No Coincidences

Srebrenica Burials 2019 (c) Ahmed Uddin
Srebrenica Burials 2019 (c) Ahmed Uddin

On 11th of July while millions across the globe watched 22 men playing a game of football, running across the pitch competing for a gold cup, most of the Bosnians were watching the coffins of 775 men (and boys) being laid to rest in a pitch of a different kind – Srebrenica memorial centre.

The memorial centre, already a home to about 4000 graves, needed a whole new hillside to be dug up in order to accommodate the additional graves. Every year, on the same day, among thousands who come to pay their respects, there is a sea of green coffins and tearful women hugging them. 

In Srebrenica, exactly 15 years ago, the ‘final’ of most horrendous kind took place. This final also involved the Dutch, their team of UN peacekeepers, who were supposed, as the name suggests  – to ‘keep the peace‘. In a way, they did exactly that, they had a nice warm-up – a toast of champagne with the members of another team – the Serb militia. The Dutch remained peacefully complacent while allowing and even assisting Serbs, lead by General Ratko Maldic, in separating Muslim women from the men. Muslim men aged 16-65 were taken away to be systematically slaughtered while women were forcibly expelled from Srebrenica. Many of the women were raped, beaten and some were killed.

On 11th July 2010, most of the survivors of Srebrenica massacre and Bosnian war, were reminded of the way they were denied not only the right to defend themselves but also the right of protection granted by the UN, in what was supposed to be a UN declared ‘safe haven‘. Instead, Srebrenica turned out to be a location of the biggest mass murder in Europe since WW II. The video footage, photos and testimonies seem like the scenes from “Apocalypse Now“. Horror indeed.

For  Bosnian Muslims now, ‘Srebrenica’ means more then just a name of  a town. It is synonymous with tears, pain and terror. It epitomises all that happened in Bosnia and Herzegovina during the period from 1992 to1995 and server as a constant reminder of injustice.

Over 6000 victims of the Srebrenica genocide have now been identified through DNA analysis of body parts recovered from numerous mass graves. A preliminary list of missing people from Srebrenica consists of 8373 names. There are over 2000 victims’ remains still to be found and identified. Every year, as more bodies are identified, we are reminded of the genocide. Images from then and now, hard to forget, one after another, moving like the praying rosary  beads in the hands of those present at the burials, the majority of whom are women.

Srebrenica remains the only episode in the Bosnian war recognised by the International Criminal Tribunal and International Court of Justice as genocide. Although their names might not echo across the media as Srebrenica’s does, there are many more massacres that occurred in cities, towns and villages throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina that might never get that unfortunate recognition. During the four years of aggression, Bosnian Muslims were targeted for a extinction solely on the basis of their identity. There are evidences of genocide and the war everywhere. Across Bosnia and Herzegovina there are hundreds of graves in the parks and hills as the local graveyards were too full to accommodate all those who were brutally killed. While major repairs have taken place, bullet and shell marks are still visible on houses and buildings.

But the marks left on those who are still living are the hardest to bear. For the women of Srebrenica like for the rest of the Muslims in Bosnia, the reprieve comes slow or not at all. The main culprits who committed the crimes are still at large, walking free. The survivors cannot return to their houses because they are either destroyed or occupied by Serbs. In any case, even if they were to return, their safety would be in serious jeopardy.
The Serb nationalism in Bosnia is still running rampant. It was no coincidence that only a day before commemoration of Srebrenica, Karadzic’s Serb Democratic Party decorated him with a medal of honour at a ceremony marking the 20th anniversary of the party’s founding. Yes, the same Karadzic who is now in Hague charged with masterminding the genocide.

While the main perpetrators of the crimes were Chetniks (Serb nationalists) let us not forget the other team players like the governments of Britain and already mentioned Holland for example.  Added to that, are the persistent failures of UN, NATO and EU to actually do their job and prevent the killings of so many innocent lives. After almost 14 years, in January 2009, the European Parliament clearly pointed out “the impotence of the international community to intervene in the conflict and protect the civilian population”.

What we have now, in 2010, is a hypocrisy on all sides. While Prime Minister Cameron is promising that the UK government will not rest until those responsible for the Srebrenica massacre are brought to justice, the same government is still keeping former Bosnian president, Ejup Ganic in the UK, under house arrest. Ganic, after being cleared of the war crime charges by the Hague tribunal, was arrested at Heathrow on a warrant issued by the Serbian authorities on 1st March 2010. Coincidentally (or not), on the same day Karadzic’s trial began and Bosnia celebrated its independence day. In allowing Ganic’s arrest, the Foreign Office undermines Bosnia’s sovereignty as well as the credibility of the decision made by the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal. Ganic denies all the charges and is faced with a possible extradition to Serbian authorities while Ratko Maldic is still at large, in the same Serbia. To Bosnian Muslims, this move seeks to put a victim and the perpetrator on an even keel (with help of the British government) and gives a clear sign that Serbia is just continuing its aggression on Bosnia by using different tactics.

Also, Obama’s calls for “redoubling” the efforts of ’governments’ in finding those responsible and “hunting down killer of Srebrenica” offer little comfort to those who have been waiting for 15 years to find the remains of their loved ones and put them to rest. Justice delayed is justice denied, as William Gladstone once said.

We often forget that behind the numbers are the real people and real events. The pledge ‘never again’, after Nazi atrocities in WWII, did not have any meaning for Bosnian Muslims. What happened in Srebrenica should not have happened!  I hope that we will never forget – those who were killed and those who are still living.
Days before televised media coverage and visits from foreign dignitaries, women of Srebrenica were asked by the group of volunteers what was it that they need the most? Their answer was – “a kind word, open doors, understanding and communication”.  It is a real shame that we all remember genocide in Srebrenica and Bosnia only on a day that politicians and governments decide to make what sounds like nothing but empty promises. After all the speeches are made and after the cameras leave, the survivors are left alone with their hurt and horrific memories.

There will be time for justice.

Sanja Bilic came to UK from Bosnia in Aug 1992.  She is currently in her final year of PhD at University of York.  She is an activist and a chair of University of York Palestinian Solidarity Society.  She has also been active in campaigning against the arrest of Ejup Ganic in the UK. To this end she is the creator of, the now over 7500 global members, Facebook support group.  She is co-founder of WakeUp! a not-for-profit organisation that aims to address the needs of young people in Bosnia and Herzegovina.  Sanja is passionate about human rights