Aged 17, Nedzad Avdic was herded together with other Bosniak men and boys, separated from their womenfolk, and taken to a field for execution. Miraculously, not only did the gunmen’s bullets fail to kill him, he managed to survive the aftermath by foraging in the forests surrounding Srebrenica.
Nedzad’s story underlines the importance and value of the work of The Association of Jewish Refugees (AJR) during the visit I recently made to Sarajevo and Srebrenica in Bosnia and Herzegovina organised by Remembering Srebrenica (srebrenica.org.uk).
The genocide perpetrated there in July 1995, during which some 8,700 (Muslim) Bosniaks were slaughtered in under one week, has eerie echoes of the Holocaust: the dehumanisation, degradation and persecution, forcing people into secluded areas and to wear white armbands to identify them as Muslims, the separation of families and the brutal murder. Victims were duped so as not to create panic, with soldiers removing evidence of crimes.
Bosnia remains ravaged by the civil war, which claimed at least 35,000 lives. The three ethnic groups – Catholic Croats, Orthodox Serbs and Bosniaks – live almost autonomously. Although the atrocities have been formally recognised as a genocide by the International Criminal Court in The Hague, this label is not accepted throughout Bosnia and the perpetrators continue to live alongside survivors.
The legal terminology of crimes against humanity and genocide, of which some of the perpetrators of the civil war were convicted, were coined after the Second World War in response to the Holocaust.
Families of the victims cannot leave flowers in remembrance and many places of execution are unmarked. Organisations such as Mothers of Srebrenica are unable to pursue justice, while the International Commission on Missing Persons, which tries to identify the victims from remains disinterred from mass graves, receives no state funding.
Holocaust survivors in Sarajevo receive homecare and emergency funds via the Claims Conference, In the UK, the AJR is able to greatly supplement our Claims Conference grant with our own funds, as well as the provision of our social, welfare and volunteer services that improve lives every day.
Ironically, some of the people we assist experienced part of the 47-month siege of Sarajevo during the break-up of the former Yugoslavia; having lived under fascism and then communism, many fled here as refugees.
The old synagogue is just 150 metres from a mosque and a cathedral but is used only during the high holy days with congregants mindful of the Jewish presence in the city that stretches back to Ottoman times.
Giving visitors a taste of what life was like during the seige, at the Tunnel Museum, you can scuttle through part of an 800 metre stretch that provided a subterranean lifeline for those under daily attack from snipers.
At meetings of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, we have discussed whether the act of remembrance is demanding enough. While the word directs us to consider ways to create cultures of remembrance, it also inspires us to strengthen, advance, and promote Shoah education and research worldwide.
Our guide, Resad Trbonja, described the situation in Bosnia as an ‘interrupted peace’; perhaps given its relatively recent history, the country appears not yet ready to come to terms with what happened, or to find space in the national consciousness for meaningful remembrance and to bring together ethnicities that share a country.