Srebrenica After Twenty Years

Twenty years ago I was in northern Italy, enjoying that wonderful country and the hospitality of a good family. On the TV news, we saw pictures from the fall of Srebrenica. I remember  being struck by the phrase ‘Musulmani’ during the broadcasts (with its echoes of Primo Levi). Having spent the previous three years in the US closely following the Bosnian war, and the painfully slow and inept international response to it, I was exasperated that nothing substantive had been done to protect this manifestly vulnerable UN ‘safe haven.’ Readers of Critical Geopolitics (1996) will know that the second last chapter is an attempt to grapple with the US debate over Bosnia and geographies of moral proximity and responsibility.

The horror of Srebrenica eventually came to light thanks to the intrepid reporting of David Rohde and others. In 1998 I wrote an essay on what was known about Srebrenica then (link below) for the book Geography and Ethics: Journeys in a Moral Terrain, edited by James D. Proctor and David M. Smith (Routledge, 1999). Toal_EthnicCleansingSafeArea_Srebrenica1999

AB014My first visit to Srebrenica was for the memorial in 2002. It was still an open field with only the foundations for what would become the Potocari Memorial Center and Cemetery (pictured). The previous year there had been some stoning so there was a strong Republika Srpska police presence along the road, a disturbing site to those returning to grieve. I returned in 2004 and there met Sarah Wagner, whose ethnographic work with the Srebrenica victim families and ICMP I admire tremendously.

A few weeks ago the Advisory Council for Bosnia and Herzegovina asked if I would make a few remarks at a Capitol Hill event to support H. Res 310 which affirms Srebrenica as a genocide. The Rayburn Building room was full of Bosnian families, including some survivors of Srebrenica. I spoke and then Michael MacQueen, who does amazing work for ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) investigating suspected war criminals in the United States, spoke. Finally Semir Osmanovic, a student in Finance at Virginia Commonwealth University spoke. He looks like an all-American kid, blonde haired, well dressed, good looking. He is from a small village outside Srebrenica and he told the story of his happy childhood until the day came when the VRS attacked and burned down their home, driving the family into Srebrenica to seek shelter. There he was close to starvation for two years until 11 July 1995 when the VRS and Mladic came, his father fled and his grandfather was taken off the bus they were being transported out on. There were many tears in the audience.

Academics are generally privileged in this world relative to most: certainly I am. If we study conflict, we have responsibilities to those who are suffering from injustices and wanton cruelty in what we study. We can use our professional training and skills to do some simple things: present the facts, contextualize, seek understanding and employ judgement (listening this summer to Tony Judt’s spoken book with Timothy Snyder, Thinking the Twentieth Century, has been helpful and inspiring). I do believe we are off track when we treat Bosnia or Syria in abstracted and usually de-contextualized social science terms as “civil war case studies” or as data labs. But that is a larger debate…

I am grateful to Josh Tucker and the Monkey Cage team for publishing a considerably revised version of my comments at Srebrenica Genocide event on 9 July 2015. Subsequently, Bruce Hitchner drew my attention to an educational resource — sponsored by the British Embassy, Sarajevo (kudos to them and the work of the British government at the UNSC) — I really should have known about but didn’t at the time: Srebrenica: Mapping Genocide. It is worth viewing the 38 minute video for what it achieves — a sense of the arc of the genocide — but also for where it could have been more precise in its geo-locational presentation and graphic imagery. An accessible and concise yet comprehensive geographic and geopolitical analysis of the Srebrenica genocide remains to be written.

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About Gerard Toal

I am an Irish born DC based Political Geographer researching territorial conflicts and the dynamics of geopolitical competition in post-Communist Europe.
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