In Srebrenica, a new war is waged

The Bosnian war may have ended 25 years ago, but a new one is waged over the memory of the genocide victims.

Srebrenica memorial
Islamic Union Chairman of Bosnia and Herzegovina Husein Kavazovic prays for victims at the Srebrenica Memorial Centre on July 11, 2020 [Samir Jordamovic/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images]

On October 15, 2019, my appointment as the director of the Srebrenica Memorial Centre was to be made official. As I was leaving the campus of the International University of Sarajevo, where I taught international relations, my phone rang. It was the hospital. My mother had died.

Later, I would come to realise that that day marked one chapter of my life closing for another one to open.

When I finally arrived in Srebrenica, it took me a few weeks to understand that there was no precedent for what we were trying to do.

During the Bosnian war of 1992-95, thousands of Muslims sought refuge in Srebrenica in the eastern part of Bosnia and Herzegovina, as Serb militias were committing genocide against the Muslim pupulation of the Drina Valley, hoping to create a homogeneous Serbian territory and open the border with Serbia.

Today the town falls within the boundaries of Republika Srpska, drawn by the 1995 Dayton Agreement, and in 2003, it was in its former industrial zone, where the UN base had once been, that the memorial and a cemetery for the victims of genocide were established in 2003.

It should not come as a surprise that we operate in an environment that is openly hostile and rife with genocide denial. Locals as well as the authorities in Banja Luka, the capital of Republika Srpska, continue to see and treat us as an enemy, undermining our work and our mandate.

The ruling party of Independent Social Democrats under the leadership of Milorad Dodik, the Serb member of the Presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina, continues to invest public money into the production of “alternative facts” and alternative, counterfactual narratives about the events that took place in Srebrenica between May 1992 and July 1995.

Meanwhile, in Europe, there is a tendency to put the story behind and “move on”. The European way of dealing with genocide, mass-murder and organised violence is forgetting. This is not a value judgement, but a fact. The entire global order is based on the ability of the West to turn former enemies into allies.

That is very often the source of misunderstanding between us and our European friends who insist on reconciliation. Reconciliation is easy to talk about when the group targeted for genocide is simply no longer there, as was the case with the Jews after World War II. The Jewish communities across Europe were almost completely obliterated by 1945 and the few survivors ran as far away as possible for the most part.

The collaboration and crimes of many common citizens who benefitted from the murder of the Jews and took over their property were never really addressed. After the Nuremberg trials, which once again treated the Holocaust as a footnote, there was no mention of the crimes of Holocaust for another generation. Europe just moved on and the imperative of the ideological conflict between the West and the Soviet Union dominated public attention.

However, there is no precedent for victims and survivors returning to the sites and places where genocide was perpetrated and continuing to live there and memorialise their loss. There is no precedent for allowing the political structures responsible for genocide to rule the part of the land where it was perpetrated. The Nazis were not allowed self-rule in Bavaria, for instance, in 1946.

If we were not Muslim, the Bosnian Serbs would have been militarily defeated, all their war criminals summarily tried, and the ideology behind the mass murder thoroughly discredited. If we were not Muslim, the Bosnian army would not have been stopped on its march to Banja Luka in the autumn of 1995.

Recently, as part of research I have been working on, I came into possession of the transcripts of 57 sittings of the secessionist Bosnian Serb “assembly” which had been established in October 1991 by Radovan Karadzic. It is a common assumption, even among the scholars of genocide that genocidal intent is born and discussed in small, conspiratorial circles.

In this case, however, it was openly discussed in a forum of between 60 and 80 individuals, their discussions recorded for posterity on purpose. Every single aspect of the eradication of the Muslim population was debated in detail. Support for the “radical solution”, as Karadzic once referred to the genocidal operation in and around Srebrenica, was so overwhelming that the entire enterprise could safely be named “genocide by plebiscite”.

A number of deputies of this assembly are still alive and free. Some of them, like former chairman of the assembly and convicted war criminal Momcilo Krajisnik, have a voice in public.

Whereas the individual legal responsibility of high-ranking individuals in the Bosnian Serb and Serbian leadership was addressed before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, the political responsibility for the murder of more than 100,000, for the rape of tens of thousands, was ignored as state-building efforts were pushed to the fore by the international community.

We still see the people, who came to our villages in the 1990s to burn them down, walking in the streets freely; we still hear the same dehumanising vocabulary from the Bosnian Serb and Serbian politicians we heard back then; we are still the hated “Asiatic plague”, as a former University of Sarajevo professor and leading member of the Bosnian Serb assembly referred to us in one of the sittings.

That is why working at the Srebrenica Memorial sometimes still feels like being in a war-time enclave. I cannot say I mind the feeling. On the contrary, having once lived and survived the experience of an enclave, I have continued to feel surrounded even after 1995. It comes to me naturally, I even like being surrounded.

What I cannot handle are the open physical and social spaces of freedom. By coming back here, I decided to try and continue carrying the torch that my mother did not want me to carry. She never wanted me to take this job. She had lost one man in her life – her husband – here.

With my mother’s death, one war ended in my life, for another to start. It is a war for the interpretation of the war, as the renowned Bosnian poet Abdulah Sidran aptly put it. It is a war to honour the men and women I grew up with, who were murdered mercilessly, and to make sure their deaths are not forgotten.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.