Srebrenica - Never again
By Dr Amineh A. Hoti
Centre for Dialogue and Action
Once again, this time in 1992-95, human beings were gathered in large numbers and slaughtered in Europe, this time in Bosnia. This was another minority, also Semites, and the world once again looked away from the cries of the Bosniaks and only came to the rescue when the massacre was over. The 21st anniversary of Europe’s worst mass murder since the Holocaust.
My description of these events is based on a project called “Journey into Europe”, conducted with a team led by Professor Akbar S. Ahmed and carried out in Germany, the UK, Spain, Denmark, Italy and Bosnia. I want to highlight the case of the Bosnians because we can learn lessons from past mistakes. Those authorities who deal with arriving immigrants need to minimize the marginalization of minority communities because when a dominant community sees its minorities as other and when the media play an anti-Islamic narrative, there is a danger of clashes on the streets, of women being stabbed because they wear headscarves and of mosques being burnt. From our many interviews we understood that the youth in migrant communities may easily become marginalized and violent.
Modern Germany has also played a central role in the lives of a large number of persecuted people – Syrians, Middle Eastern and South Asian immigrants and refugees – but this time not in a negative way, more as a positive savior, even though people in the rest of Europe continue to shake their heads in disapproval. Even within Germany right-wing parties reject immigrants and label Islam. Chancellor Merkel has often said that Islam belongs to Germany and that freedom of religion is guaranteed by the country’s constitution but the anti-immigration “Alternative for Germany” party has said that Islam is incompatible with the country’s constitution and calls for a ban on everything Islamic.
Why are so many immigrants turning to Europe to find a safer haven than their own home countries? Because Europe has had a direct or indirect impact on so many other continents including the Middle East and South Asia. We must listen and learn our lessons, prevent disasters and pre-empt other holocausts. As a concerned member of humanity, I want to see peace prevail in our world. I do not want to hear about another holocaust or another genocide ever again.
With the team I visited Dachau, one of Hitler’s concentration camps where human beings were kept like starved animals. They were deceived by lies into these camps and killed in masses. The world said “never again” but today we still have mass killings of innocent people and the blood of the young is spilt, not sparing babies or schoolchildren. With the influx of so many immigrants from the Middle East there is tension and extremism on both sides – disgruntled immigrant youths and resistant locals. Above all there is the rise of extremist right-wing parties throughout Europe which will lead to future clashes unless something is done about it now. What is happening today with the stereotyping of Muslims must be reversed by those who want peace and by the thinking people of the world.
While Muslims today are often depicted in the media as intolerant, plenty of evidence of tolerance under Muslim rule was observed during our research project. When we went to Bosnia we saw a constitutional document called the Ahdnama, handwritten by the Ottoman sultan, Mehmet II. In this document, proudly shown to us in a Franciscan monastery, the sultan allocated rights to the religious groups under his rule, including the Christians, by leaving them with his own robe as a symbol of protection. He wrote, “Let no one trouble or disturb (them)… Let no one endanger them or their lives, their properties and their monasteries.”
This tolerance lasted for centuries. Muslims, Christians and Jews co-existed as neighbors, friends and fellow countrymen. Yet in the 20th century violence erupted with murders of Muslims, Jews and Roma. During World War II 700,000 people were massacred in Bosnia, including 90% of the Jewish population, while the remaining few migrated to the US.
With the research team, I walked through mass graves in Srebrenica and heard stories of an ethnic group turning on innocent neighbors, babies only two days old murdered and men of 95 mercilessly shot. The massacre of Srebrenica took place in July 1995. After being deceived by an army offering to protect civilians, the people were gathered together and systematically killed. Around 500,000 men were shot and buried half-alive in mass graves. Drunken soldiers beat pregnant women until they bled and miscarried. Women and girls were taken to concentration camps and repeatedly raped. They remained enslaved for more than three years while the country was under attack by the fourth largest army in Europe and many of the aggressors freely walk the same streets today.
