Early last month, Bosnians marked the 20th anniversary of the beginning of the genocidal war waged against them by the Serbs and Croats of former Yugoslavia, a war whose objective was the extermination of the largest indigenous Muslim community remaining in Europe.
On April 5, 1992, the Bosnian parliament declared the country’s independence from what remained of the former Yugoslavia, on the basis of a referendum in February that year in which Bosnia’s people had voted for independence in preference to maintaining a federal arrangement with Serbia. The following day, a mass rally in the city in support of Bosnia’s independence was fired on by Serbian snipers from positions in the hills overlooking the city, killing six people. This atrocity, which was to be dwarfed by numerous others over subsequent months and years, is regarded as the beginning of the war on Bosnia.
The outbreak of war did not come out of the blue. Events in the former Yugoslavia had been building to this end arguably since the death of Marshall Josef Tito, Yugoslavia’s strongman, in 1980, which was followed by the gradual takeover of Communist Party and Yugoslav state institutions by Serbian nationalists under Slobodan Milosovic. Slovenia and Croatia had already seceded from Yugoslavia in 1991, resulting in war between Croatia and Serbia. The desire of Bosnians to do the same was hardly surprising, and had been signalled by the election of Alija Izzetbegovic’s Party of Democratic Action (SDA) to power in Sarajevo in 1990. Despite the differences between themselves, Milosovic and Franjo Tudjman, leaders of Serbia and Croatia respectively, met in secret in Karadjordjevo, in western Serbia, in March 1991, and reached an agreement that should be etched in the memories of all Muslims, but is in fact hardly mentioned when the Bosnian war is discussed: a pact for a joint Serb and Croat drive for the partition of Bosnia-Herzogovina and the extermination of the Bosnian Muslims.
This was an object that could well have been achieved had it not been for the remarkable resistance of the Bosnians themselves and the support they received from Muslims around the world in the war’s early months and years. Since the US-mediated Dayton Accords that ended the war in December 1995, it has become commonplace in the West to remember Bosnia as a war in which the Muslims were rescued by Western intervention led by the US and enforced by NATO. But this is an egregious misrepresentation of the history of the time. The reality that Muslims should not forget is that in the early part of the war, European states and Western powers were happy to stand aside and let the Serbs and Croats do their worst, despite the fact that the attempted genocide was taking place in the heart of Europe, in full view of the international media and with the support of Russia and other Slavic allies of the Serbs.
It was only when it became clear that the Bosnian Muslims were not prepared to be defeated and that the support of Muslims elsewhere in the world was playing a decisive role, that the West was forced to change the policy of non-intervention. This point is confirmed by a memo by Richard Holbrooke, then US special envoy on Bosnia, in January 1993, which stated: “I would therefore recommend consideration of something which I know will cause many people heartburn: that we allow covert arms supply to the Bosnian Muslims, so that Bosnia’s outside support no longer comes solely from the Islamic nations” (quoted in Holbrooke’s memoir, To End a War, 1998).
Little of this was reflected in the commemorations in Bosnia last month, however. Bosnia-Herzegovina has had a difficult political life as a virtual protectorate of the international community, effectively divided into two political sub-entities and with a complicated tripartite communal institutional arrangement that had made its central government cumbersome, ineffective and of little relevance to much that happens in most of the country. Virtually all recollections of the war remain controversial and disputed, which is hardly surprisingly as representatives of the Serbian and Croat communities that were instrumental in the attempted destruction of Bosnia remain in positions of power. Instead of any state commemoration, therefore, the anniversary was marked, if at all, by civil functions at local levels.
The event that was reported around the world was the assembling of 11,541 red chairs in the main street in Sarajevo, Bosnia’s capital, on April 6, each representing one of the men, women and children (marked by smaller chairs) killed during the Serbian siege of the city. This was the sort of graphic expression of collective mourning that provides the international media with the sort of imagery and neatly packaged story that they need on such occasions, opportunities to reflect superficially on poignant historical events that are forgotten the rest of the time.
But for most Bosnians themselves, as for other victims of similar historic traumas around the world, such anniversaries are of lesser importance and significance. They do not need such occasions to remember, as they have no danger of forgetting. They confront and cope with the legacies and consequences of their histories in every aspect of their lives, day in and day out, in ways and in circumstances that most members and consumers of the world news media cannot begin to imagine or understand. Perhaps only those coping with similar traumas elsewhere, in places like Chechnya, Kashmir, Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan, can begin to empathise; but they have their own immediate concerns and understandably little time for the histories of others.
For the rest of us, the key responsibility is perhaps to maintain the memory of the real history of Bosnia’s suffering and survival, without allowing our memories of those events to be distorted by the false histories promoted by those with their own agendas, or diminished by the passage of time, the distractions of similar traumas elsewhere in the Ummah, or the disappointment many may feel at developments in Bosnia since those critical early days of the war barely a generation ago.