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Bosnians need to stare the beast in the eye

Debates over the events of the Bosnian War remain a contentious topic in modern Bosnia and Herzegovina. While competing narratives continue to divide society at an everyday level, the international community must take action to promote a shared future for the divided country.

January 19, 2023 - Leon Hartwell - Articles and Commentary

Bosnian woman praying in the graveyard at the Srebrenica Memorial in Potočari during a mass funeral of war victims in 2020. Photo: Ajdin Kamber / Shutterstock

It was late at night and I sat in the back of a vehicle slowing trailing down a winding road from Budva to Sarajevo. I was a bit tired after attending a conference where, in the wake of the Russo-Ukrainian War, we mostly bashed Vladimir Putin. The irony is that the conference took place at a large, luxurious property – “Hotel Splendid” – which once featured in a Bond movie and is now owned by Viktor Ivanenko, who was once head of the notorious KGB and later the spy agency’s successor, the FSB! Afterwards, I joked with my friends that I could not help but think, “I hope no one made a Trump-like pee pee tape,” because the Hotel Splendid seems to be ripe for collecting kompromat. My fellow passengers during my Budva to Sarajevo journey were a Bosniak and a Bosnian Serb. We had an enlightening conversation, one that re-emphasised the dire need to confront Bosnia and Herzegovina’s dark history. 

After I got comfortable in the back of the vehicle, my Bosnian Serb compatriot asked, “What do you Americans think about us, Serbs?” Before I could even attempt to answer, he launched into a long tirade about the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s (NATO) bombings of Serb targets – first in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1995, and later in Kosovo in 1999. The young man, who resides in Banja Luka, gave off the impression that he knew exactly how many Serbs – from Serbia, Bosnia and Kosovo – were killed during those NATO bombings. What struck me is how emotional he became when describing those events. He recounted those bombings as if they occurred only yesterday, and as if each NATO missile left shrapnel in his body and that of every Serb, both living and dead.

At one point, I mentioned that a few days prior to our car ride I had visited Srebrenica, a site that represents the epitome of the Bosnian Serb genocide against Bosniaks. But before I could recount my impression, the young Bosnian Serb cut me off: “NATO bombings against Serbs amounted to genocide!” He complained, “Everyone’s talking about Srebrenica, but no one ever talks about the multiple genocides committed against Serbs.” Yes, he actually said it – he invoked a falsehood and even used the plural for genocide! I have conducted extensive research on genocide, I would argue that the term is sacrosanct and should only be used to imply what it is intended to mean. Nonetheless, I did not push back against those falsehoods as I wanted to genuinely listen to the Bosnian Serb’s narrative. At the same time, I could not help but think about the irony of his statement as NATO initiated those bombings exactly because Serbs were committing genocide, first in BiH, and later in Kosovo. 

The first NATO bombings happened during the Bosnian War following large-scale displacement and killings of civilians by Bosnian Serbs aided and abetted by rump Yugoslavia, which by that time only consisted of Serbia and Montenegro. In Bosnia, in 1995, the Srebrenica genocide (July) and the second Markale Massacre (August) particularly united NATO to stop the Bosnian Serbs in their tracks. Those events triggered “Operation Deliberate Force”. This operation took place between August 30th and September 20th and focused on destroying 338 carefully selected Bosnian Serb military targets like heavy weapons, ammunition depots and command-and-control bunkers. NATO intervention together with major advances by the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, reduced Bosnian Serb control of Bosnia from around 70 per cent to only half

More importantly, Operation Deliberate Force stopped Bosnian Serb atrocities and played a major role in ending the Bosnian War. Shortly before he passed away, I interviewed Ambassador James W. Pardew who, among others, was part of Richard Holbrooke’s interagency team charged with searching for peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Pardew told me in no uncertain terms that “Bosnian Serbs committed genocide in Srebrenica. Had the international community not reacted strongly to that, I think there would have been more genocides. No question about it.” But I said none of this to my Bosnian Serb companion because I was much more interested in his (false) narrative.

Moral relativism

Our Budva to Sarajevo conversation did not end with the Bosnian Serb equating NATO intervention with the Srebrenica genocide. We inevitably also touched on Putin’s aggression in Ukraine. This car ride took place long after news surfaced about the Bucha massacre, the mass deportation of Ukrainians, including children, and other major atrocities committed by Russia. To my Bosnian Serb companion, Putin’s actions in Ukraine are no different from NATO’s 1990s actions against Serb military targets. Again, this is pure “moral relativism” as the Bosniak and I subsequently reflected over some sweet lemony drinks at the café “Spazio” on a hot day back in the centre of Sarajevo. In other words, the young Bosnian Serb believes that there are no absolute rules determining whether something is right or wrong, or in the case of Bosnia, whether nearly a hundred thousand Bosniaks died because of genocide, which legally is a deliberate attempt to destroy “in whole or in part” a particular identity group, or whether less than 30 Bosnian Serb civilians were accidentally and regrettably killed, not because they were deliberately targeted, but as by-products of a military intervention aimed to stop genocide.

