Bosnia and Herzegovina: Why Genocide Denial and Genocide Awareness Matter

Bosnia and Herzegovina: Why Genocide Denial and Genocide Awareness Matter

As tensions continue to simmer in the former Yugoslav state, Demir Mahmutćehajić’s reflections as to commemoration and erasure of current and previous genocides in Bosnia and elsewhere provides some insight into the possibilities and perils of the future.

In July 2017[i], Islamic Human Rights Commission organised a trip for the winner of the poetry competition for Genocide Memorial Day.  I was charged with organising a trip and welcoming them. It was quite demanding to accompany six or seven women, mahjubahs, ladies, sisters around Bosnia, a very wounded country. Srebrenica was first on the itinerary followed by other places.

When I was asked to organise this trip, I suggested that we visit Srebrenica over a few days either side of 11th July, when there is the annual commemoration for the 8372 men and boys who were murdered by Serb forces in1995.  Every year on the anniversary of this massacre there is a Janazah – a funeral service – for those victims that were identified and their remains found over the preceding 12 months.  To be clear, of those 8372, at the time of writing[ii] some 80% have been identified.  Around 7000 men and boys, buried after painstaking work by forensic anthropologists, have had their remains, which were found across multiple mass burial sites, discovered, put together and buried with the dignity and rites that every human being deserves.

Needless to say, the prayers are very emotional, especially for the relatives of those being buried. They stand next to the coffins of their loved ones. In many cases, these contain only a handful of bones. Only a handful of bones that are identified. Why?

After Serb forces committed this genocide, they systematically tried to hide remains of the victims.  This involved digging out those that they buried a number of times, and moving their remains.  As a result, it has taken more than 20 years just to find the remains of those people who were killed.

Between 50,000 – 70,000 people come to Srebrenica to attend the janazah prayer. You see such huge amounts of people, such an energy, with wave upon wave of people.  This is the image that the world – when it is looking – sees.  This is why I suggested that it’s not just enough to come on that day, that it’s important to see Srebrenica the day before and the day after.  Because otherwise it appears that the victims of Srebrenica are remembered and honoured.  That the violence and hatred that fuelled the war in Bosnia has ended.  That there is now peace.  None of this is the case.

During the trip that summer, en route to Srebrenica, we found ourselves accidentally caught up in symbolism.  It was hot – unbearably so.  In the shade the temperature was in the very high 30’s.  In the sun, it was often 40°C.  At some point driving uphill, our minivan broke down.  We all had to get out and walk for a certain distance.  We could feel what the summer of the 11th of July 1995 would have been like. We had to walk for only 400 or 500 metres but even that felt really uncomfortable.  Can you imagine what it was like to walk in the same weather, in the same conditions for days[iii] without any break, being shelled, being shot at and hunted with dogs.

This was a very small way in which we could experience something, just for a short while, that could help us relate to what the victims went through.  Even those of us with strong connections to what happened, even those of us from the next generations who care deeply about it. As Dr. Maung Zarni[iv] said, one cannot comprehend what a victim is like unless one has been in that situation.

On that day, we were being ‘guarded’ by soldiers and policemen, wearing the same insignia, as those who perpetrated the genocide in 1995.  Srebrenica now sits in the entity Respublik Srebska, where ethnic Serbs live in political autonomy within the Bosnian state.  This is the legacy of the Dayton Accords that ended the war in December 1995.  This is also where genocide denial is rampant and where many of the top wanted war criminals were found long after the end of the war.  So can you imagine what it was like for the mother that lost all her relatives. She lost her father, husband, two sons, her brother uncles, all male relatives. She’s coming to do a prayer over the few bones of her relatives that were found.  And she’s being watched over by the people in the same uniforms, in the same insignias as those who were perpetrating the murders of her loved ones.  It is horrifying.

That evening we returned to the memorial centre after the mass funeral at around half past eight after Maghrib prayer.  It was empty. There were 6,500 tombstones. Silent. Just two or three hours before that, you had tens of thousands of people there, but now they were all gone. We saw a couple of mothers walking by. There were no people living there. The life of the area has been destroyed, taken away. Only those tombs remain there, standing as witnesses to the horror.

We had a plan to go the following day to record the way the Serbs are commemorating their own victims.  Because there is a ceremony too for those perpetrators who were killed.  It is part of a constant attempt to equalise victims.  It is part of a constant attempt over the last 20 years to say that there were three sides, that everybody committed crimes, that they are all equal. This is being allowed deliberately by the international community.

So on 12th of July, there is a commemoration of the Serb ‘victims’ in Srebrenica. It is a sham, a disgusting show.  But it is also terrifying, because those same people who were taking part in genocide, killing innocent people, were allowed to attend in their military uniforms with flags and insignias to talk about how they’re the victims, how all they did was defend themselves. The whole atmosphere is very, very tense.  It did not feel secure, so we did not try to venture too close.

There are a lot of documents about the Srebrenica genocide and there have been quite a number of convictions of the perpetrators. The last prominent one was General Ratko Mladic who was the commander in chief of the Serbian forces. This is the man who stated on national television that, “after 600 years of battle, it’s time to get revenge on Turks.”   To them, to those who joined forces to perpetrate and justify genocide, we Bosnian Muslims are come from outside this land. We are ‘Turks’. We are supposedly invaders. We are those who are completely dehumanised.  So for an ordinary Serbian soldier at that time, it was acceptable to rape, kill, torture, steal, destroy those who were not seen as humans.  They were trained in such a way, that they had no problem killing all day and then going back and spending time with their families.

