As Bosniaks, we have a duty to speak up for Gaza

Silence and abstention are not options, especially for those of us who are unfortunate to have experienced war, genocide and oppression.

an explosion against a black night sky
A picture taken from southern Israel near the border with the Gaza Strip on December 2, 2023, shows an explosion and smoke billowing over the Palestinian territory during an Israeli strike [Jack Guez/AFP]

The sound of gunfire echoes throughout the city. Explosions light up the night sky as bombs destroy homes, schools, marketplaces and any signs of life in them. Overwhelmed and under attack, health workers in a few, barely functioning hospitals struggle to help the injured, mostly children. Nowhere is safe – starvation, thirst and death are everywhere.

No, this is not the siege of Sarajevo, some three decades ago. This is Gaza, now. Though one can be excused for mistaking one for the other. Today, Palestinians in the besieged enclave are facing a catastrophe that is in many ways identical to the one my people, Bosnian Muslims, had to endure in the 1990s.

Israel claims its war is against Hamas, and not the civilian population of Gaza. It says it is merely “defending itself”, and not aiming to displace hundreds of thousands of people and acquire more Palestinian land. Yet the reality on the ground does not match these claims. Israel’s relentless offensive is not only targeting Hamas. Its siege and bombs are killing civilians in their thousands, eradicating entire bloodlines, displacing many more, and – by the admission of some of Israel’s leaders themselves – aiming to erase all traces of Palestinian life and heritage from Gaza. This is not self-defence, this is not disproportionate retribution, this is genocide.

In 2001, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) judged that what happened in Srebrenica in 1995 – the targeted killing of more than 8,000 Bosniak men and boys as well as the mass displacement of tens of thousands of other Bosniak civilians – was genocide. Announcing the ruling at the Hague, Presiding Judge Theodor Meron stated that “By seeking to eliminate a part of the Bosnian Muslims, the Bosnian Serb forces committed genocide.” Is this not exactly what Israel is trying to do in Gaza? What can explain the targeting of highly populated residential areas, hospitals and United Nations schools sheltering displaced civilians with allegedly surgical air strikes other than a desire to “eliminate” at least a part of the population living there?

There is no doubt that crimes were committed by Hamas in southern Israel on October 7. Hundreds of Israeli civilians were killed, maimed or taken hostage, which cannot in any way be justified. But the genocide Israel embarked on in response to these crimes, or its decades-old repression and dispossession of Palestinians that led to the emergence of Hamas in the first place, cannot be justified, either.

As a survivor of the Bosnian war, whose relatives were put in concentration camps, I cannot stay silent as Israel commits a genocide. Failing to condemn what Israel is doing to the people of Gaza would mean that I learned nothing from what has been done to my people.

Bosnians have experienced first hand the horrific consequences of the international community remaining silent in the face of blatant war crimes and crimes against humanity. Indeed, we know what happens when the world decides to sit back and watch the gradual destruction of a people in silence. I believe this is why there is now a sea of Palestinian flags fluttering in the wind during protests in Sarajevo. Ordinary Bosnians are standing with the people of Gaza and saying no to genocide because they know this is the right thing to do.

And yet, not all Bosnians seem to feel this way.

In response to the criticism of his deafening silence on Israel’s ongoing assault on Gaza, Emir Suljagic, the director of Srebrenica Memorial Centre, said, “This is not our battle.” In a November 26 interview with the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, Suljagic detailed how the Hamas attack on October 7 reminded him of the early days of the Bosnia war, and condemned the Palestinian armed group. He went on to defend his refusal to comment on Israel’s consequent war on Gaza, saying he will not sacrifice his organisation’s work “at the altar of whatever Hamas’s agenda is”.

I find this stance utterly perplexing, and deeply disappointing.

If this is not “our battle”, then why say anything? If it is not to condemn war crimes on both sides, why speak at all? If commenting on international conflicts risks damaging the work of the memorial centre, why does it appear to be OK to publicly support Ukrainian resistance against Russia’s invasion?

Some tie Suljagic’s seemingly unconditional support for Israel to his long-term collaboration with the World Jewish Congress (WJC) and other pro-Israel groups, as part of his work for the memorial centre. Yet by failing to speak up against this war on Palestinian civilians, for whatever reason, Suljagic is failing to do his duty. Indeed, by turning a blind eye to the ongoing bloodshed in Gaza, Suljagic is betraying the lessons learned from the Srebrenica genocide. And by trying to draw a false equivalence between Hamas and those responsible for the Srebrenica genocide he is undermining the gravity of the crimes committed against Bosnians.

In a now-deleted tweet from November 21, Suljagic claimed that there was “no difference” between Hamas and the Chetniks – the Yugoslav royalist and Serbian nationalist guerrilla force which committed some of the worst atrocities during the Bosnia war.

Chetniks put Bosniaks in concentration camps. They looted and besieged Bosnian towns. They tortured, starved, abused, raped and killed civilians in their thousands. They bombed hospitals, killing doctors and patients. They attacked libraries and town halls shielding the displaced. The mass graves Chetniks created and filled with Bosniaks during those dark years are still being unearthed across the country today. They did all this because they wanted to exterminate Bosnian Muslims. They committed genocide. And Suljagic, as a survivor of genocide, knows this very well.

Hamas’s crimes against Israeli civilians on October 7, however horrific, were in no way comparable. There is only one party in this conflict which has ever committed crimes against civilians that are as systemic and widespread as those committed by Chetniks against Bosniaks in the 1990s, and that is Israel.

It is Israel that is keeping civilians under siege. It is Israel that is indiscriminately bombing and starving them. It is Israel that is imprisoning young Palestinians en masse, stealing their dreams and futures. It is Israel that is committing a genocide.

Suljagic’s silence on Israel’s occupation, apartheid and ongoing genocide reflects an “I’m alright, Jack” attitude that implies Bosnians can turn a blind eye to genocide, and claim it is “not our battle”, under certain conditions. In that case, however, we can no longer point the finger at those who remained silent when we were facing genocide. We cannot stand tall and say we will do everything we can to ensure this does not happen again, to anyone.

So for the Palestinian people, and for humanity’s collective future, we should all do better. Bosniaks, and everyone else who recognises what is happening in Gaza as genocide, should speak up and demand an end to this atrocity. But just an end to this war is not enough. We should demand an end to the occupation and apartheid. We should demand a return to the 1967 borders. Palestinians should be allowed to live freely and with dignity on their own land.

We must support the Palestinian people and their struggle for liberation. Silence and abstention are not options, especially for those of us who are unfortunate to have experienced war, genocide and oppression. Now that we are on the other side, now that we are not the ones under siege and facing bombardment, we have a duty to speak up for those who are – even if it means upsetting allies and friends. In the words of Martin Luther King, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

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