Located in the easternmost part of Republic Srpska, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Srebrenica is a small mountain town that before 1992, mostly depended on its metal factory, extracting ores from its nearby lead, zinc, and gold mines. Even the town’s name, translated into English means “silver mine”, or the same meaning kept from the Old Latin, Argentaria.
Besides the mining, before the war, Srebrenica also attracted many visitors for its notable spa center, which made the town prosper from spa tourism. At current, there is still a pension, a motel, and a hostel operating in the town, but the reality of the town has deeply changed through the bloodshed and terrors of the war in Bosnia after the fall out of Yugoslavia.
The locality of Srebrenica has been well inhabited since Roman days, as there was the settlement of Domavia, that occupied a spot in a proximity of a mine as well. Silver ore from there was extracted and transported to the mints of Salona, an ancient city that was once the capital of the Roman province Dalmatia. The road used to transport the ore is known as Via Argentaria.
The earliest reference to the name Srebrenica goes back to 1376, when the region was part of the Banate of Bosnia, and then the Bosnian Kingdom. It was a hub for merchants who came from the maritime Republic of Ragusa, once centered in the city of Dubrovnik in Dalmatia (Dubrovnik carried this name from 1358 until 1808). The Ragusa merchants largely controlled Srebrenica’s silver trade and its export by sea, at this point.
Throughout the 14th century, there were also many German miners who had migrated to the area and there were even armed conflicts over who should control Srebrenica because of its mines. According to Czech historian Konstantin Josef Jireček, from 1410 to 1460, authority over Srebrenica switched more than a dozen of times, being Serbian five times, Bosnian four times, and Ottoman three times.
Under the Ottoman rule, things have slightly changed, as the town was now less influenced by Ragusa. However, that also meant the economic importance of the city shifted to decline slowly, as did the proportion of Christians in the population. While the town was undergoing Islamization, still this process was slower compared to other towns in the realm as Catholics, Ragusans, and Saxons were still in great number residing in Srebrenica.
In the aftermath of WWII, the Balkan countries of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia, Slovenia, and Macedonia all became united as one under the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia. This union was safe and prosperous for few decades under the Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito. Once he died in 1980, things started to change and growing nationalism among the different Yugoslav republics started to become a threat and reason why the union was to eventually dissolve.
The process heavily intensified after the mid-1980s, particularly with the rise of the Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, who did help promote the discontent between Serbians in Bosnia and Croatia, and their Croatian, Bosniak and Albanian neighborhoods. In 1991, Slovenia, Croatia, and Macedonia went on to declare independence, but a long and exhaustive war was to outbreak in dozens of places across the disintegrating Yugoslavia.
It was as a result of the Bosnian War development that the town of Srebrenica came to international prominence. The horrors lasted from 1992 until 1995. With the outbreak of the war in April 1992, Srebrenica was quickly occupied by the Serbian forces and there was also a campaign of forcible transfer of locals, or what would be ethnic cleansing.
The campaign was part of the bigger objective, set by the secessionist Bosnian Serb presidency, to create a border that would separate the Serb people from the remaining ethnic communities of Bosnia. But also an abolition of the border spanning along the River Drina, which separated Serbia from the Bosnian Serbs’ Republic Srpska. The major obstacle in accomplishing this objective was the Bosnian Muslim/Bosniak majority population of the Drina Valley, hence the initial ethnic cleansing actions.
Nevertheless, in the first part of the war, Srebrenica was retaken by Bosniak resistance group and refugees who were expelled from other towns and villages across the central Drina Valley, who all moved to Srebrenica, seeking shelter there, and expanding the town’s population.
By April 1993, the United Nations would declare Srebrenica and its proximity a UN safe area, the territory having been controlled by the Bosnian government and dubbed to be “free from any armed attack or any other hostile act”. A small unit operating under the mandate of UN Protection Force was settled in the area to keep guard, though. In reality, however, like two more UN safe zones in the region, Srebrenica was virtually an isolated pocket.
Despite the protected status, on July 11, Bosnian Serb forces advanced on Srebrenica, overwhelming a battalion of Dutch peacekeeping forces stationed there, and the most terrible moments of the entire war started to unfold from this moment on.
Bosniak civilians were separated at Srebrenica, having the women and girls sent on buses to other Bosnian-held territories. Some of the women were also raped or sexually assaulted, while men and boys who remained behind were killed immediately in an organized systematic manner. Estimates tell that Bosniaks killed by Serb forces at Srebrenica range from around 7,000 to more than 8,000.
The story of Srebrenica went on to be a story of the worst and most devastating war crime of all in post-WWII Europe. It was the worst act of genocide since the Nazi regime’s destruction of some 6 million European Jews throughout WWII.
Since the moment the government of the Yugoslav republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina declared independence from Yugoslavia in April 1992, and until the signing of the Dayton Agreement in 1995, roughly 80,000 Bosniaks lost their lives in the war. In the first three months of the war in Bosnia, some 296 villages were wiped out by Serb forces around Srebrenica, a premonition to the genocide which shocked the world three years later.
Something new to remember Srebrenica in 2017… Mirsad Bektić (1991) is a Srebrenica-born, Bosnian-American professional MMA fighter currently competing in the Featherweight division of the Ultimate Fighting Championship. As of July 6, 2017, he is #14 in the official UFC Featherweight rankings.