Genocide denial leave Bosniaks stuck in a violent past

In Bosnia, there are facts about the genocide but little acceptance of their truth by Serb aggressors. For Bosniaks, genocide denial means they are stuck in a violent past with little prospect for release. This is part two of a three-part series on genocide, truth, and reconciliation.

For many, the lack of reconciliation means the war isn’t really over

A Bosnian Muslim woman cries between graves of her father, two grandfathers and other close relatives at the cemetery in Potocari near Srebrenica. They were victims of the Srebrenica genocide. Around 100,000 people are estimated to have been killed during the Bosnian war from 1992 to 1995 — some reports suggest a higher number of deaths. (Damir Sagolj/Getty Images)

*Originally published on December 22, 2020.

This is the second episode of a three-part series on genocide, truth, and reconciliation.

In every story of human suffering, there is an iconic image that captures the brutality of the everyday.

In 1992, as the war in Bosnia gathered steam, the emaciated image of Fikret Alic blazed across our newspapers and TV screens. Fikret stood with a group of men behind barbed wire at a concentration camp called Trnopolje in northwest Bosnia and Herzegovina. He was gaunt, his ribs protruding, sagging jeans sitting low on his hips.

He said he'd been sent over from another camp called Keraterm where in the course of one night, 100 people had been killed. 

Fikret became the enduring image of civilian suffering in that war and his story pointed to the horrors of genocide to come: mass rape, ethnic cleansing, and mass killing.

Fikret Alic displays a picture of himself, taken in the Trnopolje detention camp in 1992. (Danilo Krstanovic/Reuters )

Negationism of genocide

The Bosnian war ended in 1995 with the signing of the Dayton Accords. The agreement created two entities in Bosnia: the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina with a majority Croat and Bosniak population and Republika Srpska dominated by Serbs.

While there were a series of war crimes trials — local and international — the facts of the genocide against Bosnia's Muslim citizens by Serb nationalists have over the years, in both Serbia and Republika Srpska, been subject to revisionism and outright denialism.

Political scientist, Jasmin Mujanovic, says despite the mountain of hard evidence of genocide, including trials that have led to convictions, Serb nationalist negation and denial of genocide are firmly entrenched.

Former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic was sentenced to life in prison in March 2019 for his role in the Bosnian war. He was convicted on charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. (Serge Ligtenberg/Getty Images)

"I think when we talk about historical revisionism and negationism of the genocide in Bosnia, it comes in two forms. One is more readily identifiable and it is among self-identified Serb nationalists in Bosnia and the region. So these are people who were either literally co-conspirators in many cases in the genocide; or participants in the genocide, their followers, their supporters, their adherents and their contemporary successors," Mujanovic says.

"Those folks were involved in attempting to cover up and negate the genocide as it was happening. And they continued doing that after the fact."

In addition to this core group, Mujanovic points to Serb political leaders who started out as reformists, who acknowledged the genocide but went on to engage in denialism, often for populist purposes.

"I think over the last 10 or 15 years, that perspective has unfortunately become much louder and much more prominent, along with a whole host of other kinds of revisionist and conspiratorial thinking," he says.

Attracting tourists to Visegrad

Unlike Rwanda where post-genocide reconciliation was a state project, the project in Bosnia ended in erasure and segregation. The rich multiethnic, multireligious, and multilingual past of Bosnia was lost to narrow ethnonationalist politics. That has meant facts of the war are now forgotten and sites of suffering are purged of their history.

Journalist Riada Asimovic Akyol points to the story of the hotel Vilina Vlas in the town of Visegrad which is now in Republika Srpska. The hotel was a detention camp where hundreds of women were raped as part of a systematic campaign of ethnic cleansing by Serb forces.

The hotel has since seen a branding makeover as the perfect place for a spa getaway.

Hotel 'Vilina Vlas,' near the eastern-Bosnian town of Visegrad. In 1992, Serbian Muslims were abducted from a bus traveling from Rudo, Bosnia to Priboj, Serbia and were taken to hotel 'Vilina Vlas’ where they were subjected to systematic rape. (Elvis Barukcic/AFP via Getty Images)

"In July of this year, the Bosnian media reported that the Republika Srpska tourist board, with the support of the municipality of Visegrad, had started a promotional campaign called, We're waiting for you in Visegrad. [The tourist board] offered gift vouchers as a way to attract tourists," says Akyol.