Ongoing official propaganda by Serbia and Republika Srpska is what causes the young Bosnian Serb to walk around with a victim mentality. It does not allow him to recognise that the main victims of the Bosnian War together with large scale atrocities, were Bosniaks. When I say that Bosniaks were the main victims of the Bosnian War, it is a fact that of the approximately 100,000 people who were killed during the conflict, nearly 90 per cent of them were civilians, not soldiers, and of those, most of them were Bosniaks. Furthermore, the convictions carried out by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) are also a good indicator of who were the main victims and perpetrators.

To my great relief, our Bosniak companion did not flinch during the Bosnian Serb’s diatribe. I was not quite sure whether he was used to such genocide denialism, or whether he was just a bigger man than I would ever be. Nonetheless, I was rather grateful for his calm demeanour, because during that nighttime journey snaking through endless Montenegrin and Bosnian mountain passes, he was the one in the driver’s seat and responsible for getting us home safely. Interestingly, the Bosniak was a teenager during the Bosnian War, while the Bosnian Serb was still in nappies. The first therefore has a living memory of the war, while the second’s experience has largely been constructed and reconstructed through repeated Serb propaganda churned out by some of the genocidaires who committed those atrocities. Not only was my Bosniak companion a witness to the war, he was in fact a camp survivor, albeit a Croat camp. 

Over a period of three months in Bosnia, I also met other wartime survivors like my Bosniak Budva to Sarajevo companion, some of whom spent time as teenagers in Bosnian Serb camps. One wartime survivor whom I met was shot four times. He told me that he felt “robbed” of his youth as he had to become a soldier during a time that is normally associated with studying and going to nightclubs. I asked a mutual friend how the war veteran is doing overall, and without blinking he replied, “He is fucked up! The war really fucked him up.” Unsurprisingly, many of the Bosniak survivors whom I have met admittedly still suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and deep depression. Some younger Bosniaks complain that their fathers will not talk to them about what happened, but that they can see the strain in their eyes whenever anyone mentions the wartime period. What surprised me though is that many Bosniaks, the victims of the Bosnian genocide, are willing to reconcile with their perpetrators. Still, a central part of reconciliation involves truth telling and asking for forgiveness, both of which are by and large absent.

To be clear, the young Bosnian Serb from my Budva to Sarajevo journey was no fool. I had the impression that he is intelligent, sharp and articulate. However, he grew up in Bosnia and Herzegovina where kids are exposed to three different versions of history. As explained to me by my road trip’s Bosniak companion, the exact narrative that a Bosnian pupil will be taught depends predominantly on his or her identity group. He told me that there are even Bosnian schools where the different identity groups share the same school facilities but at different periods of the day. Bosniaks will arrive for school in the morning, they will be taught one version of history. Later that day, once the Bosniaks have left, Bosnian Serbs will enter the same classrooms, and will be taught another version of history.

Genocide denialism and erasure

Genocide denialism extends way beyond my bizarre experience from Budva to Sarajevo. According to the new Srebrenica Genocide Denial Report, between May 2021 and May 2022, there were 693 acts of genocide denial identified in public and media spaces in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Balkans. The Report also noticed that there was a significant increase in acts of genocide denial from the previous year.

As mentioned earlier, a few days prior to that journey, I made my way to Srebrenica with Hikmet Karčić (a prominent Bosnian genocide scholar), a Bosniak war veteran, and a group of Texans who travelled halfway around the globe to get acquainted with the Balkans.

On our way to Srebrenica, our bus stopped next to the infamous Kravica warehouse. One of our group members – the war veteran – went to inquire whether we could walk around the site. Not only did those who were working on the site refuse us entry, they also threatened to call the police. This is in stark contrast to the approach taken by the German government, which provides a variety of sources of funding for scholars to conduct research about the Holocaust, including in Auschwitz. In fact, Karčić says that “In recent years, Serbian authorities have invested a lot of money and effort in denialism, establishing commissions to ‘research’ crimes, produce documentaries and fund lobbyists to downplay Serb crimes and to portray Bosniaks as a threat and Bosnia as an extremist hub.”

