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Opinion

Fifth column

July 14, 2018

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Remembering Srebrenica

It has been more than 23 years since the Srebrenica genocide happened. In the dark days of July 1995, the Bosnian Serb Army – under the command of Ratko Mladic and the Scorpions, the paramilitary units of the Serbian Interior Ministry – butchered more than 8,000 Muslim Bosniaks, mainly men and young boys, in and around the town of Srebrenica.

The gruesome tragedy was accompanied by the eviction of nearly 30,000 Bosniak women, children and elderly people who were subjected to serious abuse and violence that forced them to abandon their homes in a clear strategy to ethnically cleanse the area. The civil war tore apart Bosnia and claimed the lives of more than 100,000 people, most of them Muslims. But the Srebrenica massacre remains the only incident that was defined as genocide by the UN.

However, Serbs have never admitted that their troops committed the crime. Once again, there was no official delegation of Bosnian Serbs from Serbia at the 23rd anniversary of the massacre. It was the worst atrocity on European soil since World War II and the second large-scale attack against humanity following the Holocaust.

In 2005, Kofi Annan, the then secretary-general of the UN, admitted that his organisation had “made serious errors of judgement, rooted in a philosophy of impartiality”. He described Srebrenica as “a tragedy that would haunt the history of the UN forever” as it was carried out in a UN-declared ‘safe area’ that was under UN protection.

The Dutch soldiers, who were working as the UN peacekeeping force that guarded the conclave’s besieged Muslim population, betrayed their mandate and allowed the Serbs to carry out the massacre. They failed to act as the Serb forces occupied the area, killing about 2,000 men and boys on July 11 alone. Thousands of Muslims fled into the surrounding mountains, only to be ruthlessly hunted down by the Serb troops who killed more than 6,000 of them in the adjoining forests. The ease with which the Serbs ran over Srebrenica has led many observers to blame the Dutch for being complicit in the massacre.

The genocide and other large-scale murders across Bosnia were followed by thousands of women being raped. They were deliberately targeted and as a matter of war policy. Most of these rape incidents remain unacknowledged as a majority of the perpetrators have gone unpunished.

Last year, in October, speaking at 14th death anniversary of Alija Izetbegovic, a Bosnian leader and the architect of Muslim defence at the time, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan criticised the European indifference toward human tragedies in Syria and Myanmar said that: “Europe died in Bosnia and it was buried in Syria”. There is no denying the fact that it was the deliberate inaction and insularity of the European governments that caused the genocide in a similar set of circumstances, which led to the en masse extermination of Jews by the Nazis.

Thousands of Bosniak Muslims gathered in Srebrenica this past Wednesday to mark the 23rd anniversary and hold the funeral prayers of the 35 recently identified victims. The coffins covered in green cloth containing the remains of the men and boys slaughtered in July 1995 were laid to rest in the ever-expanding and massive graveyard.

The total burials in the cemetery have now risen to 6,610. This year, Vesid Ibric, who was only 16 when he was killed, became the youngest victim to be buried. Sahin Halilovic, who was 71 at the time of his death, was the oldest. Remzija Dudic, who was six months pregnant at the time of her murder, was also laid to rest.

What is vicious about this genocide and many other massacres that happened across the region is that the perpetrators have actively collaborated to hide their war crimes. Many of the victims’ bodies had been torn apart. Experts had to undergo the gruelling process of using DNA analysis to put a body together from the bones found in burial locations that are miles apart. The bodies are still being unearthed from hidden mass graves throughout Bosnia.

Speaking at the event, Nermin Alivukovic, the president of the commemoration’s organising committee, said that: “Srebrenica has become a global symbol for genocide, a warning that no more genocides should happen anywhere in the world”.

War has taught Professor Rusmir Mahmutcehajic, a well-known Bosniak activist and a former statesman, to be more optimistic about the future. A former academic who lost his vision during the civil war has been a tireless advocate of supporting the creation of a harmonious and united society in Bosnia and Herzegovina based on the principles of dialogue, trust and respect. Every year, he collects young men and women of diverse backgrounds, mainly from the Balkans, for a series of workshops, lectures and other activities to foster mutual trust and understanding.

Having been part of the initiative in the past, I have seen how young people from different ethnicities that were at each other’s throats so very recently have been brought together to achieve greater understanding, mutual respect and appreciation based on the principles of diversity. In the streets of Sarajevo, Mostar and elsewhere, I have met many victims and heard their stories of how people were ruthlessly murdered and women were assaulted.

But there have been many heart-warming stories of mutual existence or support even in those trying times. I once met a young man in Sarajevo who owed his life to a former neighbour-turned-Serb militiaman and a young lady in Mostar who was ethnically diverse because of her parentage but still needed to be saved from her own ilk on both sides.

Mahmutcehajic’s work and optimism of Alivukovic are inspiring, but the current conditions in the European continent are quite depressing and similar to the circumstances that led to Srebrenica. The far-right forces are organising across Europe and gaining political traction on the basis of their anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant rhetoric. The European governments and institutions are increasingly becoming insular as Islamophobia and incidents of anti-Muslim violence continue to show alarming rise.

Also, thousands of people are dying every year in the European shores as EU states enact more discriminatory policies against refugees fleeing war and strife, which is mostly fuelled by the European policies and marginalisation fuelled by their colonial past.

Twitter: @murtaza_shibli

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