Posts Tagged ‘ Genocide ’

11 July 1995

I would like to acknowledge the victims of Srebrenica since yesterday was the 15th anniversary of the tragedy.  Yesterday afternoon as I sat in a crowded cafe in Sarajevo, I watched the extensive news coverage of the memorial events at the site a couple of hours away.  Around 50,000 people gathered in Srebrenica, including many world leaders and the presidents of all the countries of the former-Yugoslavia.  They buried 775 victims next to the 3,749 bodies already in the cemetery. Leading up to the ceremony, 5,000 people marched for 68 miles through the Bosnian mountains.  This march takes place annually, and the participants walk the same journey (except backwards) that around 15,000 people took to escape the mass killings.

Burial of victims on the 15th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre

Not surprisingly, the United Nations cowardly did not send any representatives to the anniversary ceremony.  During the war in 1995, the UN declared Srebrenica a safe area for civilians, but this “protection” resulted in the largest mass murder since World War II. Fifteen years ago, 30,000 Bosniak Muslims sought refuge in Srebrenica, but the Republika Srpska forces arrived and made the Dutch peacekeepers let them inside. The Serbs sorted out the Muslim men and boys and killed over 8,000 of them in a massacre. A few months later in an effort to conceal what happened, the Republika Srpska army dug up the mass graves and moved the victims. The bulldozing tore apart the bodies, causing some victims’ remains to be spread across different sites. Many bodies still have not been found.

Thousands participate in the annual peace march before the anniversary

Thousands participate in the annual peace march before the anniversary

While fixated on the news coverage of the political speeches, flashing images of coffins and people overcome with emotion, one story stood out to me in particular. I learned about the project of a German NGO to build a memorial for the victims and to point blame at the UN for the massacre. Called the ‘Pillar of Shame,’ the monument is certainly not subtle. Its design features massive letters U-N made out of plexiglass, which are to be filled with 16,744 shoes representing the 8,372 victims. It will measure eight meters high, and the shoes will even have a few spaces that look like bullet holes. As the campaign in Germany for shoe donations from around the world continues, the huge collection was placed in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin this weekend for the anniversary. A small version of the letters was placed on top of the pile. When completed, the final monument will stand on the hill next to the memorial center/cemetery in Srebrenica, which opened in 2004. The Mothers of Srebrenica, a Bosnian organization for families of the victims, will decide the names of Western politicians and military leaders “to shame” by including their names on the monument. Construction should begin in May 2011.

Berlin's tribute to the victims of Srebrenica

I feel that the strongest aspect of this tribute to the victims of the massacre is the idea to include the shoes. After visiting Auschwitz/Birkenau a couple of times while living in Krakow, the part that resonated with me the most was the room that showed the personal belongings taken from camp prisoners. It would be impossible to see this display of collected shoes, or the chopped off hair in a huge pile, or the pile of eyeglasses without feeling sick over the sheer number of these objects reflecting the number of victims. Perhaps this is the origin of the idea for the inclusion of shoes in the forthcoming Srebrenica memorial. Using everyday objects to represent the number of victims will be a powerful statement in itself.

However, I am rather uneasy about the memorial’s blatant assignment of blame. These massive letters will completely change the landscape of the site and in my opinion, distract from the cemetery and memorial already in place. When I visited the memorial last year, I was overcome by the amount of names written in a stone semi-circle in a similar fashion to the Vietnam Wall in Washington DC. The number of pristine white headstones was overwhelming and even on that particular afternoon last summer, they were burying victims. Seeing the temporary headstones of the latest burials and the way the graves extended up the hill as if they ran out of space for everyone was truly a powerful sight. In a few years, people who visit the memorial will only be able to look at the massive U-N monument which will take the focus off of the victims themselves.

Pointing blame at the UN is understandable, but I think writing names of individuals who did not intervene is a step too far. The whole world knew about the war in Bosnia and ignored the tragic events that took place. Is it really necessary to list individuals? I do not think this feature of the plan should be included because I think its unfair and unnecessary. Since the purpose of this tribute is to assign blame, it should only refer to the UN or other big collective groups that should have intervened in Bosnia. In my opinion, a better option would be to blame the world in general for allowing genocide take place.

The list of victims at the Srebrenica memorial site

No monument, no matter how big or angry, will ease the pain of the relatives of the victims. With the Chief of the Republika Srpka army during the war Ratko Mladic still at large, justice cannot take place. Several of the speeches at the ceremony yesterday stated the urgency of his arrest and trial. The people of Bosnia cannot move forward with their grieving while knowing that a man responsible for so many deaths is still alive and free in the world. The assignment of blame should come from the Hague trials for the war criminals, not from an eight meter high monument.

