Can Europe Make It?

Srebrenica, remembered

What does it mean to have commemoration steeped in contention? Memories of the war-traumatised town of Srebrenica are preventing Bosnia from moving forward.

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Brandon Tensley
10 July 2015

Gravestones at the Srebrenica Genocide memorial.Wikipedia/public domain.In Bosnia, avoiding everyday reminders of war isn’t easy: Buildings punctured by bullet holes pepper the landscape. It is estimated that there are dozens of undiscovered mass graves scattered across parts of the country. It was in Bosnia two decades ago that an ethno-national land grab between Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs claimed more than 100,000 lives.

Yet dig deeper and twenty years belies the knotty legacy of war in Bosnia, especially for the village-turned-massacre site of Srebrenica. In July 1995, the small salt mining town was shelled and then occupied by the (Bosnian-Serb) Army of Republika Srpska – even though it had been declared a “safe zone” by the United Nations. The occupiers killed some 8,000 Bosniak men and boys. Many consider the Srebrenica massacre, which in 2004 was ruled genocide by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, to be Europe’s worst civilian slaughter since the Second World War. But as has happened every year since 1995, this year’s ceremony for the massacre is conjuring up bitter controversy in and beyond Bosnia.

So, how did Srebrenica become a perennial flashpoint, and what does it mean to have commemoration steeped not in contrition but in contention? Though the answer doesn’t lend itself to easy explanation, it’s best to start with a look at the postwar blueprint for Bosnia.

The Dayton Agreement, drawn up by international actors in 1995, ended the three-year conflict, but it also gave rise to a stalemate hinged on ethnic lines. A key feature of the peace settlement was what some have called apartheid geography or Bosnia’s division into two ethnic territories: the (Bosnian-Serb) Republika Srpska on the one hand, and the (Bosniak-Croat) Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina on the other. The three-member presidency, shared among the three ethnic groups, has also structurally incentivised ruling elites to engineer ethno-national rivalries. Far from being a sort of seasonal illness, ethnic tensions have metastasized to most areas of public life in Bosnia, from citizenship to political office, and Srebrenica isn’t immune.

Observers continue to investigate Bosnia’s ethnic fault lines. Still, little attention is paid to how these ethnic enmities have primed Srebrenica to defy popular narratives of memory politics.

As a point of general contrast, in Germany, another country that was involved in an ethnically motivated European conflict where occupying powers enforced the peace for years, guilt for the Holocaust is stitched into national culture. Germany has never had the ethnic diversity that Bosnia still has, and it has faced its own challenges on the road to reconciliation. But years of hard soul-searching have made Germany the darling of successful postwar political transitions in Europe. Sarajevo-born Balkans analyst Jasmin Mujanovic put it to me another way, saying in an interview that when it comes to reconciliation “Bosnia is everything Germany wasn’t.”

In short, past and present aren’t so neatly sewn together in Srebrenica.

Milorad Dodik, currently the leader of the Bosnian-Serb dominated territory of Republika Srpska, where Srebrenica is located, paid a historic visit to the village’s memorial in April of this year. But he quickly attracted criticism when he told local media that the crime has been “politicised.” Indeed, during the three-way war, both Bosnian-Croats and Bosnian-Serbs launched brutal ethnic cleansing campaigns against Bosniaks, who in turn carried out violence against Croats and Serbs, though to a lesser extent. Yet many courts, such as those of the Hague Tribunal, define only Srebrenica as genocide, which Dodik rejects. He’s become infamous for snubbing the massacre’s recognition as genocide, arguing that genocide had actually been committed against Serbs.

Seemingly a problem of semantics, the polemics surrounding Srebrenica, often snagged on claims of half-truths by all sides, shine a light on broad incompatibilities in Bosnian discourse. This has made agreeing on what took place in Srebrenica more than a local problem.

“I believe this is a basic civilised responsibility of all people in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the world to support [a] resolution which condemns genocide and the killings of innocent people in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and this is the minimum we can do to create preconditions for reconciliation in this country,” said Mirsad Mesic, a Minister of Parliament who helped to introduce such a resolution this year. The resolution will most likely be sidelined, however, further demonstrating differences between national groups’ fractured perspectives.

But while Srebrenica still divides Bosnia, it seems to work like a tenacious glue for the larger international community. Samantha Power, the United States Ambassador to the United Nations, and also a young freelancer in Bosnia when Srebrenica fell, quipped in a Voice of America interview that there’s a broad global consensus on what happened in Srebrenica two decades ago – and that those who deny these facts “only embarrass and humiliate themselves”.

Of course, at a time when foreign actors seem particularly hungry for justice, it’s critical to take stock of how memory plays out in post-conflict areas. Even something as deceptively apolitical as supporting the construction of a memorial can undercut attempts to keep Bosnia together, because the same historical event often has wildly different meanings for different groups. “Commemoration”, Mujanovic explained, “can mold a victimisation culture, so it’s crucial to be mindful of how words animate antagonisms”. Looking forward, the international community must not only establish relationships with political players who won’t manipulate wartime memories to shore up their own power but who will also help to build the capacity of local communities. Perhaps it must also admit that there’s more than one narrative being told on the ground.

And these different narratives told in Srebrenica and throughout Bosnia keep the chapter of controversy open year after year. Srebrenica is the result of national grievances over memory, and it’s become an indelible part of Bosnia’s local and international identity. In a region where barbed images of state dismemberment are still fresh, this year’s ceremony for the Srebrenica massacre illuminates how the past shouldn’t be forgotten, –but it also speaks to a salient, sobering lesson that a country is, sometimes, only as divided as its memory of this past.

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