Srebrenica five years on

Eric Stobbaerts, currently MSF Spain's General Director, was the General Coordinator of the MSF missions in Yugoslavia between 1993 and 1995. In July 1995, Srebrenica, an enclave protected by the United Nations, was taken by the Serbian Army. As a result, 40,000 people were deported and 7,000 missing.

In the following interview, Stobbaerts goes over the events that took place during those two years in Srebrenica, describing the situation of the population and the attitude shown by the international community towards solving the problem. He also analyzes the stand taken by MSF as the sole humanitarian aid organization present in the enclave at the time, and questions whether the organization's neutrality could, in a way, share the blame for what happened in July 1995.

In July 1995, Srebrenica, a summer town famous for its thermal baths, was taken by the Serbian Army. Once fallen, the enclave, protected by the United Nations since 1993, had to bear 40,000 deportees and 7,000 missing people.

Today, after five years, Médecins sans Frontières (MSF) recalls the events that took place in that town where, for two years, 40,000 people, despite their precarious living conditions, were still hoping to go back to their homes, with the hypothetical assurance provided by the protection of the UNPROFOR troops.

Eric Stobbaerts, currently MSF Spain's General Director, was the General Coordinator of the MSF missions in the former Yugoslavia between 1993 and 1995.

Interview with Eric Stobbaerts
By Amanda Sans
Head of Press and Information Service
MSF Spain


In 1993, the UN peacekeeping forces led by the French General Morillon arrived in Srebrenica, a town which, once the war started, saw its 5,000 inhabitants increase to 60,000 and was then declared "safe haven". MSF entered the enclave together with the United Nations, providing medical care to the population for two years.

What was Srebrenica?

In 1992, the Serbian Army, and especially the Serbian paramilitary, started a terror policy campaign against the Muslim population living in eastern Bosnia. The target was to carry out ethnic cleansing through fear. And it was done in the same way as in Kosovo, recently: writing lists with names, intimidating, threatening, banning access to basic services (education, health...). Due to this situation, the population started getting displaced. Srebrenica had become the centre for civil resistance to the attacks perpetrated by the Serbs. In just a few days, the town saw its population increase to 40,000 people, overwhelming and entirely blocking basic infrastructures. And the Serbian troops immediately surrounded the enclave. In early 1993, the United Nations peacekeeping forces were sent to there in order to assess the situation. An MSF team went into the enclave following the UN convoy. There we were able to prove that the situation was indeed dramatic. As for General Morillon, he decided to declare Srebrenica a "safe haven".

This meant establishing a new concept...

Yes, two concepts are created at the same time: enclave and safe haven. Gorazde and Zepa are also two more examples. It is but a copycat of the status given to the Iraqi Kurdistan which, in a way, forces politicians and the international community to take part.

How would you describe those two years in Srebrenica?

MSF was the only organization working in the enclave; UNHCR and ICRC visited the area every now and then until their visits became few and far between. MSF worked in the hospital, treating and operating on the wounded. We launched vaccination campaigns, provided water and hygiene kits to the population, trained local staff, rehabilitated structures, houses and community centres...in just a few words, MSF did all the work. The population's nutritional and hygienic conditions were lacking. The Serbs kept a tight control over any access to aid within the enclave; they only allowed in convoys when the situation was about to collapse or an outbreak was foreseen.

To my mind, the Serbs used a dropping tactic: they would leave the situation to reach the limit, then, when sensing things might become worse, they would allow the aid to arrive. By using this strategy, public opinion could never accuse them of genocide. For MSF it was all very complicated because, even though the Serbs were slowly killing the population, it was not possible to talk about genocide openly. However, we were able to denounce the lack of access to relief aid, as well as the lack of medicines and medical equipment.

During those two years, it was a fight for survival: winters were cold, there was no energy to get heat, there were mines...Srebrenica turned into an open roof prison and the MSF teams, into the doctors working in that prison. The image I recall from Srebrenica is not too different from the scenes shown in documentaries of the concentration camps in the Second World War.

The population, that at first called for resistance, little by little started changing their minds.

Yes, and the international community as well. During 1994, the population desperately started to wonder for how long they would still have to stay in the enclave. In fact, they wanted to move to central Bosnia to join their people. In the meantime, the international community continued negotiating and began to draw a map over Bosnia. The truth is that the Srebrenica and Gorazde enclaves made the drawing difficult...The politicians, in the end, decided that, as long as the enclaves existed, a peace agreement would not be feasible.

Which stand did MSF take when getting to know what the population really wanted?

At that moment making a decision was extremely difficult. As a General Coordinator, I advocated for moving the population. However there were two reasons against this choice. On the one hand, MSF cannot carry out such an action. It is not in its mandate. On the other hand, moving the population meant making concessions to the Serbs who wanted to take the enclave. Finally, the population was not moved, although I think that MSF should have brought some pressure or launch a lobby campaign so that the institutions and other bodies concerned could have taken solving the situation into their own hands.

This is still an on-going debate within MSF. Personally, I believe our neutrality, in a way, bears part of the blame for what happened in Srebrenica. Obviously, MSF did not know what was to happen in July 1995, but we lacked an overview of the situation. We should have exerted more pressure. Being neutral in Srebrenica made us close our eyes to that which was really going on.

Although MSF was not guilty, we failed insight. Our blame is, notwithstanding, on our passivity, on our failing to question the future, on our lack of understanding the population's needs. MSF's neutrality was perverse, negative. We were too dogmatic.

Yet the presence of MSF over those two years provided protection to the population, one of the pillars of humanitarian action.

Yes, indeed. MSF brought Srebrenica out in the limelight. We constantly denounced the lack of access to the enclave, the lack of medicines...we explained the situation as it was, whatever was happening in that prison. It was a way to bring pressure on the international community so that it assumed Morillon's statements, and assured the security of the area. Thanks to our statements, the public opinion got to know Srebrenica existed.

In spite of being a safe haven, the enclave was taken by the Serbs in July 1995. After five years, who should be made responsible for that? Above all the Serbian Army in Bosnia, Mladic and Karadzic. Yet also the political leaders, all those responsible to keep the enclave secured. MSF has requested the setting up of a parliamentary commission to investigate France's responsibility.

During the conflict, the political leaders showed no interest whatsoever in Srebrenica. In a meeting with the person in charge of UNPROFOR, I was told that the international community, "was not willing to have a Third Word War because of Srebrenica". The diplomatic game displayed was very complex.

Safe havens, peacekeeping forces...do you think they grant false assurance to the people who believe that in this way they are being protected?

In theory, safe havens and peacekeeping forces are a good omen. Whether they work or not depends on their mandate. In Yugoslavia they were not allowed to use their weapons and their mandate was very ambiguous, not too clear. It, in fact, reflected the international community's stand. By sending troops, they acted in a politically correct way, thus washing their image in front of the public opinion and never in the interest of the population...nothing else. By way of proof, take the revulsion the population in Bosnia felt against the UNPROFOR troops.

What has MSF learnt from Srebrenica?

There are still lessons to learn. I have a feeling of deep bitterness for what happened in Srebrenica... The debate within MSF is open...the lesson of Srebrenica will be a hard one to learn.