At a time of increasing racism, Islamophobia and hostility in Europe, Nargess Moballeghi asks what lessons can be learned from the lead-up to Bosnian war.
“Go back to where you came from.” A phrase so well worn, it should be old by now. But, like the spandex leggings that should have stayed in the 80’s, it’s back in fashion in a big way.
Unlike many, I’ve never been on the receiving end of the “go back home” classic, but as a young teenager in the late 90’s, I do have one very strong memory, of an Eastern European woman, telling my mother to “go back home.” We were in a Primark in West London. Incidentally, those were also the days before Primark was in fashion, and I would get dragged in there unwillingly, dragging my teenage feet, by my uncool mother trying to dress me. I’ve never forgotten the way mum, unfazed and almost amused, turned back and flippantly said “guess what love, I am.” Even standing in Primark, I thought my mother was very cool.
I am sure, in 2019, that Eastern European woman has been told to “go home” far more times than she ever dished it out to visibly Muslim women in the 1990s.
In recent weeks the deeply political nature of this racist phase hit home when Shamima Begum, a British teenager who was lured to join ISIS in Syria as a 15-year old girl, was stripped of her citizenship, effectively, and illegally, rendering her stateless.
Shamima, who has just given birth in a Syrian refugee camp, wants to come home. But in today’s aggressively toxic Islamophobic environment, where that actually is, has been allowed to, even encouraged to be questioned.
Her story encapsulates everything that the phrase “go back to where you came from” contains.
The Home Secretary, Sajid Javad, stripped her of her British citizenship, claiming that she was a dual-national. It turns out, she just happens to be a British citizen from parents with an immigrant heritage. Bangladesh says she is not a citizen, and they won’t take her in. And why should they, when reports suggest she has never even been to the country?
It’s obvious where “home” is. Except it isn’t.
Shamima’s story is not new, though the level of attention it has attracted is. Many Britons have quietly been rendered stateless, a move illegal under international law, as the British government tries to find legal loopholes to create a precedent that will make this practice increasingly easy to implement and broaden.
As a journalist, who has spent over 15 years monitoring the mood in communities across Britain I am not often surprised by public reaction to a story. But even I have been surprised by the intensity and scale of public outrage at Shamima. Overwhelmingly, the anger and emotion is so heightened it has rendered rationality or objectivity reprehensible. For days, it seemed like the majority of Muslims, non-Muslims, the far-right, the far-left, were all united, in a collective moment of mass hysteria. “Burn the Witch” they all cried.
It was for me a rare, and rather terrifying glimpse, of what decades of Islamophobic media coverage, political discourse and tightening legislation can achieve when it all aligns; an uncompromising mob-mentality on a national scale with no rhyme nor reason.
Except this is a very familiar tune and the conductor of our orchestra is highly skilled. And despite it playing all the time, it’s a song that far too many of us in Europe haven’t listened to enough. We haven’t learned the lyrics. We haven’t learned the riffs. And maybe one of the reasons we can’t recognise the remix, is because we never heard the original.
It is the eerie soundtrack that I heard when I travelled to Bosnia in the Summer of 2017, a trip filled with terrifying tunes I have still not been able to get out of my head.
The Genocide we never learned at school
As a product of the mid-80’s, I was only seven years old when the atrocities in Bosnia really started to unfold in 1992. Within four years, over half a million Muslims had been killed, two million made refugees and over 80,000 women raped.
It’s not that I hadn’t heard of what happened in Bosnia, it was there, somewhere; a passing comment, a passing news article about a tribunal or court case. I belong to the generation that was just old enough to remember the name and too young to have really engaged with the issue.
Like many of my generation, racism at home and war abroad was how we grew up and grew into our activism. For me, fighting racism at home centred on the struggles of the British Black community, without the focus it has on Muslims and Islam today. I was a teenager in college in the lead-up to the Iraq war, which was for my generation, the defining moment of our politics.
