Monday, 6 July 2015

The Killing Fields of Srebrenica - Our History or Our Destiny?

Sousse, Tunisia last week
Ten days ago in Sousse, Tunisia, crowds of people rested by swimming pools and on sandy beaches enjoying the warmth of the Mediterranean sun. A man approached with a sun brolly which concealed his automatic firearm. Within an hour, 38 people - including 30 British tourists - were dead and others seriously injured. Local people, at great personal risk, cornered the gunman who was later shot dead by the police. He was, it became known, inspired by the Islamic State and its call to arms against unbelievers.

Ten years ago tomorrow, in London, hundreds of thousands of people headed for work on a warm July morning. While some took the bus, many massed into the stairwells and lifts that descended into the Undergound tunnels of the city's tube system. Among them were three men from Yorkshire wearing backpacks, like tourists heading for the airport. As their separate trains headed round the multi-coloured lines that snake beneath the British capital, they pressed the buttons that linked through wires to the packs of explosives strapped around their bodies, exploding themselves in tiny, cramped spaces. As a fourth man on the surface, disoriented when he found his designated tube station closed for repairs, boarded a bus and blew
Murder in Russell Square, London, 7 July 2005
himself up along with several passengers, 52 people met their deaths as they went around their daily work routine, with over 700 maimed and injured.

As it would be in Sousse, the four men drew their inspiration from a belief that they were acting in the name of their Muslim faith. Their deaths and their taking of lives would be rewarded in the afterlife.

Twenty years ago, today, with the blessing by the Christian priest done, the Serbian paramilitary commander signalled his men forward. For months they had surrounded the thousands of Muslim civilians and a handful of lightly armed defenders huddled into the small protected town of Srebrenica in the Bosnian valley below. A small United Nations force of largely Dutch blue helmets provided thin cover between the two groups and melted out of the way as the well-armed attackers moved on the town, their heavy armour provided by the remnants of the Yugoslav Federal Army. As the inhabitants fled into an ever smaller area around the Dutch military compound, the military observers reported that the Serbs were "ethnically cleansing" the streets and buildings that came under their control in the name of Christian civilisation.

Within five days, after the Dutch troops watched as the Serbs separated men and boys from women and put them all on separate buses to drive them off into the hills, over 8,000 unarmed Bosniac Muslim males lay dead in ditches, in fields and in mineshafts. To this day, many are unrecovered and those that are come in shattered bundles of broken bones and partial bodies.

The three scenarios may be separated by decades, by thousands of miles and by different faiths and lives. But they are intimately, fatefully connected and they each and together provide an awful warning of what may lie ahead if we let it be so.

Srebrenica was just the latest of many, many atrocities committed by the Serbian rebels led by Radovan Karadzic and General Ratko Mladic, proteges of the nationalistic President of the Serbian Republic, Slobodan Milosevic. They had rebelled in 1992 against the democratically elected government of Bosnia Hercegovina and, fuelled, funded and armed by Milosevic, they set out with the declared aim of eliminating the 1,800,000 Bosnian Muslims who made up around 45% of the population of the newly independent state. Karadzic declared that, although from the same genetic stock as himself, Bosnian Muslims were to have "no further hope of survival or continued existence."  
Over three bloody years, their army of butchers killed about one in every twenty Muslims and displaced many more. Rape camps worked to impregnate captive Muslim women with Christian Serb men's children and communities that had lived peacefully alongside and with each other for several centuries were wiped out forever.

Although all this happened on the doorstep of Europe, with a few notable exceptions, European politicians stood by wringing their hands. They claimed to impose an arms embargo on the area, a chilling echo of the Spanish civil war when, as in Bosnia, a democratically elected government was only thinly armed against well-equipped rightwing militarists and embargoes served merely to stack the odds ever more in favour of the nationalists. The British Government was particularly active in opposing any intervention to stop the bloodshed - Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd was especially keen to express the need to not get involved, although he was personally very happy to get very involved in lucrative business deals with the Milosevic regime a few years later.

The Bosnia war was finally brought to an end after a short bombing campaign by US jets against the rebel Serbs' positions around besieged Sarajevo, but the damage was done. With nearly 90% of the civilian dead Muslims, the apparent willingness of Europe to stand aside while tens of thousands of "westernised, integrated" Muslims were slaughtered purely for their faith gave an abundance of fuel to the hate preachers and extremists who wanted to turn the gaps and misunderstandings between the West and Islam into a chasm of violence and division.

In this context, the appalling London bombings, on the tenth anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre, are not excused or legitimised in any way but there is little doubt that the Bosnian bloodbath radicalised many younger Muslims and made their recruitment by the psychopaths of ISIS and al Qaeda that bit easier.

And now, another decade on and the blood flows - in Sousse, in Paris, in Aleppo, Baghdad, Raqqa, Damascus, Gaza... the list is endless. And the plans for the future? The answer to the deathly black flags and the murders amidst the ruins of Palmyra? More bombing, more weapons, more death.

The phrase that those who do not learn from history are bound to repeat it is hackneyed, but never more true. But perhaps what is even more important is how history is written and what is remembered. For in so many narratives, on all sides, only snippets and single events are recalled, commemorated and alternately reviled or celebrated.

Mass burial of Srebernica dead, 2010: 1,500 bodies remain missing
Churchill said that "History will be kind to me as I am going to write it" and this has never been more so than now, when our media and commentators rarely go much beyond last week to explain the events of the day. To them, Bosnia is as obscurely distant in time and as irrelevant as the War of Jenkins Ear or the Vikings' sack of Lucca. But, as even today bodies are recovered and children born of industrial-scale rape reach adulthood, it has never been more important to understand how the prejudice and conflicts of the past are the building blocks of today. Everything is connected, as we all are, and commemoration of the past is pointless unless we learn from it so we both understand today and make a better tomorrow.

"The very ink with which history is written is merely fluid prejudice," was Mark Twain's verdict. In a world shaped by the poison pens of the Daily Mail and the narratives of the bloodthirsty, arms manufacturing elite, we must look hard, listen hard and reflect on the truth so often buried from view. And that is that what unites humanity is in fact much more than the cultures, faiths and traditions that are held up to divide us by the Presidents and Prime Ministers, by the Caliphs and Kings - by those who do not want us to question the grip they hold on our world.

For the true history is that people of all faiths and none have lived in peace for incalculably more time than they have fought with each other. Our hopes and fears, dreams and nightmares are much the same, regardless of the trappings of difference in clothes or buildings or customs or ritual. But for some it is an inconvenient truth and a dangerous one for their continued domain over the rest of us. Their watchword is our ignorance.

Srebrenica, London, Sousse. They are our history, but they do not need to be our destiny.

Previous posts on Bosnia -  "The Ghosts of Bosnia"
                                               "Indicting Mladic for Srebrenica, Sarajevo - and London"

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