In 1999, the Serbian President, Slobodan Milosevic, was charged by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) with war crimes including genocide and crimes against humanity but died in his prison cell. Others of his comrades who had committed war crimes were acquitted and, according to their former victims, still walk the streets where their crimes were committed. The victims of this genocide were a community that is an integral part of Europe and when we interviewed the Bosniaks they told us they had been European for the last 500 to 600 years. They are of course Muslims, though they look entirely European. Their names, however, are all Muslim – Ahmed, Muhammad, Amina, Mustapha, Khadijah – though spelt in the local manner.
We wanted to study war and genocide to learn how we can build bridges of peace, so the team and I interviewed hundreds of people in Bosnia – ordinary people, scholars, religious and political leaders, and they told us they were targeted because they were seen as Turks, a gross misunderstanding of their indisputable identity as European Muslims.
Most of the Balkan region, including Albania, Serbia, and Bosnia, was part of the Ottoman Empire from the 14th century to the early 20th century. Before the Ottomans arrived, Sufis and dervishes travelled to Europe to preach Islam, so many Bosnian Muslims have ancestors who practiced Islam long before the days of Ottoman rule and still today Bosnia has a Muslim majority. The Ottoman Empire was itself religiously, ethnically and linguistically diverse and a much more tolerant place than other parts of the world at the time. What a contrast with the violence of the final years of the 20th Century when in Bosnia alone more than 1000 mosques were blown up to “ethnically cleanse” the country. In Kosovo and the surrounding regions hostility existed between the largely Muslim Albanians and the Serbs. Studies of Tito-era Yugoslavia indicate that the Albanian and Serb populations of Kosovo were irreconcilable and there was little intermarriage between them. The level of intolerance between the two communities was worse than between Croat and Serb communities in Yugoslavia, which was also tense though relations between the two were closer.
In 1981, during protests in Kosovo, Albanians were heard shouting, “We are Albanians, not Yugoslavs.” The authorities stopped the protests by blocking roads and the demonstrators took Serbian and Montenegrin hostages, demanding the departure of the police in return for their release. The result was extreme vandalism throughout Kosovo with smashed cars, shops and state buildings. The Yugoslav leaders declared a crisis situation in Kosovo and troops were sent in.
In the aftermath the Central Committee of the League of Communists of Yugoslavia adopted a set of conclusions aimed at centralizing Serbia’s control over law enforcement and the judiciary in Kosovo and other provinces. Serbs then claimed there was deliberate Albanianisation of Kosovo and themselves. They pointed to statistics showing the proportion of Serbs in Kosovo had decreased from 23.5% in 1961 to 13.2% in 1981. They claimed Albanian persecution and that Albanian men were raping Serbian women, though many of these claims were merely popular rumors. These baseless fears were then carried out in reality by Serbs against Bosnians. Tension grew between Serbs and others, particularly Albanians. In September 1987, Aziz Kelmendi, an Albanian, fired at sleeping soldiers in their barracks and eventually committed suicide – this is now known as the Paracin massacre. Milošević personally appointed the editors-in-chief of Serbian newspapers and so was able to ensure that the media portrayed the massacre as an Albanian assault on Serbia, although the victims included a majority of non-Serbs. In consequence, the incident provoked a deep hatred towards Albanians. Twenty-thousand Serbs attended the funeral of the Serb victim and the Serbian media regularly promoted hatred against people of other religions and ethnicities in Yugoslavia. Albanians were portrayed as rapists who were a threat to the Serb nation just as in the past Jewish people had been portrayed as threats to the German way of life. This is why the way in which Muslims are stereotyped today and blamed for all modern terrorism is so very dangerous. (One of our interviewees, a young imam in Denmark, feared that his community would face a similar genocide once they reached 10% of the Europe population, a very worrying statement for us to hear.)
The Serbian media promoted anger among Serbs towards Croatia and in June 1991 reminded Serbs about atrocities carried out by the Croatian fascist Ustase against Serbs during World War II. The state media featured reportage which showed ethnic others in a derogatory manner and state television showed speakers claiming the Croats had a genocidal nature. These negative depictions were examples of Milošević’s official promotion of xenophobic sentiments to build up Serbian support for his wars. Against this build-up of hatred of ethnic and religious others, media biases combined with Milosovic’s own disturbed childhood background – both his parents had committed suicide – and the Bosniaks received the brunt. Here is the story of Hatidza (Khadija) Mehmedovic whose 50 male relatives were killed by the Serbs in the genocide while her sisters were raped by the Serbian army along with other female relatives. Twenty years later, she was not even ready to discuss the female horrors but this is what she shared. Her two teenage sons and husband were forcefully taken, along with more than 8,372 men from the village, were tied up with wire, forced to strip naked, dig their own graves and were massacred by the Serbian army. Hassan, our translator, recalled his own escape from Serbian soldiers, alongside his twin brother and father, running through the woods for seven days, until they were fired on and he alone survived.
