Lessons from Srebrenica – 20 Years On 7 July 2015

11th July 2015 marks 20 years since the Srebrenica massacre in which over 8000 Bosnian Muslims were brutally killed in an attempt at ethnic cleansing. Laura Jones recounts her experience of visting the country, and argues that the events of the Bosnian genocide should remind us, more than ever, of the value of cooperation and working together with our differences.

I couldn’t have told you much about Bosnia before I visited the country last year. I didn’t even have a picture of it in my head. And when someone mentioned the Bosnian genocide in the nineties, I may have had a vague recollection of something, but really, I was too young to understand or remember what happened.

The four days I spent in Bosnia last September however, are something I will never forget.

The distinct white stones found across Bosnia which mark the graves of Muslims killed in the genocide.

The distinct white stones found across Bosnia which mark the graves of Muslims killed in the genocide.

Bosnia (or Bosnia-Herzegovina as it’s properly named) has been a multi-ethnic, multi-religious place for many years, and for most of its history different peoples have lived relatively peacefully side-by-side. Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia, is even nicknamed the ‘Jerusalem of Europe’ because of its diverse faith make-up and because it hosts a mosque, cathedral and synagogue in such close proximity to each other. Bosnia is also a place of stunning beauty – full of greenery, rolling hills, elaborate architecture and historic sites.

But in the early nineties, Yugoslavia (the region which included Bosnia, Croatia, Serbia and other states) broke up into separate countries. The Serb forces in the region embarked on their bloody mission to create a ‘Greater Serbia’, expanding the Serbian borders and ethnically cleansing the area of any non-Serbs. In Bosnia, this meant ridding the land mainly of the indigenous Muslim Bosniaks, but also the Catholic Croats who lived there. Tens of thousands of people were killed (some estimates say up to 200,000) and eight to nine thousand are still missing. This is in part due to the use of mass graves, the bodies from which were dug up and moved to hide the evidence of what the Serbian forces had done.

While in Bosnia, I met survivors of the genocide, visited cemeteries, morgues and memorials, and went to Srebrenica – the town which witnessed the most horrific massacre of the Bosnian genocide. In Srebrenica, Hasan Hasanovic told us how he escaped the grip of the Serbian forces who killed over 8000 people in roughly three days. Srebrenica had initially been declared a safe area by the UN but in July 1995, the Serbian forces launched an attack on the town. The Bosnian residents of Srebrenica fled to the nearby UN base in Potocari seeking refuge but many were turned away. Eventually the Serb forces arrived. The Serbs separated the men and boys from the women and younger children telling them that they would be transported to a place of safety. But this was all a front; the men and boys were driven away to various locations, shot and killed, and dumped into mass graves. One of the most disturbing memories of my experience in Bosnia was watching video footage of some of these shootings – it was almost as if the killers saw this as something to be proud of, and their videos became trophies commemorating and remembering the horrific acts they had committed.

So what does all this mean to us now? There are still people who are trying to divide humanity based on race or religion or other characteristics; there are still people who are violent, aggressive and who kill; there are still people who see themselves as superior and everyone else as expendable. But the majority of us are not like that. The majority of us respect one another and recognise the dignity and value of other human beings. The majority of people are good and see the importance of building bridges and getting to know one another and living in peace with one another. And that is a message we have to protect. We have to challenge those who aim to divide us based on our differences; we have to work with each other and recognise that everyone has a right to life, love and protection.

11th July 2015 is Srebrenica Memorial Day and marks 20 years since the massacre of 1995. To find out more or get involved go to www.srebrenica.org.uk

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About Laura Jones

Laura researches and writes on religion and Muslims in the UK. She recently completed a Masters in Islam in Contemporary Britain, has previously worked as a Muslim chaplain, and is contributing editor for On Religion. She has a particular interest in inter-faith relations, mental health and Muslims in the public sphere.

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