July 11 is a date that should by all rights live in infamy.
On that date in 1995, the Srebrenica genocide began. By the time it was over, less than two weeks later, 8,373 Muslim men and boys were dead in the city of Srebrenica, which was supposed to be a UN-protected enclave within Bosnia-Herzegovina. They were massacred by Bosnian Serb military and paramilitary forces, at the direction of the Serbian colonel-general Ratko Mladić.
In 2004, in a unanimous ruling, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia declared the massacre a genocide. The ruling was later upheld by the International Court of Justice.
The Srebrenica genocide remains a moral stain on Europe, a state-sponsored mass murder of a religious minority, perpetrated at the center of the continent, 50 years after the world vowed, “Never again.”
When the massacre began, my brother, Dr. James Smith, and I were preparing to open the UK Holocaust Centre and Museum. A half-century after the liberation of the camps, British society was finally ready to meaningfully reckon with that atrocity. The Centre was to open on 17 September 1995; at the start of the summer, we were putting finishing touches on the exhibitions and memorial gardens. It had been a long and hard path to opening, and we were happy and relieved.
Then the news came from Bosnia. A new European genocide.
I didn’t see how we could open a centre focused on crimes of the past when one was happening less than 1,000 miles away. I wanted to delay the opening, travel to Bosnia, create a record of what was happening. I arranged a press pass from the BBC, permission from the UN, transport from the RAF.
My brother told me I was nuts.
He is also a scholar of genocide; today he runs the Aegis Trust, which works to prevent crimes against humanity. “You’re not going to Bosnia,” he said. “They need NATO; not you.”
Instead, he reminded me, we needed to do what we were best qualified to do. Open the centre. Educate. Commemorate. “Every young person who comes through the door will know what genocide is and what they’re supposed to do about it,” he said.
He was right, and keeping alive stories of genocide has become my life’s work. After launching the Holocaust Centre, I came to America to lead USC Shoah Foundation, which preserves testimonies from survivors of the Holocaust and other genocides.
Years later, I made it to Srebrenica. I visited the memorial there, and I met survivors. On the one hand, they were very different from survivors I’d previously encountered. The Holocaust survivors I’d gotten to know were in their 70s and 80s—many spoke English, had moved to the U.S., Britain or Israel, and were far from where their lives had been torn apart, in terms of time, location, even mindset. For the Srebrenica survivors, still in the Balkans, only a decade or so after the massacre, the past was painfully present.
But at the same time, I found that their stories, on a basic level, were similar. There were the same themes of loss and grief, trauma and survival. There was a similar feeling of a lack of justice, the same difficulties rebuilding trust and rebuilding families.
And it reminded me that the work we do—the work of commemoration, of education, of justice—is work we must do together. We all suffer in different ways, but we can help to bear each other’s burdens.
That’s why USC Shoah Foundation has embarked on a testimony program in Bosnia. It’s why we are launching an education program throughout the Balkans.
A team at the Srebrenica Genocide Memorial will record 500 survivor testimonies—parents, wives, children of the men and boys murdered in 1995. Using tried and tested methods to draw out stories, they will index the testimonies, to use them to educate the next generation. They’ll employ USC Shoah Foundation’s systems and methods, but the stories belong to the people of Bosnia.
We must approach the sacred task of collecting life histories with humility – to ask questions, to listen, to learn. Testimony is a deeply personal process, and it can be a therapeutic one. To survivors, giving testimony—telling a listener simply what happened—can be rehumanizing. They get the final word.
This July in honour of the victims of Srebrenica, let’s learn to listen to one another’s stories. Let’s keep learning. Let’s continue to build human connections.