Twenty-four years ago the Srebrenica Genocide took place, however, there are still those who downplay the atrocity and others who claim they have no idea how it happened.

July 11 marked the 24th anniversary of the Srebrenica Genocide in which 8,372 Bosnian Muslims were executed in the United Nations ‘Safe Area’ of Srebrenica.

While attending the Jahorina Economic Summit on July 9, Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic referred to the Srebrenica genocide as a ‘misunderstanding’. This, of course, is in line with the official Serbian government stand in the last couple of years in which Srebrenica is continuously being denied or minimised.

For years the commemoration has been attended by foreign dignitaries from all over the world, and we keep on hearing the same rhetoric: that Srebrenica was a grave crime and that the victims must never be forgotten and that Srebrenica must never happen to anyone anywhere.

However, with Darfur, Syria, Myanmar, the Central African Republic, Uyghurs and many other cases, it is evident that Srebrenicas are being repeated again and again throughout the world. But to gain some lessons from Srebrenica, we must first place it in context and understand the background and intent behind the brutal genocidal campaign that was waged by the Serb army.

Often, many foreign dignitaries pose the question of how this was possible, and it is commonly supposed that the reason why such evil crimes were committed against the Bosnian Muslim population in unknown. There are two main points which need to be emphasised here and which are usually neglected.

First, this was not an ad hoc project masterminded only by two madmen – Mladic and Radovan Karadzic.

This was a government policy masterminded, financed and supported by Belgrade – the so-called Serb Republic (Republika Srpska) started its state-building process in mid-1991 and by the end of the year, they already had an Assembly and Autonomous Regions.

On January 9 1992, the Serb Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina was declared. On May 12 1992, several days after a failed coup and military defeat in Sarajevo, the Bosnian Serb Assembly proclaimed its Six Strategic Goals – a list of six objectives of the Bosnian Serbs, including the territorial gains needed to establish the new Serb state.  

The Six Strategic Goals were read out in the Assembly and were approved unanimously by the delegates. That very day, the Bosnian Serb Army was formed, and Ratko Mladic was appointed commander. Mladic came out and addressed the delegates saying that the goals were feasible but that this meant genocide because “people are not keys or coins to move from one pocket to another”.

The primary aim of the war was to gain territory. However, the majority of the desired territory was populated by Bosnian Muslims. The Bosnians needed to be cleaned – the term očistiti (to clean up) was first used by Yugoslav military officers in early April 1992.

The Bosnian Muslims could have been removed from these territories without mass atrocities – there was hardly any significant resistance in most of these towns. However, based on the systematic abuse, humiliation, rape, torture and murder, it is clear that the aim was not only to remove physically but also to destroy the core of Bosnian Muslim societies on a micro-level.

The cleansing process was conducted at a municipality level, and in the majority of cases, the perpetrators knew their victims. The rapists knew who they were raping. The murderers knew who they were killing. This was a very personalised crime.

The second point is that Bosnian Muslims were dehumanised because of their Muslim heritage. Even those who did not consider themselves Muslims or religious were targeted.

The perpetrators, rather than the victims, decided which identity you belonged to. Michael Sells, explains the roots and process of the anti-Muslim bigotry in his book The Bridge Betrayed.

Muslims are considered traitors, betrayers of the faith – Serb Orthodox Christians who converted to Islam when the Ottoman Empire conquered Bosnia in the 16th Century. For betraying the Orthodox Christian faith and for converting to Islam, Muslims, the ‘Christ-killers’, needed to be punished.

Thus, the Bosnian Muslims were called Turks, subhuman and even genetic waste. I need to point out that this anti-Muslim bigotry was not aimed at all Muslims but only at the Slavic Muslims and Albanian Muslims. The Serb state had and still has very good relations with other Muslim countries, and there is a small but significant non-Slavic Muslim immigrant population in Serbia.

There is a thin line between Islamophobia and dehumanisation. This ideology was a driving force behind the genocidal massacres committed by the Bosnian Serb army and police in 1992 - 1995.

The core of the Bosnian Muslim family was destroyed – women and girls were raped and sexually abused, men were tortured, humiliated or killed. The perpetrators did everything necessary to kick the Bosnian Muslim population out of the country – and they were highly successful.

The population was expelled; mosques were blown up to the skies, and the land was converted into parks and parking lots; books and manuscripts were burnt – all traces of Bosnian Muslim presence were erased.

There is no happy end to this story. The Bosnian Serbs got what they wanted – they have their Serb Republic which has all the elements of a state except for international recognition.

Mladic and Karadzic may have been tried for their crimes, but their ideology lives on. The idea of a more significant homogenous Serb state will not cease with their deaths. That is why Bosnian Muslims were targeted for genocide and why they are still vulnerable in the continuing instability of the region.

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