20 Years After Srebrenica: How Do We Get to “Never Again”?

The 20th Anniversary of Srebrenica

Saturday, July 11, marked the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica Massacre – widely considered the most horrifying instance of mass murder during the Balkan Wars, and one of the starkest examples of attempted genocide since World War II. (Note: The use of the term “genocide” is still highly debated among governments in the region; a United Nations court ruled earlier this year that the events of the Balkan Wars as a whole did not amount to genocide, but that the Srebrenica Massacre specifically constituted an “act of genocide”.) In July 1995, Serbian forces overtook the Bosnian town, which was being guarded by United Nations (UN) peacekeeping troops as a safe haven for Bosniak Muslims fleeing the war. On July 11, 1995, Serb forces took a small contingent of Dutch peacekeepers hostage as the UN hesitated to provide air cover. Within the next four days, the Serb milita sent women and children away from the village, and systematically killed the remaining men and male adolescent refugees, resulting in over 8,000 deaths, (For a more detailed timeline of events, visit this interactive feature from PBS.)

The Srebrenica Massacre was part of a broader ethnic war between Eastern Orthodox Serbs, Bosniak Muslims, and Catholic Croats in the early 1990s, shortly after the dissolution of Yugoslavia, which had incorporated all of these territories for most of the post-WWII era. As the Soviet Union fell, emerging political leaders such as Serb Slobodan Milosevic and Croat Franjo Tudman stoked residual nationalist sentiments to assert the independence of their historic homelands. Fighting broke out between Croats and Serbs, and Bosnia – home to sizeable Bosniak and Serb populations – soon became caught in the cross-hairs. War between the three ethnic groups continued until the signing of the Dayton Accords in October 1995. Conflict has persisted in the region since then, including a brief war between Serbia and Kosovo in 1999.

Every year since the events in Srebrenica, relatives of the victims and their supporters have congregated on July 11 to remember this history, and bury the dead. Astonishingly, even 20 years after the war, new graves are still dug in the nearby hills to bury bodies found in the past year, or remains that have just recently been identified. Given the significance of this particular anniversary, in which 136 victims were buried, several heads of state and foreign dignitaries attended this year’s ceremonies, including former U.S. President Bill Clinton, Jordan’s Queen Noor, and European Union Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini. In a stark reminder of how fresh the wounds of this war remain, Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic attempted to participate in the commemoration, but was chased away by people in the crowd who pelted his contingent with rocks and bottles.


My Personal Experience

In a very small way (but very significant moment for me), I personally experienced one of the annual commemorations in Srebrenica. In the summer of 2008, I travelled to Bosnia as part of a group of North American students and young professionals through an organization called Global Youth Connect. We spent a month in the country travelling to Sarajevo, Srebrenica, the provincial town of Sanski Most, and the mixed Croat/Bosniak town of Mostar to learn about the forces that led to ethnic war, and current efforts at achieving justice and reconciliation. (Tellingly, we were not able to travel to the Serb-controlled territory called Republika Srpska, which to this day essentially operates as a separate country within Bosnia.)


One month was not nearly enough time to learn everything there was to know about the conflict and current state of affairs, nor to feel like I made a meaningful impact in our short volunteer stints. But it was more than enough time for the country, the experience, and the people to leave a permanent imprint on how I now understand the legacy of ethnic conflict. Nowhere did I feel this more viscerally than at Srebrenica, during the annual commemoration of the massacre that year. Our group arrived in the town the evening before the official ceremonies, and had a chance to visit the memorial site and UN compound, where it is suspected that hundreds of Bosnian men were executed. I’m not prone to believe in supernatural forces, but it’s still difficult to describe just how eerie that site felt. Fully 13 years after the massacre, it felt like the killings could have just taken place the day before. Every window and machine left behind was broken, as if the UN Forces had just left after the attack. The compound was imbued with a bad odour, and the bullet-ridden walls, some still caked blood, have now been covered in ironic and angry graffiti mocking the failed peacekeeping effort.

