A Question of History: Why Srebrenica?

Earlier this week I attended “Mothers of Srebrenica”, one of hundreds of Srebrenica Memorial Week events taking place in the UK to mark the 20th anniversary of the Bosnia genocide in 1995.

The Bosnia genocide is the greatest atrocity to take place on European soil since the Second World War. Yet despite the enormity of what occurred, it is quite a poorly understood and under-appreciated episode in European history. And it shows how the reasons why we choose to emphasise certain periods of history are intimately linked with our outlook on the present.

In a tiny central London building, a crammed group of British Muslims, Jews, Christians and those of no faith listened attentively to four mothers from Bosnia, who told us with utmost dignity and yet vividly fresh pain, the horrors they witnessed during the 1992-1995 conflict.

Bosnian Muslim women cry near the coffin of their relative, Potocari Memorial Center, near Srebrenica
Bosnian Muslim women cry near the coffin of their relative, Potocari Memorial Center.

On 11 July 1995 Bosnian Serb Army marched into the town of Srebrenica and systematically murdered 8,372 Bosnian Muslim men and boys. Bodies were buried in mass graves. Later they were partially dug up and re-buried in secondary mass graves in attempts to hide the evidence. It is difficult to listen when a mother tells you that after several years of searching, forensic teams could only positively identify two bones of her teenage son, yet she was happy as she could finally give him a burial. It is difficult to listen to the fact that the youngest victim shot was 3.5 months old while the oldest victim was 106 years old.

The list of cruelties inflicted by man on man during the conflict could fill hundreds of pages.

In the midst of all this pain, I find myself asking a question of history: why are we remembering Srebrenica and not other tragic past genocides? Rwanda’s Tutsi and Hutu conflict, Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge, Iraq’s Halabja or other misguided endeavours of the 20th century. What is the purpose of remember these painful episodes of history again? And what is ‘history’ anyway?

The most common answer to why we remember such atrocious historic events is to prevent them from happening again. “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it,” as Edmund Burke said.

The Holocaust is the most widely known example, as its memory has been embedded for most of us through countless history lessons at school, TV programmes and Holocaust memorial days. We as a human race have recognised the damaging effects of the inter-ethnic or inter-religious hatred that leads to genocides, and are choosing to heavily emphasise periods in our history such as the Holocaust that – if fully appreciated – would prevent there re-occurrence.

This conscious choice has involved a value judgement that proverbially says “this event is worth remembering in detail” compared to others. But who makes this value judgement? And why does it result in other periods of history receiving relatively less attention, even though they may carry an equal amount of value to society?

The historian plays a pivotal role and his primary weapon is the selection of facts. It is no secret that some historical facts are given more weight than others. Any news journalist reporting a story will know, that by picking which facts to include in a report and which ones to omit, they can alter the emphasis given to various elements of the story. Similarly the historian has facts, but he may choose how to utilise them. History is not just the collection of facts, it is how we select, sort, organise and ultimately interpret them.

Thus perhaps a more mature definition of history acknowledges the inherently subjective role of the historian. “God cannot alter the past, though historians can,” claims Victorian author Samuel Butler. And Winston Churchill once famously remarked: “History is written by the victors.”

One of the key factors driving historians to assigning value to certain events is the current issues of the day, as shaped by public discourse. For the Holocaust, post-1945, the attempted extermination of Jews was such a real threat that the Holocaust has formed a core part of Jewish identity since then, as shown by numerous surveys, and has drawn real interest from wider society.

Like the Holocaust, the Srebrenica genocide is also a period of history we have consciously chosen to highlight, but unlike the Holocaust, it has only recently entered the memory of wider society. It took the European Union until 2009 to formally designate 11 July as Srebrenica Memorial Day. Yet many people today will still shrug at you with a confused look when Srebrenica is mentioned.

Increasing xenophobia and religious intolerance across Europe and the world today may have contributed to this gain in momentum. Perhaps, also, an appreciation of the ‘right’ type of multiculturalism to achieve a harmonious European society in the 21st century has been a factor. Sometimes, too, whoever is shouting about it the loudest will be heard.

As E. H. Carr suggests in his book, What is History?, history is “a continuous process of interaction between the historian and his facts, an unending dialogue between the past and the present.” Therefore, it is not just a list of facts about the past recorded in text books, but, rather, an active process that inextricably links our past with the challenges we face today.

When we read or listen about an episode of history – as I did very emotionally this week – we are all momentarily historians, uniting in our minds that imaginary spectrum between the present and the past, and searching for solutions to our current problems.

I’ve certainly gained a better understanding of the world today from learning about Srebrenica. What other events of the past we are choosing to remember and why? It may tell us more about ourselves and our outlook on the present, than about the past itself.

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