Remembering Srebrenica

Attempts to deny the Srebrenica genocide and to whitewash the history of the Yugoslav wars continue.

Trucks carrying the remains of 175 recently identified victims of the Srebrenica genocide passed through Sarajevo on July 9 [AFP/Getty Images]

In July 1995 in Srebrenica, the Bosnian Serb forces committed genocide, by killing 8,000 Bosniak men and boys. What is more shameful is that Srebrenica was a protected UN safe area, but the Dutch peacekeepers who had the responsibility to protect around 30,000 refugees in the area failed to prevent the mass slaughter.

So far, the remains of 7,100 victims from a total of 8,372 missing persons from Srebrenica have been found. In the now established tradition of commemorating Srebrenica, each year the remains of the newly identified victims, using the DNA of the living relatives, are buried in Potocari Memorial Centre. On July 9, the trucks carrying the remains of 175 individuals passed through Sarajevo on their way to the village of Potocari, their final destination.

Every year, both the old spine-chilling memories and unheard stories that surface, swell anew with the long-accumulated pain. Years go by, but each July 11, the familiar wounds seem ever so fresh and new. And yet, old debates and habitual accusations repeat, as we try to cling to the belief that humanity is not dead.

Is the ghost of genocide still lurking?  

The two main masterminds of the genocide are currently on trial at The Hague Court: The former president of Republika Srpska, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, war general of the Army of Republika Srpska, also known as the butcher of the Balkans among those who don’t glorify him as war hero.

While trials continue and survivors of the genocide wait for just verdicts, ghastly statements re-emerge. On July 9, published news about the latest horrifying racist remarks by Colonel Luka Dragicevic during his testimony in Mladic’s trial. Dragicevic was an assistant commander in the VRS Sarajevo-Romanija Corps from November 1994 to the end of the war.

He said that “Serbians are genetically stronger, better, more beautiful and smarter” than Bosnian Muslims – whom he called poturice, a derogatory term for Balkan Muslims who converted to Islam after the Ottoman conquest.

Explaining to the prosecutor that he used to do biology, phytogenesis and ethnogenesis, and assuring that his claims “are of course not racist”, Dragicevic claimed that such was his life experience.

Such grisly, racist claims about one people’s alleged genetic superiority over another incite fear of another possible intent by some of extermination of Bosniaks.

Genocide denials

Sonja Karadzic-Jovicevic, the daughter of Radovan Karadzic, recently announced  that she will run in the upcoming parliamentary elections of Republika Srpska in October. So when a war criminal’s daughter, who also dismisses the International Court in The Hague, is praised for her background and idea”to think Serb”, what is to be expected of the shared future for Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats?

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As far as the current leadership of Republic Srpska, the chain of perverted denial has continued for years now. President Milorad Dodik stated, “If a genocide happened, then it was committed against Serb people of this region, where women, children and the elderly were killed en masse.” In his latest statements, he called Karadzic and Mladic “leaders of the movement who fought for freedom” of the Serbian people.

Blatant denial of internationally confirmed facts continues alongside threats of Republic Srpska’s secession. Meanwhile, quite unbelievably, Bosnia and Herzegovina, of all countries, still does not have a law that criminalises denial of the genocide in Srebrenica and other crimes on a state level. The Office of the High Representative of the international community in Bosnia and Herzegovina must also stop tolerating all dangerous nationalist rhetoric.     

What’s more, the so-called Srebrenica Historical ProjectHague-based NGO led by a Serbian-American “lawyer” named Stephen Karganovic, focusing on the gross denial and perversion of historical facts, has received more than $1m between 2008 and 2014 from the Republika Srpska’s government budget.

‘Obsession’ with genocide?

Some scholars criticise what they see as “the disproportionate attention on genocide”. In the articleSurmounting the myopic focus on genocide: the case of war in Bosnia and Herzegovina“, Nielsen Christian criticises the “genocide or not dichotomy” as unhelpful for understanding the Bosnian war through a scholarly agenda.

While some of his arguments stand true (for example, about the necessity to break “the circle of perpetration and victimhood” in reference to Balkan and Yugoslavian history), others seem to obscure far grimmer realities.

While the suggestion to focus on the continued investigation and prosecutions of all crimes, regardless of the ethnicity of both perpetrators and victims, stands true in terms of reconciliation, the continuous efforts by historical revisionists to whitewash abhorrent crimes do not lead to justice. “The facts of the genocidal assault on Bosnia’s Muslims are so horrific that a cottage industry of denial has since grown up,” wrote British journalist Olivier Kamm. Hence, rightful is the fight of all those who keep challenging genocide deniers. 

Of course, there are conscientious people in every society, and on all sides. This year, as in the past, more than a hundred NGOs in Serbia signed and sent a demand to the highest authorities to declare July 11 as the day of remembrance of the Srebrenica genocide in Serbia. Moreover, efforts of the NGO Women in Black from Serbia are commendable, as they work to raise awareness of crimes from past wars in ex-Yugoslavia, despite continuous repression and threats. There is much work to do, though, considering that most people in Serbia are either uninterested in touching the past or ardent in denying the committed crimes.

Moving forwards?

Meaningful change needs patience and time. Until education in the Balkans changes, young people will continue being poisoned by toxic and hateful narratives in schools.

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The leadership in Serbia, which aspires to join the EU, must realise that there can be horrid consequences for feeding hate towards Muslims. The Serbian government’s newest policy of what seems as “well-intentioned indifference” towards the crimes of the past might be politically salient for today, but dangerously short-sighted for the future.

People in Republic Srpska must change their ultranationalist, arrogant, corrupt leadership for their own good. Bosniaks must be empathetic and smart to avoid falling into the trap of collective shaming. They should acknowledge suffering on all sides while fighting for their own right to justice. To send the best message to those who hate their existence, Bosniaks must find the strength to get over internal bickering. They should invest in high-quality and ethical education for their youth.

Everyone in Bosnia is dealing with the same existential problems, but what we lack is the conscious willingness to work together. Each person is influenced by particular experiences from the war, but coexistence must not be reduced to contentment in the absence of violence while living in perpetual fear. Instead we should have a harmonious, common vision for a better future, despite differences, as real or artificial as they might be.

Until then, July 11 will remain the commemorative date for Muslims in Potocari, and July the 12 for the Serbs in neighbouring Kravica and Zalazje. The contested versions of pretty much everything will continue, with different commemorating dates, clashing visions, and a future of disunity. Only if, and when these converge, there will be the guaranteethat no genocide will happen again.

Riada Asimovic Akyol is pursuing her doctorate in International Relations at Galatasaray University in Istanbul. She has been a contributing writer for Al-Monitor and other publications.