Today is the anniversary of one of the dark pages in modern history. Twenty-eight years ago today, at least 8,372 men and boys were subjected to genocide by Serbian forces led by Ratko Mladic. Tens of thousands of women, children, and elderly also endured torture, rape, and forced displacement. The white stones of the Srebrenica Genocide Memorial stand tall as a stark reminder of those dark memories.
History is often hailed as a repository of past events, serving as a crucial tool for actively recalling both positive and negative experiences. It allows us to glean valuable lessons that help us navigate the present complexities and aspire towards a better future. However, the case of Srebrenica presents a unique challenge, making it exceedingly arduous to internalize the past and extract meaningful insights due to denialism, historical revisionism, and the constant obfuscation of the facts. Such an environment perpetuates a culture of impunity for perpetrators and fosters collective forgetfulness.
The work of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the International Court of Justice (ICJ) has long been targeted by pro-Serbian actors. The latter circulated a narrative that Serbian war criminals were not tried because of their crimes but because of an anti-Serb conspiracy. This narrative has been amplified by various quarters to the extent that many people are now convinced the ICTY and ICJ were biased, which is deplorable since both concluded that the Srebrenica massacre constituted genocide. Accusations of politicization were frequently raised, such as when Russia criticized the verdict against Radovan Karadzic as a “politicized” decision by The Hague.
The Srebrenica Genocide Denial Report
The 2022 Srebrenica Genocide Denial Report identified 693 new instances of denialism in the previous year, employing tactics such as denial, distortion of historical facts, minimizing the genocide’s significance by drawing on false equivalism, reducing the actual numbers, and even glorifying the perpetrators. While these instances were initially observed in the media and political spheres, they also extended to academe.
The quest to whitewash Serbian genociders did not emerge in isolation. The origins of denialism, insensitivity, and cover-up of war crimes are intricately linked also to the ineffectiveness of international bodies entrusted with protecting civilians and pursuing justice for victims. One of the most disgraceful episodes was the disgraceful moment when Thom Karremans, the leader of the Dutchbat forces in the UN Peacekeeping Mission, was berated by Mladic and later shared a toast with him before departing without fulfilling his duty, leaving thousands under his protection to be mercilessly killed by Serbian paramilitaries.
The fragmented and dysfunctional political structure inherited from the Dayton Agreement has complicated things for Bosnia. The government is literally prevented by its Serbian political groups from pursuing justice. In 2021, the anti-denialism amendments to the Criminal Code of Bosnia and Herzegovina by the Office of the High Representative (OHR) Valentin Inzko, using the Bonn powers, stirred controversy.
They aimed to prohibit and penalize denialism and the glorification of war criminals. In response, the Bosnian Serb leadership threatened to withdraw from key aspects of the country’s governance, including the tax system, judiciary, and military. This incident highlights the inherent fragility of the country’s political system. Milorad Dodik and other Serbian politicians criticized the OHR, highlighting concerns regarding sovereignty and democratic legitimacy. When it comes to implementing international court verdicts, Serbian politicians are suddenly transformed into champions of democracy.
Denialism and revisionism
Denialism and revisionism persistently infiltrate the political landscape, morphing into new guises over time. The rise of far-right sentiments, combining a mixture of Islamophobia and blatant Serbian nationalism, added further vitriol to the mix.
But collective memory is now more than ever in need of revival. It all begins in the pulsating heart of public spaces: the streets, squares, statues, and buildings, an “organized remembrance”, as Hannah Arendt once termed it. Shockingly, even after three decades, the names of Serbian genociders still enjoy public acclaim. Worse still, the Vilina Vlas Hotel, once one of the vile rape camps during the war, now caters to tourists.
In the depths of the horrific atrocities that shook Srebrenica, the indescribable suffering endured by women in hotels and detention camps still haunts them today. For nearly three decades, they have been trapped in a cycle of social exclusion and victimization. Ajna Jusić, founder of the organization “Forgotten Children of War,” embodies their ongoing fight for basic human rights.
These spaces must transform into living museums, preserving the collective memory and serving as powerful reminders of past pain. Sarajevo Canton’s plan to convert the Kon Tiki Motel into such a museum is a step towards honouring the resilience and struggles of those affected. These examples highlight how collective memory can fade, bringing forward the urgency of fighting public amnesia.
As we approach the three-decade mark since the Srebrenica genocide, all those who care about humanity must keep the flame of collective memory burning bright. It is a call that echoes from politics to academia, from the streets to the media—a resounding plea for comprehensive remembrance. Delving into the depths of our past sheds light on humanity’s potential pitfalls and unlocks the essence of our existence. Let these words from Arendt’s “Between Past and Future” reverberate in our minds as concluding marks:
“We are in danger of forgetting, and such an oblivion—quite apart from the contents themselves that could be lost—would mean that, humanly speaking, we would deprive ourselves of one dimension, the dimension of depth in human existence.”
This article originally appeared in the Opinion section of Politics Today website.