The powerful images from the news combined with my discovery that the Bosniaks who live in Sarajevo are very willing and open to talk with me about the war provided a powerful first few days of my relocation to Bosnia. For more information or to support the Pillar of Shame project, please visit the website provided below.


Pillar of Shame project website

Article on Anniversary Ceremony

Balkan Insight article about Pillar of Shame


How Convenient: Mladić’s Family Wants Him Declared Dead

Although the international community patted Serbia on the back for cooperating with the trial of Radovan Karadžic, the arrest of Ratko Mladić remains a key condition for progress towards EU membership.  General Mladić was the chief commander of the Bosnian Serb army during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina from 1992-1995. At the end of the war, he was indicted by the U.N. court in The Hague for allegedly ordering the Srebrenica massacre of 8,000 Muslims in 1995 and for his involvement in other atrocities of the war. Currently he faces charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

I am pretty skeptical of the YouTube videos that circulated this time last year of Mladić at his son’s wedding, however he probably is hiding in Serbia somewhere. And let’s be honest- it’s really not that big of a country. Karadžic lived in Serbia for several years, parading around as an alternative healer with a fake name, and even speaking at medical conferences in front of hundreds of people. Serbia had many opportunities to arrest him, but sometimes the country seems to protect its own.

Now Mladić is probably the most-wanted fugitive in the world. With an increasing pressure from the international community and a strong desire to join the EU, Serbia claims to be stepping up efforts to arrest him. However, I had a good laugh today when I read the latest news. The family of Mladić wants to declare him dead. The family would like to unfreeze his pension and stop the harassment directed towards them. Milos Saljic, the family’s lawyer stated: “The family has decided to stop the agony because it has long been convinced that Gen. Mladić is no longer alive.  No one has seen him for seven years.”

The chairman of the national council in charge of cooperation with the Hague tribunal, Rasim Ljajic, said that by making this request Mladić’s family “is making a mockery of state institutions” and that the request would in no way affect the ongoing search for his arrest. Under Serbian law, a person could be declared dead if s/he is over the age of 70 and there is no information about the person for more than 5 years. However, Mladić is only 68. According to his family, he was last seen 7 years ago and not in good health.

These naïve attempts by the family of Mladić to end the search are pretty amusing. As I wrote on this blog before, I remember sitting in a bus from Kosovo to Serbia, staring at a portrait of Mladić prominently displayed next to the driver. This war criminal is still a hero for many extreme nationalists in Serbia. Although the death of Mladić would certainly be convenient for the family and for the country seeking EU membership, somehow I think the search will continue.

Majority Rules: The Education System in Bosnia

Recently, I expressed my interest in the education system in Bosnia.  Here is an excerpt from an essay I wrote:

In the Republika Srpska, problems arise when Muslim Bosniaks return to their small towns that were ethnically cleansed during the war. In these communities, education policies primarily reflect the domination of the Serbian majority group over minorities. Minority children are allowed access only to education organized to serve the needs of the majority students and the atmosphere is hostile in some schools.  The Serbian curriculum has a Serbian world perspective and is taught in the Serbian language and the Cyrillic alphabet. Students learn of the symbols, struggles and sacrifices of the Serbian people neglecting to explain the other perspectives in Bosnia. For example, in music class students learn patriotic Serbian songs, and in religion class only Orthodox Christianity is considered.  Vague references to “our country” implicitly refer to Serbia and not to Bosnia and Herzegovina.   Although the education system in Republika Srpska is centralized and the administration functions more smoothly than the system in FBiH, schools fail to incorporate minorities.

In FBiH, education is less centralized with many decisions delegated to the local level.  Much tension exists between the Bosniaks and Croats, as evident in their schools, and many parents will drive their children to a school farther away in order to receive instruction with their own ethnicity.  In the five cantons with a Muslim majority, education is taught from a Bosniak perspective in the Bosnian language.  Literature focuses on Bosniak authors, and does not include authors from other ethnicities in the region.  History textbooks heavily emphasize aggression and genocide attempts against Muslims specifically . In the two cantons with a Croatian majority in FBiH, the study of language means instruction only in Croatian without any references to the other languages of the region.  The wars in the 1990s are referred to with the theme of defending “the homeland.”  The history books focus on a Croatian perspective and neglect the “non-Croatian population.”  Bosnia and Herzegovina is referred to like a foreign country such as Serbia or Macedonia and textbooks are published in Zagreb .

