Yesterday marked the 26th anniversary of one of the worst moments in human history, the genocide that took place at Srebrenica in Bosnia. The Bosnians of Utica marched around the MVCC campus wearing black T-Shirts with white flowers to honor the many killed during the conflict that destroyed their homes and brought them to Utica years ago. There were no chants or shouts. Just a solemn attitude of remorse finalized by a moment of silence and Islamic prayer directed by local Imam Tom Facchine.
As our memories are such malleable things, so easily influenced and distorted by bias, it would seem that events of history only exists as long as we remember them. That is why it’s so disturbing that even such terrible moments of genocide, thought to be unforgettable, are now under threat of being erased from history as if they never even happened.
Yesterday’s event was not as simple as Bosnians honoring the hundreds of thousands killed in mass executions 25 years ago, but rather a demand that nobody ever forget that atrocity so that it shall never be repeated. Yesterday’s event was in in part a push back against those who are claiming that the genocide never happened or that the Orchestrators were heroic in their zeal for Serbia and displacement of Muslims.
For over twenty years, the Bosnians have become one of the most important and successful immigrant stories of Utica. Perhaps soon, we may see a Bosnian mayor. Yet, so few people here fully understand exactly why it is that the Bosnians started coming here in the first place, nor fully appreciate just how severe and total the damage was that these people suffered. For most of the 20th century, the Balkan region of Europe was known as Yugoslavia. It was a union of different ethnicities and nations: Bosnians, Slovenians, Croatians, Serbians, Albanians, Macedonians, and others. In 1989, the Soviet Union ended as did communism in Yugoslavia, and within a year, Yugoslavia fractured into different republics.
The problem was so many of the ethnicities lived in each other’s republics (Albanians living in Kosovo, Croats living in Slovenia, Serbs living in Bosnia). Things got problematic when Bosnia declared independence and Serbs living in Bosnia began an armed rebellion and started a war. The Serbs had an idea of The Greater Serbia, where they would create territory free of Bosnians and Croats. Thus, the ethnic cleansing began.
A local Bosnian expert said that the prime motivation behind the Serbians committing genocide against their Bosnian neighbors was simply that they were different. While Bosnians and Serbs have lived amongst each other for centuries, the differences were most apparent. Serbs are Christian and Bosnians are Muslim. Different religions, languages, and culture is something that the Serbian Ultra-Nationalists couldn’t abide. So, the killing continued. Serbs began capturing Bosnian towns and setting up concentration camps and brothel prisons. Between 1992 and 1995, over 80,000 Bosnians were killed, and 50,000 Bosnian women and girls were raped. Mass graves covered the countryside, but one of the worst instances of the genocide was in the town of Srebrenica.
On July 11, 26 years ago, the Serbs started cleansing the town of Srebrenica of its Muslim inhabitants. In just 5 days, over 8,300 civilians had been murdered. This was the largest single mass killing in Europe since WW2, and some of its survivors are here in Utica today.
While not a Srebrenica survivor, Dina Radeljas like many others at the MVCC event saw much of the conflict. Radeljas is the VP of the Bosnian American Community Association and spoke about the need for remembering Srebrenica.
Eamon Handzel: In Utica, have you seen friendly interactions between the Serbs and Bosnians?
Dina Radeljas: “I have, and obviously it’s nice. To have cooperation between the two groups does not mean to forget what happened. Unfortunately, what we see unfolding in Bosnia is [Serbians] negating that genocide has ever occurred. So, you have huge communities, Serbian communities, that are glorifying the war criminals, the ones that are actually right now in jail because of these events [Srebrenica]. They are saying that everything was staged, that these things did not take place, and that is very troubling obviously. But to say that unity can’t exists would be incorrect.”
Radejlas went on to remind people that just getting Srebrenica designated as a genocide took, as she put it, an act of God. She has valid concerns about what may take place in her home country again as the air of ethno-centrism seems to be stirring yet again, not just in the Balkans but in many places on the globe where people seem to have adopted the comfortable mindset that what happened before could never happen again. But that’s exactly what they said after the holocaust, and that was hardly the end of humans committing ethnic cleaning.
Dina Radeljas spoke about young Bosnians needing to know what happened: “I think that these are very painful things to talk about for Bosnian people, so then the conversation ends. And if you’re born here, you feel so far removed…and if you’ve never visited over there and no one has ever had these conversations with you then it’s easy to start forgetting. I think we’re seeing what you would see with any refugee group. But again, it’s very important to relay these messages to the younger generation. I mean, the world is on them and the ones that come thereafter. So, if we want to live in a world that doesn’t have these types of events, then obviously we have to make sure that [they know] here’s the reasons why [Srebrenica] we should live in tolerance and respect and value each other so that things like this don’t happen.”