Hatidza says that many women in Srebrenica carry the psychological scars of having been raped by Serbs
July 2017 marked 22 years since the Srebrenica Genocide, the worst episode of mass murder in Europe since the Second World War. In July 1995,some 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were massacred by Serb forcesseeking to erase the Bosnian people and their Muslim identity from the map of Europe, all the while UN peace-keeping forces looked on. Victims continue to be unearthed in the Srebrenica area, and this July, a funeral was held for dozens of victims who had recently been identified.
During fieldwork for my book and film project Journey into Europe about Islam in Europe, I and my research team visited the Srebrenica Memorial Cemetery. The cemetery contains row upon row of thousands of white grave markers. Visiting the cemetery is an emotional experience, and the sight of family members of the victims, particularly the wives and mothers, amidst the tombstones is heartbreaking. The political tension that remains in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where many Muslims fear a return to war, is heightened in Srebrenica, which is located deep in the Serb-dominated part of the country known as Republika Srpska and near the international border with Serbia.
At the cemetery, we met Hatidza Mehmedovic, the president of the Mothers of Srebrenica Association, and Hasan Hasanovic, who works at the Srebrenica Genocide Memorial and served as translator. Both Hatidza and Hasansaw their family members murdered in Srebrenica. In Hasan’s case, although he was able to flee the genocide by escaping into the woods, his twin brother and father were massacred.
Hatidza, a dignified lady in white, chillingly related what happened to her family in Srebrenica. “In 1995 all of them were killed,” she said. “The entire family of mine—my husband, my elder son Azmir, my younger son Almir. My brothers were killed also, two sons of my brother, and over fifty of my relatives. All of them were killed in the Srebrenica genocide.”Hatidza has never recovered. “This is not life that I live,” she said. “This is just a punishment to live without a complete family. I will never wish this life even for those perpetrators.”
“They kept killing everyone,” Hatidza sobbed recalling the ordeal, “regardless of age. We have boys who were as old as eight. If I had known that this would happen to me, probably I would never have decided to have children. We had healthy, smart children. We had not taught them to hate. We had not taught them to kill. And probably because of these things, we became victims. And many mothers now live alone.”
In addition to the torment experienced by the killing of so many family members during the war, Hatidza said that many women in Srebrenica carry the psychological scars of having been raped by Serbs. “These women who were raped, they never spoke. They are my relatives, women, but they never talked about their personal tragedy, because they feel ashamed. There are women who are sick mentally, because of that experience and someone has to be with them to take care of them. The women who have been raped, they never want to come back to Srebrenica, because they feel so insecure, knowing that those perpetrators are still at large—they are still here, they walk through the streets freely.”
Srebrenica is a reminder of the dangers of hatred of the ‘other’. Unfortunately, the situation in countries such as Syria and Myanmar indicates that we have not learned these lessons yet
The atrocities perpetrated in Srebrenica were the “shame of the whole world,” Hatidza said. “Those who could have prevented aggression against Bosnia, they just failed to do anything. This genocide happened after Srebrenica was declared a safe place…The United Nations, they sympathized with Serbs. They gave them uniforms and some weapons and military equipment.”
The genocide, Hatidza explained, was organized and conducted by people the Bosnians thought were their neighbors and friends. “We thought we had friends, we are civilized people. We thought we wouldn’t have any problems with our neighbors…But we were wrong, we were very wrong, because our neighbors from Serbia came to take away our loved ones and kill them. They had a strategy, they had a plan. And they kept working to ethnically cleanse one nation.”
Hatidza expressed alarm at the lessons Serb children are being taught today. “Those who are being acquitted for these crimes are teachers to youth. They are poison to youth. They tell children that they are heroes, that they have won a battle, that they took revenge against Turks….They don’t tell the children that those were unarmed civilians.”.
Despite having suffered the loss of her closest family members, it is not revenge that Hatidza desires but justice, which she explained derives from Islam. “If someone would give me the whole Serbian population to take revenge, I would never be able to take revenge on anyone. As Muslims, we should not take revenge.” “I never thought to hate anyone,” she said, “My faith keeps me going. I’m Muslim since I was born.” She described theSrebrenica Memorial Cemetery as “another Mecca for us.” “Just one night in Srebrenica is a hajj.”
Our visit to Srebrenica affected my entire research team—especially the female members, who cried inconsolably as they heard the stories. Srebrenica is a reminder of the dangers of hatred of the “other.” Unfortunately the situation in countries such as Syria and Myanmar indicates that we have not learned these lessons yet. We can only pray that we do very soon before more human beings are taken from their families as happened to Hatidza and Hasan.
-The writer is an author, poet, filmmaker, playwright, and is the Ibn Khaldun Chair of Islamic Studies, American University in Washington, DC. He formerly served as the Pakistani High Commissioner to the UK and Ireland. He tweets @AskAkbar