It is unbelievable. It is unexplainable. Unimaginable. But it is even worse when you say that this was not the first time.  When the Bosnian war, as we now call it, started in 1992, it was not the first genocide against the Bosnian Muslims. It was the eleventh. It is only the first one that is being recorded or remembered publicly and internationally and that only because of the modern media was present and witness to some of the worst crimes.

Just to give you one example of previous genocides, there was a pit, an earth pit near my hometown Stolac, into which in 1941 over 700 Muslims were thrown alive. One by one, they were taken there and pushed in. The pit was called the pit of crows. Because it was so deep and dark, the crows nested inside. Out of the huge number of people who were killed from the area only one person survived. For days she was catching live crows and drinking their blood just to survive. She had fallen on the bodies of those who died before her and lived. She was found by a Serb shepherd, who was herding sheep and heard her screaming. He rescued her, took her back to her home and protected her from the others who wanted to erase all traces of this horrible crime.

In the wake of the Second World War, the new Yugoslav system did not allow her to speak about it until 1989.

There is also a village near my hometown where in 1943, the Ustaše paramilitary, who at that time were the part of the forces that were allied to the Nazis, came and butchered around 60 civilians – everybody that they caught there.  Then on 13th July 1993, the new Ustaše paramilitary came back with the same uniforms, with the same ideology, with the same idea, and killed everybody they found: babies, adults, children, everybody they found.

So when we are talking about a genocide, a genocidal intention, it is wrong in the case of Bosnia and Herzegovina to talk only about the Srebrenica. Srebrenica was a genocide; but the international community is trying to hide the facts. It is trying to hide the whole story. The Bosnian genocide, from 1992 – 95 was only recognised because the perpetrators were not able to hide it.  Recognition was forced in much the same way as the international community is doing now with the genocide of the Rohingya.

So, there were ten genocides before the war of 1992 – 95 that were not recorded. The  eleventh genocide in Bosnia started in 1992, not in 1995. In the first few months of war, from April to June /July 1992, Serb forces set up concentration camps, torture chambers and rape houses. Over 60,000 women were raped. It was systematic and organised. The rape houses were where the Serbian soldiers were sent when they came back from the frontlines, to be ‘rewarded’.

Hundreds of thousands of people were placed in concentration camps, waiting for their turn to be killed. The reason why they were not killed is because, some activists, some journalists, some media found those places, and they recorded and released footage.

Because the concentration camps around Prijedor were revealed, those people were not killed.  But near Prijedor there are places like Korićanske Stijene, where hundreds of people were taken by trucks and just pushed from the top of the mountain. In Prijedor in 1992, all Muslims were forced to wear white arm bands, or to hang a white piece of cloth on their houses them to mark them.

In the first months of the attack on Bosnia by Serbia, then later by Croatia, now an EU member, over 70% of Bosnian Muslims were displaced. That represents one and a half million people.  One million were expelled outside the country and half a million were internally displaced. There were a number of towns, areas, that were completely emptied. To minimise the scale of the genocide and reduce it to just an incident in Srebrenica is a very carefully thought-out strategy.

Ultimately, as we are seeing now, with so few thinking about it, when somebody raises a question, it is said, ‘Oh well everybody fought, and everybody committed crimes and did all these sorts of things.  Okay they did very horrible things in Srebrenica, they killed 800 or maybe 8000 men, but you know they were provoked.”  These are the type of things we are hearing now. That is how it goes if we don’t acknowledge both what happened, and also how it came to happen.  The erasure of past genocides made future genocides possible.  This is what we have to prevent.

The issue is not about cultural denial.  The International Tribunal for Crimes in the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), was set up to try war criminals. From the first day, the narratives of the western media, of the western law makers, of the western powers, were that there is no collective guilt.  This is very interesting, and runs against the precedent set up by the Nuremberg Tribunals after the Second World War. Hundreds of thousands of Serbs took part in the genocide, so how can there be no collective guilt?  The genocides that occurred were the outcomes of social and political cultures of hatred.  In the post Second World War decades (arguably until now) there is an endless process of de-Nazification.  How is it that in a case so similarly resembling the Nazi extermination of Jews, we find the international justice system content with saying that guilt will be placed on only individuals and not government and their institutions? I have written about this elsewhere, but the key point for the purpose of this piece is that the legal culture, heavily impacted by a Western political culture, is also perpetuating the narratives that fuel the cycle of genocide.

Demir Mahmutćehajić is from Stolac in Bosnia.  After some years in the UK where he helped found the Islamic Human Rights Commission in 1997, and later became the president of the London Islamic Community of Bosnians, he returned to Bosnia. Since 2005 he has been constantly engaged in the civil rights movement in the Bosnia and Herzegovina, at one time leading the DOSTA! (Enough!) movement. He has written and spoken about genocide in Bosnia and Herzegovina, its causes and consequences for over 25 years.  Many of these speeches, reports and articles can be found on the IHRC websiteFind him on Twitter @stolac92.


[i] This article is based on a presentation by Mahmutćehajić at Genocide Memorial Day in London, UK, January 2018.  The trip he refers to is from summer 2017.

[ii] This addition was made in September 2023.

[iii] The genocide in Srebrenica took place across the week of 11th July, with those killed often being hunted down as they crossed the countryside, either being marched as prisoners or trying to escape.

[iv] Dr, Maung Zarni is a Burmese human rights activist, who spoke alongside Mahmutćehajić at the 2018 GMD event, on the genocide of the Rohingya.

Help us reach more people and raise more awareness by sharing this page