Europe’s last genocide

BBC documentary maker Myriam Francois Cerrah on the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre

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In 1984, Sarajevo hosted the XIV Winter Olympic Games, a testimony to its scenic mountains and the richness on offer in the city. But just 10 years on, Sarajevo lay in tatters, its inhabitants under siege, as they struggled under a Bosnian Serb offensive that threatened the very fabric of their society. Years of fighting ensued, including a campaign of ethnic cleansing that resulted in mass rape and genocide, as recognised by The Hague. The ruling by the International Criminal Court recognises the murder of around 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys, when the UN “safe haven” of Srebrenica fell to Bosnian Serb forces in 1995, as a deliberate act of genocide.

As part of the BBC One documentary A Deadly Warning: Srebrenica Revisited, I travelled to Bosnia with a group of young people who were all born in the same year as the genocide at Srebrenica. We wanted to find out what impact learning about the events would have on them and how it might affect their worldview once they returned to the UK.

While some in the group knew very little about what had happened at Srebrenica, like Izzy, a student from Shropshire, others like Julie Podbielski Stewart were much more aware, in her case through her father Colonel Bob Stewart, the former United Nations commander in Bosnia, where he had met her mother. Many of the young people questioned why they hadn’t heard about the genocide at school. Abdul, who was aware of the Bosnian genocide, felt that this might be linked to the idea that Muslim blood is cheap, in the sense that Muslims are rarely recognised as victims.

People born in 1995 learn about the Srebrenica massacre
People born in 1995 learn about the Srebrenica massacre

Others, like Jonas, whose parents are originally from the Congo, and who’d grown up with awareness of the Rwandan genocide, felt the need for education to incorporate a much broader awareness of genocide, a view echoed by Hannah, whose grandmother was a Holocaust survivor and who had previously attended a Holocaust memorial day that had dedicated two minutes silence to the victims of four genocides since, including Bosnia. The group travelled with Remembering Srebrenica, a charity that takes groups to Bosnia to help raise awareness of genocide and of the dangers of prejudice and hate. In exchange for their place on the trip, the young people make a pledge about an action connected to remembering the genocide upon their return.

The young people took many things from their trip to Srebrenica – from a renewed appreciation of their own families to a belief in the need to reform education and expand notions of “us” in modern Britain. What was particularly touching was watching them grapple with the disintegration of Bosnia as a multicultural, multi-ethnic society – a society in which, rapidly, neighbours turned on neighbours and friends became executioners.

It is not possible to draw direct parallels between very different societies. But those preparing for the Olympics in 1984 would never have imagined that, just a decade later, entire families would be wiped out by those whom they previously saw as indistinguishable from themselves. Genocide doesn’t happen overnight, and the seeds of hate that have to be sown in its run-up are a stark reminder of the sorts of milestones any society should remain attentive to – discrimination, dehumanisation. In Bosnia perpetrators refuse to recognise their crimes and many still walk free. The young people left full of hope that history would not be allowed to repeat itself but the truth is, for Bosnians, the genocide at Srebrenica and ethnic cleansing more broadly are not yet even history.

Myriam Francois Cerrah presents A Deadly Warning: Srebrenica Revisited. Watch it on iPlayer. For more on the documentary and Srebenica, read producer Gillian Bancroft’s blog. Photos: BBC

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