They were living in a student dorm. One family per room. Lives packed up into shopping bags. They cooked on Bunsen-burners looted from the local university. They slept head-to-toe on the floor. Over a hundred people used a single toilet which no longer worked. But it took us a while to see the really disquieting thing about the families in Tuzla.
After days of hospitality, of drinking the reconstituted coffee which was all the “internally displaced persons” had to give, of negotiating the language barrier and piecing together stories of flight through deadly forests and mountain passes, we realised: there were no men here, no boys. Only women and girls. And the name of one town came to the dry, malnourished lips of mothers and daughters, over and over again: Srebrenica.
It was 1996 and we were in the Bosnian city of Tuzla. The city had been declared a ‘safe-haven’ by UN peace-keeping troops, and as those displaced by conflict elsewhere sought safety, so Tuzla filled with NGO administrators, aid-workers, and peaceniks with good intentions. I was a peacenik, and I worked with an ad-hoc student organisation, briefly sharing dorms with the women of Srebrenica.
In the first few months of that year, the international community in Tuzla was slowly beginning to understand the scale of events in Srebrenica and surrounding municipalities; slowly beginning to realise just how the actions of Dutch UN peacekeepers had facilitated the massacre; just how organised and ruthless the killing had been; just how many had died — slowly beginning to realise we were seeing the worst genocide in Europe since World War II.
Now, with the sentencing of Radovan Karadzić some twenty years later, the story of Srebrenica has finally been given the full authority of history.
But there will be many who are disappointed and angry this week. The prosecution failed to prove Karadzić’s responsibility for genocide in all the seven municipalities of which he stood accused, including the sizeable towns of Prijedor and Sanski-Most.
Amra Mujkanovic, a Bosnian I spoke with on the day of the verdict, was born to a family from Kozarac, a region where genocide had not been recognised by the verdict. Mujkanovic felt the 40 year sentence was an insult, and ‘an injustice to those whose bodies are still missing to this day.’ The fact that Amra was born in the last year of the war, and that she has lived in Scotland most of her life, demonstrates the depth of feeling across the diaspora and its generations.
While most commentators agree the thorough, painstaking approach of the ICTY was necessary, the time it has taken to serve justice is tragic for those survivors who will have died before seeing it done. On return trips to the country, I have watched increasingly elderly and frail mothers continue their protests and vigils for missing sons and husbands.
Tragic too, that the name Radovan Karadzić signifies so little with the university students I now teach in England. As a novelist, my work has explored the dynamics of forgetting and remembering, memorialisation and justice, historical fact and cultural memory. But while piecing together a book set in the conflicts of the 1990s, I discovered that most readers under the age of thirty have not been taught anything about the conflict which so shaped the politics of Europe and its foreign policy. Many don’t know what the Bosnian war was. Twenty-five years ago, we had also forgotten the bloody history of the Balkans. Can we afford to do it again?
In a recent book examining the politics of memorialisation, David Rieff has suggested collective, cultural memories can be as responsible for the propagation of conflict as they are for teaching its lessons; we should not trust the maxim that he who forgets history is condemned to repeat it. Perhaps then, a little amnesia is a progressive thing?
One Bosnian in my novel certainly thinks so. In order to survive, she has to forget. Another finds the uncomfortable facts of his war-time past are a business fraught with the desire to avenge. How to acknowledge history, without being bound by it?
One answer offered by my characters, is to recognise that history is not that which belongs to the past, but something we negotiate, and re-negotiate in the present. This means seeing the facts of the Srebrenica genocide in the full context of Bosnia today. The past can only be forgiven, if conditions in the present will allow forgiveness.
But will the condition of Bosnia today allow forgiveness and reconciliation? Can the country release its citizens into the future?
As news of my book reached the internet, I received an email from a man who shared the name of a character whom I had attributed to fictional war crimes. The email came from a Bosnian living a successful life in Europe. And he was terrified.
The rumours, he said, had already started. Colleagues were asking questions. Was he the war criminal upon which my novel was based? The man insisted that if I did not change the name of my character, his wife and children would also be threatened. Needless to say, I changed the name. It was an abject lesson in the critical relationship between fiction and reality. But also a sign that the Bosnia of today still needs to find better ways of living with its past.
In 2016, a UNHCR report noted there are still 85,000 displaced people unable to return to their houses because of the social, cultural and economic conditions of the villages and towns in which they once lived. 8000 of this number still live in collective centres. A recent project sponsored by the UNHCR and local authorities is working on the problem, but the enmity, as well as the poverty, remains.
In the Dayton Agreement which ended the fighting in Bosnia, Article XII guaranteed a right of return to those who had been forcibly removed from their homes. But while original property rights have been re-established in 99 per cent of cases, thousands of displaced persons do not feel able to live in parts of Bosnia which were once multi-ethnic.
At the same time as creating Article XII, the Dayton Peace agreement designated Bosnian territory as ‘Republika Srpska’, an administrative entity in the former territory of Bosnia-Herzegovina now dominated by a Serb population and Serb politicians. The creation of a new entity stopped the fighting, but in the past ten years, politicians in Republika Srpska have repeatedly fought for greater autonomy.
In different parts of the country, Bosnian-Serbs and Bosnian-Croats also feel unable to return to their homes. But with whom, and wherever the individual problems lie, the stability of Bosnia’s statehood is not yet secured.
In returning to the country over the past ten years, I have found hope among many. Bosnian Serbs can, and do work alongside Bosnian Muslims and Croats. In the proudly multi-ethnic towns supported by the aid-workers, peaceniks twenty years ago, and by European funding today, friendships and kin-ships between ethnic groups survive. The politics of ethnic identity can be overcome.
But as the region throws up fences in reaction to a new refugee crisis not of its making, as the economy stagnates, as political corruption and unemployment remains at high levels, and inequality is top of people’s political agendas, the country’s dialogue with the recent past remains important. Especially when the younger Bosnians I have met, like their British counterparts, are beginning to lose a clear sense of exactly what happened between their parents’ generation.
In times of austerity and inequality, it is all too easy for the post-conflict generation to blame a lack of future, on the events unresolved by the war, and from there, to see the need for war again. The tension between forgetting and remembering is a very delicate one, difficult to keep in challenging circumstances.
If Europe’s own problems with social inequality are giving birth to extremist politics based on national, ethnic and sectarian values, imagine what social inequality could do in a region with a recent history like the Balkans.
For this reason, the problems of the past must be separated from the problems of the present, even as the “official” record of events enters history.
David Savill is the author of the novel, They Are Trying To Break Your Heart (Bloomsbury, 2016), a former BBC Current Affairs producer, and programme leader of the St Mary’s University Creative Writing MA.