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Death and Denial: The Dilemma of Remembering Srebrenica

Alfie Fairlie

11 July 2023 marks the 28th anniversary of one of the most notable genocides in Europe since the Second World War. The Srebrenica massacre has often been utilised as being a prime example of how genocide is not just a concept tied to the Nazi reign of terror in the 1930s.

Within a fortnight in the summer of 1995, over 8,000 Bosniak Muslim men and boys were mercilessly slaughtered in the sweltering Bosnian countryside. The killings were carried out by the Serb factions under the command of Ratko Mladić, a then-military officer and now-convicted war criminal. This massacre occurred despite the fact that Srebrenica was classed as a UN safe haven for the duration of the war - meaning that those who were in hiding met their fate in a place they thought was their sanctuary.

Now, the survivors of this massacre are now faced with another heartbreaking dilemma: those in office who outright deny that such killings took place.

A war of ethnic hatred such as Bosnia would have naturally involved major propaganda missions from all sides trying to assert nationalistic claims following the dissolution of Yugoslavia. In peacetime, that jingoism which characterised the ethnic cleansing of Bosniaks is still evident.

It should be acknowledged that the denial of such ethnic cleansing campaigns, as seen in the Bosnian War, have become fully engrained in both Serbian society and politik. This is a three-fold argument through which there are multiple areas where genocide denial has been witnessed, all of which can be displayed in a hierarchical fashion in terms of how this denial is spread to Serb audiences. You have the top-down (the role of politicians), the middle (the role of the media) and the bottom-up (the education of young Serbs). This structure sows the seeds which ensure that the denial of the Srebrenica massacre remains planted in the societal soil for generations to come.

Serbian politicians have been highly vocal when it has come to debates surrounding the legacy of the Yugoslav Wars. The most notorious figure in Serbia is the same man who orchestrated the Srebrenica massacre - Mladić. Despite the fact that the majority of his denial has stemmed from his trial conducted by the ICTY (‘International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia’), he has gained a major political following in Serbia.

Take, for example, the murals dotted around Belgrade celebrating him as a legendary war hero responsible for countering the Muslim threat in Bosnia. Even though he has never been the supreme leader of Serbia, it is almost as if his role in the Bosnian War has created a culture of personality. He is worshipped as a political figure. So, when Serbians were watching his 2021 sentencing for genocide denial, this would naturally lead to his supporters acting defiantly and continuing to deny the events of Srebrenica.

The loudest voice is the one who is leading Serbia in what should be a time of reconciliation with neighbouring Balkan states. Aleksandar Vučić has been more than vocal when it comes to his opinion on Srebrenica. He has repeatedly acknowledged that while Srebrenica was a tragic event, it should not be regarded as a ‘genocide’. The Denial Report of 2022 wrote on the impact of Vučić’s rule, bluntly stating that he had reversed any progress made with the reconciliation process.

In a troubling development, Vučić vowed to uphold Serbian nationalism when Montenegro introduced their own bill on banning genocide denial. Vučić seems quite intent on making Serbians adopt a sense of denial and obliviousness to the Srebrenica massacre - if his public demeanour is anything to go by.

The media has always been utilised as a major propaganda machine in the Balkans since the first of the conflicts in 1991. Unfortunately, the nationalism exuded by TV stations continues to the present day. The Denial Report found that the televised media is a major outlet through which genocide denial is conveyed. The majority of the incidents in which Srebrenica has been downplayed have come from the Serbian media. This seems odd considering that in 2011 the media outlet Radio Television Serbia issued a groundbreaking apology for its warmongering propaganda. It is clear that sorry does not make everything okay.

The second biggest method of denial is that of relativisation - the downplaying of the impact of the massacre - which would be easier to convey in the media, considering it is more implicit than active denial. Even a case study by Radio Free Europe has found that the majority of denial comes from Serbia or the Serb domain of Bosnia, Republika Srpska. The denial mainly comes in the form of those in public office appearing as guest speakers on programmes, therefore conveying their denial of the events rather than this coming from a presenter’s perspective. However, giving a platform to deniers is still an active contribution to diminishing the memory of those men who were shot dead that July.

And it is not just TV stations which are fulfilling the media’s role in Srebrenica denial.

The Yugoslav Wars catalysed the popularity of a new music genre of patriotic war songs: turbofolk. One of the most well-known songs of the Bosnian War is entitled “I Don’t Like You, Alija”, referring to Alija Izetbegović - one of the figureheads surrounding Bosnian independence. One of the stand-out lyrics of this war anthem speaks of drowning Muslims in the River Drina. Eerie, considering this was one of the main methods of body disposal by Serb factions. These songs are still widely used on TikTok in videos designed to educate users on the Bosnian War. With music being a popular medium to engage young Serbians, it is unsurprising that the denial of Srebrenica is a long-term remnant of the Bosnian War.

Despite being quite a cliche statement to make, children are the future. Serbia has seemingly taken this to mean that the hatred for neighbouring states should be an issue of longevity. It is clear in the education system that the Bosnian War is taught from a pro-Serb perspective.

According to Radio Free Europe, historically biassed textbooks are widely used in Serbian schools. This is part of the plan of historical revisionism which has been advocated by Vučić, in which the narrative leans more towards Serbian heroism. In regard to Srebrenica, this is the only war crime which is mentioned in detail in the textbook. Even so, it is a highly ambiguous section; a fleeting comment suggests that war crimes were committed at Srebrenica. However, it does not clarify who was responsible for these. There are no statistics to support the 8,000 dead. Instead, a focus is on Serbian success in the massacre. The fact that civilians were indiscriminately killed is glossed over. The Serbian Institute for the Improvement of Education has sworn that the book is historically accurate…

There seems very little hope that a reconciliation process between Serbia and Srebrenica will make any significant progress in the near future. With the propaganda of denial being spewed out of multiple outlets, how can it be possible for a population to be more open minded when it comes to taking accountability?

Unfortunately, in the wake of genocide, accountability can translate to a reputation ever more tarnished. It is one of those issues where all that is left to say is that time will tell.

Image: Michael Büker

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