The year was 2003. My brother and I were on a bus from Sarajevo to Srebrenica, to attend one of the first funerals and burials of genocide victims in Srebrenica. Those first years of commemorations were marked by the collective burials of several hundred green cloth- wrapped coffins.
What stands out most remarkably in my memories from that time, as a high school teenager, were not the burials, speeches or prayers but rather the experience of traveling from Sarajevo to Srebrenica. The column of buses travelled through Bratunac, a town situated on the only route from the capital to the Srebrenica-Potočari Memorial, just a few kilometers northeast of it.
This town, like many others in the pre-war Bosnian Serb Republic, used to have a majority Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) population. After the genocidal violence, from 1992 to 1995, the Bosniak population was entirely destroyed. A few hundred refugees returned after the war.
During those early years of burials, in the 2000s, travelling through Bratunac on the Srebrenica remembrance day of 11th July meant encountering several hundred local Serbs, waiting on the street corner where the buses turned right towards Potočari.
Tricolor flags, posters of wanted war criminals Radovan Karadic and Ratko Mladic, racists chants such as "ubij turčina" (Kill the Turk), hand gestures signaling the cutting of throats as well as the distinctive three-fingered Serb salute, with the occasional stone thrown towards the buses, were ugly, depressingly routine and traumatic.
And the perpetrators weren't youngsters or peripheral hooligans; here were entire families with young children, being taught how to hate. Children, brought out of their homes, onto the streets, in order to be shown the enemy "Turk" who no longer even shared their town, because they'd been expelled or murdered. But the hatred was, even so, unquenched.
I can't remember when these gatherings stopped, but they faded away over the years. Everything seemed better. Experts talked about reconciliation, and coming to terms with the dark past. I believed that this acknowledgement was a process we all had to go through, and that the absence of the swearing, gesticulating crowd on that street corner was a positive sign.
- How do you rebuild a nation after a genocide?
- Justifying genocide: How the global far right has embraced Serbia’s deadly demonization of Muslims
- Why are Israel's top Holocaust scholars so willing to deny this genocide?
- Serbia, Palestinians and ‘secessionists’: Why Israel took so long to commit to Kosovo
I was wrong. As the years passed, that once localized hatred metastasized into an institutional one.
The enclave of Srebrenica in Eastern Bosnia, cynically called a 'Safe Area' by the United Nations and where a small number of Dutch troops were stationed, was one of the last resorts of exiled desperate Bosniak population fleeing intimidation, assault and murder in other parts of the region.
Almost 40,000 civilians were confined to a small area under constant siege, with water and food cut off, living in inhumane conditions.
On July 11, 1995, Bosnian Serb forces overran Srebrenica. Over the next couple of days, Bosnian Serb military and police executed at least 8,372 Bosniak men and boys, while deporting 25,000 women and children by bus to Bosnian government-controlled territory.
Over a period of nearly two and half decades, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) prosecuted high-ranking Serb political, military and police officials for mass atrocities including genocide and crimes against humanity.
But in popular and political culture, for a long time the killing fields of Eastern Bosnia were part of the collective memory of Bosniaks alone, and mainly by those who had actually experienced and survived the genocide. Those who advocated for justice and memory were seen, by many locals and foreigners alike, as inconvenient and regressive, hindering progress towards the future.
Thus it took a quarter of a century after the genocide for Bosnia and Herzegovina to finally produce its first film about Srebrenica. Jasmila Zbanic, an internationally renowned director, released ‘Quo Vadis, Aida?’ which is now in contention for best international feature at the Oscars.
It tells the story of a UN translator, the eponymous Aida, who tries to save her husband and two sons during the fall of Srebrenica, but are handed over by the Dutch UN forces to the Bosnian Serb perpetrators.
Zbanic has made several Bosnian war-related films; she won the Golden Bear at the 2006 Berlin International Film Festival for Grbavica, which dealt with the post-war struggles of Bosnian women victims of wartime genocidal. Another of her (unjustly) less well-known films, 'For Those Who Can Tell No Tales', tackles the site of Vilina Vlas, a spa hotel in Višegrad in Eastern Bosnia, which was converted into a rape camp by the Bosnian Serb authorities.
However ‘Quo Vadis, Aida?’ is the project which will define her place in contemporary Bosnian history.
During the war, the Bosniak authorities naively believed that international law, regulations, conventions and agreements actually meant something. But, as they subsequently learnt, through bitter experience, being on the right side of history, and possessing the clear evidence of a systematic slaughter, did not mean that the world was going to step in and stop it.
By the time Srebrenica was about to fall, ordinary Bosniaks had already stopped trusting the 'international community.' That is why some 15,000 Bosniak men and boys decided to try their luck and break through enemy territory to glimpse freedom.
They didn't have a chance: their column was repeatedly ambushed, they were attacked with chemical weapons and with psychological warfare, to trick them into surrendering. Then prisoners were gathered together and executed, systematically. The Bosnian Serb Army wanted to kill as many as possible and as quickly as possible.
The bodies of the victims were dumped into mass graves, some the size of football fields. The few who did manage to survive had climbed, hid and scrambled more than 100 kilometers over mountainous terrain for almost four days.
Women, children, elderly, the injured and sick, those who could not endure the trek, stayed behind in the UN base in Srebrenica, holding on to hope that the Dutch would provide some sort of protection. That was an illusion.
The Dutch commanders acted as if they were in charge of a folklore show, an ethnic drama, not a simmering atrocity; they were easily intimidated by the Bosnian Serb military officers, stood by and even helped out with the deportations. All to get out of Srebrenica as soon as possible. The UN had acted similarly in Rwanda, the year before, as illustrated quite precisely in the 2005 BAFTA Award-winning film, 'Shooting Dogs.'
The Dutch government is still far away from introspection or contrition. Last month, its defense ministry announced a 5,000 euro bonus for every veteran who'd served in Srebrenica (and failed to prevent the massacre of thousands of Bosnian Muslims) as a "token of appreciation" for their service in such difficult circumstances.
Despite numerous court judgements, testimonies, books, ceremonies and documentaries, it is ‘Quo Vadis, Aida?’ which has already made the biggest impact in terms of exposing the Srebrenica genocide to the world.
People like myself, those involved in genocide memorialization and countering denial and historical revisionism, know the value of a feature film like this, not least for the visually-addicted TikTok generation. There are hopes that it might win the Oscar on 25th April, which would amplify its reach, and message, even more.
Recent media reports revealed the drafting of a provisional paper by the Slovenian far-right government calling for the 'dissolution' of Bosnia and Herzegovina and its repartition along ethnic lines. The idea is that Bosnian Serbs and Croats would separate and join neighboring states according to their ethnicity, thus creating a Greater Croatia and Greater Serbia.
Bosniaks, with no ethnic 'mothership' to turn to and, in any case, dedicated to the multiethnic state of Bosnia and Herzegovina, would remain stuck, vulnerable and isolated, in a small enclave.
Less naïve than pre-war, but still shorn of other options, the Bosniak authorities now rely, again, on international norms and the West to prevent the dissolution of their country, citizenship and shelter. Let's just hope that Zbanic's next film won't be called ‘Quo Vadis, Bosnia?’
Dr. Hikmet Karčic is a genocide scholar based in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. He is a researcher at the Institute for Islamic Tradition of Bosniaks in Sarajevo and a Senior Fellow with the Center for Global Policy in Washington D.C. He was the 2017 Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation–Keene State College Global Fellow. Twitter: @hikmet_karcic