Religion, as one of the main distinguishing features of ethnicity in Bosnia, is specifically a sensitive issue in education.  The constitutions of FBiH and Republika Srpska explicitly guarantee religious freedom while implicitly referring to a separation of church and state.  However, with the importance of religion in the last few decades, an American-style separation of church and state is impossible in Bosnia .  Religious education was introduced in all public schools in the 1990s yet only the religion of the majority is taught.  Authorities explain that it is not possible to provide teachers to represent each religious group, reflecting the political divisions in the country .  Technically religion education classes are optional, but in reality, students who opt-out of these courses face discrimination in some school districts.  In some schools if students do not attend the religion classes, they are forced to sit in the hallway .  This method of dealing with multiculturalism in schools only emphasizes and strengthens differences between ethnicities.

Still interested? Download the pdf to read the essay.  bosniaeducation

A Need for Truth

I was surprised this summer to hear that many of my Serbian friends were afraid for their safety in Croatia. Serbs used to go to the stunning beaches on the Adriatic Sea before the breakup of Yugoslavia, but these days they seem to prefer Montenegro or Greece in the summertime. Before traveling to Croatia, a few people told me that a friend of a friend was beaten up while on vacation, or that any car with Serbian plates would be vandalized. The stories affected us so much that we were nervous to take a Serbian rental car across the border, and made sure to pick parking spots with careful discretion. The car traveled through Croatia unscathed and at the time, I dismissed these fears of my friends as paranoia. After all, people my age were children during the wars, and didn’t the wars end 14 years ago?

The more I study Southeast Europe, the more I learn that the conflicts in the former-Yugoslavia have not ended. I am reminded of this fact when I see photos of war criminals proudly displayed in a bus or when I read about segregated schools in Bosnia. Certainly I am hopeful to read about Serbia’s cooperation with the trial of Karadzic and I am thrilled that visa restrictions were lifted so that my friends can travel. Still, I do not think they will go to Croatia’s coast anytime soon.

Today the news reminds me once again that despite the EU applications, lift of visa restrictions, and other evidence of progress the countries of the former-Yugoslavia are nowhere close to moving past the war. Serbia filed a counter-lawsuit against Croatia at The Hague today for crimes committed against Serbs in the wars from 1991-1995. The decision to file a counter-lawsuit was passed on December 31, 2009, in response to Croatia’s claims for genocide filed on July 2, 1999 against then Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. Zagreb accused Belgrade of ethnic cleansing and killing of 20,000 Croats during the war and seeks reparations for war crimes, torture, the displacement of civilians and destruction of property. Serbia claims to want to address this issue out of court, but Croatia will not withdrawal their lawsuit from ten years ago. In response, Serbia’s counter-suit states that Croat forces committed war crimes and genocide against the civilian population during its offensives on Serb-controlled territories, including the expulsion of as many as 250,000 Serbs from Krajina towards the end of the war. The suit from Belgrade also includes a detailed report of the relationship between the two countries that dates back to World War II. The lawsuits fuel tension between two nations applying for EU membership.

I believe that people need truth before they can move forward. In Yugoslavia, Tito suppressed information about World War II in order to maintain peace among the ethnicities. Forced to live in silence, Serbia now brings up the atrocities of Jasenovac concentration camp in international courts over 60 years later. At first I want to dismiss these lawsuits on account of two countries holding grudges. After more consideration, I think Serbia and Croatia need to confront the past. They need to have a dialogue to promote understanding before either country can have a future in Europe. I wish this dialogue took place ten years ago, but memories of the past will not disappear. In the future, after discussion and time to heal wounds, I hope that Serbs again vacation in Croatia.

The coast of Croatia

No Place for Muslims in Europe

A Mosque in Bosnia

Perhaps at this point, the Swiss ban on minarets is old news for most people.  Despite the fact that Switzerland has 400,000 Muslims, voters approved a ban on minarets by 57.5% in the last days of November.  Many of the Muslims living in Switzerland today are Bosniaks and Albanian Kosovar refugees who fled genocide in the former-Yugoslavia in the 1990s.  In their homeland, mosques and minarets were burnt down or blown up, so they sought safety and religious freedom elsewhere.  How horribly ironic- after starting a new life in “civilized” and “democratic” Switzerland, they face the same racism.

Europe is increasingly Islamphobic, especially in the aftermath of September 11th.  Although Muslims in Western Europe will eternally be “The Other,” at least they have some functioning institutions for protecting their rights.  In my opinion however, the intolerance is worse in Eastern Europe, especially in partitioned Bosnia.  Just after the outrageous Swiss ban on minarets, 1,200 Serbian residents of Bijeljina, Bosnia, signed a petition calling for the reduction of volume of the ezan (call to prayer) on the basis of noise violation.  Of course no one is bothered by the ringing of church bells.  This town in northeast Bosnia in the Republika Srpska is one of the many places that Serb troops slaughtered Muslims in the war from 1992-1995.  Bijeljina was “successfully ethnically cleansed” during the war, and the Muslims who returned to their former homes after the war are still terrorized.

