Over the weekend ceremonies were held in Srebrenica to mark the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre. Over 8,000 Bosniaks — Muslim men and boys — were mass murdered by the Serb Bosnian army. Srebrenica was a UN designate safe haven. Thousands had taken refuge in a dilapidated building adjacent on the outskirts of the town, ostensibly under the protection of UN Dutch peacekeepers. But the “peacekeepers” failed abysmally in their responsibilities, not just as peacekeepers but as human beings. After brief argumentation with Serb commanders they handed over the herded people, lambs to the slaughter.
Two lines were formed of the town’s population, men and boys on one side, women on the other; two conveys of lorries were waiting, one for the women and one for the men and boys the Serbs thought were twelve years of age or older.
One convey of lorries departed to relocate the occupants, one went to the killing fields, where the occupants were summarily unloaded, hands tied behind their backs, made to kneel, heads bowed, and then in rows systematically shot and killed — many rows from which to remove dead bodies in order to fill them with the next rows — killing thousands is exhausting work, especially in the hot sun.
To cover up the atrocity, bodies were severed and graves dug in several different places, some a distance apart. To this day, not all the bodies have been located, and sometimes only a leg or bone which DNA can identify is part of a human being and to which the names of the person to whom the shattered pieces once belonged can be attached is all that families of the dead can expect.
Eventually, the UN designated the massacre genocide, which has been accepted as such by all but Serbia, Republika Srpska and Russia. Eventually those who organized and perpetrated it were brought to justice at the International Criminal Court in The Hague and found guilty of acts of genocide or being accomplices to it.
Eventually we forgot about it.
Perhaps not even “eventually”. Most of the West watched nightly on television as the grisly events unfolded, vivid and horrifying video — men and boys separated from women, fate determined by the flick of a baton. In fact, it made for riveting television, just the kind we like to be served up by the media — the shrill intonations of grief of mothers as their young boys were herded in one direction, the boys and men in another, the overloaded lorries, packed sardine like — the nonchalant Bosnian Serb soldiers, cigarettes dangling from their lips, exhaling casually — mostly young men, same age as those they were consigning to eternity, most from decent families, all following orders, all doing it in the name of holy nationalism.
We stood idly by. Tut-tuted our horror and got on with our lives.
Of course, on anniversaries and the like we all make the proper noises – notables gather, eloquent condemnations, rituals performed and the invariable promises of never again are repeated ad nausea.
But of course there is always a “once again”.
And we have become subtle at making distinctions. Hitler? Well, at least eleven million, six million Jews alone to the ovens; Stalin, an estimated 20 to 30 million liquated; Mao Tse-tung, perhaps the record holder, with at least a cool 30 million civilian dead to his name. But somehow we have transmogrified these men into more than the sum of their evil parts, “historical” figures. Men of consequence who shaped global events, all in time commanding a literature of biography.
Iraq? Estimates vary some put the number of Iraqi civilians eviscerated during the 2003-2011 war at 120,000; some put the figure in excess of 600,000 (just collateral damage, of course; nothing remotely evil intended here).
And those precision designed drones with an unfortunate propensity to be anything but precise that carry out their daily missions in Northern Pakistan and Afghanistan? We will never know how many innocents are being reduced to sizzle.
ISIS beheads twenty or thirty men, sometimes in rows, posts the gruesome videos so that we may all be suitably shocked; again, men and boys kneeling in rows, hands tied behind their backs (some parts of the ritual of massacre don’t change much) and we outdo ourselves in expressions of horror, of the extraordinary extent of the evil, (beheadings touch some primal instincts in the depth of our psyches); of medieval savagery on the loose (actually, medieval times were not that “savage”); excoriations of ISIS as being the “worst” perpetrators of satanic evil in the history of modern mankind ( what happened to Hiroshima and Nagasaki?); vows that ISIS must be “degraded and destroyed,” — the quicker we can obliterate it the better. These people, we say, are not “human beings”.
One standard when the state commits murder; another when a non-state actor does.
Last June when I was in Srebrenica visiting Valentina Gagic, a Bosnian Serb, to invite a Srebrenica delegation to Belfast, which was hosting the 2014 conference of the Forum for Cities in Transition (FCT), I walked the graves — the statuesque-like pillars, running seamlessly in parallel, columns stretching into earth still waiting to receive more dead, each pillar marking the grave of each recovered person, each with its own brief inscription. It was drizzling, just one old woman placing flowers. Fitting that it was drizzling; the fog shrouding the ghost like pillars slowly vanishing, enveloped in the comforting mist. Somehow, sunshine would have been inappropriate.
Valentina and Amir Kulaglić, a Bosniak, came to Belfast. Kulaglić is a remarkable survivor of Srebrenica, who has put his life together again, although the trauma of the occasion 20 years ago continues to haunt him — and always will; someone who sees many of the perpetrators still in positions of high office, some walking the streets and living ordinary lives. Of course there will be no justice. He shared his story. I wonder how many sought him out. How many listened. How many have remembered.
The president of the Serb Republic, one of the tripartite components of an unworkable Herzegovina that supposedly has brought the conflict to an end, categorically denies that the massacre was genocide. Unfortunately, he is speaking for most Serbs in Herzegovina who see themselves as victims, saddled with unjust allegations, fingered as pariahs.
The unwieldiness of the Herzegovina governance structure – three governates wrapped into a virtually powerless central government ensures paralysis, segregation of Bosniaks, Serbs and Croatians, each living in their own domain, each hoarding its separate aspirations, each with independent school curricula perpetrating its own hatreds.
Every year the EU evaluates Herzegovina’s “preparedness” for membership of the EU. Each year the evaluations get worse.
It is not difficult to see why.