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Saturday, 13 April, 2002, 12:46 GMT 13:46 UK
Srebrenica agony recalled
A mass grave near Srebrenica
Remains marked in the mass grave at Srebrenica
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By Allan Little

The Romans called it Argentium, the Slavs Srebrenica, and the word means the same thing - the place of silver.

There were silver mines in the Drina valley in the age of antiquity, before Christianity made its earliest inroads into the mountainous and isolated interior of the Balkan peninsula.

During the centuries of Ottoman hegemony, the developed East made its way along the trade routes from the Sublime Porte of the Sultan at what is now Istanbul, into Europe.

It brought architecture of exquisite beauty - ordered geometric symmetry and elegant arched bridges of shining white cobalt. And it brought Islam.

Protesters in Sarajevo
Protesters have criticised the UN's Dutch peacekeepers
When the Ottoman tide receded, it left behind a gentle European strain of an Eastern faith.

The writer Rebecca West noted this when she spotted snow on the roof of a mosque - the fragile incongruity of Bosnia's Muslims. The religion of the desert in a cold climate.

At the place where the camels of the east could go no further because the European climate made them sick, merchandise was transferred to horse and pack pony and mule train.

Here, they established a new settlement on the steep banks of the Miljacka River - a pit stop on the journey west which they called Sarajevo after its purpose - a caravansaraj - an interface between East and West, a meeting place on the seam joining two immense world cultures.

Under siege

One day in the spring of 1993, I tried to join a latter-day mule train over the mountains and into the besieged Bosnian enclave of Srebrenica.

It had been cut off from the outside world for more than a year and subject to almost daily bombardment.

To get there, you had to leave Sarajevo and drive to a place called Trnovo, near one of the most active front lines in the war.

There, you abandoned your vehicle and went on foot to a rendezvous point from which an irregular mule train would be assembled to take food, medicines and ammunition on the backs of donkeys and horses, trekking silently and sightlessly over the remote mountain passes by night, across Serb lines and into the enclave.

We couldn't even get to base camp before Trnovo, a Bosnian commander, turned us back. The road was closed for security reasons he said.

We explained that we wanted to get to Srebrenica. One of my colleagues used the implausible phase: "We want to tell the world what is going on there," and I remember shrinking in shame under the contempt of his response.

Bitter cynicism

"Oh you want to tell the world what is going on there", he said. "I'm sorry. I had no idea the world hadn't been informed about Srebrenica. And what do you suppose the world will do when you have told it?"

For now a year of war, in which they had been steadily and systematically kicked out of their homes by the militarily superior forces of the Bosnian Serbs had taught the Muslims of eastern Bosnia consecutive lessons of disappointment, disillusion and finally bitter cynicism - not least about us, the self-appointed heralds of international public opinion and the conscience of the liberal West.

Bosnian Muslim woman cry as they attend the memorial service for Srebrenica victims
Srebrenica marked a low point for UN credibility
The United Nations had just declared Srebrenica a safe area. Its Muslim defenders had run out of ammunition and wanted to surrender - but not to the Bosnian Serbs who they knew would use the opportunity to kill many hundreds of them - but to the UN.

The first Clinton administration was only a few months old and was beginning to press for a more robust defence of human rights in the Balkans, which appalled the Europeans who insisted that what was happening there was simply in the character of the place.

A transatlantic rift was opening up that would reach its bizarre conclusion with the British Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind reportedly telling the US Senator Bob Dole - who lost the use of an arm defending Europe from fascism in World War II - that Americans didn't understand the reality of war.

No protection

So the UN instead declared Srebrenica a safe area. This was the deal - the Muslims inside the enclave would give up their weapons.

The Serbs would be allowed to maintain their siege lines, but would promise not to attack. UN troops would be deployed there to make sure both sides honoured the agreement.

There was a news conference in Sarajevo, lit by the flickering orange glow of candles. I asked the UN commander what now stood between the Muslim civilians and the guns of men who were absolutely unambiguous in their determination both to seize the enclave and to kill many of those inside it.

He said without a hint of irony: "What stands between them is the blue flag of the United Nations."

I remember writing a piece for Radio 4 saying that when the men of Srebrenica were finally murdered, then none of us should dare to say afterwards: "If only we had known what would happen". We knew.

The BBC's Allan Little
"Holland is haunted by the affair"
See also:

10 Apr 02 | Europe
Srebrenica blame 'must be shared'
10 Apr 02 | Europe
Srebrenica report: Excerpts
06 Apr 02 | Europe
Bosnia marks war anniversary
02 Aug 01 | Europe
Q&A: Srebrenica massacre
02 Aug 01 | Europe
Srebrenica judgement: Excerpts
10 Apr 02 | Europe
Identifying Srebrenica's victims
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