Hatidza said that Bosniaks had always raised their children to be peace-loving and to live harmoniously with their neighbors. “We never taught them how to fight” she said, “the Serbs had massive weapons and we had nothing. The Serbian army gave the UN a guarantee that they would protect civilians but Serbia had planned this mass genocide to ‘ethnically cleanse’ Europe of Muslims. They kept killing everyone who crossed their path – farmers, children, the old, everyone.”
Masses of people, some 30,000, had gathered outside a Dutch UN camp opposite the graveyard memorial where we now sat. In the large UN-protected, “safe space” the Dutch only allowed 3,000 women with children, leaving the rest in the merciless hands of the Serb soldiers. Young boys were slaughtered – one mother told us the heart-wrenching story of her 14-year-old son, “He had light hair and beautiful green eyes which swelled with tears and he was so scared of them when they came to take him away but there was no one to turn to, no one to help.” Hatidza, who had lost so many of her relations, said, “The boys they took away to kill were innocent school children. The Serbs tied their hands at the back with wires, tortured them, lined them up in front of the firing squad and flung their bodies into mass graves. My heart bleeds at the thought of how my teenage sons felt just before they were shot dead.”
Without their menfolk the women were vulnerable, so the soldiers turned on them next. They converted schools and factories into centers for rape, the intention was of impregnating Bosniaks with Serbian blood. This extreme abuse caused the deaths of many innocent women. Hatidza’s sister, along with thousands of other young women, was a victim of rape and has children as a result but won’t ever talk about it. Hatidza added, with tears pouring down her cheeks, “Women went mad after what they experienced. I will not talk about this!” She, among the mothers of Srebrenica, may count as lucky since the remains of her beloved sons and husband were finally recovered after years of searching in mass graves. The Serbs, we were told, had dug up graves several times in an attempt to hide their genocide and changed their locations by transporting the bodies in trucks to various mass grave sites. “They tell their children”, Hatidza said, “that they are heroes and that they won a battle against the ‘Turks’, but they don’t tell them that the victims were civilians”.
In Bosnia we were told again and again that the UN failed to protect civilians and even played the devil’s advocate and therefore locals now say and write that the UN in Bosnia’s case was “United for Nothing”. The Serbs, we were told, had planned to take over Sarajevo in 15 days and swallow up the rest of Bosnia in 30 days. But this never happened as the Bosniaks held them off for more than three years with a heavy cost to their own lives and to their country while saving it.
The war which was imposed on Bosnia in 1992 finally led to NATO intervening in 1995, three long and bloody years later. We were told by eye-witnesses that UN personnel watched the massacres without intervening and in one case even reported wrongly that shells that had killed dozens of Bosniaks were fired by Bosnia’s own government. In a 1994 incident, the Republika Srpska authorities denied all responsibility and accused the Bosnian government of bombing its own civilians in a busy market place. When NATO finally intervened Operation Deliberate Force targeted the army of the Republika Srpska and the war ended after the signing of the General Framework Agreement in Bosnia and Herzegovina in Paris on the 14th of December 1995.
Our collective fight today is against violent ignorance (jahiliya) not paganism (kafiriya) as the former Grand Mufti, Mustafa Ceric, whom we met in Sarajevo, told us. This means we must fight the ignorance of hatred and divisiveness and work towards peaceful coexistence, pluralism and mutual respect between people of all faiths and cultures. Everyone must be respected and allowed to live in a dignified manner. But the tragedy is that, as a world civilization, we have not learnt our lessons from history. As our driver said to us when we were about to leave Bosnia, “We Bosniaks are surrounded by neighboring people who want to kill us and divide our land between themselves.”
(The author is the Executive Director, Center for Dialogue and Action, 2016)