25 Years Since the Srebrenica Genocide Don’t deny! Remember!

They talk about that time, about the summer of 1995, when they were children, when they had to pack their toys hastily in order to get themselves into safety from the Serbian troops. The attacks, the fears – the world seemed to stand still for them then.

They talk about how it felt at that time when the then so-called UN safe area no longer provided any protection.

How it felt when the hopes to get protection from the internationals from the hatred of the advancing Serbs, dissolved into thin air. At that time, when the international community folded in face of the violence overrunning the whole of Bosnia since 1992 and ultimately culminating in Srebrenica. At some point, as reported by one of the survivors, she understood that she did not have a father anymore.

 

Srebrenica

25 Years Since the Srebrenica Genocide

Don’t deny! Remember!

They talk about that time, about the summer of 1995, when they were children, when they had to pack their toys hastily in order to get themselves into safety from the Serbian troops. The attacks, the fears – the world seemed to stand still for them then.

They talk about how it felt at that time when the then so-called UN safe area no longer provided any protection.

How it felt when the hopes to get protection from the internationals from the hatred of the advancing Serbs, dissolved into thin air. At that time, when the international community folded in face of the violence overrunning the whole of Bosnia since 1992 and ultimately culminating in Srebrenica. At some point, as reported by one of the survivors, she understood that she did not have a father anymore.

The video recordings created by the Memorial Centre in Srebrenica are an impressive document of what happened 25 years ago in the small town in East Bosnia. They are the memories of 100 contemporary witnesses who lost their brothers, fathers, cousins and uncles – during the gravest crimes committed on European soil after the Nazi terror during World War Two. In Srebrenica, over 8300 boys and men, the majority of them Muslims, were murdered by Serbian units. The deeds have been documented and convicted in front of the Criminal Tribunal for War Crimes in former Yugoslavia in Den Haag, evidenced by countless witness statements. The International Criminal Tribunal established: “… the deeds which were committed in Srebrenica pursued the goal to destroy the group of Muslims as such.“ Genocide.

Yet the state of facts and court verdicts apparently no longer suffice in order to preserve the remembrance of this dark chapter of European history. Instead the denial of the atrocities and the revisionism have increased, they have seeped into the political discourse for years and poisoned the political climate. The genocide, as claimed by Serbian politicians, even active members of the Bosnian-Herzegovinian State Presidency, did not even happen. This denial is also accompanied by a glorification of the perpetrators: The numerous murderers and rapists, the members of the firing squads, the string pullers – they are all considered as heroes by not few nationalist actors

A quarter of a century after the war, those reinterpretations are preventing the urgently needed reconciliation in Bosnia and Herzegovina – and thereby throughout the Balkans. 25 years after the war ended, there still is no stable peace. It cannot and will not occur, as long as the perpetrated atrocities are not called by their names and the perpetrators considered murderers and criminals.

Denial and covering-up from the beginning

Immediately after the acts of violence committed in the Srebrenica area, in late summer 1995 Serbian units began to dig up the dead from the mass graves and to transfer them to other graves, sometimes the parts of the dead bodies were even carted away several times and buried elsewhere. Body parts of the victims were thus not seldom found at different locations – that gruesome detail has made the work on identifying the dead difficult to this day. There is still no trace of over 1000 people killed in the genocide. Negation and cover-up – that approach has been taken by the perpetrators from the beginning.

Instead of clarity regarding the discovery sites and the political responsibilities, crude theories circulate today, alleged anti-Serbian conspiracies are constructed, the legitimation of the courts – especially the Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in Den Haag – is questioned. How far-reaching those tendencies towards relativisation and denial already are, was proven by the Nobel Prize Committee in 2019, when it awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature to Austrian Peter Handke of all people, an apologist of the denial machinery questioning the testimonies of those survivors who sometimes lost all male family members in July 1995. Handke is giving a prominent voice to those conspiracy theorists and genocide deniers. By honouring him, the Nobel Prize Committee placed the relativisation of the eradication ideologies in the context of the Balkan Wars on an international level.  

Other crimes committed during the Bosnian War are systematically denied as well. Croatian nationalists in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia are for their part glorifying the deeds committed in the context of the creation of the parastate Herzeg-Bosnia; they were punished in Den Haag with over 110 years of imprisonment. Here too, the convictions did not cause a catharsis. Quite the contrary, today the ominous flags of Croatian extremists fly again in the Croatian dominated communities of Bosnia and Herzegovina naturally.

