“We pray to You,
Almighty God, may grievance become hope,
May revenge become justice
May mothers’ tears become prayers
That Srebrenica never happens again
To no one and nowhere!”
Last Wednesday on the 11th of July, I was in Srebrenica for the very first time. The above is the main prayer that I heard from the outgoing Grand Mufti of Bosnia and Herzegovina Dr Mustafa Ceric in this year’s commemoration of the Srebrenica Genocide in 1995. His sermon in front of grieving families and tens of thousands of people atPotocariMemorial Park was about rebuildingBosnia and rekindling hope. The Srebrenica Genocide wasEurope’s largest massacre since World War II.
There were several dignitaries from across the world, including the New York Rabbi Arthur Sneier of Appeal of Conscience Foundation who lost his entire family but himself survived the Holocaust. Rabbi Sneier delivered a personal message from the US President Barack Obama, that read
“The name Srebrenica will forever be associated with some of the darkest acts of the 20th century. A measure of justice is finally being served for the victims in courts in The Hague and Bosnia and Herzegovina, as the perpetrators of this atrocity, including Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, are now being called to account for their actions…”
In his key note speech the Rabbi himself said
“… Although the devastating pain of this crime belongs uniquely to the people of Bosnia and Srebrenica, and most particularly to the family members of its victims, you are not alone. I grieve with you, I feel your anguish, I hear your cry and I feel your pain. The brutality of what took place here can never be forgotten. And the totality of this crime must be remembered, not denied. The testimony of those who survived cannot be refuted and the historical fact cannot be altered.”
Altogether 520 bodies (in fact, the body parts) in smaller coffins were offered a funeral prayer and buried this year. The burial created scenes of bellowing weeping from the women and even men of the family members across the valley; a scene that can never be forgotten. The families of those deceased victims who have no male members alive, were helped by others to bury the remains. At least they could put their mind to rest that their loved ones were finally buried. The valley of death that shocked the world in July 1995 turned into a wailing ground, but with a resolute determination not to forget those who were butchered by the forces of evil.
History will remember that it was in this valley, which was declared as a UN ‘Safe Haven’, where 8,000 Bosniak Muslim men and boys were separated from their families and put to death by an army commanded by the Serb commander General Ratko Mladic. He and his political master Karadzic are now facing trial inthe Hague.
The aggression by a powerful Serb enemy on the defenceless innocent civilians was designed to ethnically cleanseBosniafrom Bosniaks. It was an unequal and unjustified war imposed on the Bosniak people that brought new disgrace toEuropeand the international community, only a few decades after WWII.Sarajevowas subjected to the longest siege in history (44 months) by the Bosnian Serbs whileBosniawas under an arms embargo. It was only the resilience and indomitable survival spirit of the Bosnian people under the determined leadership of Alija Izetbegovic that gave them the strength to withstand the onslaught. The only connection the Bosniaks had with the outside world was by digging an 800m tunnel under the airport through which food, medicine and weapons supply was possible.
The story of peace keeping in Srebrenica was a story of betrayal, criminal negligence or, according to many Bosniaks, complicity with the Bosnian Serbs. General Mladic assured in front of the world camera that no harm would be done to the people who took shelter in the safe haven. But alas, his army was let lose and the worst crime in modern Europe took place. The Dutch peacekeepers who had the duty to protect unarmed civilians ‘were forced to withdraw’ as they were ‘overwhelmed’ by the Serb forces. Many Bosniaks still ask why this peace keeping force was not taken to task.
Why did the Bosnian Serbs commit this brutality to the people who were of the same ethnicity?
To understand this we need to go back to the rise of the ultra-nationalist Serb paramilitary forces, Chetniks, against the Ottoman Empire from the beginning of the 20th century. Hatred against the Ottomans was their driving force. However, after the WWII, Marshal Tito was able to maintain peaceful coexistence among the nations of the Yugoslav Federation under Communism through his authoritarian statesmanship until his death in 1980. In 1991 the country started disintegrating due to unrest and civil wars.
The Socialist Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina was one of Yugoslavia’s six federal units during the Tito era; it had mainly three equal people – Muslims (renamed Bosniaks), Serbs and Croats with population of 43%, 31% and 17% respectively. In the first democratic multi-party elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina in November 1990 the three political parties represented by the three people reached a power sharing agreement. In October 1991 the Bosnian Parliament approved a ‘Memorandum on Sovereignty’. It then held a referendum on the independence of Bosnia and Herzegovinaon 29 February and 1 March 1992. But most Serbs boycotted this. On the result of the referendum the Bosnian parliament proclaimed the Republic’s independence from Yugoslaviaon 6 March. This was immediately recognised by the European Community and the USA on the 6th and 7th April 1992 respectively. The Serbs’ Assembly in Banja Luka retaliated by severing all ties with Bosnia and Herzegovina. The name ‘Republika Srpska’ was adopted on 12 August 1992 and the Bosnian Serb forces waged an ethnic cleansing in order to create an ethnically pure state of Republika Srpska. Bosniaks suffered a long brutal ethnic cleansing, rape and humiliation from 1992 to 1995. The Srebrenica massacre was a culmination of this inhumanity of one people to another.
It was the painstaking effort of The International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) that has been assistingBosnia and Herzegovina in accounting for all the missing people; almost 90% of them were assembled until this year. ICMP estimates that between 8,000 and 8,100 individuals went missing from the 1995 fall of Srebrenica. In an effort to identify these victims through their DNA, ICMP has collected blood samples from 22,160 family members of 7,773 reported victims and compared them with DNA profiles from post mortem samples excavated from mass graves. Of the 7,040 unique profiles extracted from bone samples, 6,838 persons have now been DNA identified by ICMP. This has been a horrific experience for those who worked for the ICMP and obviously for the victims’ families.
The question is, 17 years after the calamity isBosniahealing?
It is difficult to say, as Bosniaks feel that the Dayton Peace Agreement was unfair to them.Bosnia only signed to this as, to most Bosniaks ‘unjust peace was better than continuing a just war’. Bosnian Serb leadership is still in a state of denial. They try to put every barrier possible against the Bosniaks. The healing process needs an apology, which the Serb psyche has not yet grasped. Here lies the immense task of EU leadership.
Bosnia and Herzegovinais a country of stunning beauty with majestic mountains and pristine land, lakes, fountains and waterfalls. The people are warm-hearted, tolerant and respectful. The war and sufferings have failed to tarnish these qualities in them. The outgoing Grand Mufti takes inspiration from how the Prophet of Islam responded to the inhumanity of his adversaries. In response to the personal torment and humiliation that the Prophet faced he did not seek revenge, rather prayed for their wellbeing. Let us hope that barriers to peace fade away in this ‘garden ofEurope’ and justice prevails.
Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari is an educationalist and parenting consultant (www.amanaparenting.com). He is a founding member of The East London Communities Organisation (TELCO), Chairman of the East London Mosque Trust, and former Secretary General of the Muslim Council of Britain (2006-10). Follow Muhammad Abdul Bari on Twitter: www.twitter.com/MAbdulBari
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own.