the Serbian army took the deserted town, arrived at Potocari, and effectively forced the lightly-armed UN troops to stand by while they piled tens of thousands of women and children onto buses for deportation to Tuzla, then separated out the remaining men, took them to locations around the area, shot them, and piled them into mass graves; some groups of women were also taken away and systematically raped. The official death toll of the Srebrenica massacre, the worst atrocity in Europe since the Second World War, is 8,372; and that does not include all of those who died when the Serbs began to shell and gas the column of mainly unarmed men trying to walk through the hills.

So today, in the field across the road from the battery factory – now a memorial museum – there is a new graveyard with more than 6,000 headstones; and in Tuzla, a modest pathology lab in which a small and dedicated staff still work tirelessly, 24 years on, to try to reconcile the shattered remains of bodies found in the forest or in mass graves with the descriptions and DNA of bereaved relatives.

And what are we to learn from all this, almost a quarter of century on? Far too many things to list here, of course. Yet in this particular week, as we face a European election that could change the face of our continent for good, we should remember this; that political ideology is not just a game for intellectuals and politicians, remote from everyday life. We should remember that political ideas can kill, even if they are promoted by people who are at first dismissed as clowns and buffoons.

And we can also remember, I think, to take a strongly sceptical view of those who argue that liberal values such as peace, tolerance, internationalism and an appreciation of diversity are essentially ‘elite’ values, now being justly rejected by an exasperated working class.

For when those values fail, it is never the “elites” who suffer most; and if you doubt that, take a trip to beautiful Bosnia, go to Potocari, and stand in that old factory space where they once lined up the coffins, reading the life-stories and looking at the belongings of the ordinary yet irreplaceable men who died. Then tell me that this is not working-class history, about a profound attack on those basic civic ideals and values which are essential if ordinary citizens without wealth or connections are to live their lives in safety and dignity; and about a desperate capitulation to those siren voices, now increasingly familiar once again, which tell us those values should be ditched in favour of something that always claims to be more democratic and more ‘popular’ – but which, if history is any guide, is more likely to kill ordinary men and women in their thousands and millions, before it is finally defeated again.