The notoriety of the Kravica warehouse stems from the fact that it was home to one of several mass executions that took place on July 13th 1995. On that day, it is estimated that between 1000 and 1500 Bosniak men and boys were frog-marched by Bosnian Serbs into the Kravica warehouse. Once they were inside, Bosnian Serbs threw hand grenades through the windows and open fired against the unarmed Bosniaks. One Bosniak survivor of the ordeal later recalled what he witnessed:

I was not even able to touch the floor, the concrete floor of the warehouse… After the shooting, I felt a strange kind of heat, warmth, which was actually coming from the blood that covered the concrete floor, and I was stepping on the dead people who were lying around. But there were even people who were still alive, who were only wounded, and as soon as I would step on him, I would hear him cry, moan, because I was trying to move as fast as I could. I could tell that people had been completely disembodied, and I could feel bones of the people that had been hit by those bursts of gunfire or shells, I could feel their ribs crushing. And then I would get up again and continue . . .

The Kravica warehouse massacre was one of several acts of genocide. During the 20th annual commemoration of the Srebrenica genocide, the warehouse was covered by Bosnian Serbs in posters of Putin supposedly to reflect their anti-EU sentiments. Today, the warehouse and surrounding buildings are being completely restored, decked out with a fresh coat or two of paint. The local government, controlled by Bosnian Serbs, decided that, instead of using the site to educate people about genocide, it wants to set it up as a space for entrepreneurs. At least that is the official excuse. In reality, the site of the “crime of crimes” is being beautified. Imagine for a moment if the Auschwitz-Birkenau killing centre was turned into a tech hub or a wedding venue.

Karčić patiently explained to me that genocide denialism in Kravica goes even further than beautification. The local government erected a massive memorial in memory of Bosnian Serb victims right across the street from the Kravica warehouse. As we drove past it, Karčić pointed out that “the numbers of Bosnian Serbs who died as a result of the war [which of course is distinguishable from genocide] is even inflated by the memorial.” The strategy of the Serb propagandists seems clear: erase the traces of Serb crimes, inflate the perception of crimes committed against Serbs.

What can be done?

Presenting three different versions of Bosnian history creates a situation full of “alternative facts”. And the problem with “alternative facts”, as neatly explained to Kellyanne Conway (then counsellor to President Trump), by NBC journalist Chuck Todd, is that they “are not facts. They’re falsehoods”. More importantly, Serbians and Bosnian Serbs continue to not only deny that genocide against Bosniaks took place, as is evident from murals in some neighbourhoods across Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, they even celebrate genocidaires like Ratko Mladic. 

Under the current circumstances, Bosnians – Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats – are unable to agree on a common past. The absence of a consensus on the past also means that it is harder to define a common present, and more importantly, a common future. With the end of apartheid, when South Africa kicked off the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), a body that brought together both victims and perpetrators to tell the truth about the country’s violent past, the late chair of the TRC, Archbishop Desmond Tutu remarked, “We needed to look the beast in the eye, so that the past wouldn’t hold us hostage anymore.” 

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, the teaching of different histories of the recent past will inevitably entail that traumas will not be dealt with, especially given that there is no attempt to promote healing at the national level. Moreover, the risk involved in this situation should not be underestimated as it bifurcates society even further. Failure to deal with past traumas produces “bellogens”, which can be defined as “carriers of war” or ticking time-bombs of future violence. 

So what can be done? Given the lack of political maturity in Bosnia, the international community will have to steer Serbs towards the truth. It can be done in three manners:

Firstly, genocide denialists should be prosecuted. In July 2021, Valentin Inzko, the former high representative, used the Bonn Powers to criminalise genocide denialism and banned the glorification of war criminals. While genocide denialism is less prominent in public, no one has yet been prosecuted for it.

Secondly, Christian Schmidt, the current high representative, should use the Bonn Powers to promote the systemic reform and revision of the Bosnian education curriculum to ensure that children are presented with one truthful version of history. 

Thirdly, to back up the above measures, the international community should stand firm behind the prosecution of genocide denialists, and also stop funding governments that harbour or promote such acts. As a Bosnian friend told me, it is appalling that “the EU and other donors continue to provide funding to governments [in Bosnia and Serbia] where [pro-genocidaire] graffiti is tolerated.”

Given that genocide denialism often emanates from Belgrade, the EU should link support for Serbia to its actions in the region, including in Bosnia and Herzegovina. At present, in terms of trade, investment, and development cooperation, the EU remains Serbia’s most important partner. Yet, Brussels consistently fails (on purpose?) to utilise its leverage to promote positive behaviour by Belgrade. 

Dr. Leon Hartwell is a Senior Associate at LSE IDEAS, London School of Economics (LSE), and a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) in Washington D.C.


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