A few weeks ago, a woman who I've known for the past three years sent me an email to tell me that more of her father's remains had been recently discovered. Selima was the first survivor I'd spoken with about the genocide in Srebrenica. Her story is part of a third book I hope to soon publish, with witness accounts of the war in Bosnia portraying the atrocities and the resilience of Bosnians.,
Selima, her husband, parents, siblings and many relatives, were on the run and in hiding before finding what they believed was refuge in a United Nations safe area in Srebrenica. She and her young daughter were encouraged by family to escape to where the Bosnian Army had control. Her father accompanied her on the twenty-mile trek through snow and cold that enabled her to get on a UN truck taking her and Azra to safety. But her father could not go because, as a man, he would likely be killed by Bosnian Serb soldiers if he left the territory. Unbeknown to her, it would be the last time she’d see him alive.
Selima lost her father and three brothers to the murderous rampage by the Bosnian Serb army in what is known as the Srebrenica Genocide that began on July 11, 1995. Several other male relatives were killed, too, all a part of the 8,372 men and boys targeted for slaughter because they were Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims). Miraculously, her husband fled through the woods the day the genocide began, and he found his way to her a week later.
Mirza, another survivor who shared his story with me, was a small boy at the age of fifteen. He and his younger brother were ordered by the soldiers to board the busses with women, children, and older adults that would take them away from Srebrenica to Bosnian-controlled territory, while the men and teenage boys remained awaiting their fate. As he neared the bus, two soldiers were separating those whom they determined were older and who could not leave. One of the soldiers asked the other as he pointed to Mirza whether “this one” should be removed from the line. The other soldier looked beyond the diminutive Mirza, and took a young person behind him instead. Mirza and his brother survived, as did his father who fled to safety joining those who managed to elude being hunted down. Still, Mirza lost fifty-two family members in the genocide.
Every July 11, commemoration of this heinous crime to remember those lost is held worldwide. A special ceremony takes place at the Srebrenica Memorial Center in Potocari, Bosnia. During the ceremony, burial of newly discovered remains of the victims seeks to bring some closure for the survivors. Selima told me the event this July will include opening up her father’s casket to add his newly-found remains. This act of compassion to bring peace and reflection to survivors, also opens up deep wounds with the tragic memories of this unfathomable act of hate.
Another friend of mine, Dina, who will also be featured in my new book, whose family is from a different area in Bosnia also targeted for their religion, clearly speaks to the heartache that is ever-present. She and her family were approached in the early 2000s by the International Commission on Missing Persons, the primary organization dedicated to discovering mass graves and identifying the disarticulated body parts.
"It's so difficult to have to face these realities of your loved one's loss to such senseless violence. It is very important for us families to be able to properly say goodbye, but it is re-traumatizing. We've had to submit our DNA a number of times, sometimes with a successful match, and sometimes not," she's told me.
The genocide in Srebrenica was the seminal event of the war that ultimately led to its end. Prior to that, little was done to intervene in the targeted murders, rape, and torture of non-Serbs, most of whom were Bosniak, but thousands of whom were Bosnian Catholic Croats. The Dayton Peace Accords were brokered by the U.S. five months after the genocide, but the end result has not necessarily been positive for Bosnia.
The treaty gave the genocidaires the entity known as Republika Srpska (RS), which sits within the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, where its political leaders have no desire to be part of a unified Bosnia. In fact, the genocide denial and revisionist history that emanates from the RS perpetuates the inability for survivors to more fully heal.
We must learn from what happened in Srebrenica, in all of Bosnia for that matter. We must recognize that Russia, in its own attempt to become a "Greater Russia," is following a similar playbook to that of Serbia and its Bosnian Serb actors, which sought to create a “Greater Serbia," and has not extinguished that desire today. We must understand that divisive rhetoric and lies can lead to the ultimate of tragedies in the form of genocide.
So, on this July 11, as many of you are reveling in your summer break, enjoying a vacation somewhere, or going about your daily routines, please remember to pause for a moment, and reflect upon what's happening in Potocari, or in thousands of places around the world where the genocide is being commemorated. Think about how easily ordinary Bosnian Serb citizens got swept up in the hate enough to turn a blind-eye, support, or to commit the most gruesome of acts against other human beings. Understand that it is through commemoration, memorialization and awareness of historical realities that allows us to stay vigilant, so that denial does not rule the narrative, and that for families like Selima's, Mirza’s and Dina's, who can speak to the truths they were forced to endure, their losses did not happen in vain.