Serbia is finally seeking those responsible for the 1995 massacre in Srebrenica

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Carol Hills: Of all the tragic events that characterized the Balkan Wars of the mid 1990s, one definitely stands out. The 1995 massacre in Srebrenica. The slaughter claimed the lives of some 8,000 Muslim men and boys, and it became a symbol of the international community’s failure in the former Yugoslavia. Now the massacre is in the news again because Serbian officials have just arrested eight men suspected of having participated in the killings.


David Rohde: It’s 20 years late but it’s still very welcomed because this is Serbs themselves, the government of Serbia, arresting ethnic Serbs and putting them on trial for war crimes, and that’s a tremendous step forward.


Hills: David Rohde is an investigative reporter at Reuters who won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the Srebrenica massacre. In 1995, he was a young reporter who followed up on leads to uncover evidence of the slaughter.


Rohde: Literally 20,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys tried to walk through enemy territory after Srebrenica fell, and many of them made it to central Bosnia. As I said, they would emerge from the woods and they’d say “The Serbs are rounding up Bosnian Muslim prisoners and shooting them all dead,” and it was unclear the scale of what actually happened.


Hills: How did you manage to make your way there to discover this evidence?


Rohde: To be honest, I, without permission, drove into the Srebrenica area and was able to find the graves that had been identified in these photographs and I also remember driving past a warehouse, there were bullet marks all over it, and that actually relates that warehouse sadly to these arrests this week.


Hills: In fact, those arrests are individuals accused of actually killing the Bosnian Muslims, more than a thousand at that warehouse on the outskirts of Srebrenica. One of the notorious people they arrested was this guy known as “Nedjo the Butcher.” Were you aware of him back in 1995?


Rohde: The warehouse that I mentioned earlier that I drove by in 1995, this is where Nedjo the Butcher, Nedeljko Milidragović, essentially rounded up Bosnian Muslims that they captured trying to flee through the woods and then they just unleashed hails of bullets, they fired rocket-propelled grenades into the warehouse and they slaughtered everyone. There’s this horrible story of how after the initial wave of shooting, they called on survivors to come out, Nedjo promised people water. Survivors did come out and they gunned them down as well.


Hills: I remember reading that as you were traveling to these sites in eastern Bosnia, a Serbian soldier inadvertently confessed to committing some of these executions?


Rohde: He did. He was in the backseat; I had a very brave Serb translator that was with me, and in casual conversations he said “We round them up and we kill them,” and he was very matter of fact about it. But going back to that time, we thought it was maybe dozens, hundreds, but the concept of thousands--8,000--just never crossed my mind. I never imagined it could have been that terrible.


Hills: What did you actually find when you got to this place where the massacres had taken place?


Rohde: That same translator was actually a woman and she was a trained doctor, walked around with me, and we were kind of confused because the photographs that had been released by the United States made the buildings look much larger than they were and it turned out--we finally understood the layout of the area and we went down near this riverbank and there was this area of fresh digging. I remember it was sort of dark soil, this is late summer of 1995, and there was this white object sticking out of this area of fresh digging. As we approached it, it became very clear that that white object was actually a human bone. We were both sort of just in shock. We could still hear shots being fired from the surrounding hillsides, they were still hunting Muslims in the area, and we were very afraid that we would be arrested ourselves. But we were able to get away that day.


Hills: One of the subthemes of this whole episode was that that area where these Bosnian Muslims were massacred was an area that was supposed to be a safe haven for them, wasn’t it?


Rohde: Yeah, that’s the tragedy here. It’s one thing if it’s a distant conflict--many Americans will say “Who cares?” to be honest. This was a United Nations protected safe area in Srebrenica.


Hills: I know you returned to these areas to do more investigating and then you were arrested by Serbian officials and spent 10 days in jail.


Rohde: It’s true. I went back in on a second trip alone without that translator because she was criticized and threatened for having worked with me on the first trip, and I was arrested at a grave site.


Hills: One of the things about these recent arrests that sort of confuses me is, as you said, these are Serbian authorities arresting Bosnian Serbs who have lived in Serbia, who moved to Serbia in the late 1990s. So, they’ve had 20 years to arrest them. Was there simply not the will before now?


Rohde: To be honest, past Serb governments have not had the will to arrest these people and put them on trial. There was this much better known international war crimes tribunal that was UN sponsored in The Hague. That’s where  Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladi, the two top leaders of the Bosnian Serbs, are on trial. But there’s hundreds of lower level perpetrators and this is a great step forward because there are local war crimes tribunals in Bosnia itself, in Serbia, and in Croatia, and this is local governments finally facing what happened, finally arresting people that have been living in these countries for all these years and lying about what they did. The incentive is European Union membership, the prospect of economic growth and a brighter future for the whole country. There’s been years and years that it’s taken too long but the hope was that that carrot would get governments in the region to start trying their own people and it’s finally happening.


Hills: David Rohde is an investigative reporter at Reuters. He’s the author of Endgame: The Betrayal and Fall of Srebrenica, Europe’s Worst Massacre Since World War II. Thanks so much David.


Rohde: Thank you.