It’s almost 25 years since the atrocity at of Srebrenica, the last massacre on European soil. It’s not the kind of event that anyone will be too keen to remember: we quite rightly salute D-Day veterans, a reminder of those whose sacrifice led to the freedom we have today. But it’s worth remembering Srebrenica too – it offers a shocking case study in how a perfectly peaceful community could be almost destroyed when forces of xenophobia, racism and imperialism are allowed to proceed unchallenged.
I was in Sarajevo recently to listen to the stories about that massacre. It’s one thing to know the details – over 100,00 killed in the Bosnian conflict (80,000 of them Bosnian Muslims), more than 10,000 in the city itself and 8,000 men and boys slaughtered over the course of three days in July 1995 in and around Srebrenica. But like the numbers killed in Stalin’s gulags, the statistics can be hard to take in. It’s two people killed not for every word, but every letter in this short article.
The United Nations was deployed there, to keep the peace and protect the vulnerable. One of the most heartbreaking parts of the Srebrenica story is how many believed the powerful UN would come through for them. I saw an abandoned battery factory in Potocari where thousands of Bosnian Muslims took refuge, wrongly assuming the UN would keep them safe. Men, from the very young to the very old, from surrounding areas seeking safety undertook a gruelling 60km walk to Tuzla to which a staggering 8,000 never arrived. Their corpses were put into mass graves, reburied in case they were discovered and often moved again to avoid the scrutiny of outside nations. Now they are at rest, some with only partial remains in their coffins, in a neighbouring graveyard. There are more than 6,000 headstones; until they are discovered the other bodies remain scattered across the hills of eastern Bosnia.
Even now, they are trying to identify the dead. In a collection of portacabins in Tuzla, I met a young female pathologist who goes in every day of her working life since she qualified in 2004 to identify the missing corpses. I stood in a pathologist’s lab at the head of her table as she painstakingly took samples to send off for DNA testing so that a grieving wife, mother or child could identify the remains of their lost loved ones. The statistics tell a grim tale. The detail brings the humanity. In that cold abandoned battery factory in Potocari behind glass cases are the faces of the murdered. An engraved pocket watch with a bullet hole belonging to Sead Hotic. The spectacles of Bekir Salihovic found with his body in a mass grave in 1996. And so the list goes on. Tiny human stories to make sense of an overwhelming human tragedy. There are monuments to the dead in Auschwitz, which we associate with Hitler and the evil he unleashed. Srebrenica reminds us how easily that evil can come back.
That’s why it’s hard to say what is the worst part of this story. The massacre, the bombs killing children in the playground, the grenade exploding in a queue of starving citizens trying to buy bread – all of are appalling. But perhaps hard to take in was that this happened in 1994. That a strong, integrated, cultured country could be turned in on itself. That neighbours could kill neighbours and still today, gleefully rejoice in the horror of what they did and worse still, deny that the evil they committed was genocide.
That truth was confirmed by the International Court in the Hague. That fact is known to the president of the Mothers of Srebrenica, Fadila Efendic, who I heard saying that, despite the loss of her husband and her son, she is moving on with her life, learning to do the jobs she used to leave to them but still, always, remembering.
Of course, war happens. Previously rational people behave abominably, innocent adults and children are killed, trust disappears and is replaced by a lingering fear that everything we once held to be true is a lie. The sad fact is, what happened in Bosnia has happened again already in many places across the world and it might well occur again there unless we learn the harsh lessons: A long sustained peace between groups of citizens can be broken in a short time when we skew our politics towards blaming the outsider, the foreigner, the other.
The lessons of that conflict are there for us all to learn. Less obvious is the constant narrative I witnessed over the few days I was there. What was it that allowed the population of Sarajevo to survive a bombardment of hundreds of shells, missiles, snipers and grenades every day for over fourteen hundred days? How do you keep going when you have no water, electricity and food and your only access to supplies is running across a road pinned down by snipers? How do you move on into day to day life when you know your neighbours are guilty of genocide? How do you mourn your missing father, brother, uncle or son when their bones are scattered across multiple burial sites to cover up the truth of how and where they were killed?
The answer, it seems, is the continued determination of human beings to overcome incredible odds and hold on to the one thing we’ve relied upon to steer us through every dark period of our history: our common humanity. I heard it in the voice of our young guide Alen Selimovic telling us how his parents moved him and his sister to a basement to survive the bombardment and eventually the war. I saw it in the face of Fadila Efendic as her hands played gently with the keys to her memorial shop adjacent to the graveyard where the remains of her son and husband lay and I felt it in the room where Hassan Hasanović explained the abandonment felt by his fellow Bosnians when they realised UN could offer no protection against certain death at the hands of the Bosnian Serb army led by war criminal Ratko Mladic.
Despite everything they went on, still go on, believing that trust and hope wins over fear. When the voices in Europe are getting louder and harsher it is worth thinking about this from Kada Hotic who lost her husband, son and two brothers in the massacre. ” Maybe one day we can close the story of war and move toward genuine reconciliation. Everyone has suffered. When those men killed my son, they killed themselves. I forgive them, and so I live.”