THIS week marked the 26th anniversary of a massacre that happened in the middle of Europe in the 20th century, and that led to the eventual break-up of Yugoslavia. In 1999, the BBC broadcast a documentary Srebrenica: A Cry From The Grave.
I happened to be in England at the time. The film investigates the massacre in July 1995 of more than 8,000 Muslim refugees in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica over a brutal 72 hours. Srebrenica had been declared a United Nations safe area, under the protection of Dutch UN peacekeepers. Muslim men and boys were taken away by Bosnian Serbs, executed in the fields, schools and warehouses and buried in mass graves. The documentary shows chilling footage of the events.
Srebrenica is a tragedy of our time, regarded as Europe’s worst atrocity since World War II. It was the world’s first ‘United Nations safe haven’ that the international community pledged to protect from the Serb offensive in Bosnia. But when the 600-odd Dutch peacekeepers came under attack from the Serbs, they began to retreat.
There’s nothing worse than the exploitation of one group by another.
As a condition for entering the safe haven, the Bosnian Muslim fighters had to surrender their weapons to the UN peacekeepers. With the Serbs attacking they asked for the weapons to be returned which was denied. The UN responded with a limited airstrike but even that was called off when the Serbs kidnapped 30 Dutch soldiers and threatened to kill them. The UN started negotiating with Gen Ratko Mladic, the military commander of Bosnian Serbs, who agreed to let buses in to remove children and women from the town. But Muslim boys and men were kept behind for ‘interrogation’. The next day the Dutch peacekeepers left, leaving behind all the weapons. Then the killings began.
The resulting massacre has been called a crime against humanity, even genocide. Apart from Mladic, the other architects were Radovan Karadzic and their godfather, Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic (who died in 2006 under trial at the Hague). Like the Nazis, the three stood for all that is evil in humans. Karadzic and Mladic are serving life sentences now.
There have been many other massacres since World War II. The massacre of Palestinians in Lebanon’s Sabra and Shatila refugee camps by Christian Phalangists, with the tacit approval of Israel was one. The genocide in Rwanda and Pol Pot’s ‘killing fields’ of Cambodia are still fresh in our minds. What makes the massacre in Srebrenica different and ‘special’ is that this did not take place in a distant Third World country, ruled by a brutal dictator but in the heart of civilised First World Europe, at the end of the 20th century, in a country which had remained united and peaceful since the end of World War II. But Tito’s death in 1980 changed all that.
What lessons are there for us in Pakistan? There are several and it is important we pay heed to them. For people of different races, religions and ethnic backgrounds to live together it is vital they develop a high degree of tolerance and respect each other’s culture, language, ways of living and religious practices. There has to be justice and fairness when dealing with people from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds.
There is nothing worse than the exploitation of one group by another to foment the seeds of discontent, which, nurtured by more exploitation over time grows enough to explode one day. People must be allowed to decide their own fate — good or bad. Tito used force to keep the union of Yugoslavia intact. But when he died, the old fault lines resurfaced leading to the break-up of the country.
Yugoslavia also provides many parallels to what happened in East Pakistan leading to the creation of Bangladesh and both provide stark lessons for what is happening in Balochistan. Sadly, we are not heeding the lessons but keep repeating the same mistakes.
Another bitter lesson is that there is evilness in all of us. Given the ‘right’ conditions, this evilness can come out in the worst possible form. Massacres and genocides are examples of man’s inhumanity towards man, an indication of the level of depravity humans are capable of descending to. Stories of torture and brutality by governments in dealing with dissent in many countries provide evidence that men will go to any extreme for power and control.
Humanity bears collective responsibility for what happened in Bosnia. Humanity must not rest in peace till all the perpetrators of the genocide are brought to trial and justice meted out to those traumatised by the tragic events in 1995.
Wrongdoings should never be dealt with through expediency and compromise but with strong collective resistance by all civilised people who believe in human rights and justice. This is the important but tragic lesson of Srebrenica.
The writer is professor emeritus, Department of Psychiatry, Aga Khan University Hospital.
Published in Dawn, July 17th, 2021