By Tom Pollitt
By Tom Pollitt
Belgrade – When the Serbs have been made to remember, the Bosnians will be allowed to forget.
Too much of history is about remembering. Never is this truer than when discussing war and tragedy and genocide. Each November across Europe we are reminded of how much remembering we have forgotten to remember, ‘lest we forget.’ This remembering is not true remembrance, but more like a nervous reminder – a reminder that we have forgotten those who died in wars gone by, a reminder that many among them were lost in vain, that they cannot truly ‘rest in peace.’ Following the Nazi Holocaust, Walter Benjamin famously proposed a revised view of history, whereby we view the victims of tragedy redeemed, as existing in themselves, rather than insulting their memories as something we can ‘learn from’ in the present. In other words, to truly honour those past is to do true justice to their memory and to let them go. If we care for them we must cease our half-remembering, undertake a period of real memory and then allow ourselves to forget. There are times in history however, when this vital process cannot even begin. The victims are denied the right to forget by the villains’ refusal to remember.
Twenty years ago this month, the mayor of Srebrenica in what is now Serbia got through on a crackly radio line to the ministerial headquarters in Sarajevo, Bosnia to convey the simple words: ’This is goodbye.’ It is in such rare cases the cold English translation ‘goodbye’ comes into its own against its warmer and more common continental counterparts; el señor did not mean auf wiedersehen or au revoir.
That week in Srebrenica more than eight thousand Bosnian Muslims lost their lives at the hands of General Ratko Mladic and his Bosnian Serb political leader Radovan Karadzic. It was the worst act of genocide on European soil since Hitler’s Shoah. It is sobering to think that in the lifetime of anyone over twenty today, the nominally Muslim population of Bosnia Herzegovina faced the third planned immolation of an entire people in Europe in the 20th Century. It happened to the Christian Armenian minority at the hands of Turkey in the early century. It happened to European Jewry in the mid part of that epoch. And as if to provide some form of gruesome symmetry, it happened to the Bosnian Muslims in the 1990s. If the timing of these atrocities is grotesque, we lack the vocabulary to describe the fact that the latter genocide happened so recently (and less still to speak of the fact that all three designed extirpations are still widely denied). Silence is the only possible response to the fact that the pornographic harrowing of Yugoslavian Islamic society took place in the clear light of day, in the age of the European Union and of NATO. Imagine what the response of the western powers would have been had this holocaust been unleashed a few miles to the west in Christian Italy and we begin to see the breadth not only of the tragedy but of the conceptual double-standards that are at play.
History is written, as the old saying goes, by the victors, but in this case I believe we may have an exception. For one thing it isn’t clear who the victors are: in the case of the massacre, the Bosnians are in the position of being the victims. It is worth noting here that the state of Yugoslavia was declared on December 1st 1918 as ‘The Kingdom of the Serbs, Croats and Slovenes,’ ignoring the Bosnian Muslims from the offset, despite their making up over 11% of the population. Despite this, in the context of the war writ large and in light of the NATO bombing campaign that brought President Milosevic’s gang and much of this nation to its knees, we are left with something of a conundrum as to who the authors of this particular history might be. The bid by the crazed Serbian generals to create a Serbian super-state in Yugoslavia failed spectacularly. Furthermore, while the trauma of the survivors of genocide carries more moral value, the remorse of having been on the perpetrating side often carries an even sourer taste.
Many Serbs have tried to advance the idea that by showing mercy to the rest of Yugoslavia they are saving the soul of Serbia itself. Srdja Popovic, perhaps the most prominent human rights lawyer in all of old Yugoslavia, made this very point to the Serbian administration in 1992. In his words:
‘I told them then that intervention was required for the sake of Serbia as well as Bosnia and Macedonia and Croatia and Kosovo. They hated this idea so much that they never called me again.’
I’ve come to Serbia to gauge the reaction of modern day Serbs and to find out how and if they have found a way to come to terms with what was done in their name by the likes of Slobodam Milosevic, Radovan Kardazic and Ratko Mladic. Of the three premeditated genocides in Europe the Serbs waste no time in acknowledging the first, perpetrated by Turkey on their Armenian Christian minority. They positively relish in the second – the infamous Nazi Holocaust, which stands immortalized in more than 60 memorials across Serbia alone. To discover their position on the third (their own effort) I visited the National War Museum in Belgrade, to see an exhibition about European Genocide round two – the Nazi Endlösung, The Final solution.
We were treated to an excellent exhibition detailing the truly horrifying level of ethnic cleansing that took place on Yugoslav territory under Axis occupation. We leaned that almost 90% of the Jews living in that territory were exterminated during the war period and the fascist architects of the disaster were excoriated without a hint of sympathy. What then would the museum make of Himmler and Goebbels’ counterparts in Serbia in the 1990s?
At the front desk we inquired as to whether there were any plans to settle this score.
‘Do you plan to put on any exhibitions about the genocide in Serbia?’
‘You mean during the Second World War?
‘No in the 1990s.’
‘You mean in Kosovo?’
‘In Kosovo, in Srebrenica…’
We were informed that the slaughter of more than 8000 Muslims in July 1995 is a ‘recent event’ and thus cannot be classified as ‘history,’ making it inappropriate material for the museum. ‘History,’ we were told, refers to events that happened ‘more than thirty years ago.’ (Incidentally, 14 of the Nazi holocaust memorials in Serbia were built within three years of the end of WWII). I lacked the presence of mind to tell our new friend that we’d be back in ten years.
For the families of the Srebrenica dead and for the survivors of the butchering, the massacre isn’t ‘history’ either. It is daily life – a static life of remembering with no prospect of forgetting.
