On this day, 25 years ago, the Srebrenica Genocide took place.
It was a premeditated genocide that took place in a town just 132km from my own father’s hometown, and located in the heart of Europe.
11th July, 1995, was the date that the Army of Republika Srpska (VRS), under the command of General Ratko Mladić, as well as various Serb paramilitary groups, took control of the town of Srebrenica in eastern Bosnia.
The town was a so-called United Nations safe zone, and at the time held some 40,000 Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) refugees from surrounding towns and villages that had fled or had been expelled following Serb military takeovers.
In the 10 days that followed the UN handover of Srebrenica to the VRS, Serb soldiers engaged in the systematic and methodical mass killing of thousands of Bosniak civilians, mostly men and boys – with some as young as 11.
Once they were identified as being Bosniak, they were taken to fields, school gymnasiums, warehouses, abandoned factories, and the surrounding woods for their executions. Sometimes the victims were told to dig a hole prior to being gunned down. These holes were to be their own graves.
What took place after the handover of Srebrenica was the worst instance of systematic mass murder of civilians in Europe since the Holocaust of the Second World War. It became known as the Srebrenica Genocide, and so far 8,373 victims have been identified from the hundreds of mass graves that have been uncovered to date. Only God knows how many more remain buried in hidden mass graves in the fields and hills that surround the town.
So why did this happen?
Shortly before the genocide took place, General Ratko Mladic was quoted as saying that he will take revenge against the ‘Turks’.
Mladić, the commander of Serb forces during the Bosnian War, said this quote (on camera) shortly before ordering the methodical mass murder of at least 8,373 civilian men and boys in Srebrenica.
The “uprising against the Turks” he refers to is the 1389 Battle of Kosovo, where the Ottoman Empire defeated Serbia in a battle that is mythologised in Serbian folklore, much like Gallipoli is in Australia.
In effect, Mladić is simultaneously invoking the Serbs’ catastrophic defeat at Kosovo and equating the local Bosniak civilian population to “the Turks” of the Ottoman Empire of some 600 years prior.
Those who subscribed to the Serbian nationalism of Mladic and co did not see them as men and boys when they stripped them of all dignity and gunned them down one-by-one. They saw them as a symbolic representation of Islam in the Balkans and a by-product of an historical Ottoman presence in the region, which they so hated.
It’s why they specifically destroyed mosques, libraries, bridges, and other cultural sites. Those buildings were often built in the Ottoman era and were symbolic representations of the presence of “the Turks” in the Serbian-Christian “homeland.” The destruction of those buildings, along with the mass killing of civilians, served as a way to ethnically cleanse that homeland of any such presence.
In the Srebrenica Genocide, we can see how fascism — fuelled by nationalism and racism — combined to create a deadly situation in which the destruction of a people based on their ethnic or religious identity was seen as not only a palatable but even necessary undertaking.
The Srebrenica Genocide was perhaps the most abominable example of Serb war crimes and crimes against humanity during the 1992-1995 Bosnian War and, as such, receives a lot of coverage both in the media and in historical discourse. However, it is important to note that it was not the only one. Hundreds of towns and villages in northern and eastern Bosnia – too numerous to name in this short video – that fell under the control of the VRS or Serb militia experienced similar disturbing acts of barbarity — from summary killings, to the mass rape of women, to the starvation of civilians in concentration camps such as Omarska.
It is important for the Ummah to remember these events in our collective Muslim history for two main reasons. First, Bosnia and Herzegovina is on the periphery of the Muslim world and it is critical for our awareness and understanding of the world as Muslims to be aware of what takes place there just as much as what takes place in the very centre of the Muslim world. Bosnia and Herzegovina might be geographically isolated and cut off from the rest of the Muslim world, but it is still an important part of it.
Second, Islamic history isn’t just all about Salahuddin and Fatih Sultan Mehmet, may Allah be pleased with them. There are dark periods in our history — especially our recent history — which we should know well so that we are not ignorant about the suffering that took place and to ensure that something like that never happens again.
May what took place in Srebrenica serve as a permanent reminder to us all.
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