Photo of Srebrenica City, 2002, borrowed from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
I should begin with a brief clarification about why I post so often about war and genocide. It affects me deeply, and I often have trouble bringing myself to read about it any more. As a result of the professors I’ve worked with, I find myself compelled to study and write about violent conflict in history. I do not find any satisfaction in studying it, and I feel the need to mention this because I know from experience that some people do find satisfaction in reading about genocides, especially the Holocaust; too often, I’ve heard people refer to it as ‘fascinating’ or ‘intriguing.’ I suppose I cannot dispute the value of somebody’s motivation, but I do not believe one should explore the industrialized slaughter of civilians because it arouses fascination. It should disgust, it should repulse, but I do not think it should invite intrigue. My motive for studying it is not rooted in a sick fixation with the gruesome details, which often keep me up at night; I do not believe enjoyment should be my sole motive, however. I feel compelled to study it in part because I have no power to change it.
I admit that the more I delve into historical traumas, the more guilt I feel, and I don’t think there is necessarily a problem with that. A guiltless being is a soulless one, and a belief that one is free of guilt, that guilt will never inflict legal or psychological damage, might be a common trait of the perpetrators. I think there is merit in a little collective guilt. History’s ghosts haunt us, all of us, if we stop and listen. The thing about history is that it persists, it continues into the present, and the battles are still going on.
I can distance myself from the details enough to write about them, just enough to maybe offer a brief commentary. The exception, however, is the Srebrenica Genocide. Today marks twenty years after the start of the massacre, and I have wanted to write about it. Anniversaries can be convenient opportunities to engage moments in the past, though they are also quite arbitrary: historical traumas are not relevant every ten years, but continually.
Though I have tried to write about the Srebrenica Genocide, I find it almost impossible. What happened in Srebrenica affects me more than other genocides. When I read about the details, I feel chest pressure and panic, and have to turn away from the research.
The region of Bosnia-Herzegovina, where Srebrenica is located, was solidified in the former Yugoslavia during the Cold War under the dictatorship of Josip Broz Tito, who took power after World War Two. Prior to that, the region had a brief period of independence after being ruled by the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and before that the Ottoman Empire. By the twentieth century, Bosnia was religiously and ethnically diverse, and the two are often conflated: With Catholic Croats, Orthodox Serbs, and Muslim Bosniaks, the region had few moments of independence despite strong nationalist movements, such as Young Bosnia. Gavrilo Princip, one of Young Bosnia’s members, assassinated the Austrian Archduke Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo in 1914, sparking the First World War.
While Yugoslavia collapsed in the early 1990s alongside the Soviet Union, Bosnia declared its independence. Serbian nationalists attempting to solidify the region again under the new Republic of Srpska, rejected the declaration of independence, invaded the region, and began a campaign to cleanse it of its Muslim population. This event is similar to how the Irish War for Independence and Civil War broke out, devolving into sectarian violence between Catholic Republicans and Unionist Protestants after the Republicans declared a kind of independence; this event is also similar to what is currently going on in Iraq, where a right-wing Sunni organization has the apparently unquestioning loyalty of many of Iraq’s Sunnis who felt oppressed by a Shi’i-led, and US-backed, government. Ireland did not witness a genocide against the island’s Protestants, though sectarian violence continued well into the 1980s and beyond. In contrast, Iraq and Syria may be witnessing a genocide now, despite the almost universal condemnation of ISIS and its tactics.
That is precisely the situation Bosnia was in, starting in 1992. The United Nations, appalled at the Serb nationalists’ tactics, intervened in the war (at least in theory) and declared the town of Srebrenica one of several safe zones. UN peace-keeping soldiers were placed on the ground, world powers condemned the violence, but nobody wanted to intervene directly. Instead, the United Nations designed a system that effectively blocked any nation from direct confrontation with combatants.
This is where I find it difficult to go on reading, sometimes. In 1995, Serbian nationalists, under the presence and observation of the UN, took Muslim men and boys from Srebrenica at gunpoint, ushered them into the surrounding woods, and slaughtered them. They buried them in mas graves, often with the intention of preventing the bodies from ever being found, proof that they were aware that the world would look upon them as criminals, proof that they wanted to hide the evidence of their crimes. But there is something wholly corrupt about a system that prevents peace-keeping soldiers from intervening in the slaughter of 8,000 men and boys.
Some UN soldiers express guilt, shame, and even sought treatment for PTSD afterwards. I should also note that this is not the only crime against humanity committed during the Bosnian War. The perpetrators also implemented a campaign of systematic rape against women and girls, a crime that victims report ISIS has committed in recent months (trigger warning if you open the link). But I have not been able to bring myself to read about these crimes beyond broad overviews. I simply can’t, unless I choose to tolerate the inevitable anxiety I feel from researching it.
Historical trauma does not continue only in a communal sense. Russia recently rejected a UN resolution to classify the Srebrenica Genocide as genocide, and right-wing Serbian organizations threatened to disrupt commemoration events. Many Serbs deny that Muslim casualties were as high as reported, and several mass graves remain yet to be uncovered and documented. The trauma persists daily; many perpetrators still walk among the victims’ families, and collective denial of the genocide, which is strong in many circles, is an active assault on the Muslim community in Bosnia.
Maybe, in some ways, I feel like one of those UN soldiers, unable to intervene but forced to watch. I feel helpless when I read about these and other crimes, and guilt can be overwhelming. It should not be debilitating, though I often let it become too much to handle. There is more that I can be doing. There is more that I should be doing. But I will continue to engage these traumas as best I can, even if I leave historical research behind academically. It will haunt me no matter what I do, and I can invite the ghosts in or close the door on them. I’d rather leave the door open, because I believe that history’s ghosts have something to say, and it’s our responsibility to listen. Will these blog posts make a difference? Probably not. But I’d rather not be silent when the past is so loud.