Seventeen years after the Srebrenica massacre, the lessons from the tragedy need to be learnt as a scarred people slowly heal
We pray to You,
Almighty God, may grievance become hope,
May revenge become justice
May mothers’ tears become prayers
That Srebrenica never happens again
To no one and nowhere!
Never again. That was the message from the outgoing Grand Mufti of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Dr Mustafa Ceric, in this year’s commemoration of the Srebrenica Genocide. The 11th of July was the 17th anniversary of Europe’s largest massacre since World War II, when 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were separated from their wives and daughters and then slaughtered by Bosnian Serb troops. This year, tens of thousands of people, including thousands of relatives, gathered at Potocari Memorial Park to commemorate what many view as a genocide.
Among the most poignant scenes were the 520 bodies (mainly body parts) that were offered a funeral prayer and finally buried after these many long years.
There were powerful speeches from many dignitaries, such as the New York Rabbi Arthur Sneier of Appeal of Conscience Foundation who lost his entire family to the Holocaust . He delivered a personal message from the US President, Barack Obama: “The name Srebrenica will forever be associated with some of the darkest acts of the 20th century. A measure of justice is finally being served for the victims in courts in The Hague.”
In his keynote speech the Rabbi added:
“I know the anguish and despair that you feel when those dearest to you are brutally murdered for no other reason than their religion or ethnicity. Although the devastating pain of this crime belongs uniquely to the people of Bosnia and Srebrenica, and most particularly to the family members of its victims, you are not alone. I grieve with you, I feel your anguish, I hear your cry and I feel your pain. The brutality of what took place here can never be forgotten. And the totality of this crime must be remembered, not denied.”
History will remember that it was in this valley, which was declared as a UN ‘Safe Haven’, that 8,000 Bosniak Muslim men and boys were separated from their families and put to death.
What was the aim of the war? Looking back, it seems like madness. Ethnic cleansing is always madness. The aggression by a powerful enemy on near-defenceless civilians was a disgrace within Europe and a massive challenge to the international community, only a few decades after World War II. Sarajevo was subjected to the longest siege in modern history (44 months) by Bosnian Serb forces, while Bosniaks were under an arms embargo. It was only the resilience and indomitable survival spirit of the Bosnian people, under the determined leadership of Alija Izetbegovic, that gave them the strength to withstand the onslaught. The only connection the Bosniaks had with the outside world was through a 800m tunnel under the airport, through which the supply of food, medicine and weapons was possible.
The story of peacekeeping in Srebrenica was one of betrayal, criminal negligence or (according to many Bosniaks) complicity with the Bosnian Serbs. General Mladic assured the world, in front of TV cameras, that no harm would be done to the people who took shelter in the Srebrenica safe haven. The Dutch peacekeepers who had a duty to protect unarmed civilians ‘were forced to withdraw’ having been ‘overwhelmed’ by the Serb forces. Many Bosniaks still ask why this peacekeeping force was not taken to task?
To understand the context to the massacre, it is necessary to go back to the rise of the ultra-nationalist Serb paramilitary forces, the Chetniks, fighting against the Ottoman Empire at the beginning of 20th century. Hatred against the Ottomans was their driving force. However, after WWII, Marshal Tito was able to maintain peaceful coexistence among the nations of the Yugoslav Federation under Communism through his authoritarian statesmanship until his death in 1980. In 1991, the country started disintegrating due to unrest and civil wars.
The Socialist Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina was one of Yugoslavia’s six federal units during Tito era. It mainly consisted of three equal people: Muslims (renamed Bosniaks), Serbs, and Croats, with populations of 43%, 31% and 17% respectively. In the first democratic multiparty elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina in November 1990, the three political parties represented by the three peoples reached a power-sharing agreement. In October 1991, the Bosnian Parliament approved a ‘Memorandum on Sovereignty’. It then held a referendum on the independence of Bosnia and Herzegovina but most Serbs boycotted the process. As a result the Bosnian parliament proclaimed the Republic’s independence from Yugoslavia on 6 March. This was immediately recognised by the European Community and the USA on the 6 and 7 April 1992, respectively. The Serbs’ Assembly in Banja Luka retaliated by severing all ties with Bosnia and Herzegovina. The name ‘Republika Srpska’ was adopted on 12 August 1992 and the Bosnian Serb forces waged a campaign of ethnic cleansing in order to create an ‘ethnically pure’ state of Republika Srpska. Bosniaks suffered the full brunt of this assault – including ethnic cleansing, rape and humiliation – from 1992 to 1995.
It was the painstaking effort by The International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) which accounted for all the missing people; the remains of almost 90% have been identified. The ICMP estimates that between 8,000 and 8,100 individuals went missing from the 1995 fall of Srebrenica. DNA bone samples, excavated from mass graves helped the ICMP account for the missing.
The question is: 17 years after the calamity, is Bosnia healing?
It is difficult to say. Bosniaks feel that the Dayton Peace Agreement was unfair. Bosnia signed up because, to most Bosniaks, an ‘unjust peace was better than just war’. The Bosnian Serb leadership today is still in a state of denial. The healing process needs an apology, which the Serb psyche has not yet grasped.
Bosnia and Herzegovina is a beautiful country with majestic mountains and pristine landscapes full of lakes, fountains and waterfalls. The people are warm-hearted, tolerant and respectful. The war and suffering has not been able to blot these qualities. The outgoing Grand Mufti takes inspiration from how the Prophet of Islam responded to the inhumanity of his adversaries. In response to the personal torment and humiliation that he faced, he did not seek revenge, but prayed for the guidance of all.
Image from: http://recorder.sayforward.com/category/calais-tags/bosnian-genocide
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