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The UN Designates the City a “Safe Area”

In spring 1992, the Bosnian Serb army began a campaign of “ethnic cleansing” to expel non-Serbs from the Serb-controlled areas of Bosnia. The army systematically persecuted non-Serbs, raped and murdered them, forcibly displaced them from their homes, cut off their electricity and water supplies, and denied them humanitarian aid. Seeking safety from the onslaught, non-Serbs fled in droves to the city of Srebrenica, in eastern Bosnia, which quickly became inundated with refugees.

Despite its UN–designation as a “safe area,” Srebrenica was shelled by Bosnian Serb forces.

On March 12, 1993, General Philippe Morillon, the UN peacekeeping commander in Bosnia, accompanied a long-awaited aid convoy into the city, where a teeming crowd greeted them, desperate for food, medical aid, and protection. With throngs of refugees blocking their vehicles, General Morillon and his colleagues quickly realized they would not be leaving Srebrenica that night as they had planned.

The next day, in an effort to regain control of the situation, General Morillon stood in the window of the town’s post office and told the people gathered outside that he would stay with them, proclaiming they were now “under the protection of the UN forces.” 

While his words calmed the crowd, they also created panic in his superiors at UN headquarters in New York. His declaration that the mainly Bosnian Muslim citizens were under the protection of the United Nations was a moral commitment he made on behalf of the international community, without official clearance or even debate.

Over the next month, as Serb shells continued to fall on the beleaguered enclave, members of the UN Security Council debated how best to end the Bosnian crisis. On April 16, unable to wait any longer, the Security Council passed Resolution 819, demanding that “all parties and others concerned treat Srebrenica and its surroundings as a safe area which should be free from any armed attack or any hostile act.” Just three weeks later the Security Council passed Resolution 824, creating an additional five “safe areas” in Bosnia: Bihac, Gorazde, Sarajevo, Tuzla, and Zepa.