|Srebrenica Genocide in 1995: A lesson to learn
Mon 23 Jul 2012
Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari
We pray to You,
Almighty God, may grievance become hope,
May revenge become justice
May mothersâ tears become prayers
That Srebrenica never happens again
To no one and nowhere!
Never again. That was the message from the outgoing Grand Mufti of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Dr Mustafa Ceric, in this yearâs commemoration of the Srebrenica Genocide, which I just attended in Bosnia. 11 July was the 17th anniversary of Europeâs largest massacre since World War II, when 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were separated from their wives and daughters and then slaughtered by Bosnian Serb troops. This year tens of thousands of people (including thousands of relatives) gathered at Potocari Memorial Park to commemorate what many view as a genocide.
Among the most poignant scenes were the 520 bodies (mainly body parts) which were offered a funeral prayer and finally buried after these many long years. There were harrowing scenes of weeping and lament.
There were powerful speeches from many dignitaries, such as the New York Rabbi Arthur Sneier of Appeal of Conscience Foundation who lost his entire family to the Holocaust (which he himself survived). He delivered a personal message from the US President Barack Obama:
âThe name Srebrenica will forever be associated with some of the darkest acts of the 20th century. A measure of justice is finally being served for the victims in courts in The Hague and Bosnia and Herzegovina, as the perpetrators of this atrocity, including Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, are now being called to account for their actionsâŠâ
In his keynote speech the Rabbi added:
âI know the anguish and despair that you feel when those dearest to you are brutally murdered for no other reason than their religion or ethnicity. Although the devastating pain of this crime belongs uniquely to the people of Bosnia and Srebrenica, and most particularly to the family members of its victims, you are not alone. I grieve with you, I feel your anguish, I hear your cry and I feel your pain. The brutality of what took place here can never be forgotten. And the totality of this crime must be remembered, not denied. The testimony of those who survived cannot be refuted and the historical fact cannot be altered.â
History will remember that it was in this valley, which was declared as a UN âSafe Havenâ, that 8,000 Bosniak Muslim men and boys were separated from their families and put to death by an army commanded by the Serb commander, General Ratko Mladic. As Rabbi Sneier said, he and his political master Karadzic are now facing trial in The Hague.
What was the aim of the war? Looking back, it seems like madness. Ethnic cleansing is always madness. The aggression by a powerful enemy on near-defenceless civilians was a disgrace within Europe and a massive challenge to the international community, only a few decades after World War II. Sarajevo was subjected to the longest siege in history (44 months) by Bosnian Serb forces, while Bosniaks were under an arms embargo. It was only the resilience and indomitable survival spirit of the Bosnian people, under the determined leadership of Alija Izetbegovic, that gave them the strength to withstand the onslaught. The only connection the Bosniaks had with the outside world was through an 800m tunnel under the airport through which food, medicine and weapons supply was possible.
The story of peace-keeping in Srebrenica was one of betrayal, criminal negligence or (according to many Bosniaks) complicity with the Bosnian Serbs. General Mladic assured the world, in front of TV cameras, that no harm would be done to the people who took shelter in the Srebrenica safe haven. But alas, his army was let lose and the worst crime in modern Europe took place. The Dutch peacekeepers who had a duty to protect unarmed civilians âwere forced to withdrawâ as they were âoverwhelmedâ by the Serb forces. Many Bosniaks still ask why this peace-keeping force was not taken to task.
Why did the Bosnian Serbs commit this cruelty to the people who were of the same ethnicity?
To understand this you need to go back to the rise of the ultra-nationalist Serb paramilitary forces, the Chetniks, fighting against the Ottoman Empire at the beginning of 20th century. Hatred against the Ottomans was their driving force. However, after WWII, Marshal Tito was able to maintain peaceful coexistence among the nations of the Yugoslav Federation under Communism through his authoritarian statesmanship until his death in 1980. In 1991 the country started disintegrating due to unrest and civil wars.
The Socialist Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina was one of Yugoslaviaâs six federal units during Tito era; it had mainly three equal people: Muslims (renamed Bosniaks), Serbs, and Croats, with populations of 43%, 31% and 17% respectively. In the first democratic multiparty elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina in November 1990 the three political parties represented by the three peoples reached a power-sharing agreement. In October 1991 the Bosnian Parliament approved a âMemorandum on Sovereigntyâ. It then held a referendum on the independence of Bosnia and Herzegovina on 29 February and 1 March 1992. But most Serbs boycotted the process. As a result the Bosnian parliament proclaimed the Republic's independence from Yugoslavia on 6 March. This was immediately recognised by the European Community and the USA on the 6 and 7 April 1992, respectively. The Serbs' Assembly in Banja Luka retaliated by severing all ties with Bosnia and Herzegovina. The name 'Republika Srpska' was adopted on 12 August 1992 and the Bosnian Serb forces waged a campaign of ethnic cleansing in order to create an ethnically pure state of Republika Srpska. Bosniaks suffered the full brunt of this assault âculminating in ethnic cleansing, rape and humiliation â from 1992 to 1995. The Srebrenica massacre was a culmination of this inhumanity of one people to another.
It was the painstaking effort by The International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) that accounted for all the missing people; the remains of almost 90% have been identified. The ICMP estimates that between 8,000 and 8,100 individuals went missing from the 1995 fall of Srebrenica. In an effort to identify these victims through their DNA, it collected blood samples from 22,160 family members of 7,773 reported victims and compared them with DNA profiles from post-mortem samples excavated from mass graves. Of the 7,040 unique profiles extracted from bone samples, 6,838 persons have now been DNA-identified by ICMP. This has been a horrific experience for those who worked for the ICMP and obviously for the victimsâ families.
The question is: 17 years after the calamity is Bosnia healing?
It is difficult to say, as Bosniaks feel that the Dayton Peace Agreement was unfair. Bosnia only signed up because to most Bosniaks an âunjust peace was better than just warâ. The Bosnian Serb leadership today is still in a state of denial. It tries to put every barrier possible against the Bosniaks. The healing process needs an apology, which the Serb psyche has not yet grasped.
Bosnia and Herzegovina is a beautiful country with majestic mountains and pristine landscapes full of lakes, fountains and waterfalls. The people are warm-hearted, tolerant and respectful. The war and suffering have not been able to blot these qualities . The outgoing Grand Mufti takes inspiration from how the Prophet of Islam responded to the inhumanity of his adversaries. In response to the personal torment and humiliation that he faced he did not seek revenge, but prayed for the guidance of all.
Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari is an educationalist and parenting consultant (www.amanaparenting.com). He is a founding member of The East London Communities Organisation (TELCO), Chairman of the East London Mosque Trust, and former Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain (2006-10). Follow Muhammad Abdul Bari on Twitter: www.twitter.com/MAbdulBari
The views expressed in this article are the author's own.
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