Nestled amongst the sweeping expanse of cool, white marbled hillsides, a noisy bulldozer pierces the silence as it claws up the soil to expose a gapping hole in the earth. Twenty-one years later, the task of burying the dead continues in Srebrenica as the obligation to remember the atrocities grows more urgent.
July 11th 2016 marked 21st anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre in which over 8,000 Muslim men and boys were systematically rounded up and killed by the Bosnian Serb army. The genocide took place just months before the end of the war and is considered Europe’s worst atrocity since World War II.
Over two decades later forensic experts are still uncovering new bodies in the nearly 100 mass graves found so far. Each year, on July 11, a collective funeral is held for the victims who have been identified through DNA analysis. This year 127 souls were laid to rest earlier this week at the memorial grounds just outside Srebrenica – the youngest to be buried this year was 14, the oldest 77.
Twenty-one is a number imbued with much significance in societies around the world – a symbolic threshold over which one steps from childhood into maturity. As we mark twenty-one years since the genocide at Srebrenica, it is time for us to transition into action, taking the memory of what happened in the past and use its lessons to bring about change in the present.
I will never forget standing in that sea of tombstones watching the gravediggers carry out their macabre task when I visited Srebrenica thee years ago. As a young Jewish South African, I felt a deep connection to the horrific events that took place in Srebrenica, inextricably interlinked with my community’s own tumultuous and scarred history. Although very different in context; time; and place, the pain of the atrocities at Srebrenica, the brutality of Apartheid and even the horrors of the Holocaust are all tied together by the lessons they teach us today on the destructive power of hate and the way in which individuals can stand against prejudice and make a difference.
Despite the conviction of Bosnian Serb wartime leader Radovan Karadzic to 40 years in prison for orchestrating atrocities against Muslims and Croats in Bosnia during the war, many in the region feel that justice has yet to be served. As the mourning for the murdered continues, as the scenes of raw emotion as crying families burying their dead today reminds us, reconciliation in the region still seems out of reach even now. For whilst the armed conflict in the Balkans has long since ended, the struggle for competing truths and the battle for the dominant narrative continues unabated. This new war plays out not only in political and public spaces such as the media but also in the private sphere, in the classrooms where Bosniak, Serb and Croat children learn separate histories; in homes and places of worship.
Twenty-one years ago my own country of South Africa was emerging from a dark past of segregation, oppression and racism. Our transition from Apartheid to democratic rule inspired the world but, as shocked South Africans have seen since the start of 2016 and its explosion of hateful rhetoric across social media, our transformation remains incomplete. Although our Truth and Reconciliation Commission took painful and powerful steps towards acknowledging the wounds of the past and forging nation-building, much of this vital work remains. Political transitions have not been joined by the economic and social transformations needed, and deep structural inequalities still persist.
As important as remembering brutalities is, especially when the truth of what happened remains contested and denied in a fractured society, we also need to ensure that these events are kept relevant and contemporary issues which are not consigned to a distant history. Our moral obligation to remember atrocities is not just a call to turn back towards the past, it is also an injunction to the present for us to act today and build a society in which hate and discrimination have no place.
As Holocaust survivor and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel once wrote, “Memory creates bonds rather than destroying them, bonds between present and past, between individuals and groups … it is because I refuse to forget that [other people’s] future is as important as my own”. In this way memory is a call to conscience ensuring that we are not silent ‘bystanders’ but ‘upstanders’ standing against all forms of persecution affecting those around us.
Following World War 2 the world was so shocked by the Holocaust that it was unimaginable that such a crime against humanity could ever take place again. And yet, here we are commemorating Srebrenica just two decades ago. After the end of the Balkan conflict, it once again seemed impossible that hating a group of people based solely on their identity could ever take place again. And yet, as the unfolding genocide in the Central African Republic and the horrors of the civil war in Syria show us; as the refugee crisis in Europe has highlighted and as the murder of members of the LGBTI community for their sexual identity and the #BlackLivesMatter movement seeks to stress, the lessons from the past continue to go unheeded.
Twenty-one years after Srebrenica, we have a moral obligation to foster dialogue, engagement and greater understanding between communities, understanding differences and celebrating similarities. We must all do more to confront hatred in the world around us and stand against any form of discrimination that we encounter in our own lives. As witnesses to past atrocities dwindle in number, the importance of documenting testimony increases. Emerging from the stories of those who have witnessed hell on earth, is the challenge to not become indifferent to the suffering of others. As the memory of the genocide in the Balkans comes of age, a new period of action is needed to heal the wounds of the past and inform a future where the actions of each of us, every day, work to build a more tolerant world for all.