When will the war be over in the Balkans?  After twenty years, prejudices and intolerance still reign.  The partitioning of Bosnia adds more tension to the situation, and the Muslims are once again the minority, with increased pressure from Republika Srpska.  Most people stopped talking about the Swiss ban on minarets a few weeks ago, without considering the implications the ban has on other places like Bijeljina.  What is worse- that Muslims are still terrorized by Serbs in their home country two decades after the war… or that refugee Muslims in Western Europe face the same prejudices abroad?

Arbeit Macht Frei

Who the hell would steal the “Arbeit macht frei” sign from Auschwitz?  Meaning ‘Work sets you free’ and constructed by prisoners from the camp, the entrance sign is symbolic of the Holocaust.  The camp, in which 1-1.5 milion people died,  has been a museum since 1945.  The sign is 5 meters long and weighs 40 kilograms.  I wonder how such a large sign was taken unnoticed, but apparently the one security camera used was blinded by the snow.  Borders were closed in case the sign is on its way out of the country, 50 criminal investigators are patrolling the camp grounds with dogs, and a temporary replica was installed in the sign’s place.

Who would do such a thing?  The museum has 1 million visitors every year, and the memorial stands as an important educational tool.  World leaders are outraged, and I have to agree that this act could only be antisemitic.  Will the sign go up for sale?  Will this symbol of the Holocaust be destroyed in an act of hatred? I have nothing new to say about this hurtful act of vandalism, but I feel truly sick over this piece of news, and I hope the criminals are caught and imprisoned.  This sign is more than just pieces of guilded iron- it is possibly the most recognized symbol of the millions of  people that died in the Holocaust.

Flags Symbolizing Hatred

Now that I am researching Ante Pavelić for a history class assignment, I finally investigated a question I’ve had for a long time- what does the Croatian flag mean and how is it connected with the country’s fascist government from World War II?  When it comes to history of the former Yugoslavia, it is truly impossible not to let biases affect research.  Until now, I never thought about how much living in Serbia and making friends with Serbs affect my views on certain issues.  I heard a comment from a Serbian friend that the checkerboard pattern on the Croatian flag symbolizes fascism and lazily, I never doubted it.


The current flag of Croatia

It’s not really my goal here to give a history of nationalism in the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes, or the history of Yugoslavia from 1929 onward, so please excuse me as I leave out plenty of details. Most importantly, I want to stress that during World War II, the Independent State of Croatia was a Nazi puppet state led by Ante Pavelić and his Ustasha regime. Pavelić greatly admired Benito Mussolini, and used ethnic-cleansing tactics like Hitler to eliminate non-Croats.  With 26 concentration camps, the Ustasha party especially targeted Serbs, but also killed Gypsies and Jews.  In Jasenovac (the largest camp) alone, up to 200,000 Serbs, Jews, Gypsies and political prisoners were killed, resulting in a mini holocaust, specifically Balkan, that most people do not even know took place.


The flag of the Independent State of Croatia during 1941-1945, the Ustasa flag.

The checkerboard pattern on the Croatian flag was in fact used during the fascist era, but the shield actually dates back several centuries.  Croats claim the checkerboard shield is one of the oldest symbols in Europe.  Whether or not this is true, it certainly dates back long before Croats were exterminating Serbs in Jasenovac.  However, when Yugoslavia broke apart in the 1990s and nationalism raged from all sides, the Croatian flag was used militantly and conjured up its World War II meaning for Serbs once again.  On the opposite side, as Serbs destroyed villages and raped women in Bosnia and Croatia, they wrote their own historic shield and slogan all over the place- Само слога Србина спасава/Samo sloga Srbina spasava (meaning’Only Unity Saves the Serbs’).  I saw the C C C C slogan written all over the region when I traveled this summer.  This slogan means “Greater Serbia,” Milosevic and utter destruction for Bosnians and Croats.


Flag of Serbia, with the acronym for the slogan in the crest.


Само слога Србина спасава/Samo sloga Srbina spasava (Only Unity Saves the Serbs)

Without attempting any groundbreaking conclusion, I ponder the symbols found today in the former-Yugoslavia, and how they perpetuate memories of a bloody past for all parties involved.  A small part of me respects pride for national history, but mostly I am saddened by the messages the flags imply.  These symbols and flags may mean the beginning of a nation for one country, but for a neighbor- they hurtfully mean genocide and destruction.  Visual symbols make a huge impact on people.  Idealistically, I wish Croatia and Serbia would change their flags for a new era…to find new symbols for a peaceful future. Realistically, I know that the countries of the former Yugoslavia prefer to live in the past.

Look here to see the evolution of Croatia’s flag throughout history.  Notice the use of the checkerboard pattern in 1848-1852, and 1860-1918.

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