So, perhaps, in that context, Bosnia fell through the cracks. Or maybe it was shoved down them. I don’t remember ever discussing Bosnia at school. When I scanned back through my memory, there are certain key political events that I remember from the classroom; the Columbine school shooting in 1999, the day of the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the murder of Stephen Lawrence. The latter was an early defining moment for me; “I must have been a little older when Stephen was killed,” I said to myself. But then I remembered, no, it was 1993, the very same year that the Bosnian genocide was escalating. Knowing everything I do today, about how media and politics actually work, I look back at that time and think there is a reason I don’t remember.
I owe the memories I now have to the Islamic Human Rights Commission, an NGO based in London, that has tried to keep the legacy and the lessons of the Bosnian genocide alive for those generations that have not been taught to remember it.
Since 2010, one way they have been doing this is by holding an annual “Genocide Memorial Day.” Although the key event is a conference in London, “GMD” has a curriculum for schools and an annual poetry competition for students. Young people aged 11- 18 are encouraged to submit work that reflects the theme of ‘protecting humanity from genocide’
The prize for winning the competition is a trip to Bosnia, including the annual Srebrenica memorial on 11th July.
The IHRC had commissioned me to film with the 2017 competition winner for a documentary.
I met Tarzina for the first time at Heathrow airport. She was by then, 19 years old, born after the genocide had taken place, “I’d never even heard of Bosnia before winning this competition,” she told me as we were boarding.
“I can’t believe I had never even heard of Bosnia,” is what she told me before she left a week a later.
Travelling to Bosnia; a trip back to today
Our guide for the trip was political activist, Demir Mahmutchajic. We would spend the next 10 days travelling across Bosnia from Sarajevo, to Srebrenica to Stolac and back.
Demir wanted to fight in the war. He felt he was tricked out of it. His parents planned a brief trip for him to London, they told him he must stay there to study. He spent the next decade in Britain, fighting for his people from afar. His brother had a different fate. He was killed in battle. On the second day of our trip, Demir took Tarzina and I to his brother’s grave. It was a first glimpse of what I had yet to understand about the people there.
Bosnia is an extremely beautiful and laid back country, its people are friendly, the pace is slow, the atmosphere friendly. But you just have to scratch the surface for the wounds to seep out.
For Demir, that was still loss, tears, regret, and trying to make up for all the years he missed.
I once interviewed a man who had been the victim of long-lasting child sexual abuse by the teachers and priests at his school. I called him a victim. He explained to me the psychological process, the immense battle, the years it had taken for him to become strong enough to stop calling himself a victim and start calling himself a survivor. I always remember that conversation and I have never looked at survivors the same way again, and I always try not to call them victims.
Bosnia is a country filled with survivors; survivors with their own stories and their own memories to burden them. For Demir, one memory is the fact that his brother died with no shoes. Bosnian Muslims didn’t have the most basic of equipment of uniform. There weren’t boots to waste. They would leave them for those who would survive.
“I was 15 years old when aggression on my country was started by the fifth largest military in the world at the time,” Demir says. “In the early days of the war, a Serbian general gave an order to his soldiers in one town to, “clear the area of all Muslims regardless of the costs to his own soldiers. They cleared the Muslims and his army suffered no loss at all. That’s what kind of ‘conflict’ this was. Genocides are not conflicts, we are not talking about war, we are not talking about two armies fighting each other, we are talking about a fully fledged organised, military force, indoctrinated to slaughter, to eat up, those who are systematically dehumanised and turned into vermin. This is the same pattern, same scenario for so long. This does not happen overnight.”
So how many nights does it take to turn humans in to vermin?
In 2015, Katie Hopkins wrote an article in The Sun, Britain’s most read newspaper, calling migrants crossing the Mediterranean “cockroaches” and “feral humans,” claiming they were “spreading like the norovirus.” Her suggested solution? Use gunships on them. Her comments came in the same week 400 migrants were feared to have drowned to their death trying to get to the safety of the shore.
