It is not ‘ethnic cleansing’, it is genocide

The term was invented by Serb genocidaires trying to cover up their crimes in the Bosnian war.

People gather near bodies lined up for identification after they were unearthed from a mass grave found in the Nasser Medical Complex in the southern Gaza Strip on April 25
People gather near bodies lined up for identification after they were unearthed from a mass grave found in the Nasser Medical Complex in the southern Gaza Strip on April 25, 2024, following the withdrawal of Israeli forces [File: AFP]

Over the past eight months, like many people around the world, I have been starting my day by checking the news from Gaza and the rest of Palestine. I rely on the reports from people on the ground in Gaza, mostly on social media, to get reliable information about what is happening.

At the same time, I follow the mainstream media, leaders, representatives of big international organisations and scholars to get different perspectives. Unfortunately, too often, I hear them using the term “ethnic cleansing” when referring to the ongoing genocidal campaign against the Palestinians. Each time I hear this phrase, it reminds me of the war I survived in the 1990s in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

“Ethnic cleansing” is a term coined by the genocide perpetrators during the wars that led to the dissolution of Yugoslavia. The term derives from military terminology referring to the “cleaning” (čišćenje) of an area after a military operation. Propagandists added “ethnic”, creating the term “etničko čišćenje”, and the media, politicians, even academia and international organisations helped spread it and keep it alive.

International criminal law recognises four types of core crimes: war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide, and the crime of aggression. The United Nations accepted the term “ethnic cleansing” in 1994, describing it as a method used to commit crimes against humanity and war crimes, leading to genocide. However, it is not a legally defined crime and, as such, cannot be prosecuted.

Gregory Stanton, the founder of Genocide Watch, defines “ethnic cleansing” as a “euphemism for genocidal practices” used to cover up events that should be prosecuted as genocide and to dehumanise its victims. In other words, the use of the term “ethnic cleansing”, if done intentionally, is part of genocide denial, which is the last stage of this crime.

At the end of the 1980s, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY), where about 22 million people used to live, started to fall apart. Disintegration started from Serbia, the biggest republic inside the federation, triggered by the policies of its then President Slobodan Milošević . The former banker who became a politician in the early 1980s was greedy for power and pursued it using all available means.

Fearing that he would lose power amid the political upheaval and the disintegration of Yugoslavia, he launched a propaganda campaign spreading fear and hate. His approach involved all segments of society, including the media, academics, the military, intelligence, common criminals, writers, and even pop stars and astrologers.

The propaganda focused on creating a conflict between “us” and “them”, “us” being the Serbs, the “heavenly” nation as he used to say, and “them” being all the others, starting with Kosovo Albanians, Croats, or all non-Serbs who did not want to follow his propaganda in Bosnia. He and his allies propagated myths about “centuries-old hatred” between these groups and the victimisation of Serbs, who, to be protected, had to live in one state.

This goal could only be achieved through what they called “ethnic cleansing” and “human resettlement”, followed by the creation of mono-ethnic states, Velika Srbija (Great Serbia) being the most powerful of them.

The term “ethnic cleansing” was vague enough and easy for propaganda media to use. Ironically, Western politicians and international organisations, including the UN, accepted the term because nobody was ready to acknowledge a genocide was happening in the middle of Europe. Nobody wanted to take responsibility and act on the obligation imposed by international law to stop genocide.

The mainstream media followed the lead of governments and international organisations, embracing the terminology created by the Milošević propaganda machinery. They reported about the war as if it was too complicated to explain to Western audiences and instead suggested that it was fuelled by “centuries-old hatreds” among people who do not want to live together, and that “ethnic cleansing” was the only solution.

This interpretation of what happened in Bosnia in the 1990s persists until today. It has become ingrained in the language of Western war reporters and their approach to reporting almost any war, as we can see in the coverage of the Gaza war.

Each time I hear the words “ethnic cleansing”, I recall two episodes from the war in the 1990s. The first one was in April 1992, when the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA), along with the Army of Republika Srpska, entered the city of Zvornik in eastern Bosnia.

They put up a Serbian flag at the top of the biggest mosque in the city and played an old Serbian military song from the loudspeakers while going on a rampage, massacring people. Once it was all over, Serbian media reported that the city was “liberated” and “cleaned”. Over 400 people were killed in just a few days, and thousands were taken to concentration camps or expelled from the city.

The second episode was in July 1995 in Srebrenica. After days of heavy fighting and bombings of the city where over 30,000 people were living war criminal Ratko Mladić, commander of the Main Staff of the Army of Republika Srpska, entered the city accompanied by a TV cameraman.

Mladić greeted, hugged and kissed soldiers who reported to him that “cleansing” was taking place. He then ordered: “Pravac Potočari” (go straight to Potočari), where thousands of people had gathered around and in the UN base seeking protection.

Instead of protecting civilians, the UN peacekeeping forces allowed Mladić’s soldiers to enter the base. They watched on as his troops started separating the men and boys from the women and other children. The women and children were ordered onto buses and trucks that took them away (“human resettlement”).

The men and boys were taken to various areas around Srebrenica and Potočari and executed (“ethnic cleansing”). It took the Serb forces about seven days to kill more than 8,000 people and dump them in mass graves. Some of the remains of victims have still not been discovered.

At the end of the genocidal campaign, the media in Serbia and Republika Srpska reported that Srebrenica was “liberated”, with some saying it was cleaned “from smell of those who lived there before”.

The genocide was part of the plan prepared by Mladić, Radovan Karadžić and other political leaders of wartime Republika Srpska, and supported by Milošević . Twenty years later, Mladić and Karadžić were convicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY) of genocide, while Milošević died in prison, waiting for his judgement to be delivered. Genocide was finally recognised as such by the International Court of Justice in 2006, but only in Srebrenica.

Today we see a very similar situation in Gaza and the rest of Palestine. The Israeli army, with the full backing of political leaders, is systematically targeting and massacring Palestinian civilians with the aim of eliminating them as a group.

And yet, many people are using the term “ethnic cleansing”. Not all of them are doing that intentionally, and many are just victims of propaganda and not even aware of how and why that term was invented during the Bosnian genocide. But language does matter, and it can make a difference.

Every image from Gaza takes me back to the early 1990s in Sarajevo, where my family and I were trying to survive attacks by the Army of Republica Srpska. The images, words, and sounds are so familiar. I do know medical procedures without anaesthesia; I do know hunger, thirst, fear, hopelessness, loss of loved ones, and the smell of blood. I recognise the feeling of humiliation while waiting for humanitarian aid, opening and eating food from cans or plastic bags. And like over 30 years ago, I feel angry again because not enough is done to stop the war and genocide.

Using the term “ethnic cleansing” and talking about “complex situations” and “centuries-old hatreds” is like letting Milošević or any other genocide perpetrator win. It is deeply insulting to the victims of genocide since it implies that they are just dirt that has to be cleaned from an area.

By using proper terminology and calling things what they are, we seek accountability and demand the prosecution of perpetrators. More importantly, we show respect for the victims and survivors.

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