EAST NEW SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina (CN) – The signs here are in Cyrillic, the churches are Orthodox Christian, the beer is Serbian and the residents of this Serbian side of Sarajevo say what happened in Srebrenica two decades ago was not genocide.
This is the Republika Srpska, a semi-autonomous Serb-dominated part of Bosnia where the politicians are pushing to write their own version of history and deny that Serbian forces committed genocide when more than 8,300 Muslim men and boys were killed in July 1995 in Srebrenica, a town in the mountains of eastern Bosnia, near the end of the Bosnian war between 1992 and 1995.
Last week, the republic’s national assembly, based in Banja Luka in northern Bosnia, voted to annul a 2004 report that found genocide had taken place in Srebrenica. That report was issued by the then-Republika Srpska government and a special commission.
Now the Srpska government says it wants to re-investigate and re-evaluate the gruesome events – an act that Bosnian Muslim politicians and others, including the U.S. State Department, called a dangerous rewriting of history.
Molorad Dodik, the nationalist Republika Srpska president, has led the push to question the events at Srebrenica.
“The Srebrenica crime is a staged tragedy with an aim to satanize the Serbs,” Dodik told the Srpska parliament, according to news reports.
News reports and analysts often say Dodik’s move is a way for him to shore up support among hard-line nationalists in Srpska, especially before October elections.
Yet his words seem to reflect not just the opinions of hard-liners but of Serbs in Srpska more generally.
A tour of East New Sarajevo, a suburb of Sarajevo on the border between the Republika Srpska and the Muslim-dominated Bosnian Federation, quickly reveals this possibility.
On a main boulevard through this enclave of towering apartment blocks, a street-level section of an administrative building where the town mayor has his office is adorned with a series of images of Ratko Mladić – a Bosnian Serb general and convicted war criminal.
Mladić led troops into Srebrenica and declared in front of TV cameras on July 11, 1995, that his forces would take “revenge” on Muslims. He said this shortly before the massacre. He also oversaw the siege of Sarajevo, which killed thousands of civilians and combatants, the majority of them Muslim Bosnians.
Mladić was sentenced to life in prison last year on charges of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Jugoslavia in The Hague.
But much of this narrative rings untrue to Serbs here, many of whom lost their homes in Sarajevo during the conflict and moved away from the Muslim-dominated city center to create a new Serb-centered society in this new part of Sarajevo within the borders of the Republika Srpska. These neighborhoods were built where Serbian army barracks once stood, residents said.
Mladić is “a national hero,” said Miloś Knezević, a 23-year-old political science graduate and reserve officer in the Serbian army, as he sat at his family-run restaurant and bar on a recent morning.
“Without him, we would have been overrun” by Bosnian Muslims, he told Courthouse News.
His father and restaurant owner Juro Jurić, a Serb and former soldier in the conflict, added that people on this side of the border see their lives and society as irreconcilably different from that of Muslims in Bosnia.
“Here we are Christians and down there they are Muslims,” he said. “It’s best to be on our own.”
Knezević said Serbs are wrongly blamed for the war’s atrocities. He, like Dodik, the Srpska president, questioned the official narrative surrounding what happened at Srebrenica.
“Some of it happened, but not in that number,” he said. “They added just a bit” of deaths, he said of the official tally of those killed.
Dodik has claimed that Srebrenica victims are “still alive.”
Knezević said the official Srpska media outlet, the Radio Television Republika Srpska, routinely airs investigations questioning the official reconstruction of what happened at Srebrenica.
These attitudes fuel division in this volatile region, where the war and its atrocities are still a daily source of pain and discord.
Last week, the U.S. State Department called on the Republika Srpska to reverse course and acknowledge Srebrenica was genocide.
“Attempts to reject or amend the report on Srebrenica are part of wider efforts to revise the facts of the past war, to deny history, and to politicize tragedy,” the department said in a statement.
The State Department said Republika Srpska citizens should “reverse the trend of revering convicted war criminals as heroes, and to ensure their crimes continue to be publicly rejected.”
The International Criminal Tribune has ruled that what happened in Srebrenica was an act of genocide. Experts have spent years retrieving the bones of those killed and reconstructing the genocide.
About 25,000 Muslim Bosnians were camped in Srebrenica by July 1995. The town was declared a safe area by the United Nations and it was under the protection of UN peacekeepers.
Despite this, Serbian forces, led by Mladić, shelled Srebrenica, descended on the town and took possession of it. Meanwhile, NATO forces chose not to send in airplanes to stop the Serbian advance.
Dutch UN peacekeepers gave shelter to about 5,000 Muslims, and then left thousands more to fall into the hands of Serbian forces fighting for the Army of the Republika Srpska.
Serbian forces separated men and boys from women and children and executed the males. Meanwhile, thousands of men and children were shot as they fled through the surrounding hills. About 500 boys under the age of 18 were killed. Entire families were also slaughtered. Rapes were widespread.
Work to identify missing people from the war continues to this day. More than 31,000 people went missing and about 100,000 were killed in the conflict.
The tribunal in the The Hague reconstructed the genocide and experts believe Serbian forces used bulldozers to hide bodies in various mass graves, leaving virtually every skeleton found in the ensuing years incomplete.
As these facts are disputed by many people in the Republika Srpska, the divisions between Muslims and Orthodox Christians seem hard to overcome, in part because very different storylines about what happened seem so entrenched.
“There is a different ideology,” said Tamara Grbaovic, a spokeswoman for the mayor’s office of East New Sarajevo.
“What we learn in school, the history is different,” she said. “They learn about their war and we learn about our war.”