I once recommended that Srebrenica be fenced in as a memorial to the suffering and death inflicted by genocide. Today, half the Serb population denies genocide ever took place. The return of laughing children to the playgrounds is held up as a symbol of enduring normality. But I’ve seen these children play hopscotch on the foundation of a razed mosque in Zvornik, symbol of a community that is no more. They dance, innocently, unaware of the graves beneath their feet.
This is not Kigali and the Bisesero hills, where perpetrators and survivors are trapped in a face-to-face existence that belies a denial of the past. Instead, Srebrenica has turned its back on the loss and grieving caused by genocide. It must not be allowed to forget.
Michel Thieren was head of office for the World Health Organisation in Tuzla, northeast Bosnia. He writes in a personal capacity
I arrived in Bosnia in November 1995 just as a hastily concluded peace agreement green-flagged thousands of displaced Serbs from Sarajevo to former "safety zones.” As though the stroke of an official pen could decree a change of season – declaring the sunshine of peace and tranquility in the midst of a brutal, genocidal winter. Some of the returning Serbs tried to hide from the sight of Srebrenica-the-Shameful, settling outside the town, in neighbouring Bratunac, to deny and to forget. Unknowingly, they built their new lives on the mass graves of thousands of Muslim men clustered around Bratunac.
I came armed with years of experience in medical emergencies and humanitarian crises, from Laos to Rwanda to Haiti. But nothing had prepared me for Srebrenica. My public-health function there as a doctor bordered on absurdity; here are notes I made at the time for a mission report:
“Of the 15,000 displaced persons expected, I don’t see any. The hospital is destroyed, gutted by a Serbian army tank – at close range – in total violation of the rules of war and medical neutrality. The mosque and school have collapsed, again, not as a result of a random shell from the surrounding hills but fired unlawfully from the back. It seems as if everyone was taken by surprise, as if in some kind of Balkan Pompeii.
Through the kicked-in doors of houses, I can see the fossilized evidence of crimes: unfinished domestic activities as innocent as the preparation of a family meal, the washing of towels and clothes, children’s games, the reading of a newspaper. Lifeless toys, shoes and clothes lie about on the ground, forgotten in panic by women and children hurrying into exile, and by men preparing for execution in the woods. Outsiders, “ordinary people,” would never completely comprehend the utter and complete violation of humanity that the air is heavy with. 18 months of siege and a massacre have left a kind of muted and confined sound wave, in a time warp. If you listen, you can hear it reverberate.
If you listen, you can hear that guttural cry of deep and utter emptiness. Women refugees in Tuzla crying with no tears left to shed. Holding a piece of a lost past in their hands – wedding ring, a necklace, anything – exhumed from a mass grave. Sought with hunger and hope for so long, now confirming their worst fears. The nightmarish cries of those who lose all hope is as incomprehensible as the emptiness that replaces it in their souls.
The Convention on the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide, drawn up almost 50 years ago by the Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin in the aftermath of the Holocaust, applies here without a doubt. I recommend today, the 27 January 1996, that Srebrenica be fenced in and turned into a memorial to those who suffered genocide, as Auschwitz and S-21 Tuol Sleng already are.”
Impaled by the horror of Srebrenica, I kept these notes to myself. I wrote instead on the medical implications of the sanitary situation in the adjacent town of Bratunac.
Also on the tenth anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre in openDemocracy:
Ed Vulliamy, “Srebrenica: ten years on”
Ten years on, I can still hear the reverberation. And the world needs to listen to it too. Listen beyond a Muslim mayor’s official claims of ethnic reconciliation, in a city from which its entire Muslim population has been ripped out. Genocide didn't only happen in Srebrenica, it actually won. It will continue to win as long peace agreements are used to circumvent the truth. It will continue to win unless the dead and the grieving are offered a memorial in reconciliation, not only in neighbouring Potocari but in “Serb-cleansed” Srebrenica itself. A memorial that will also remind Europe and the world of their responsibilities in the crimes perpetrated there.
I add my voice to the reverberating cries of loss and pain. As “ordinary people” we will not ever entirely comprehend the enormity of genocide. But continued denial or indifference makes us, shamefully, kinsmen to those responsible for Srebrenica-the-Shameful.