In 2009 the European Parliament determined that July 11th each year should be a day of Remembering Srebrenica, the site in 1995 of the worst genocide in Europe since the Holocaust.
The terrible war in the Balkans began in 1991. In 1993 the United Nations established ‘safe havens’ for the protection of some of the tens of thousands of civilians left at the mercy of the savage fighting. The most important of these was at Srebrenica, where Serb forces threatened to overrun 60,000 Bosnian Muslims. In July this ‘protection’ was provided by Dutch troupes, inadequately armed to carry out their mission. How the United Nations failed those who entrusted them with their lives constitutes a profoundly distressing account of lack of planning, conviction, responsibility and moral imagination. It implicates the humanity of us all.
On July 11 the ‘haven’ fell. That night General Mladic walked through the enclave assuring that everyone would receive transport, ‘women and children first’. Men, from the age of 12 upwards, were separated from their families and beaten to death or shot against walls, in warehouses and in the hills. Women were raped, systematically. Thousands who set out in a vast column towards the Muslim town of Tuzla sixty-three miles distant were ambushed and murdered en route:
- My husband kissed the children. He took the oldest in his arms, crying, and said, “My son, you might not see your father ever again.” The whole war, everything, was not as dreadful as that goodbye. He stood at the fence, crying. He left. (Testimony of Nermina Smajlovic)
What happened to him then? To this day many women do not know the precise fate of their fathers, husbands and sons. Bodies were often buried in parts in different locations. In a vast refrigerated hall outside Tuzla, run by the International Commission of Missing Persons, thousands of bags await identification. As well as bodies, pictures and items of clothing have been unearthed:
- Kadefa recognised a photograph of a man’s belt and a pair of torn trousers, stitched in the way she had once repaired Mirsad’s trousers. But she refused to accept his death until six years later when a DNA match identified his bones. (Missing Lives)
One of the most searing pictures in the haunting booklet published this year by Remembering Srebrenica is that of two hands; the hand of a living person, protected by a plastic glove, holding the earth-covered fingers of the dead.
Tens of thousands live with the gaps, the silence, the empty spaces of those who will never come home. In his Pale Diary, Mladen Vuksanovic recorded with dread what happened before the men were taken away. Pale is a small village overlooking Sarajevo. Muslims and Christians lived there together for generations, until Serb forces occupied it in order to shell the city below:
- A convoy of buses stands for hours on the main road. More people come to ask: ‘Are there any Muslim houses round here?’ My wife says to one fellow, raising her voice: ‘No, there aren’t! Neither Muslim nor Croat ones! There were only humanhouses here!’
Can we build, in spite of all that’s happened and still happens, ‘human houses here’?
May grief become hope!
May revenge become righteousness!
May the tears of the mothers become prayers
That Srebrenica never happens again. (Imam Cekic, Memorial for Srebrenica, 2005)