I told Demir this, one day, driving in the mini-van, I was asking him if he sees any similarities between Bosnia and what is happening across Europe today? He told me that I don’t understand how bad it has to get, or in other words, I don’t understand how bad it can get. “Katie Hopkins has to become your most respected television news anchor, your most credible journalist, that’s what the situation was here.”
In the UK and across Europe today, we are definitely many nights down the road, it’s just that we don’t know our destination, how long it will take to get there, or what it might look like when we arrive.
Journalism is certainly eroding and facilitating fascist narratives in the mainstream at an unprecedented rate. Today, Tommy Robinson is a journalist, in fact he works at the same alt-right “media outlet” as Katie Hopkins.
But surely, we will never go down that road again? This is Europe in 2019 after all.
But what of 1992? Didn’t the people see what was unfolding, I asked Demir?
The reason the genocide happened, he told me, was because people were not prepared. However bad it got, they kept saying, “nothing that bad would ever happen in Europe. It’s the 1990s.” So when it did happen, it felt like it happened overnight, because no one ever believed it was possible. They were in shock, they couldn’t mobilise. They weren’t prepared because they made the mistake of thinking it was impossible.
I went to bed that night, with two sides of my own brain battling it out; the one warning not to exaggerate, the other warning to ring the alarm. I fell asleep wondering how you can ever know if you have got the balance right, or if you will wake up one morning realising you told yourself what is happening never could.
Srebrenica; a pilgrimage
The Srebrenica massacre of July 1995 remains the most haunting symbol of the conflict. It was the biggest organised slaughter in modern Europe – 8000 men, women and children were butchered by Serb forces in 12 days, all under the noses of UN troops in what was supposed to be a UN-protected ‘safe haven’.
In an attempt to conceal the crime, some Serbian forces dug up the bodies of Srebrenica’s victims and moved them to other burial sites across Bosnia. More than 1,000 remain missing, with more being found and returned to Srebrenica for burial every year.
Every year on 11th July tens of thousands flock to the main grave site in Srebrenica. It has become a pilgrimage of sorts, but Demir didn’t want us to just see Srebrenica only on the 11th, he wanted us to see it the day before and the day after too.
So on the morning of 10th July we set off on the four-hour drive. As we got closer, it got busier. Hundreds of people were arriving on their motorbikes having rode across the country. Others were driving, walking, using any means to get there on time.
The police had closed off the main roads so we had to take an alternative route through the hills and mountains. Our minivan could not cope with the ascent, so we lightened its load – us – as Demir drove it uphill.
We walked, not a long distance, maybe only about five or ten minutes. It was scorching hot, over 40 degrees Celsius and quickly went from uncomfortable to intolerable. Bosnian Muslims who were lucky not be slaughtered had to spend days if not more walking through these mountains, in this heat, being shelled, being shot at, being hunted like animals.
As we walked uphill and turned a corner, there was a police checkpoint. Though they did not bother us beyond intensive stares, Demir told us that that the police officers were wearing the same insignia as those who perpetrated the genocide on these very days in 1995.
“How do you think that feels for the mother who is coming to do a prayer for the few bones of her entire male family and she is being watched by those wearing the same insignia?”
That night we met with a lady who had survived the genocide, after her father broke ranks with the rest of the villagers who had placed their trust in the UN safe zone and had walked down to their own slaughter. Instead, her father took a small group and walked for days with no food or water through the very mountains we had just walked up. They were just as friendly, warm and relaxed as everybody else I had met, and also kind enough to give us a place to sleep that night.
The next morning as I interviewed her, her husband and son, I saw that look, the one I had seen in Demir at his brother’s grave and with which I had now become familiar.
I could not understand what she was saying, but I didn’t need to, I am human after all. She cried and then she stared into space for a very long time. Another survivor. Another story.
The next morning, her son took us all to the memorial. It was the hottest temperature that I have ever had to walk in, in the mid-40’s, so hot in fact my camera overheated and malfunctioned.
