Opinion

How Do You Rebuild a Nation After a Genocide?

How does genocide affect survivors' national and political identity? And how they relate to the perpetrators and their heirs? How Bosnian Muslims, targets of Europe's most brutal ethnic cleansing since the Holocaust, are grappling with these core questions

Una Hajdari
Una Hajdari
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Refugees from Srebrenica look through the razor-wire at a UN base, outside Tuzla. July 13, 1995
Refugees from Srebrenica look through the razor-wire at a UN base, outside Tuzla. July 13, 1995.Credit: Darko Bandic,AP
Una Hajdari
Una Hajdari

There are nations in the world whose very existence is provocation enough for stronger nations to deliberately plan their destruction. Whether during wartime or not, those more powerful nations aimed to cripple an ethnic group, such as European Jewry or Armenians in Turkey, to destroy their capacity and their will to exist. 

How does a nation rebuild itself after a genocide? What effect does the experience of genocide have on that nation’s sense of self, its engagement with political institutions, its understanding of international norms – and how do its members relate to the perpetrators, and their heirs?

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, a multiethnic state that gained independence during the breakup of socialist Yugoslavia, all these questions have been playing out for 25 years, and are just as intense today. 

The four-year-long conflict that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia saw two of the three main ethnic groups in the country, Catholic Croats and Eastern Orthodox Serbs, lead campaigns in an attempt to fracture Bosnia and diminish the influence of its Bosniak, or Bosnian Muslim, community. 

The Bosniaks became the targets of the most brutal ethnic cleansing campaign in Europe since the Holocaust, deemed a genocide by international courts adjudicating on war crimes. About two thirds of the country’s pre-war Muslim population were displaced or killed. Today, Bosniaks account for around 50 percent of the population with the Serb and Croat communities forming around 30 and 15 percent respectively.

A Bosnian Muslim woman, survivor of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, walks between tombstones at the Potocari memorial cemetery, just outside Srebrenica, Bosnia. July 11, 2020
A Bosnian Muslim woman, survivor of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, walks between tombstones at the Potocari memorial cemetery, just outside Srebrenica, Bosnia. July 11, 2020.Credit: AFP

Bosniaks are one of a handful of native Muslim communities in Europe. The origins of historic Muslim communities in Europe are found almost exclusively in areas ruled by the Ottomans starting around the 14th century, which led to an influx of Muslim ethnic groups from outside Europe and the conversion of local communities to Islam.

Since European history until that point was strongly defined by its Christian identity and many countries fought the Ottomans, Muslim populations were and continue to be seen as outsiders, and unwelcome reminders of Ottoman occupation.

After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Bosnia fell under the control of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, then the largest, most influential power in central Europe. Crucially, Bosnia, as well as Albania and Kosovo, became the only part of the Ottoman Empire in Europe that remained Muslim-majority: these were the only states where local Muslim populations were not expelled, Christianized or killed. 

As has been the case in Europe in the past, especially during periods of intensified nation-building, ethnic groups without a homeland became the subject of aggression – or even targeted extermination – by those able to mobilize ethnic allies or armies behind them.

During the nationalist surge at the onset of the war in former Yugoslavia, Bosniaks quickly realized they had no natural allies on the continent – no other ethnic group or nation that felt one of their own was being targeted. While Catholics or Eastern Orthodox believers rallied around Croats and Serbs, respectively, Bosniaks were largely left to fend for themselves.

It was not the first time that Bosnia’s Muslims had felt so critically isolated. Throughout the early modern period, Bosnia was not a nation-state but a geographical designation. Three communities shared the physical space known as Bosnia and spoke the same language.

But it was the Muslim community who would first adopt the then-amorphous identity of "Bosnian" – because they had no place among the Croats (Catholic) or Serbs (Eastern Orthodox). Edging closer to self-determination in the early 20thcentury, Bosnia was still not a land inhabited by "Bosnians." Rather, it experienced what scholar Amila Buturovic describes as "internal nationalization." 

Catholic and Eastern Orthodox communities, buttressed by the growing nationalist movements in Croatia and Serbia, "became" Croats and Serbs. The Muslims, who shared a homeland with them, would often refer to themselves as "Bosnian" – as unclear as that was.

There was little room left for fluid identities: As the identities of the two other communities were concretized, the Muslims became the undefined "other." A religious designation became an (ambiguous) ethnic one, out of the need to classify those who could not be classified.

That pivot towards ethno-nationalist identities was halted by the creation of socialist Yugoslavia after World War II. Tito first championed regionalism, granting local populations the right to self-determination. The Yugoslav state preached internationalism: thus Bosniaks could remain undefined, or just declare themselves Yugoslavs. Indeed, the 1948 census allowed Muslims to be defined as Serb-Muslim, Croat-Muslim or an ethnically undeclared Muslim.

In 1971, after decades of being defined by what they are not, the census allowed for the definition of "Muslims by nationality." Despite that designation suggesting the primacy of Islam in their lives, only a very small segment of the Muslim population was devout; Bosnia was home to the largest number of mixed marriages in Yugoslavia. 

Then came the fall of communism and the flurry of nation-state building on the continent. For the first time in European history, a Muslim-majority nation had to define what it stood for.

