Protecting the memory of Balkans tragedy from political opportunism

The memorial in Srebrenica. EPA/Valdrin Xhemaj

Bosnia and Herzegovina is preparing to mark the 20th anniversary of the coldblooded extermination of more than 7,000 Muslim men and boys in the small mining village of Srebrenica in the east of the country.

The massacre was one of the worst atrocities to be committed on European soil since World War II and the only internationally recognised case of genocide in the Bosnian conflict.

There will be an influx of visitors to Srebrenica over the anniversary. Survivors, relatives and returning nationals will memorialise the men and boys killed in 1995 with the burial of 136 victims at the Srebrenica-Potočari Memorial Center.

Others, though, have been using the opportunity to fuel divisions in the fragile country. The complexities and mess of war and post-war recovery are not limited to Srebrenica. A multitude of experiences of conflict as well as sites marking scenes of violence exist across Bosnia and Herzegovina. There is Omarska and Trnopolje – which were concentration camps established near Prijedor to imprison non-Serbs.

In Helidrom, people remember the internment of Muslims near Mostar and in Sarajevo, they remember the longest siege in modern history.

Admitting guilt

In the run up to the 20th anniversary, the international and political nature of Srebrenica has come to the fore. National governments have reflected on their involvement and appear to be making small acknowledgements of their blame.

The UN has admitted to failing to protect Srebrenica and recently sought to pass a resolution condemning the events there as genocide. The resolution was vetoed by Russia, but it shows willingness by other UN members to acknowledge the severity of what happened.

Graves are prepared for 136 newly-identified victims of the massacre. EPA/Valdrin Xhemaj

This came against the backdrop of revelations that the fall of the town was not the unexpected tragedy so often portrayed. Recently released documents suggest the UK, US and France in fact sought to cede Srebrenica to the Bosnian Serbs in a bid to end the conflict in the Balkans.

Within the region, admitting blame is still difficult. Serbia’s prime minister, Aleksandar Vučić, a nationalist and supporter of the idea of Greater Serbia, will attend the commemoration – but it will be under a cloud of political dispute. Serbia recently issued an arrest warrant for war crimes allegedly committed by the former Srebrenica commander, Naser Orić. This even though Orić had already been aquitted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in 2008 of crimes against Serbs in the Srebrenica area.

Orić’s recent arrest, and subsequent release, have created tension between both Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. It has also caused division domestically within Bosnia and Herzegovina, further heightening ethnopolitical tensions between the Muslim Croat Federation and the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska. Nationalist politicians have been calling for a referendum to decide if Republika Srpska should break away from Bosnia and Herzegovina – and the arrest has only fuelled their campaign.

This has led other nationalist political parties to appropriate the 20th anniversary of Srebrenica. The massacre and the politics surrounding it are being used to foment divisions in the country in an effort to further political and often divisionist agendas.

Reclaiming remembrance

This political appropriation of Srebrenica does not help the process of healing and the building of peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina. But there is resistance and a movement to reclaim the memorialisation of Srebrenica and other sites of violence. These movements do not take away from the pain and suffering of Srebrenica but rather encompass and recognise the complexities of the war experience. The aim is to take a human rights-based view rather than use the massacre as part of a political battle.

This was seen at a recent event in Prijedor – where 5,200 non-Serbs from the town and 14,000 non-Serbs from the surrounding area were either killed or are missing. The event called for an end to genocide denial and aimed not only to raise awareness of what took place in Prijedor in 1992, but also protested the lack of the right to pay tribute to the children killed in Prijedor during the Bosnian conflict.

As Refik Hodzić reminds us, the legacy of violence and war are still present in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Srebrenica is the main battlefield.

Maybe it is only through the act of challenging the appropriation of remembrance at the international, regional, and local levels that Bosnia and Herzegovina can begin to deal with the past.

Martin Avila, Marija Sarić, Nicola Ovenden and Mike Lipari also contributed to this article