We walked, and we walked, and then we saw it. 6500 tombstones. As I walked around the hordes of people, their individual stories hit me like waves. The old woman sitting under an umbrella holding a tombstone. The young man on a hill crying gentle tears, who told me he travels every year from Turkey and has half a dozen family members buried here. And at the bottom of the hill, the coffins, each wrapped in green.
I have visited the biggest cemetery in the world and I have buried my own father; there is a particular energy to a burial, to a funeral, to laying someone to rest. In Srebrenica on that day, it was the energy of burying your father, your son, your brother, intensified and multiplied in the biggest cemetery. The energy was buzzing at you, telling you that something was not right, that what happened here had left agitated the soil in which these bodies were buried.
In most of those coffins there were only a few bones. I watched a man cry over his loved one as if he had died only yesterday, displaying that familiar desire to be able to reach out and hold your loved one one last time before they have to go.
And then there was the call to prayer followed by a few minutes of breeze, of quiet, before the souls attached to those bones were finally given some peace.
We went back to the cemetery that same evening, just as the sun was setting. There were exactly three people there; a cameraman, his assistant, and an old lady walking by a grave.
There was pin drop silence. An eerie calm had descended on the now deserted site. It was as if the memorial service had not taken place at all. It was a moment in which to really absorb what this place represented. I walked around the 6500 tombstones and then I stopped at as many as I could to read their names and ages. The youngest was just three years old.
Srebrenica was the worst of the atrocities committed during the aggression against Bosnia, so it is right that it should be remembered, but it felt wrong that it is the only massacre that is.
“The genocide in Bosnia started in 1992, not 1995,” Demir says. “In the first few months of war from April to June 1992 there were concentration camps set up, there were torture chambers, there were rape chambers. 80,000 women were systematically raped, an organised rape process, where soldiers coming back from the front lines were ‘rewarded’. Hundreds of thousands were placed in concentration camps waiting for their turn to be killed. The reason they were not all killed is because the camps were exposed, they were not able to hide it. They were not so brave as to come out and do it openly.” But, where no one was looking, there were unspeakable crimes committed: “buses full of Bosnian Muslims were just thrown off the top of cliffs, they wouldn’t even waste bullets on those who they were massacring.”
Demir continued: “In Prejidor, in 1992 all Muslims were forced to wear white armbands or put on their houses a white piece of cloth to mark them. That was in the first months of aggression, over 70% of Bosnian Muslims were displaced, that’s 1.5 million people, 1 million outside of the country, 500,000 internally. There are towns that are completely empty. To minimise such an endeavour, such organisation, such a scale of planning, 100,000s involved in, to scale it down to just the incident in Srebrenica, is nothing but a carefully thought out strategy how to ignore and eventually come to the point that what happened in Bosnia would not matter anymore, we would forget, we would not think about it, and when somebody raises a question, we would say everybody did something wrong and Srebrenica was the exception, not a rule.”
Today, the exception is again becoming the rule. Every step of my journey through Bosnia, reminded me of the similarities with Europe today. But that still leaves the questions unanswered; how many nights does it take to turn humans into vermin? What road are we really on and how long until we get there?
We can count the nights and the bodies in Bosnia, because it happened.
But here and elsewhere in Europe we will never know until it does. Is that a risk we are willing to take?
What doesn’t require us to wait and see, is understanding that it is the process and not the tipping point that needs to be identified. It is the principles and not our emotions that need to guide us. And that we don’t have to wait until it gets worse to make things better.
The Bosnian genocide did not happen overnight. But it did happen and not long enough ago for us to confine it to the history books.
So whilst we might not know how possible it is that Muslims in Europe could face a similar fate again, we do know that it is not impossible.
That in itself is something to reflect on, especially at a time when we have thrown Shamima Begum under the bus. Because it’s not impossible that we’re on that very same bus being driven to the cliff edge.
Nargess Moballeghi is an independent journalist and documentary filmmaker. She has spent over 12 years as a news reporter in the Middle East and Europe with a special interest in UK and Middle East politics, Islamophobia and global social justice issues.