Evacuees from Srebrenica, mostly women and girls, look out from a U.N. truck convoy taking them from the besieged Bosnian town of Medgas to Tuzla. March 20, 1993
Evacuees from Srebrenica, mostly women and girls, look out from a U.N. truck convoy taking them from the besieged Bosnian town of Medgas to Tuzla. March 20, 1993.Credit: Michel Euler,AP

But before that, it had to have one of bloodiest wars on European soil since World War II, mainly triggered by conflict over who could control the country and define its identity. Croat and Serb nationalists wanted the country to be partitioned, and join Croatia and Serbia respectively, cognizant of the fact that any future government would be dominated by Bosniaks.

Throughout the war and especially in its closing months in 1995, Bosnian Muslims were forced out of their homes, found themselves displaced and forcefully segregated. Ultimately, a significant number of them were executed en masse.

The ethnic cleansing campaigns left suffering and confusion in their wake and, for Bosniaks, the painful realization that they could no longer sustain the fluid identity within a multiethnic society which had left them so vulnerable in the face of their ethno-nationalist compatriots. The act of defining themselves as a nation – Bosnian Muslims – was a form of defense against future persecution, not least when it was allied to political action and institution-building.

Like Jewish identity and the Armenian diaspora, Bosniaks’ identity is born into, or reinforced by, the hate to which they have been subjected and the losses they have suffered. If you are a Bosniak, the Srebrenica massacre, whose 25th anniversary was marked this summer, is part and parcel of your existence. You survived when others did not.

Pain has become an inseparable part of their existence. The pain of honoring loved ones mercilessly killed, the pain of trying to understand why some were murdered and others survived, and the pain of coming to terms with being of a background considered second-class and alien to those with power and weapons.

And that suffering leads to a political conclusion: for Bosniaks, it is a supreme duty to keep Bosnia, the state that now defines you, alive. Defining your identity before a genocide may be a matter of personal choice. After a genocide, it became a matter closely linked to the survival of the multiethnic state no one else wants, but your survival depends on.

A Bosnian Muslim woman, survivor of the 1992 massacre in Western Bosnian town of Prijedor, touches the casket of a relative covered with the flag of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Kamicani, July 20, 2020
A Bosnian Muslim woman, survivor of the 1992 massacre in Western Bosnian town of Prijedor, touches the casket of a relative covered with the flag of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Kamicani, July 20, 2020.Credit: AFP

This is how Bosniaks have answered the question of how to build an identity after genocide. There is limited room to make anger central to their identity, lashing out at those who made them and their community suffer, because the survival of the Bosnian state requires political negotiations with individuals and parties that encouraged the slaughter, and continue to provoke intolerance against them. The survivors have to find the capacity for pragmatism, and to continue to fight for the right to live and thrive in their own home.

The Bosnian war was ended with the signing of the Dayton Agreement; its primary goal is to ensure equal representation for all three ethnic identities. While the peace deal ended the bloodshed, it did not prevent future animosities. Bosniaks need to kowtow to the other two groups for political consensus. 

Indeed, Bosnia is now famed for mind-boggling political bickering, often based on ethnic considerations, which then paralyzes the country. For instance, nationalist Serb politicians opposed potential NATO membership due to their loyalties towards Russia. 

Any time Bosnia needs to form a state-level government – as was the case with the elections that took place in late 2018 – the Bosniaks, the Croats, and the Serbs need to reach a consensus. It took over a year, all the way to the end of 2019, for them to agree, with the hotly-debated issue of NATO membership serving as the stumbling block.

Although Bosniaks are fully invested in the Bosnian polity, effectively their life insurance policy, theirs is an increasingly lonely stance. Today, this homeland is at risk of extinction. 

Milorad Dodik, the Bosnian-Serb incumbent in Bosnia and Herzegovina's tripartite presidency
Milorad Dodik, the Bosnian-Serb incumbent in Bosnia and Herzegovina's tripartite presidencyCredit: Wikimedia Commons

Increasingly, the two other non-Muslim ethnic groups don't want Bosnia to exist, and instead want areas where they form the post-war demographic majority to break away and join their neighboring ethnic or cultural 'motherlands.'

This talk was typical of the ethno-nationalist rhetoric heard back in the days of the Bosnian war. And its preachers are in high places: Milorad Dodik, the Serb member of the tripartite presidency, has often said Bosnia is a failed state that should fall apart, and favors closer ties to neighboring Serbia. 

Yet the Bosniaks aren’t looking for pity. Ask any average Bosniak, and they will tell you that they are proud of the fact that the state of Bosnia managed to survive the war. While political leaders who regurgitate ethno-nationalist tropes and the rhetoric of the war make the state's everyday functioning more painful and difficult, many Bosniaks will tell you they could not imagine their country without the Croats and the Serbs – especially those who also consider it home.

The Bosniaks, who cling on most strongly to the ideal of a multi-ethnic state in a global geopolitical moment when that kind of plurality is distinctly out of fashion, have also been forced to define who they are within far more specific bounds than ever in their history. What is now seen as Bosniak identity, partly based on the Muslim faith and very much tied to pre-Ottoman regional traditions, existed even before the war. 

But it was the war and its genocide that forced them to express a clear ethnic identity which then facilitated the formulation of a political strategy to represent their interests. That Bosniaks have become keen "patriots" for a homeland that tried to bury them and spit them out indicates the strength of their roots and their belief in negotiated coexistence and the necessity, post-genocide, for Bosnia to survive. 

Una Hajdari is a journalist covering central and eastern Europe who focuses on nationalism, the far-right, and identity after socialism. Twitter: @UnaHajdari

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