Bosnia’s #NeverAgain

As Bosnian genocide denialism goes viral, so do attempts to stop it

Bosnia’s #NeverAgain
A Bosnian Muslim woman walks by the memorial wall containing the names of the victims at the Srebrenica memorial in Potocari [2019]/ Elvis Barukcic/ AFP via Getty Images

Between 1992 and 1995, in the wake of the fall of former Yugoslavia, my people, Bosniaks, a nation of indigenous European Muslims, suffered genocide at the hands of Serbian ultra-nationalists. It resulted in the systematic and documented destruction of the magnificent cultural wealth of pre-war Bosnia and Herzegovina, 100,000 deaths, 2.5 million displaced, and a long list of war crimes and crimes against humanity, many of which have been prosecuted at The Hague.

For all that painful history, the same Serbian ultra-nationalist forces have recently amped up their efforts to both deny the reality of the genocide and glorify the violence that contributed to it. As with the almost 80-year-old Holocaust, contemporary genocide denialism is often paradoxically twinned with genocide triumphalism: According to the deniers, the victims both don’t exist and got what they deserved.

This is all too clear for Bosniaks and others who have been following the signs in Republika Srpska, a semi-autonomous entity that, together with Bosniak-Croat Federation, was created in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1995 with the Dayton Peace Accords. Here, where former aggressors often live just miles if not blocks away from their victims, Serbian nationalist songs about slaughtering Muslims are frequently blasted during the day or night in order to terrorize the sparse population of Bosniak returnees in Srebrenica — the city where more than 8,000 unarmed Muslim men and boys were massacred in cold blood in July 1995.

Our undeniable recent history, however, appears to be in question by high-ranking politicians in the Balkans. Milorad Dodik, the Serbian member of Republika Srpska’s rotating tripartite presidency, has for years referred to the Srebrenica genocide as “a fabricated myth.” The newly elected government in neighboring Serbia, celebrated by Bloomberg as “among the world’s most gender balanced,” harbors several ministers enamored of war criminals. Meanwhile, Serbia’s Prime Minister Ana Brnabic publicly denied the Srebrenica massacre in Deutsche Welle’s “Conflict Zone” program in November 2018. “Genocide is when you are … killing the entire population, the women, children,” she said, “and this was not that case.”

Just days before this year’s genocide commemoration on July 11, the Student Union of Republika Srpska published a statement criticizing Zlatiborka Popov Momcinovic, a professor at the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of East Sarajevo, who spoke on N1 television, calling the Srebrenica massacre a genocide, while also urging that the verdicts of the Hague Tribunal be accepted as “the objective, forensic truth so that we then move on.” The Union representatives dismissed Momcinovic’s statement as “scandalous” and scorned her for what they claimed were “untruths and harsh qualifications against the Serbian people.” They rejected the International Criminal Tribunal as “known especially to the Serbian public for selective ‘justice.’”

The rhetoric of denialism is now also matched by physical monuments to it. A student dormitory that opened in the city of Pale in 2016 is named after Radovan Karadzic, who was convincted of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity at The Hague. In July, the city of Banja Luka announced that Austrian writer Peter Handke, the laureate of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2019 and an outspoken Bosnian genocide denialist, would get a statue in his honor there. And in mid-September, the so-called “Peace monument,” commissioned by the same local Serbian authorities who refuse to acknowledge the wholesale slaughter of Bosniaks and who participated in the dehumanization of returnees, went up in central Srebrenica – less than 200 feet from a mass grave. As the American scholar David Pettigrew has written, Republika Srpska’s prohibitive policies on the erection of memorials or enshrinement of commemorative practices for genocide survivors amount to a “continuation of genocide.”

The erasure of a people’s suffering is demoralizing and exhausting. But it is also its own form of human rights abuse, a postwar crime moored to attacking the collective memory of the Bosniaks. More ominously, it signals that the perpetrators have unfinished business and that they’re simply lying in wait for a more favorable political environment to get to it.

Even without the unsettling noise of denialists, Bosnians are still trying to piece together how the mass killings were planned and enacted, more than 25 years on. They haven’t stopped burying or even finding the remnants of all of their dead. The local Missing Persons Institute announced in August 2020 that 7,547 persons missing from April 1991 to February 1996 are still missing. Nevertheless, the project of memorialization has continued and expanded, capitalizing on once-unimaginable resources of digital technology.

Bosnians have lately turned to photographs, films, digitized recordings, and even social media to sacralize the genocide and foster international solidarity. Bosnian Australian Hariz Halilovich has written of how the connectivity of the Internet has allowed for the creation of Bosnian “cyber-villages,” which serve as “digital museums, archives and online shrines to the places lost, but also as alternate worlds and places of defiance as well as vibrant social hubs for interactions and performances of distinct local identities, memories and spatial practices.”

