"A Muslim majority country in Europe was just 'foreign' and they didn’t want to really have it happen in a Christian Europe."

“Has a genocide been as normalised as the genocide against the Bosniaks” asks Emir Suljagic, director of the Srebrenica Memorial in a report published in May this year. 

As the 25th commemoration of the Srebrenica genocide approaches, we are reminded of the massacre of 8000 Bosniak Muslims that was fuelled by prejudice and intolerance. 

Bosniak Muslims still have to explain their loss and pain as their memory of genocide is constantly disputed - some question the number of victims left behind, and there have been some comments, such as some suggesting the victims “weren’t exactly angels”, which have had to be explained or refuted.

To understand why the Srebrenica genocide deniers continue to glorify war criminals, TRT World spoke to Arnesa Buljusmic-Kustura, an analyst and researcher at the London based non-profit, Remembering Srebrenica.

TRT WORLD: The Srebrenica genocide is considered the worst episode of mass murder in Europe since the Second World War.  But, does Europe have an attitude of “this wasn’t our war”?

BULJUSMIC-KUSTURA: Despite the fact that the international community at large, had started gathering evidence even as early as 1992, a year before the events that lead to Srebrenica, they had evidence that massacres were taking place all over Bosnia and that people were being expelled, villages were being burnt, there were concentration camps - by August of 1992, we had journalists from ITN and Channel 4, and Ed Vulliamy from the Guardian, who uncovered those concentration camps. They didn’t choose to do much. It wasn’t as if the world didn’t know what was happening, there was very much knowledge of it. 

 The international community placed an arms embargo on basically the former Yugoslavia, on Bosnia, which practically left Bosnia defenseless. They didn’t really have an army and they were being attacked by an aggressive force. They didn’t have the weapons that Republika Srpska Army did or the Yugoslav People’s Army had. They didn’t have the funding for it, they didn’t really have the availability to get that. They were sort of rendered defenseless. 

 Once the international community, Europe in particular, started gathering this evidence, there were mass expulsions, forcible deportations and there was rumours of rape camps and  so on. There were quite a lot of activists both in the United States and throughout Europe trying to pressure the governments to act and to lift the arms embargo. However, that didn’t happen. 

There was a lot of talk about what should be done to help Bosnia but there wasn’t very much action. So the people were basically left to deal with it on their own. 

We now know and have the evidence - for example in the book ‘The Clinton Tapes’, there was a very Islamophobic stance of Europe. We have remarks by the French President at the time, and John Major, the British Prime Minister quoted in the book that “Bosnia did not belong and that a peaceful but necessary restoration of a Christion Europe needed to be basically enacted.” 

Muslim women pray at the mass funeral for 613 newly-identified victims of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre attended by tens of thousands of mourners at the Potocari cemetery and memorial near Srebrenica on July 11, 2011 in Potocari, Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Muslim women pray at the mass funeral for 613 newly-identified victims of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre attended by tens of thousands of mourners at the Potocari cemetery and memorial near Srebrenica on July 11, 2011 in Potocari, Bosnia and Herzegovina. (Getty Images)

So, when we look at this sort of evidence and we take a look back we can almost see that with their inaction and with their attitudes, they were very much ready for the Bosnian Muslims to be massacred. They let it happen. As I said in their words, ‘Bosnia did not belong. A Muslim majority country in Europe was just foreign’ and they didn’t want to really have it happen in a Christian Europe. 

So Europe’s attitude was more than “this wasn’t our war”, they were pretty much for it. It was "Why should it concern us?” type of thing. What was happening in Bosnia itself, the genocide of Muslims, was not necessarily something that they wanted to stop.

You said, “we cannot disconnect the Bosnian genocide from the Islamophobia that is prevalent now”. Why do you think so? And how do you link the two: genocide and islamophobia?

BK: When you look at the aggression against the Bosniak Muslims, it was rooted in Islamophobia. It was rooted in ethno-nationalism, in this sort of greater Serbia expansionism. This was a two part war; it was a war in search of a greater Serbia; you have that expansionism, you have that stereotypical “we’re fighting for land”, but the other huge component of it was the anti-Muslim and anti-Bosniak sentiment. You could see it pretty much from the start. 

We have a recorded phone call between Radovan Karadzic and a leader in Serbia. He is saying within a few days, five hundred thousand, half a million Bosniak Muslims are going to be dead in Sarajevo. The other person then says, yes, slaughter them all. We have a recording of that and that was actually shown in ICYT. 

