11 July marks Srebrenica Memorial Day, a national day of commemoration for the victims of the Srebrenica genocide.
In July 1995, during the Balkan War, Serb forces systematically murdered thousands of mainly Bosnian Muslim men and boys and buried them in mass graves. The victims were selected for death on the basis of their identity. This was the worst atrocity on European soil since the Second World War.
Two years ago I was privileged to join a delegation to Bosnia run by Remembering Srebrenica, the charity dedicated to remembering the genocide and learning from its survivors. I set off somewhat ashamed of my lack of knowledge of the Balkan conflict, not least because I can remember it taking place. During the 1990s the TV news carried regular updates on the siege of Sarajevo and, later, showed images of emaciated men imprisoned in concentration camps that drew inevitable comparisons with the Holocaust. At the time I was studying History at university, taking courses on 20thcentury British, European and American history while a genocide was unfolding in Europe in real time. In my many lectures on the Holocaust, its aftermath and the creation of the United Nations I don’t recall the unfolding tragedy in the Balkans ever being mentioned.
The story of the Bosnian war and the genocide of over 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys in 1995 is a complex one, summarised on the Remembering Srebrenica website. Our trip took in some of the key sites in the area around Srebrenica: the beautiful city of Sarajevo whose people endured a four-year siege; the former UN compound at Potocari which is now a museum; and the site at Tuzla where forensic archaeologists do the harrowing work of identifying victims’ remains excavated from mass graves so that they can be returned to their families for burial.
The former Holiday Inn in Sarajevo, which became a symbol of the city’s four-year siege during the Bosnian war.
I’m wary of the dangers of making simple comparisons between complex historical events, but during our visit I was struck by the many parallels I could see between my knowledge of the Holocaust and the events in Bosnia during the 1990s. The role of propaganda, rooted in a flawed and partial reading of history, to demonise and scapegoat a particular group of people. The systematic way in which the euphemistically termed “ethnic cleansing” was planned and implemented over a period of years. The inaction of the international community, despite the warning signs that are so obvious in hindsight. The reminder that genocide attempts not just to destroy a people but to eradicate their culture and way of life. The cover-ups and denial that took place at the time and have continued since. And, most frightening of all, the fact that those who perpetrated these terrible crimes were ordinary people, much like you or I, who before the conflict led ordinary lives.
The former UN compound at Potocari, now the site of a memorial museum
The Mothers of Srebrenica
The most moving part of our visit was hearing the testimony of those who lived through the conflict and now share their harrowing stories. Fadila Efendić, Mejra Džogaz and Hatidža Mehmedovic are three ‘Mothers of Srebrenica’ who lost husbands, sons and brothers to genocide and now campaign passionately and with great dignity for justice and peace. However, for them the conflict is not over. These women now live in the same communities – sometimes even the same street – as the men who murdered their families. Those men have never been held to account. We heard the testimony of Neždad Avdic, a man who survived a mass shooting but now lives in an area where the authorities deny that the massacre he was involved in even took place.
One of the ‘Mothers of Srebrenica’ photographed with HSFA Chair Lilian Black.
History and memory
HSFA is a membership organisation and has at its heart the refugees, survivors and their families who bear the scars of the Holocaust and carry its legacy forward. The experiences the survivors endured leave a lasting impact that their descendants will carry throughout their lives. Survivors and witnesses to terrible events speak out in the hope that their words will have meaning for those who hear them and will help to ensure that other people do not have to endure similar crimes. Yet history tells us that this is not the case. The world said ‘never again’ after the Holocaust but a mere 50 years later, as I was studying Nazi Germany in history lectures and people queued to watch Schindler’s List, genocide happened again in Bosnia, in Rwanda, then ten years after that in Darfur. Almost 75 years since the end of the Second World War genocide and crimes against humanity are a reality for people across the world.
Learning from the Past
At the Holocaust Exhibition and Learning Centre we tell the story of the Holocaust through the eyes of those who witnessed it first hand. Our exhibition is carefully researched and rooted in historical evidence but the narrative is driven by the survivors’ recollections, told in their own words. Since we opened the exhibition in September 2018 I have found myself reflecting constantly on the meaning of this history for the present. What lessons, if any, should we take from such terrible events? What responsibility do individuals have to address hatred and division in their own communities and elsewhere in the world? What could I have done as a student in 1995, and what should we be doing now?
There are no simple answers to these questions. However, as our work at the new Holocaust Exhibition and Learning Centre moves forward, we will be running events that seek to ask such difficult questions and encourage discussion and debate. We will soon be launching a programme of events for 2020 to commemorate 75 years since the end of the Second World War and 25 years since the genocide in Bosnia. We hope you will be able to join us.
11 July 2019