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Book Review: Endgame: The Betrayal and Fall of Srebrenica, Europe’s Worst Massacre Since World War II

Posted by Matthew Hacke, Tuesday 7th February, 2017

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Book cover of Endgame. Serbian woman amongst draped coffins.

In 1943, the State Anti-Fascist Council for the National Liberation of Bosnia and Herzegovina  held its first session in Mrkonjić Grad. As part of Axis expansion in the Second World War, Bosnia had been annexed into the Independent State of Croatia. As part of Croatia, rule was delegated to the Ustaša, a Fascist-Ultranationalist organisation that would replicate the Nazi’s genocidal strategy against Jews, Gypsies and other marginalised groups. The Anti-Fascist Council was a direct response to these atrocities and documentation from their sessions makes it clear that they advocated equality for every man in Bosnia, whether they be Serbian, Croatian or Muslim. With peace restored to Europe in 1945, Bosnia (as part of Yugoslavia) was seemingly given an opportunity to reset, and for the next 50 years, its formerly antagonistic ethnic groups lived and prospered together. All seemed well, but the threat of conflict remained latent in the new Bosnian order. It is grimly fitting then that 1943 also coincided with the birth of Ratko Mladić, the military leader who was one of the primary authors of Muslim genocide in Bosnia from 1992-1995.

Srebrenica was the site of the genocide of 8,000 Muslim men. The town, an enclave of Bosniak defense from 1992 onwards, was declared a UN safe area in 1993 - a decree intended to block the continued advancement of anti-Islamic Serbian ethno-nationalists. However in July 1995 Srebenica would fall to a Serb offensive, setting in motion a chain of events that would ultimately culminate in massacre, mainly in killing fields near Potočari, a village just 6km north of the town. The gravity of this atrocity meant that in newsreels, and in collective memory, Srebrenica was the fulcrum of Bosnian Genocide, and David Rohde is an authority on the horrific sequence of events that took place at the southernmost tip of the Balkans. Clearly, Rohde has been intrepid in his approach to writing and story-gathering, and the scope of Endgame: The Betrayal and Fall of Srebrenica, Europe's Worst Massacre Since World War II - practically all of which is told through the eyes of a diverse group of witnesses - is formidable. Whilst basing a text so resolutely on primary sources can be hazardous, Rohde consciously employs such patterning to make Endgame all the more poignant. The recollections of men who went to Serbian slaughterhouses and firing ranges is both gripping and visceral; Hakija Husejnović remembers the fear of being “smothered by corpses” (p. 290), and Mevludin Orić recalls feigning death amongst hundreds of his compatriots as ants came to devour the dead bodies (p. 293). In order to tell these stories, readers know that Rohde’s protagonists must survive the genocide, however this hardly affords the reader much respite. Instead, Rohde’s focus on these unlikely survivors draws attention to the magnitude of the massacres incredibly effectively, emphasising the sheer number of voices silenced and stories stifled in these macabre conditions. The moments of elation when these figures find an improbable safety draws stark attention to the normality of the unjust and violent fate that met the overwhelming majority of Muslim men in Srebrenica.

The focus of Endgame lies as much with the inaction of the United Nations as it does with the enactment of atrocity, and indeed, Rohde argues they are inextricably linked. Srebrenica was famously declared the world’s first UN safe zone by the UN Security Council Resolution 819 (1993), and was subsequently garrisoned by international peacekeepers, the majority of which were Dutch. Requested to refrain from violence or intimidation, but still block Serbian encroachment (orders which quickly became apparent to be paradoxical), the Dutch were unable to respond to aggressive and bullish militia tactics. Endgame, following accounts from many of the UN peacekeepers, illustrates this inertia vividly, and indeed the collective embarrassment of these soldiers, and the United Nations at large is chastening. Whilst the cynicism of the genocide’s Serbian architects is chilling, Rohde clearly indicates that Western failures to act enabled, and perhaps catalysed the events. As alluded to in the title, Rohde feels Srebrenica was ‘betrayed’ by the UN. He concludes:

“The international community partially disarmed thousands of men, promised them they would be safeguarded and then delivered them to their sworn enemies … the actions of the international community encouraged, aided and emboldened the executioners” (p. 348).

Rohde views Srebrenica in retrospect. However, much like the urgent day-by-day unfolding of its narrative, Endgame’s lessons are immediate. Fifty years on from the collapse of Nazism, genocide occurred again in Europe, despite its preemption by the United Nations and their subsequent presence on the ground. After decades of apparent progress, the modern, democratic world was unable to block atrocity from unfolding in terrifying proximity and scale. If anything, Srebrenica demonstrated an uncomfortable truth; that hatred is still possible in cosmopolitan society. Endgame recognises this shock, and points to the urgent need to listen to the stories and commemorate the lives of victims, to make certain that history does not continue to repeat itself. Today however, the atrocities depicted by Rohde are replicated with worrying frequency. In this troubled present, Endgame asks us to be resolute, and prepared to stand up to oppressive, and murderous forces.

The Library holds material on both Srebrenica and the Bosnian Genocide more generally. To find relevant items, try searching in the online Collections Catalogue for any of the following terms: Srebrenica; Bosnia and Herzegovina; Yugoslavia; Genocide; Mass Killings. Furthermore, The Wiener Library is always looking to extend its collection and urges readers to to use their Suggest a Book function to recommend items for purchase.

Works Cited:

Rohde, David. Endgame: The Betrayal and Fall of Srebrenica, Europe’s Worst Massacre Since World War II. Penguin, 2012.

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