We have the Serbian director that literally specified that Eastern Bosnia and other parts were to be completely cleansed of Muslims. So yes, this was very much tied with Islamophobia. Even now, 25 years after the genocide, the way it is discussed, the way it is justified is that we are terrorists, we deserve it. 

We have seen a huge optic in the justification of Bosnian genocide particularly after the events of 9/11, as islamophobia in general took over due to the fear spread by world leaders. They are basically saying, “Yes, yes! Well, even if we did commit it, we did it because they deserved it. Because they’re Islamic terrorist” you know. 

But, when you look at Bosnia, who really is a sort of more “liberal” as people like to call it more liberally Islamic country or country that contains more liberal Muslims or “moderate”, I hate that term but I know people use it, when you look at the fact that Islamophobia can even impact them, then you know it doesn’t really matter what we do. It doesn’t matter how conservative we are, how orthodox we are or how liberal and progressive we are as Muslims, that makes absolutely no difference. 

What matters is that we are Muslims and whether we are super progressive or super orthodox in our faith, we are still going to be hated for the fact that we are Muslims. 

So for me, it’s always been the sort of realisation that for those people who hate us, and who buy into that Islamophobic propaganda, nothing will really change their minds. I know other people disagree with that, but that sort of fear mongering and hatred that has been developing since 9/11, has  really grown to a huge extent. We cannot justify our existence to these people, we cannot convince them that we are human - in their eyes you know we are not. 

Do you think, therefore, that Serbs will finish what they started? We come across posts on social media talking about the paranoia Bosniaks live with.

BK: I don’t think it is collective fear, I think a lot of people want to move on with their lives especially for genocide survivors who witnessed it and experienced it firsthand. I am the youngest of that generation so really my generation is the one that probably was lastly affected by it. Those even younger inevitably have no memories of the event. 

The older generations, including my own, want to move on with their lives. They want to build better lives for themselves. Now, when you talk about Bosnia, it is particularly difficult because there are villages where genocide survivors are forced to basically live alongside the people who participated in those war crimes. 

But not just that, they openly celebrate people like Ratko Mladic, Radovan Karadzic - they are heroes to these people. In answer to your question, when you see your neighbour openly celebrating somebody who you know killed so many of your people due to your ethnic and religious identity, of course there is going to be fear. 

I do work on the genocide a lot, I write about it, I talk about it. I have discussed it constantly and I think I am a good example of a target. I receive threats that there will be another genocide. I do not take them seriously.

I don’t think that there is this sort of collective decision-making, where another genocide will occur next year, or the year after. But there is still that hatred there and that is what is particularly worrying - there are so many people within Bosnia and across the diaspora as well, working immensely hard to bridge those gaps. But it is difficult to work towards reconciliation when you have anti-Islamic or anti-Muslim sentiment, islamophobia, and an anti-Bosniak sentiment, too.  

A UN peacekeeping mission was responsible for keeping civilians out of harm when the Srebrenica genocide happened, but “the most powerful intergovernmental organisation in the world” established after World War II to prevent future wars obviously failed in its mission. Is the UN's peacekeeping selective? Do they uphold human rights and international law for certain countries/nations? that excluded Bosniak Muslims?

BK: The UN had a responsibility to protect the Bosniak Muslims, particularly in Srebrenica because it was a UN safe zone.  What happened was, there were huge amounts of refugees from surrounding areas coming to Srebrenica because that was the safe zone. And they were told that they would be protected that they would be safe. So you have hundreds of villages around the area, who were being looted, burnt down, people being massacred, killed, women being raped and for those who were surviving that they had no choice but to go to the UN safe zone. And the UN had this responsibility to protect the people but they didn’t. 

People can debate on this and of course some people view it as a sort of gross incompetence of the UN. Some people view it as, you know the international community just did not care enough to fully protect the Bosnian community, the Bosnian Muslim community. So they decided to just sort of bluff their way by sending a small amount of soldiers for peacekeeping. And so there is that argument, which I believe is sort of a valid argument. But then, there is also the argument of the fact that they just weren’t ever really there to protect the Bosniak Muslims. 

