Though they won’t be physically present on July 11 this year due to the pandemic, thousands of mourners will converge spiritually and virtually upon the Srebrenica-Potočari Memorial Center in eastern Bosnia and Herzegovina to grieve for the 8,372 murdered by Bosnian Serb forces during the 1995 genocide.
They will witness the burial of newly discovered bodies; testimony to the painstaking, yet harrowing work to reunite missing persons with their loved ones twenty-five years on. There will, however, be little to provide solace to those who have suffered unimaginable losses, for with each passing year the pain and anguish born from denial and distortion of the crimes committed here grows ever more acute.
Pronouncements by leaders in Serbia and Republika Srpska (one of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s two entities, responsible for the war’s worst atrocities) have made a mockery of various court verdicts that the acts committed at Srebrenica constituted genocide. They reflect not only a stark refusal to accept responsibility and demonstrate remorse, but an eagerness to confine these crimes to the ash heap of history. All manner of divisive, deceptive, and disorientating tactics are employed; refutations of numbers; inversions of victimhood; conspiracies and counter-claims; plus silence about and sheer manipulation of the facts. To complicate matters further, the reign of impunity is now intermingled with the return of figures such as Momčilo Krajišnik, another Bosnian Serb political leader, sentenced for the most heinous of crimes; creating a perverse environment in which those who’ve evaded justice walk side-by-side with those deemed to have served their time for committing crimes against humanity.
With each passing year the pain and anguish born from denial and distortion of the crimes committed here grows ever more acute.
Murals and textbooks
Revisionist narratives and outright denial have seeped into many walks of life in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Serbia, and elsewhere. In the former, murals of Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladic – both of whom have been found guilty of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) – litter the facades of schools and other public buildings; glorifying their image and legacies before the most innocent of souls.
Other sites of rape, torture, and murder are being marketed to tourists, who often remain oblivious to the blood that has been spilt on these grounds (a recently launched petition calls upon Google to remove Vilina Vlas hotel’s listing as a tourist site). Segregated education systems teach their own potted versions of history, with crimes perpetrated in the community’s name erased from the syllabus and textbooks. Hope springs eternal from younger generations prepared to ask questions of their elders about the genocide and crimes against humanity – how such atrocities were facilitated, what they themselves did during those times, and why memories are now being obliterated. Sadly, such voices are either mute, departed, or yet to be formed.
Dealing with the past
Transitional justice barely raises a whisper, save for laudable efforts to establish a regional commission to establish the facts about all victims of the wars in the former Yugoslavia and to combat wartime sexual violence (a cause the British government has championed). A strategy painstakingly drafted several years ago rests in a bottom drawer somewhere, unlikely to see the light of day anytime soon. There is no framework for dealing with the past, even for those amenable to the very idea; whether these include institutional mechanisms for establishing facts about the past or databases of all victims (the living and the dead). Tackling trauma – including that passed on from one generation to the next - remains a taboo and psycho-social support is insufficient.
Civilian victims of the war face almost daily discrimination and neglect. Many survivors of Srebrenica and their offspring are still living in camps such as Jezevac and Mihatovići. There is no victim-centered approach to rehabilitation, let alone reparations. The country’s political deadlock, including where fundamental human rights matters are concerned (for instance, the Sejdić-Finci case), has driven such concerns further down the list of priorities, to the neglect of all victims, regardless of their identity.
Civilian victims of the war face almost daily discrimination and neglect.
Europe’s capitals stood by
Srebrenica was the largest atrocity to take place on European soil since the end of the Second World War, and yet it is rarely remembered as such. Europe’s capitals, who largely stood by whilst the country descended into chaos, will not skip a beat, not even for a solitary minute. There will be little pause to reflect or shared observance, save where orchestrated by the dedicated endeavours of Remembering Srebrenica and the like. The day will simply pass many by, oblivious to an anniversary that should be deeply etched into the annals of Europe’s history.
That these events happened only twenty-five years ago makes such ignorance even more unforgivable. It is, therefore, time to declare July 11 an official day of remembrance of the Srebrenica genocide; a day on which to remember the victims and to reflect upon the notion of ‘Never Again’.
For it is far right extremists who are actively embracing revisionist narratives to inspire their own causes and manifestos of hate. The Christchurch mosque shooter listened to a song glorifying Karadžić, whilst Anders Breivik almost endlessly referenced the Yugoslav wars of the nineties. With Islamophobia on the rise throughout Europe, it is not simply a case of preserving memory for memory’s sake, but of combatting dynamics of dehumanisation which ultimately lead to acts of violence. The award of the Nobel Prize for Literature to the Austrian writer, Peter Handke (whose statue is to be erected in Banja Luka, the de facto capital of Republika Srpska), has reinforced a sense of complacency and, worse still, complicity in Europe; a nod of tacit support to those intent on distorting and denying atrocities, including genocide.
With Islamophobia on the rise throughout Europe, it is not simply a case of preserving memory for memory’s sake.
What we owe
The reality only twenty-five years on breeds pessimism about how Srebrenica will be remembered in the coming decades. Whilst denial is being actively orchestrated, solemn remembrance is dependent on the courageous few (the Mothers of Srebrenica and Žepa Enclaves, and the aforementioned Memorial Centre, being notable examples); those who occasionally become hoarse from shouting into the abyss of collective memory.
They deserve our support in amplifying the message they carry within them; messages they convey with great humility and humanity to the world. We must not again betray these voices; voices that will one day cease to walk amongst us. Only through our own and future generations can their memories live on; memories that must be preserved against a rising tide of denial and revisionism. We owe it to the victims.