In the meantime, the Serbs were pursuing their own objectives: With the eradication, with the systematic killing, rape and expulsion of all non-Serbian life they created on “their territory“, the Republika Srpska, the societal structure it exhibits today. And precisely that was the historical error of the Dayton Peace Agreement, to cement the “war success“ governmentally as a final consequence. The political leadership guard of the RS has undertaken everything to the present day in order to undermine the functional capability of the country Bosnia and Herzegovina as a whole, with Belgrade´s support an alleged “statehood” is constructed, as if the RS were an independent structure that has only incidentally strayed into the Bosnian state formation and whose affiliation now has to be urgently corrected.

New hatred instead of catharsis

The political leadership of the Republika Srpska pursues the secession like a sacred mantra. There is no trace of a decrease of the nationalist extremism. On the contrary, a generation of Serbs is growing up which has of recently been proudly posing in front of murals of Ratko Mladic, the Serb General who orchestrated the genocide in Srebrenica. In schools there, Serbian pupils are paying homage to the Chetniks, on Orthodox Christmas Serbs are walking through the inconspicuous small town and singing hate songs. For all those who have survived the genocide, those developments are more than crushing. “Have I lost my whole family so that everything is just like then in the end anyway?“, one of the survivors is asking.

Genocide denial is one of the surest indicators of future violence”, states Emir Suljagic, Director of the Memorial Centre in Srebrenica, and adds: We are facing the risk of new political violence.“ Suljagic is right, the danger of new violence is growing. Not only in Bosnia.

Right-wing extremist worldwide feel inspired by the deeds perpetrated in the Balkans. For example, the assassin who attacked two mosques in New Zealand in 2019 and killed over 50 people, played, while he streamed his act on the internet, the Serbian-nationalist battle song “Karadžić, Lead your Serbs" – an homage to Serbian leader Radovan Karadžić. He was sentenced to 40 years of imprisonment for the crimes committed during the Bosnian War by the UN War Crimes Tribunal for former Yugoslavia in 2016. Karadzic´s and Mladic´s crimes, the violence against Muslims, were sadly continued in the terrorist act in Christchurch.

What are the implications thereof?

The trivialisation, the lacking dealing with crimes is not acceptable in a world that does not wish to remain in unsettling barbarianism. As the barbarianism in Bosnia was not come to terms with, as it has been glorified to this day and lately mainstreamed by nationalist politicians, as all three ethnic groups are passing on their own whitewashed interpretation of the war, successively accustoming to hatred and violence took place. However, accustoming to criminal deeds, their glorification and sacralisation corresponds to an attack on a universal value system, on which civilisation and the rule of law are based. The former High Representative of the International Community for Bosnia and Herzegovina, prof. Christian Schwarz-Schilling, put it as follows in a speech in 2007: “Those denying the genocide are moving outside of the norm of civilisation.“

Culture of remembrance: Srebrenica´s lesson for Europe

With wise foresight, Schwarz-Schilling ensured by law and using the Bonn Powers that the Memorial in Srebrenica-Potocari and the Cemetery for the Genocide Victims were put under the responsibility of the Bosnian state – and no longer the authorities of the Republika Srpska, whose representatives are denying the crimes. With that step, the German has laid the foundation for an independent remembrance culture that can function free of nationalist heated prerogative of interpretation and ethnic nationalism. Because possibly the remembrance of Srebrenica sometimes also is not so popular as by it the dominant narrative is broken according to which allegedly the all so peaceful Christian “Occident“ is endangered by an aggressive Islam. The opposite was the case in Srebrenica.

In any case, the decision of Schwarz-Schilling still resonates to this day.

It is to be understood as a mission of the International Community not to forget that small, remote Srebrenica and its moving history. It is an appeal not to leave the interpretation of the most gruesome deeds to the history falsifiers and violence glorifiers.                    

25 years after the genocide it seems appropriate to restate that appeal: The remembrance of Srebrenica must be revived, it should be moved from its shadowy existence in the focus of a European culture of remembrance. School classes from all European countries should learn here where nationalist delusion lead.

Srebrenica does not only concern the Balkan Wars, the past – it concerns us, our future. It concerns a Europe that needs to prove that it is ready to defend civilisation and human rights against the ones trampling those principles.

Heinrich Böll, the great German writer and admonisher, who repeatedly opposed war and violence in his work for which he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1972, put it as follows: “Words can kill, it is (...) a matter of conscience whether language will be allowed to slide into areas where it becomes murderous.“

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On the occasion of 25 years passed since the genocide, the Heinrich Böll Foundation is publishing an international reading, which considers itself as a counter voice to the patterns of forgetting, denial and trivialisation, as an act of resistance in the name of all victims and relatives, whose voices are becoming increasingly quiet, as they are obscured by a nationalist, revisionist canon.