Not often am I lost for words. But when I met a woman in a Berlin club two years ago and she told me she was from Srebrenica, I fell silent. It’s time to get loud and speak out though, also for me. Better late than never. Because when you read more and more about the atrocities that happened in Bosnia in the early nineties, you realise that the cancer of hatred there is still growing. And we need a cure.
Reckoning and forgiving can only start when people acknowledge their crimes. It is what happened in South Africa after the fall of the Apartheidsregime with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of archbishop Desmond Tutu. It is what happened in Germany after the Holocaust, where those involved dealt with their past. But it has not yet happened in Bosnia, as the Serbs keep on denying the atrocities they committed in the nineties, as reporter Ed Vulliamy impressively illustrates in his book The War Is Dead, Long Live The War, the book I have been reading in the past week.
So it’s time to deal with the past, when it comes to Bosnia. Let’s start with myself, because again and again I am ashamed to admit I never really realised what was going on in the Balkan in the nineties. The excuse was always that the conflict was too difficult to explain. And there weren’t as many TV channels in those days to cover the war.
But sometimes you just have to try harder. Because it was happening under our eyes, in a country where we had been on holiday in 1989. But as we didn’t have friends or families there, it was easier to look away. Even when I went to see U2 in 1993 and the band were brave enough to have a satellite link during the concert to Sarajevo, we almost lamented the fact it was such a show-stopper.
Only after I got into a relationship with a Slovenian guy in 2004 I slowly started to grasp the ethnic relationships that led to the war. Slowly I got acquainted with infamous massacres (ethnic cleansing…) outside Srebrenica. A couple of years ago I read the classic novel The Bridge on the Drina by Croatian author Ivo Andric, which depicts the ethnic tensions in the town of Visegrad over hundreds of years. And now Vulliamy taught me about Omarska, Trnopolje, Keraterm and other concentration camps where muslim Bosnians (Bosniaks) were slaughtered between 1992 and 1995.
The book vividly makes the point that the international community left the Bosniaks alone when the atrocities commenced. As my conversation with the girl from Srebrenica illustrated, we Dutch still have a very difficult relationship with the massacre that happened in the enclave in 1995. It is a period in national history that has not been discussed widely at home, as it isn’t exactly something to be proud of.
We’re not the only member of the international community who should feel ashamed about the handling of the crisis in those days. Only recently discovered documents show irrefutably that general Bernard Janvier, commander of the UN troops, deliberately sacrificed the muslim enclaves of Srebrenica and Zepa to the Serbs. A calculated move, supported by Paris, London and Washington, to get the Serbs to the negotiating table.
But probably the biggest scandal of those days is how the Western powers were extremely slow to act, because of the misconception that crimes were committed in equal amounts by Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks. Ed Vulliamy illustrates, mainly with proof from the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, that the Serbs were by far the most frequent perpetrators. Only occasionally he tells horrible stories about what happened in Omarska concentration camp, about the systematic rape, the killing and starving. Not many times in my life did I get convulsions during the reading of a book, but this time I did.
So why this long story? Quite simple: because it hasn’t finished yet. The Serbs and their propaganda keep on denying what happened, are still obstructing the search for the missing dead bodies, and making life for muslims in the Republika Srpska (the Serb half of Bosnia-Herzegovina) extremely difficult. On an official (government) level there is a bit more cooperation, but only because Serbia desperately wants to become part of the European Union.
Secondly, Vulliamy’s book mainly illustrates that there still is no closure for the victims of the concentration camps. Hundreds of thousands are living as refugees all over the world. Some of them have returned, to live under difficult circumstances. Many are still waiting for their missed relatives to be found in one of the many still undiscovered mass graves. The Serbs know where they are, but refuse to speak out.
The result is an unresolved, increasingly tense situation in the heart of Europe. Serbs unwilling to admit their role in the massacres, a bad economic situation that leads to even more tension in the region, and hostilities between ethnic groups that don’t talk with eachother. It is an accident waiting to happen, a cancer that is growing again until it leads to another catastrophy. In a year, or ten years, who knows.
It is time to take a stand. The international community should become more vocal and put much more pressure on Serbia. But that is something we as common people can hardly influence. What we can do, is read about the crimes that took place. Acknowledge what happened, show interest in the Bosnian problem. Only then can we lift this issue out of its anonymity, and try to prevent more bloodshed and shame.