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"Srebrenica: A Cry from the Grave"
Companion essays and lesson plans for PBS Web site

by Paul Bacon 


“The time has come to take revenge on the Muslims,” said Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic, consecrating his barbarous invasion of Srebrenica just before a Serb holy day. In the days to come, his army would not only reclaim the coveted territory, but murder thousands of its civilian inhabitants based on their religion. 

The Srebrenica massacre culminated centuries of hatred brewing in Yugoslavia, a nation formed by the reluctant union of many disparate cultures. No less than six republics--some Eastern, others Western--were brought together in 1918, stirring up long-standing Muslim-Christian animosities. After the 1980 death of Josip Broz Tito, Yugoslavia's president of more than 30 years, the republics began to seek independence and ignited a complex, ethnically-charged civil war that still rages today. 


“The waiting was more terrible than the shooting,” says Hasan Nuhanovic, describing the eerie morning silence when promised NATO airstrikes failed to materialize above his besieged hometown of Srebrenica. When it was clear the planes weren’t coming, Serb invaders resumed their ground assault, leaving Hasan and the rest of the world to ponder an agonizing question: Why did the United Nations leave its first-ever Safe Area virtually unprotected with the fate of 25,000 refugees in the balance? 

Disbelief and deception emerge as prime culprits in the humanitarian mission’s tragic failure. Few imagined Serb General Ratko Mladic would make such a blatantly aggressive move under the scrutiny of the UN. Dismissing Mladic’s advance as mere “probing,” officials repeatedly denied the Dutch peacekeepers’ urgent requests for air support, allowing the Serb army to capture the enclave with little resistance. Then, the deception unfolded as Mladic staged empty negotiations with peacekeepers and local leaders, guaranteeing the refugees’ safety in exchange for the town. Meanwhile, thousands of Muslim men were being systematically massacred in nearby death camps. 

The siege, which lasted no more than a few days, caught the world by surprise. The UN responded to the crisis with bungling inaction, demonstrating both inability and unwillingness to support its fledgling global police force. In the words of Yasushi Akashi, head of UN operations in Bosnia, “The UN was there to keep the peace, but not to enforce it.” 


Responding to worldwide outrage over events in Bosnia, the United Nations formed the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in 1993. The international court of law has handed down 92 indictments for crimes against humanity, yet it wields little power. Intractable national sovereignty issues make it difficult to extradite suspects, and the inherent dilemma of punishing murder committed during wartime brings into question the morality of ICTY’s rulings. 

Gathering evidence for the tribunal can be as arduous as enforcing its judgments. Linking Serb aggressors with their Muslim victims has been a nearly impossible task, since exhumations did not begin until months after the dead had been carefully buried and re-buried to avoid detection. To date, the remains of less than 100 of the 7,414 missing refugees have been identified. 

Despite the tremendous odds against bringing the massacre’s architects to justice, war crimes investigator Jean Rene Ruez remains hopeful. “That these people . . . live in fear of being captured one day and being held accountable,” says Ruez, “is already a beginning of an achievement.” 


Years after the Srebrenica massacre, the Serb army turned its aggression on another neighbor, slaughtering a reported 10,000 ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. No sooner had the United Nations intervened to protect the battered republic than Kosovars began to retaliate against Serb civilians. With accountability a non-issue and atrocities fanning the fires of mutual contempt, what could possibly motivate these blood enemies to peacefully co-exist? 

Civic stability will be hard-earned in places like the former Yugoslavia, where warlords cross borders to avenge centuries-old ethnic grudges, then claim sovereignty as their protection against global reprisals. The UN faces considerable challenges in policing such lawless regions, including a critical lack of nation member support. From Argentina to Zimbabwe, countries are reneging on their pledges to send troops to Kosovo, loosening the UN’s already tenuous grip on the Balkans. 

As a test case for the model of military intervention to prevent ethnic cleansing, the success or failure of the mission to bring peace to Kosovo will have long-lasting effects. The UN’s credibility is at stake, and if denied the resources to enforce peace, it may be dismissed as a league of well meaning but impotent idealists. Its track records in Bosnia, Kosovo and Rwanda, where a staggering 800,000 Tutsis were reportedly slaughtered, suggest that issues of national sovereignty may leave genocide unpunished and its agents unvanquished. 

Only time will tell if the UN’s attempts at intervention thus far are a harbinger of doom or just the first faltering steps of an eventual march toward universal human rights. 

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Lesson Plan: 
"The Heart of the Matter"

by Paul Bacon 

Grade Level: 7 to 12 
Subject Matter: ethnic identity, discrimination 
Time Allotment: 2-3 class periods 


In this activity, students explore ethnic identity by examining its role as both a benefit and a burden to society. The general discussion of ethnic identity leads to a discussion about a more specific and problematic social issue, discrimination, and its likely cause, fear. 


Lead a class discussion. You may wish to discuss questions such as: 

----What defines ethnic identity? Most people agree it includes one or more of the following: a shared heritage, a common belief system and a set of similar physical characteristics. What other things do you think it includes? 

----Is ethnic identity something we’re born with, something we invent for ourselves, something we’re given by others or a combination of these things? 

----Should people be allowed to discriminate against others based on their ethnic identities, or should there be laws to prevent it? If so, in what cases? 

----The United States has been called a “melting pot.” What does this mean? 

----What are the benefits of living with people with different ethnic identities? 

----What are the difficulties? 

----Throughout history, millions have been abused or killed based on their unique ethnic identities. If we could somehow all be the same, would things be easier? 

---Other than ethnicity, what are other things that people discriminate against? 

---What are some instances in which people have been discriminated against in the past? What lessons can we learn from these instances? 

----Are people being discriminated against today? Who? By whom? How is this situation similar to situations in the past? 


1. Ask students to gather in groups of three or four to discuss a past situation in which they felt they were the source or the subject of discrimination. 

2. After providing ample discussion time, address the class as a whole and explain that many people believe discrimination is really just an expression of fear, an emotion shared by everyone. Ask students to provide examples of social situations that people are commonly afraid of. Solicit as many responses as time allows and write everything on the blackboard. 

3. Allow students to resume their group discussions, encouraging them to consider how their discriminatory experiences may have been motivated by fear. 

4. After discussion time, ask individual students or groups to share their thoughts with the class. If students do not see a connection between discrimination and fear, or if they simply do not agree with the concept, encourage them to offer alternative explanations. There should be no right or wrong answers. 

Putting It All Together

As politics, economics and technology draw once-remote populations closer together, ethnic identity plays an ever-increasing role in people’s lives. While some relish new opportunities to interact with people from different backgrounds, just as many, if not more, find the prospect rather unsavory. It is convenient to dismiss the latter category as narrow-minded, but a more helpful approach to ethnic discrimination may lie in understanding that its source is often nothing more than fear, a common thread among all people. # # # 

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