It had been a long time since I had thought about Srebrenica or the war in Bosnia, so when I saw Scott Anderson’s article in The New York Times Magazine (“Life in the Valley of Death”) this past weekend I was hoping for an optimistic update. I should have known better. It is difficult to heal from such traumatic events. The war in Bosnia had been raging since 1992 and the Bosniak refugees in the so-called UN protected “safe area” of Srebrenica were war weary, homeless, and hungry long before Ratko Mladic and his Bosnian Serb army showed up in July 1995. The massacre of 8,000 men at Srebrenica that followed was the beginning of the end of the Serbian campaign of ethnic cleansing. The elimination of the Muslim island in the Serbian sea opened the way for the peace talks at Dayton, Ohio that November.
Anderson’s account reveals the deep mistrust that exists between the Bosniaks and the Serbs. This mistrust is understandable in light of the recent past, but it may be the very thing that prevents them from maintaining peace in the region. Conspiracy theories still abound and nationalism is still a powerful force. Of course, the Serbs are not alone in this type of thinking. The willingness to believe that others are evil and we are good is an unfortunate human inclination. It would be a mistake to dismiss the behavior of the Serbs as a Balkan problem, having nothing to do with us. It is a human problem. History is littered with the corpses of individuals killed for who they were by those who falsely believed that they were evil. If we are willing to learn from the past and recognize our own propensity to believe false narratives about others I have hope that we can stop or at least minimize the violence and other forms of oppression.
The fate of Srebrenica and other territories of the former Yugoslavia belong to its peoples. The justice provided by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) is important but it is not enough. The carefully document forensic evidence collected by the court tells the story of what happened but it is rejected by many Serbs. Radojka Filopovic, who was interviewed by Anders, claims that the number of Muslim dead is exaggerated and of those that were they were simply killed in combat. She also believes that many of the dead buried at the Potocari cemetery near Srebrenica are actually Serbs not Muslims. “This,” she claimed, “was their genocide.” It is difficult to tell from the article how wide spread these kinds of sentiments are but they are reminiscent of the pre-Bosnian war Serbian narrative. If there is to be long-term peace, the Serbs need to face up to the crimes committed in their name. This is not to say that the Serbs collectively are guilty of those crimes. I do not believe in collective guilt. It is what led to this whole conflict in the first place.
For their part, the Bosniaks need to resist the siren song of revenge. They are understandably frustrated with the international court, which has yet to complete the trials of the two main architects of the genocide after Slobodan Milosevic, Ratko Mladic and Rodovan Karadzic. Not to mention the fact that many perpetrators have not be brought to justice. I hope they see the folly of revenge. It will only bring them more suffering and death.
They can choose peace or they can choose violence. The young people will be key to maintaining long-term peace. But it is up to their parents to teach them to love, not to hate.