Graffiti on the walls of the former UN compound in Srebrenica.

Graffiti on the walls of the former UN compound in Srebrenica.


I expected the day of the commemoration to be draining, but as much as I tried to brace myself ahead of time, I could not prepare for the emotional hit of witnessing the ceremony. We stood on a hillside with thousands of other participants as readers took turns giving voice to the names of the 350 victims that were to be buried that day. As the list neared an end, the coffins, which had been so peacefully laid out in rows the night before, began to be passed around in a procession that snaked through the crowd. For some reason, I expected this to be a somber but peaceful moment – after all, it had been 13 years since the events of Srebrenica, and I thought this procession might have sadly become routine.

Procession of coffins during the commemoration of the Srebrenica Massacre, July 2008.

Procession of coffins during the commemoration of the Srebrenica Massacre, July 2008.

After about 25-30 minutes, the coffins suddenly made their way to our part of the hillside, and the moment hit me like a tonne of bricks. The women around us began weeping, nearly in unison; a few seconds later, I heard a growing pounding sound as dozens and dozens of men began shovelling dirt onto the graves. To this day, I don’t think I’ve witnessed such an emotionally draining moment, while at the same time witnessing such courage – I’m certain that the men and women helping to bury the victims that day had their own painful memories of the war, and may have lost some of their own fathers, sons, and brothers.

Mourners taking a break from burying victims of the Srebrenica Massacre, July 2008.

Mourners taking a break from burying victims of the Srebrenica Massacre, July 2008.

At the end of our program, I left Bosnia with few answers, and even more questions than when I entered. One question above all has continued to haunt me to this day. Almost everyone with whom I felt comfortable discussing this tragedy described pre-war Sarajevo (and to some extent, the rest of the country), as a fairly happy place, where people identified proudly as Sarajevans or Yugoslavs, and Serbs and Bosniaks and Croats literally lived side-by-side as friendly neighbours in apartment complexes and residential areas. How could this seemingly stable situation deteriorate so quickly into one in which those same neighbours engaged in sometimes unspeakable acts of torture and murder against each other? (And to be clear, there is documented evidence that militas from all ethnic groups participated in war crimes.) One of the most jarring images I retain from my trip is that of a mass grave harbouring thousands of war victims in Sarajevo, just across the street from the central stadium used for the 1984 Olympic Ceremonies. With all the ideals of peace and freedom that the Olympics stand for, not to mention the cohesion and sophistication needed to pull them off as a host city, how could there be a war eight years later that would surround the main stadium with graves?

A graveyard in Sarajevo with victims from the Balkan Wars, steps away from the stadium used in the 1984 Winter Olympics.

A graveyard in Sarajevo with victims from the Balkan Wars, steps away from the stadium used in the 1984 Winter Olympics.

How Do We Get to “Never Again”?

I don’t have any complete answers to these questions, but I think at least grappling with them is essential if we are serious about one day living up to the words “never again”. The best explanation I have been able to come up with is that the sudden unwinding of social cohesion was driven in part by an intense period of fear among all sides, stoked by opportunistic nationalist leaders who monopolized communications channels after the fall of the Soviet Union. In such an environment, it becomes possible for political elites to influence even highly sophisticated publics in order to justify their rise to power. And when all you hear every day, all day, through the newspapers, radio, and television is that the other ethnic group is committing unspeakable atrocities against your ethnic group, and that you have to stand up for your group or risk the same happening to your wife and children, perhaps that’s just enough to make you turn on your neighbours.


If there’s any truth to that explanation, then I think any attempt at preventing future acts of genocide has to somehow neutralize the ability of political elites to exploit nationalism as a manipulative tool for fear and violence. It would be naive to think that we’ll ever reach a day when manipulation is not an attractive option for some people to gain power. But if we can in some way reduce the effectiveness of using ethnic or national identity as a tool for inciting violence to, say, the relative ineffectiveness of using sports allegiances as a tool for mass violence (save for occasional instances of soccer-related riots, which usually can be contained to the stadium), then I think we’ll have gone a long way towards preventing, or at least slowing down, future unravellings of ethnic conflict.