‘Every year I think this is the year I will bury my son’
says Hajra Catic, who lost her husband and twenty-six-year-old son to the ‘recent event.’
Such places are often not only about remembering and forgetting but also about what comes between – waiting. The families of 1200 Bosnians are still waiting for their loved ones’ bodies to be found, Kosovo is still waiting for its independence and Belgrade still waits for the catharsis that comes with the admission of wrongdoing.
They will be waiting a good while longer it seems. On being elected in 2012, President Tomislav Nikolic wasted no time in declaring that:
‘There was no genocide at Srebrenica.’
He this month shirked to attend the ceremony commemorating the anniversary of the genocide and went on to say that the majority of Serbs share his views. The decorations on the street outside the main government building in Belgrade seem to confirm this. There are the photos of the men lost in the Bosnian Serb army around the time of Srebrenica to the NATO intervention. The city boasts several landmarks showcasing the damage done by the campaign. One has to feel great sympathy with the ordinary Serb civilians who suffered beneath the NATO raids. The justifiable perception of many Serbs have is that their whole nation was raised to the ground in the least precise of careful manner imaginable. Belgrade bears the scars to confirm this suspicion. But whatever one thinks of the NATO military action against Serbia, the massacre and the political context in which it occurred are conspicuous by their absence. It is time the Serb leadership and its population were reminded.
The search for the dead is still ongoing, with the unenviable task of accounting for the remains of the victims given to Amor Masovic, chairman of the Bosnian Missing Person’s Institute. Their figures record 8,372 missing of which remains of around 7100 have been found. This is largely due to the gruesome yet almost comically clumsy Serbian tactic of trying to cover their tracks. As the Guardian reported:
‘After the Srebrenica genocide, the Bosnian Serb wartime leadership ordered the graves dug up and the corpses reburied in a bid to conceal them. The job was done with bulldozers and trucks, breaking up bodies in the process.’
They go on to give evidence of this, such as of different bones of a twenty-three-year-old man being found 32Km apart. Masovic himself coolly noted the novelty of this barbarism:
‘We are the first generation in human civilisation in which bodies are buried and then dug up and scattered. As far as we know, no one else did this.’
Remembering and forgetting are two common tactics, but the western media went with the characteristically unsubtle method of ignoring. The day after Srebrenica, The New York Times described the deaths of the 8,372 as ‘a blessing in disguise,’ in that it would be, to use a crude Islamic caricature, the straw that broke the camel’s back. They meant by this that it might be the catalyst for the Clinton administration to finally intervene, something that should and would have happened long before were it not for the commander in chief’s vanity. [He had previously delayed action against the Milosevic gang because of his wife’s insistence that nothing take the media attention away from her ‘ingenious healthcare-plan,’ one thing we can be glad to have forgotten about. But at least we don’t have to hear from her any more.] In any case, its seems to me that the massacre of thousands of people is a very effective ‘disguise’ in which to conceal a ‘blessing.’ One might imagine the response if Al Jazeera described 9/11 as ‘a blessing in disguise’ because they thought it might inspire some policy or other in the governments of the Gulf States. (The difference being that this blessing killed three times as many people as the terrorist attacks on September 11th 2001). We have to ask ourselves the following question: If a Christian people were being bombarded and an attempt made at their extermination by a Muslim majority nation, would the so-called western powers have found it tolerable in the same way? It is a question that need not even require an answer.
Journalistic suicide aside, we must face the unpleasant facts. The Serbs must be made to remember what they did and the citizens of ‘the west’ must remember that it happened on our watch and to a large extent with our collusion and our backing. What was required at the time and perhaps even more urgently now is a period of reminding, preceding a period of remembering, followed by a much-needed period of forgetting. Mrs Hajra Catic and all the other mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, sons and daughters have not been so lucky as to have had the opportunity to know what happened to their family members, to bury their beloved. They have been denied their right, in short, to forget. They are waiting. They are waiting for the unlikely day when Amor Masovic and his team finish their work and lay their relatives to rest. They are waiting also for the remembering period to take root, for the denial to stop, for the truth to be accepted. Then and only then can they forget.
Most of all, the period of forgetting can only begin when those responsible are brought to some kind of justice. Minor steps have been made to get the remembering under way. To give one instance, Dragomir Vasic, a police chief who aided the killers at Srebrenica was convicted of war crimes by Bosnia’s own tribunal in January this year. But the real monsters – Milosevic, Karadzic, Mladic et al – remained and have remained at large for far too long. The three aforementioned stooges were called to the International War Crimes Tribunal in 2001, 2008 and 2011 respectively. Milosevic died after a five-year trial in which no verdict was reached. The other two trials are still ongoing. In their case we are too sodden with guilt to settle the score; so marinated in blame are we that our sole option may be, as a journalist once wrote of the war in Vietnam, to ‘forget it if we can.’ These are the men who ordered even the Serbian areas of Sarajevo to be burned to the ground, as it was deemed worth the lives of a few of the ‘pure-blooded’ in order to make sure no Muslims could escape their wroth. These men have gone beyond the limits even of ordinary ethnic cleansing, but conviction comes there none.
‘After this knowledge,’ wrote T.S. Eliot, ‘what forgiveness?’ For these wanted men and for their hundreds of their co-murders the question of forgiveness simply doesn’t arise. They will likely die in their cells or at large, their crimes unaccounted for, just as Hajra Catic and the 1200 other Bosnian Muslims will likely die without laying their loved one’s to rest. But forget it. Forget it if you can.
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