The mothers of victims of the Srebrenica genocide visit the Kravica warehouse, the site of a mass killing of 1,313 Muslims on July 13, 2017 in Kravica, Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The mothers of victims of the Srebrenica genocide visit the Kravica warehouse, the site of a mass killing of 1,313 Muslims on July 13, 2017 in Kravica, Bosnia and Herzegovina. (Getty Images)

We now know that, when Ratko Mladic entered Srebrenica in July, the UN generals drank with him. You know, they took shots together, they were warmly welcomed. They basically warmly welcomed the Serbian soldiers despite the fact that for years then they had heard of the aristocracies, they had known of the aristocracies that were occurring to the Bosniak Muslims. And they decided that they would save their own skins. They failed to act, they failed to protect. 

They allowed the Serbian forces to enter Srebrenica which was an open concentration camp. It was a ghetto of refugees, of survivors, of a huge amount of people who had nothing. No food, no medicine, nothing…and you know, even for me, from speaking to survivors who have actually testified at the Hague, when they talk about those days in July, those early days right before the executions, when they were hearing the rumors that the Serbian forces were closing in, they were getting closer, a lot of them actually went directly to the UN building to seek safety in there, to actually hide, you know behind the soldiers but were returned.

There is a specific survivor, I’m one hundred percent sure that they’ve testified at the Hague, what they said how they tried to get their family to actually join them in this building where the UN soldiers were and the UN soldiers wouldn’t let their family. So they were split up and some of their family members ended up obviously being killed in the actual massacre and genocide that took place in those following days. 

So, I mean, whether this was just a gross incompetence on the part of the actual leaders of the international community as sort of bluff towards this, you know basically a sort of way to shield force to the Bosnian Serb army, or whether it was intentional, we will never fully know but what we do know now is that, you know the Netherlands did indicted and convict that the UN was partially responsible for the genocide that occurred in Srebrenica. So I think those facts definitely matter and we have to look at it. 

But they do sort of glide over on what happened in the UN. And they don’t talk about it. There is a well-known journalist Florence Hartmann who sort of discussed the abuses of the UN soldiers themselves, she was basically censored and shut down and I believe she lost her job and it’s quite a long story. But it’s that sort of thing where they don’t want to discuss this, they don’t want to really admit that fault, and they don’t want to talk about it at all.  

Do you think the world has already forgotten the Bosnian war? How can we keep Srebrenica memory alive?

BK: Srebrenica genocide is something that happened just twenty five years ago and it was you know the second worst genocide on European soil, basically the worst genocide following the Holocaust.  I live in London now, and it’s about a two-hour flight to Sarajevo, you know. So this basically happened on our doorsteps. 

At the time, people really ignored it, they dismissed it, they thought it was just a civil war, they thought it would pass but it didn’t. I think what Srebrenica and what the Bosnian genocide really teach us is the importance of speaking out against hatred. It teaches us not just recognizing our differences but learning to love, not just tolerate, but love our differences and recognize that all of those things that are different about us really are the things that make us so unique that each of us have a story to tell, that each of us is a human being with families, with hopes, with dreams, with lives just like all of those people who were murdered throughout the Bosnian genocide. 

When we talk about the numbers, we say ‘six million in the Holocaust’, we say ‘hundred thousand in Bosnian War’. What people have to remember is that these aren’t just numbers, these are real human beings. They were mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, daughters, sons... You know they had hopes, dreams, feelings and they could have done so much, and their lives were taken before their time because of hatred, islamophobia, ethnonationalism. We see this ongoing rise of fascism currently and we have to act. We have to stand together. We have to speak out against it, we have to do everything that we can in order for it to happen “never again.” I hate the statement  “never again” because I’ve learnt that it is an anti-platitude, but I want people to know that we can get to that point. We‘re not there yet, we’re not learning the lessons of Holocaust, we’re not learning the lessons of the Bosnian genocide because we see what’s currently happening all throughout the world. And we’re not doing much to stop it, we’re not doing too much to educate people on it but we can get to that point. So never again right now is sort of an empty platitude but we really are speaking out and educated enough to actually do something that will prevent these further aristocracies. I don’t think “never again” has to be an empty platitude that we can come together, that we can make it something that actually has an effect. 

[NOTE: The article came from TRT World’s Eyes on Discrimination (EOD) Centre, which monitors and reports on offences, hate crimes and discrimination on the basis of gender, race, ethnicity, national origin and religion, or other related social categories. We promote and encourage respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion.]