Of scarecrows, blue helmets and silver cities

* Originally published in The Cleburne News on November 26, 2003.

When I was 20-years old, the Bosnian village of Srebrenica became home to Europe’s worst massacre since World War II. As a blue-helmeted battalion of UN peacekeepers looked on, Bosnian Serbs entered the isolated town and slaughtered more than 7,000 Bosnian Muslim refugees with Nazi-like indifference.

When I was 21-years old, I was deployed to the region as part of the American-led coalition whose mission was to bring two things: peace, and those murderers to justice. The first was achieved. The second was altogether not.

I’m now 29-years old, and the man chiefly responsible for the Srebrenician genocide remains at large. Meanwhile, the mass graves he left behind are still being exhumed.

When I consider the miles and memories I’ve collected during those nine years, I’m filled with a sense of shame and disappointment. But a recent event at the war crimes tribunal in The Hague offers a glimmer of hope.

A Bosnian Serb named Momir Nikolic negotiated a plea last month in exchange for providing details and testifying against those who actually ordered the genocide, namely a Bosnian Serb named Ratko Mladic. Nikolic’s crime? He participated in the beheading of 100 villagers and the delivery of their corpses to secret mass graves. He got 20 years.

As the tribunal presses forward, two questions still scream from Srebrenica. How could a battalion of heavily armed UN soldiers allow genocide to occur in its presence, and how can Maldic remain free?

Before answering those questions, a brief history lesson: When the Cold War ended, the states comprising the former Yugoslavia fragmented into independent republics. The largest were Croatia to the west, Serbia to the east, and Bosnia-Herzegovina in the middle. Each had distinct religious and cultural identities, but in previous decades hundreds of thousands of Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbians immigrated into predominantly Muslim Bosnia.

There now existed Bosnian Croats, Bosnian Serbs, and Bosnian Muslims, all calling Bosnia-Herzegovina their home. So when its government declared independence fromgreater Yugoslavia, the Croat and Serb minorities allied with their respective ethnicities across the borders.

Then, armed with superior weaponry from Serbia-proper, the Bosnian Serbs, and to a lesser extent the Bosnian Croats, formed gangs (labeling them “armies” would be disgraceful) and attacked the Muslims. While Serbia-proper kept its criminal compatriots in Bosnia-Herzegovina armed to the teeth, the world imposed an arms embargo on the region that only succeeded in disarming one side — the Bosnian Muslims.

That’s when things got ugly. Mladic and his rabble of criminals tore across the Balkans, raping, brutalizing and exterminating the population at will.

Enter Srebrenica. Its name means “the place of silver,” but in the summer of 1995 it was named the world’s first UN Safe Area. Dutch Special Forces were sent to guard the village, creating an illusion of protection and accidentally setting a bloody trap. A river of refugees flowed into Srebrenica like cattle to a corral. Mladic followed, confident the UN soldiers wouldn’t intervene. He was correct.

According to the report, “Dossier Srebrenica,” commissioned by The Netherlands Institute for War Documentation, the UN peacekeepers offered little or no resistance to Mladic, and little or no assistance to the refugees. Soon, more than 7,000 men and boys had their heads and hands severed to avoid identification and their bodies secretly buried in nearby fields.

The Blue Helmets just let it happen. Why? Because for a soldier to freely face death — and that’s exactly the level of courage needed to stop Mladic — they must feel ownership of the mission, and thus responsibility for its outcome. They must believe that their personal honor, and the honor of their homeland, is at stake.

A soldier fights fiercest under his own banner. But those soldiers weren’t fighting under the Dutch national flag, and they didn’t own the mission. The UN did, and it wanted to appear “impartial” like any well-behaved international entity should. Its well-behaved soldiers were merely scarecrows, and like scarecrows, they stood still awaiting orders from diplomats that never came.

If Mladic had faced a real force, instead of some non-army whose non-soldiers weren’t ordered and maybe not even willing to fight, we’d have never even heard of Srebrenica. Indeed, when American tanks crossed the Sava River into Bosnia the following year, Mladic jumped into a hole somewhere in Serbia-proper and hasn’t been seen since. But how has he remained free all this time, even though we captured Slobodan Milosevic, president of the country in which he’s hiding? Apathy? Luck? Neither. The simple fact is that our world is still a big, big place. Low-cost airfare, spy satellites, television and the Internet have convinced us otherwise, but there remains plenty of hiding places. Mladic is only one man among billions, and as long as he stays low profile and low-tech, odds are he’ll avoid capture.

Meanwhile, the only comfort for those awaiting his arrest is what’s offered by the world’s great faiths. They all teach that infinite justice will be served to Mladic, just as infinite rewards were given to his innocent victims. I believe the same can be said for his elusive brothers-in-terror, Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden. I only hope their earthly freedom doesn’t last nearly as long, and that the world doesn’t forget about their victims nearly as soon.

J. Pepper Bryars is a veteran of Operation Joint Endeavor, the peace enforcement mission in the former Yugoslavia.