Srebrenica is situated in what had become, and still is, Republika Srpska. The town, declared a UN safe area in 1992, was now a Bosniak enclave in the care of the French and Dutch governments. In July 1995 Serb troops and paramilitaries led by Ratko Mladic descended on Srebrenica and began shelling it. They had already dealt with Muslim soldiers in the countryside villages. Now they were besieging Srebrenica's thousands of Muslim civilians. Food supplies and water began to dwindle, buildings were damaged, people were injured. Soon Serb troops were able to take up positions close the town's outskirts. In Bosnia's capital, Sarajevo, a radio message from an amateur operator in Srebrenica was heard: 'Please do something. Whatever you can. In the name of God, do something.'
The contingent of Dutch soldiers who made up the UN military presence safeguarding the town (from their HQ in a suburban factory complex) could do little. They were poorly equipped and had no back-up. In any case, over two dozen of them had been taken prisoner by the Serbs and no-one wanted to take action that might endanger the hostages' lives.
However, the Dutch commander did repeatedly ask the French (their military colleagues in this operation) to provide immediate deterrent air strikes; but his requests were repeatedly stalled. (The story goes that one request was rejected because it was on the wrong fax form.) Still hoping for French assistance, the Dutch commander warned Serb officials that there would be air strikes at 6.00 a.m. on the morning of July 11 unless Serbian troops moved away from the town's borders.
But there were no air strikes that dawn (though two jets flew over later). Instead, the Serbs' bombardment intensified. Thousands of Muslims made for the Dutch compound - some killed by shells as they fled. Throughout the day a stream of refugees was slowly admitted inside: up to 6,000 by nightfall. 20,000 more were left waiting outside. There was no food, little water, and a lot of fear.
The following morning representatives of the Dutch battalion and of the Muslims heard that Mladic had made a promise: everyone would be allowed to cross out of Serb territory, but the men would have to be screened first, so that war criminals could be detected, before rejoining their families. Meanwhile, Serb troops quietly surrounded the Dutch HQ.
Soon afterwards Mladic himself appeared, caught on film in genial mode and reassuring a group of women that all would be well. ('Thank you,' they cried.) After him came large numbers of trucks and buses. Serb troops at once began separating off the men from women and children among the civilians outside the UN compound. Women and children were forced on to the trucks and buses. As they were deported, they could hear gunfire echoing round the hills; and they saw corpses lying by the road.
The following day the transports returned to fetch more women and children. There were now no men to be seen among the people in the street, and soon no women and children either. By noon the Serbs were ready to deal with the remaining thousands inside the camp. The Dutch gave the order: 'Leave the camp in groups of 5'. The Serbs stood at the entrance, once again isolating the men and boys.
The deportation of Srebrenica's population took 4 days, and the UN assisted in a way it didn't foresee and couldn't prevent: the Serbs removed the Dutch soldiers' blue peacekeeping helmets and later wore them themselves to trick escapees into handing themselves over.
Up to 7,500 men, and boys over 13 years old, were killed. They were trucked or marched to their places of death. Up to 3,000, many in the act of trying to escape, were shot or decapitated in the fields. (Mladic had sent out his written order to 'block, crush and destroy the straggling parts of the Muslim group'; it was carried out.) 1,500 were locked in a warehouse and sprayed with machine gun fire and grenades. Others died in their thousands on farms, football fields, school playgrounds. The whole action was carried out with military efficiency. (It is said that the transport drivers were each forced to kill one man, to deter them from testifying against the Serb troops later.)
Thousands of the bodies were buried in mass graves. US aerial reconnaissance film shows the signs of a mass grave being covered by earth-moving equipment. Later many bodies were dug up and moved to more secret burial places.
There was always work for the gravediggers as playing fields and spare areas of ground were turned into cemeteries.