There’s something about Srebrenica. Much like when I visited Auschwitz in the 1990s, there is a sense of something profoundly awful having happened there, which stains the very air you breath.
Twenty years have passed since around eight thousand men and boys were systematically killed, dumped in mass graves and then subsequently dug up to be reburied in secondary and even tertiary grave sites, in an effort to the cover up the crimes. To this day, bodies are still being discovered and in many cases, families are left to bury only a few bones, the last remaining evidence of a life lost.
In February, I travelled with the BBC to the site of the killings to make a documentary, A Deadly Warning: Srebrenica Revisited, about what impact learning about the events might have on a group of young people, born in the same year as the genocide.
The young people were part of a delegation organised by the group Remembering Srebrenica, a British organisation that takes people to learn about the tragedy.
We followed the group as they learnt about the siege of Sarajevo, the genocide at Srebrenica, the painstaking work of the International Commission on Missing Persons in trying to identify remains. And although the delegations do not usually meet Serb officials, the group accompanied me to speak with Milos Milovanovic, the Bosnian Serb Chair of the Municipal Assembly in the town of Srebrenica itself, who refuses to use the term “genocide”.
Although Serbia has condemned the events as a “horrible crime”, it and many Bosnian Serbs refuse to accept the verdicts of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the International Court of Justice, both of which have called the events a genocide. In the context of Bosnia, the genocide was part of a broader process of ethnic cleansing, one aspect of a project of Bosnian Serbian extreme nationalism which sought to create an ethnically and religiously homogenous “Greater Serbia” in lieu of a diverse, integrated society.
Before I travelled to Bosnia-Herzegovina, my knowledge of what had happened at Srebrenica was limited to what I’d acquired within the Muslim community in the UK. The genocide at Srebrenica isn’t taught in British schools, something the young people featured in the BBC documentary felt was a serious omission. I began researching the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia and was particularly interested in better understanding how closely the narrative I’d acquired about Bosnia tallied with the facts.
There was – and to some extent there still is – a sense among British Muslims that Bosnia was “our” genocide, unrecognised, and moreover a symptom of a tacit anti-Muslim prejudice, which spilt over into politics, locally and internationally.
As with most narratives, there are undeniable elements of truth, but I also came to feel deeply uncomfortable with the “religification” and appropriation of the events.
Among the core arguments in the narrative is the view that Bosnian Muslims were left to slaughter because “Muslim blood is cheap”. Certainly, the evidence now suggests that western powers were much more aware than previously thought of events on the ground.
In a recent op-ed, former Bosnian foreign minister and ambassador to the UN Muhamed Sacirbey decried that “nowhere in official sanitised accounts has Washington, London or Paris acknowledged its role in leaving Srebrenica naked”, a reference to Nato’s failure to provide air support to Dutch peace keepers despite repeated requests and despite new evidence that American spy planes had images of the killings underway.
Mr Sacirbey also hints at what has become apparent since, that anti-Muslim stereotypes did play their part, with then-French president Francois Mitterrand objecting to a “Muslim-led unified Bosnia” and former US President Bill Clinton acknowledging in his memoir that “some European leaders were not eager to have a Muslim state in the heart of the Balkans”. Did such prejudice contribute to political considerations? It was certainly there.
According to a report in The Guardian, “British, American and French governments accepted – and sometimes argued – that Srebrenica and two other UN-protected safe areas were ‘untenable’ long before the Serb commander Ratko Mladic took the town”. They agreed to sacrifice Srebrenica to leave a political map amenable to the Serb leader Slobodan Miloševic.
Numerous books now indicate a strange affinity among some western leaders with the Serb leadership. But even with this, it is difficult to claim anti-Muslim prejudice specifically drove those decisions, rather than cold, political calculations over whom western powers felt could best manage the disintegrating region.
Part of the sense of injustice felt in connection to Srebrenica for many Muslims lies in the power equation involved.
Far from a “civil war”, as the broader conflict was often depicted, Srebrenica was an assault by a modern, strongly armed Bosnian Serb army against a UN safe zone in which male fighters had been convinced to give up their weapons.
The defenceless nature of the civilians who’d placed their trust in international institutions, only to be handed over to be executed, has cemented a sense that international organisations have long served only the interests of western powers and often failed – as in Rwanda – to protect those whose lives are deemed less worthy.
But to view these events outside of their broader context plays into a depiction of the conflict in the Balkans as the product of ancient hatreds, a view that former aide to Mr Clinton, Richard Holbrook, bemoans as a strategic failure that cemented a sense that the ethnic strife was too ancient and ingrained to be prevented by outsiders.
This perception of the broader conflict as pitting Serbs against Bosnian Muslims ignored the reality that, as Brendan Simms points out in his book Unfinest Hour, the Bosnian government forces, in some theatres “included substantial Catholic Croat and Orthodox Serb contingents” despite being routinely described in the media as “the Muslims”.
This vision was itself internalised by many Muslims, who saw in the conflict an assault on Islam itself, rather than a supremacist Serb nationalism that sought to divide integrated communities along lines that had until then been perceived as broadly indiscernible.
The Muslim identity was one of those lines and the long term consequence of identifying Bosnian Muslims as Muslims first and foremost has been a renewed sense of themselves in religious terms.
To paint the genocide at Srebrenica as the product of pure anti-Muslim hate reduces the events to the inevitable outpouring of age-old hatreds, rather than acknowledging root causes and political failures. The Bosnian people’s suffering shouldn’t be appropriated. Ultimately, it remains a disservice to the victims not to truly seek to understand what led to this tragedy.
Myriam Francois is a journalist and broadcaster. She presented the BBC1 documentary A Deadly Warning: Srebrenica Revisited