Srebrenica: History and Memory

by Matthew Kokkinos, Dialogue of Civilizations

Bosnia and Herzegovina is a small, nearly landlocked country tucked away in the Balkans. The country has been conquered several times by various empires and peoples, and as such, it has become populated by many ethnicities and religions, including Islam, Judaism, Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Protestantism. Today, Bosnia’s capital, Sarajevo, is known as the “Jerusalem of Europe.”

With the rise of nationalism and the collapse of the country of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, ethnic tension and historical prejudices led to Europe’s worst conflict since the Second World War. This conflict resulted not only with the dissolution of Yugoslavia into six separate countries, but the horrific treatment and killings upwards of 7,500 Bosnian Muslim men and boys during in July of  1995, an act that has been labeled by some as amounting to genocide.

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A young boy plays in the spray of a fountain at the Srebrenica Genocide Memorial in Potocari, Bosnia and Herzegovina.
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Marble gravestones at the Srebrenica Genocide Memorial in Potocari.
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The memorial monument at the entry of the Srebrenica Genocide Memorial in Potocari.
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A view of the Srebrenica Genocide Memorial in Potocari.

While the Balkans Dialogue in 2016 delved into a variety of issues currently facing the states of the former Yugoslavia, the genocide of Srebrenica struck me the most.  On July 6th, 2016, the anniversary of the massacre, I witnessed as grieving parents, children, spouses, and families gathered in Sarajevo to pay respects to newly identified dead, as others without that closure wept nearby.

This was not the only sign of the two-decade old conflict. “Rose petals,” red-painted mortar shell craters throughout Sarajevo, mark the death sites of Bosnians from the shelling of the Bosnian Serb military, etching the horror of siege and the bombardment that lasted more than 1,400 days permanently into the memory of the city. Marble obelisks, uniformly placed, identical in shape and size, and labeled by the year, stand in Potocari and Sarajevo as a testament to the Muslim men and boys who were slaughtered and collectively erased from their community.

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Family and friends of individuals killed at Srebrenica gather in Sarajevo to commemorate the dead and remains of individuals identified.
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A woman and her daughter after placing flowers on a truck carrying newly identified remains of victims from Srebrenica in Sarajevo.
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A “rose petal” in Sarajevo marks where Bosnians were killed during the more than three years of siege by Serbian forces.

The sea of white stone was chilling, even in the fierce July heat. But the determination of those who lost loved ones to memorialize and remember the horrors that occurred is even fiercer.

The events that transpired 1995 have not ended; every year, the conflict deepens and is literally unearthed as remains are discovered, identified, and mourned. What Srebrenica presents to the international community, therefore, is not simply an event documented in history centering around ethnic conflict, religious identity, and history, but rather, a living memory that this conflict – and all conflict – transcends generations and carries the violence and trauma to the youngest members of an afflicted community.

The families affected by the horrors of Srebrenica re-experience and confront the pain of 1995 every year, and every year, they respond to the pain with a revitalized memory and conviction to honor those who perished with dignity and peace, not vengeance or violence. If nothing else, the international community ought to follow the actions of Bosnians and seek reconciliation with the past, not retribution.