She points out that when local administrators and hotel management were asked to account for how a documented war-time detention facility and rape camp could now be part of a tourism campaign, they responded by saying those stories of war crimes were merely unsubstatiated rumours.

Akyol says it's hard to imagine how the region could possibly talk about a common future for all when even the recent past is so thoroughly disavowed.

Neglecting truth

Amila Buturovic is a professor of humanities and religious studies at York University. She studies the history and culture of pre-modern Bosnia. Buturovic also dedicates her time to working with other academics and activists to try and rebuild a story of Bosnia that is truer to its actual history than the politicized histories available to people today.

"In order to undergo a process of truth and reconciliation, there needs to be a platform, a way of recognizing what had happened and then move from there in some kind of restorative way to have justice examined and restored rather than, in fact, neglected or pushed aside in order to promote minor political interests in Bosnia," she says.

Buturovic goes on to say, "since 1995, since the signing of the Dayton Agreement, there has been a push and pull between two really opposing processes, one which requires the Bosnians to think of a unified state in which everybody is included under the citizenship of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the other one that has to do with ethnic interests."

Rockets exploding over downtown Sarajevo, June 5, 1992. Sarajevo radio reported all parts of the city were hit by heavy artillery. (AFP via Getty Images)

"And the country has been practically divided along ethnic lines. And these lines have been drawn during the war through violence and genocide and ethnic cleansing. So these two processes really don't meet. They are completely opposing. And it is extremely hard to find a way of talking about, even just speaking about, truth and reconciliation without that common interest."

Aleksandar Hemon, a writer and professor at Princeton University, echoes Buturovic's point. He says one consequence of the total denialism of wartime atrocities is that for Bosniaks, but also Croats and Serbs, the war is not over.

According to Hermon, the Serb populist discourse has led to an odd way of speaking about the genocide — it both didn't happen, yet it also happened. He says there is outright denial, but at the same time an assertion that if it did happen, it was only because Serbs had to defend themselves.

"This somehow exists simultaneously, they're part of the same political spectrum… And so for reconciliation to happen, there has to be some kind of narrative available that it is in the common interest to talk about this, and for that, there has to be a framework as some kind of societal infrastructure. We have to talk about this because it's good for all of us," Hermon says.

Bosnia's past lost to revisionism

Mujanovic, the political scientist, says genocide denial is spreading and that the narrative so firmly entrenched inside Serbia and Republika Srpska is now easily found all over the West more broadly.

"Bosnian genocide denial and antagonism in the West has become really a kind of bellwether of the broader crisis of democratic discourse in the political west. And you've gotten to the point now where I think at times it almost seems like these revisionist discourses in the west have become almost as mainstream as they have in Bosnia and the region itself."

Buturovic adds she and other Bosnians of her generation with strong memories of pre-war times have a real fear and anxiety that politicized narratives and real life segregation mean Bosnia's past will be lost.

"We are deeply worried that this kind of memory will substantially change, that people will grow up not knowing each other. People will grow up in areas that are heavily cleansed or which exclude the others in a way that is institutionally normative.

Two women pass a bridge, damaged by Serb artillery fire, to cross the Bosna river March 27, 1994. At right, the half-destroyed mosque of Maglaj. (Eric Cabanis/AFP via Getty Images)

"And so we are deeply, deeply worried that we need to create these memory depots in which the memory of this diversity that is so organic to Bosnia will have to be preserved and will have to be somehow made not only as some kind of extinct object in the museum, but rather will still be a point of reference for future generations," she says.

Buturovic says institutional help is greatly needed but she doesn't believe that will happen. "Those forms of institution, those memory institutions that operate at the level of supra-ethnic identities, are in fact discouraged. They are not funded. Nobody cares about them," she says. "They fall between the cracks of ethno-national politics and interests. So we are trying, at the grassroots level, small initiatives in which we will keep those memories alive."

Buturovic has encountered students from Bosnian backgrounds who say they've never met a person of another ethnicity. And one student from Republika Srpska revealed she'd never seen a mosque until she came to Canada.

"These are tragic, as far as I'm concerned, tragic testimonies to how quickly memory can be seized and turned into something that in real life, in fact, it is not." 

Guests in this episode:

Jasmin Mujanovic is a political scientist and independent scholar.

Aleksandar Hemon is a Bosnian-American writer and is a professor of creative writing at Princeton University.

Riada Asimovic Akyol is a journalist and the creator/host of the podcast, Dignified Resilience.

Amila Buturovic is a professor of religious studies and humanities at York University.

This episode was produced by Naheed Mustafa.

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