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Remembering Srebrenica, with Sorrow

In 1995, 8,000 unarmed Muslims were massacred at Srebrenica, in the former Yugoslavia. The killers were Serbs who ignored a meager U.N. force at a "safe area" as world leaders looked the other way.

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The world observed another memorial this week in Srebrenica, the mountain town of the former Yugoslavia where in 1995, 8,000 unarmed Muslim and mixed ethnic men and boys were massacred. United Nations had designated Srebrenica as a safe area in which Muslims and others could take refuge from the attacks of Serb paramilitary forces who'd already committed ethnic massacres in Bukovar(ph), Prijedor, Belina(ph) and a score of other places. The United Nations, Western Europe and the United States had responded with outrage and said they would not permit any more massacres. But the 150 Dutch soldiers who were assigned to protect Srebrenica were lightly armed and in any case told not to fire so much as a pistol. When Serb units attacked, the Dutch fell back. Some Serb units stripped the Dutch of their weapons and blue helmets. Their commander radioed UN command to ask for air strikes. He said he thought as little as two helicopter gunships could deter the Serbs. His request was passed onto New York, but headquarters would not authorize an air strike.

Serb units used bulldozers to dig huge trenches for graves. And Muslim families were rounded up as Bosnian-Serb state radio played racist turbo-rock anthems that bleated, `Die, you scum. We are the champs. Hail, the Serb race.' At first Serb units distributed chocolates and cigarettes among the Muslims, but after the families had been rounded up, the rapes began. A few hundred women and children were able to escape into the surrounding forests; many were tracked down and beaten. Men and boys were lined up by Serb paramilitaries or bound up with ropes and shot at point-blank range.

This episode took place over two days. Soon reports about Srebrenica began to appear in the best newspapers and networks in New York, London and Paris. There was consternation and even shame in those capitals. But French President Jacques Chirac, whose nation had contributed more troops to Bosnia than any other, said, `We can do little unless the warring parties are prepared to talk.' How did people who surrendered to their attackers become a warring party?

We can put together a timetable of the massacres in Srebrenica because US and European intelligence agencies heard the radio signals between Serb units while satellites photographed the mass graves that were being dug. This information is now being used at the war crimes tribunal to try to convict many of the people who perpetrated the murders, but it was not used in real time, 10 years ago, to stop the murder of 8,000 people. Srebrenica is not simply another reminder of man's inhumanity to man, but how intelligent people can always come up with intelligent reasons to do nothing.

And the time is 18 minutes past the hour.

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Simon SaysSimon Says NPR's Scott Simon Shares His Take On Events Large And Small