Links to recent recordings of genocide survivors and their harrowing, heartbreaking stories abound online. In remembering the day she left Srebrenica in trucks with other women in July 1995, Fatima Aljic tells of how she recognized the clothes of her 17-year-old son Dzemal, who was lying in a ditch in the road, his head completely severed from his body. Aljic also recalls how her husband Suljo and their own son Seval were captured by Serbian soldiers in a nearby field, holding their hands behind their heads. Their remains were later buried together. Her third son, Sabahudin, who was a soldier of the Army of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, was also killed. To this day, his body has not been recovered.

Saliha Osmanovic lost her son Edin to a grenade and her husband Ramo and other son Nermin in equally horrific fashion. Ramo and Nermin had tried to reach Tuzla, a Bosniak-controlled town, on foot but were captured and executed in Kravica village. Osmanovic found out about her husband and son when she overheard a neighbor’s son listen to what has become one of the most notorious videos of the genocide: that of Ramo being coerced into calling out to Nermin and instructing him to “surrender to the Serbs.” Both were killed. They are buried at Potocari Memorial Center.

Testimonies such as these exist in virtual spaces with the visual representations of skeletal remains from mass graves and archived photographs of the slain and/or their belongings: torn clothes, shoes, tobacco cases, ID cards, destroyed watches, etc. Family letters, such as that of Ahmed Hrustanovic’s father, written from the U.N.-protected area of Srebrenica two and a half months before he was killed with his two brothers in Kravica near Bratunac in Eastern Bosnia, are being widely shared online, as are the exploits of the fearless female members of the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Archived data shows that 5,360 women participated in the defense against the atrocities, serving on the front lines and in brigade commands, ambulances, logistical roles, and communications. Thirteen were awarded the highest war honor, the Golden Lily.

The online outlet “Sniper Alley” displays a captivating visual collection, which Dzemil Hodzic started from his own sorrow over his beloved murdered brother: It finds digitally archived photos of daily wartime life during the Sarajevo siege between 1992 and 1996, inviting contributions from war photographers around the world. These images, just like those of items exhumed from the mass graves, are invaluable for survivors. “In all their simplicity,” internationally renowned Bosnian photojournalist Ziyah Gafic said to LensCulture online magazine, “these items are the last resort of identity, the last permanent reminder that these people ever existed.”

Even traditional brick-and-mortar institutions such as the Srebrenica Memorial Center and Remembering Srebrenica in the United Kingdom have unveiled several multimedia initiatives including a podcast series, “Untold Killing,” explaining in detail the horrifying circumstances of how the genocide unfolded, as well as the first-ever virtual exhibition “Remnants of Genocide,” creatively using testimonies, poetry, and painting to reach users from around the world.

The dark side of this global connectivity in memorializing genocide is that genocide denialists use it just as easily to their own malevolent ends. Trolls, cranks, and ideologues abound on social media platforms, which, owing to their own higher regard for the bottom line than for historical truth, have so far been reluctant to block their activities. The Institute for Research of Genocide Canada recently asked Facebook to ban Srebrenica genocide denial after Facebook announced it would ban content that denies the Holocaust. Facebook never officially responded.

There’s also an ignominious online campaign, launched this summer by the Republika Srpska’s Tourist Board, advertising the Vilina Vlas Hotel, a confirmed rape camp close to the city of Visegrad, as one of several promoted tourist attractions. The government, as per the campaign, will offer vouchers for discount prices on stays in the hotel. In response, Bosnian Amela Trokic launched the online petition to remove Vilina Vlas hotel as a tourist site from Google search and Google Maps. “Though we cannot stop mentally deranged people from knowingly visiting and staying at this disgusting building,” her petition states, “we can stop the active promotion of it.” A Google spokesperson, however, told Britain’s Independent, “In this case, this location is both a current business and a place that has a historical significance, which is described in a knowledge panel on Google Search based on information from public sources.” This same corporate amorality obtains for the booking site Tripadvisor, which still lists the notorious rape camp as a tourist attraction. All of these instances reinforce the ongoing global debates about tech giants and their choices for online conversations regarding free speech and hate speech.

Bosnian Twitter, too, is full of nerve-wracking exchanges and arguments about the activities of genocide denialists or genocide triumphalists. The wholesale slaughter of Bosniaks is a source of amusement for a growing contingent of sadists and lunatics who daily embody a strong case for renaming these platforms “antisocial media.”

We all know the line, “If you didn’t document it, it didn’t happen.” We Bosnians continue documenting genocide online and off because it did happen. And it should never have happened again, even though it is, right before our eyes. Ongoing genocides against the Uyghur Muslims by China or the Rohingya by Myanmar happen in an age in which the ability to document them ought to be rallying governments and populations to put a stop to them: videos and photographs of the atrocities, live-streamed testimonials of the victims, satellite footage showing the presence of internment camps in Xinjiang, and more. Worse, these genocides now coincide with real-time denials that they’re taking place, both from “official” sources and their fellow travelers and useful idiots, blind or indifferent to the overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

The Bosnian experience of suffering twice, first from death squads, then from the cheerleaders or erasers of those death squads, is agonizing enough in its own right. But it should also serve as a reminder of man’s inhumanity to man – and technology’s fundamental inability to do anything about it.

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