To that end, I’ll propose three half-formed ideas on how this might be achieved (and would be curious to hear any other thoughts in the comments):


    1. Develop an understanding of history that embraces questioning, rather than a common understanding of “facts”. During my time in Bosnia, I was shocked by how fresh the war still seemed. Close to a generation after the end of fighting, Bosniaks and Serbs still didn’t seem to be talking with each other at any level – not at the political level, nor at the individual level (the Bosniak youth I spoke with often didn’t have any Serb friends). On the one hand, I can only imagine the trauma that families who were affected by the war must still feel, and the reluctance to embrace anyone from the other side after the war. On the other hand, not having an opportunity to at least communicate with people from another group is a recipe for continued misunderstanding and potential manipulation by political elites, who wish to impose a certain understanding of historical events (as was practiced by nationalist leaders such as Slobodan Milosevic in the lead up to the war). Developing an ethic of questioning history and seeking other perspectives could help reduce that risk.


    2. Diversify media sources, but ensure exposure is at least somewhat “random”. Much has already been written about the role that state-controlled media played in fuelling the flames of ethnic conflict (here is a short analysis of how Milosevic intentionally used state media to fuel his objectives). Clearly, diversified sources of media help to counteract the power of propaganda. In many respects, today’s age of social media offers more opportunities than ever to achieve that. Yet, it also may lead to a potentially greater risk – that of self-selection and positive reinforcement (in the sense of re-affirming what one already believes to be true), which further increases the risk that propaganda takes root. For example, how many avid readers of the left-leaning Huffington Post also regularly read the conservative National Interest? This bias is exacerbated by algorithms used by sites like Google, Facebook, and Amazon that customize what you see based on past preferences. One potential way to counter this may be to set up more “random” exposure to various sources of media in public spaces, so that people are at least forced to think about different viewpoints. Perhaps televisions in airports could be set to change channels every 30 minutes, and online databases could display a unexpected result or two in the “You may also be interested in…” categories.


    3. Give space for positive nationalism to flourish. This last idea may seem counterintuitive, given the destructive role nationalism played in the Balkan Wars. Yet, I think history has demonstrated the enduring power of nationalism, or some other form of group identity, through the centuries – across cultures, humans seem hard-wired to seek safety and meaning in some type of group. In many cases, a strong group identity can be a force for good, driving individual sacrifice and cooperation to solve a collective problem. The problem comes when nationalism is used to justify obtaining political power, potentially through violence, at the expense of a minority group. Leaders like Milosevic thrive on convincing members of their group that they have been victims of some historical injustice, and that others are set on denying the group their collective rights. If, however, a sizeable portion of that group already feels secure in the expression of their collective identity, the ability to use nationalism as a tool for violence may be minimized. While not all nationalist claims can be settled, especially those relating to political control over a multiethnic territory, there are forums in which the international community can recognize and celebrate various identities, at relatively little cost. A place to start might be the UN Educational, Social and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), which could afford special participating status for nations without states. Although these steps may not fully satisfy the demands of all nationalist leaders, just the international acknowledgment of a national identity could at least provide some psychological validation for the broader group that would help blunt attempts to co-opt nationalist frustration for violent ends.

Recommendations for Further Action

  • If you feel compelled to help in some small (or big) way with reconciliation in Bosnia, check out the Center for Peacebuilding in Sanski Most. Full disclosure: The Center helped organize our volunteer stints when I was in Bosnia, but has no affiliation with or previous knowledge of this post. It does some amazing work to promote the inter-community dialogue among the current generation of youth that is sorely needed right now in the region. They are seeking to build a new Community Peace Center, which you can donate to here.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s