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Preserving memory of the Bosnian genocide

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When Raphael Lemkin, a Polish lawyer of Jewish descent and a former Duke professor, coined the term genocide and authored the UN Genocide Convention, he had high hopes that this legal document would serve as an outline for the prevention of further genocides. While the convention, or its signatories, failed in preventing the post-Holocaust genocides, it at least served as a legal framework for punishment of some of the worst war criminals who walked on this planet.

One of them is a war criminal and former Serb general Ratko Mladic. On June 8, 2021, a UN court upheld its conviction of a life sentence for Mladic for executing genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes committed during the 1992-1995 genocide in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

This year we mark the 26th anniversary since Mladic overran the town of Srebrenica in eastern Bosnia, killing over 8,000 men, women and children, and committing a series of horrific crimes that represented the peak of the Bosnian genocide. Although the genocide is mostly known for the Serb atrocities committed against Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) in the town of Srebrenica, the Bosnian genocide was a much wider operation that was (in)directly supported by Western policies of appeasement.

Today, Mladic and other war criminals might be in jail, but their legacy lives on and continues to inspire generations of young Serbs. In order to counter such a shameful legacy, we must educate ourselves and raise awareness about further threats, but also honor the people like Lemkin who dedicated their lives to advocacy and teaching.

Appeasing war criminals

The Serb genocidal campaign began following a 1992 referendum for the independence of Bosnia from a Yugoslavia in dissolution, resulting in around 100.000 killed and almost 2 million displaced.

Learning nothing from their mistakes made just 50 years earlier in making concessions to Hitler's Nazi regime, Western governments allowed Serb forces to establish a genocidal campaign and perpetrate the worst crimes on European soil since WWII.

In the United States, President Clinton left foreign policy on Bosnia to be dictated by the French and the British despite loud and consistent opposition from pro-Bosnian congressional voices led by senators Biden, Dole, Lieberman and Moynihan, as well as Rep. McCloskey and others.

After the fall of Srebrenica in July 1995, pressure began to mount as horrific images of the work of the Butcher of Bosnia (Ratko Mladic) made their way on all major TV outlets. President Clinton began to feel concerned for his reputation and chances for reelection. He recognized Bob Dole, an adamant Bosnian hawk, as a challenger to his bid for a second mandate, and thus realized he had to do something. 

The consequences

Clinton's solution was to galvanize NATO to increase pressure on Bosnian Serb military targets while using strong hand diplomacy to force all sides to the table. In November 1995, Clinton brought Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian delegates to Dayton, Ohio to broker a peace agreement.

The Dayton Peace Agreement of 1995 ended the war and established weak state institutions effectively straightjacketing future social, political and economic progress in the region. It also wrote ethnic divides into the constitution.

The agreement gave credence and effectively legitimized the Serb genocidal project by establishing a Serb-controlled autonomous entity, named Republika Srpska, that today accounts for 49% of the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Genocide, it seems, gives a high return on investment. The establishment and legalization of Republika Srpska set a precedent in international politics, and sent a strong message to aspiring war criminals that if they play their cards right, a select few may suffer jail, but larger ambitions can be accomplished.

Today, the Serbs in Republika Srpska, including those of my age who do not remember the war like myself, celebrate and glorify war criminals responsible for some of the most brutal atrocities the world has ever seen, all while denying that genocide was ever committed. In fact, Mladic himself is celebrated as a war hero.

Young Serbs grow up on streets named after killers and rapists, go to school named after war criminals, watch TV shows that deny genocide daily and listen to their leaders who continue to celebrate their predecessors responsible for genocide. It is no wonder then that they celebrate thugs as heroes. Those few brave souls among the Serbs in the region who speak out and accept international court verdicts are often isolated and expelled from their society.

How to move forward?

Achieving any form of reconciliation with genocide deniers is nearly impossible. The hateful, Islamophobic rhetoric of the 1990s continues to dominate public discourse today.

As a Bosnian born in 1996, right after the genocide, I lived through Dayton's consequences of a weak state, divided society and an extreme scarcity of opportunities. One of my earliest memories includes locally stationed US soldiers distributing a hat they named Mirko (Peace Boy) to children. Peace was eventually established, but a stronger state, a harmonious society and growing opportunities are still to be achieved by the people of Bosnia.

Our fight in Bosnia cannot be fought alone. Evil is never contained within borders and it inevitably spills over. To avoid a future Holocaust, Bosnian or Rwandan genocide, we must educate ourselves and our children about the roots, consequences and horrors of the past.

Lemkin, too, knew that. In 1941, after his escape from Europe, he joined the Duke faculty.

As a man who gave a tremendous contribution to international law and the study of genocide, Lemkin deserves to be honored by his former Duke family. As genocide continues to be a pervasive thread through conflicts in many parts of the world, Duke would do well to establish a Lemkin Center for Genocide Studies to help advocate for those who cannot do so for themselves.

In a time when social justice awareness permeates the public discourse, Duke and its student body would do well to recognize their privilege and educate themselves on issues beyond our borders.

The author recommends following books:

  • "Postcards from the Grave" by Emir Suljagic
  • "Endgame" by David Rohde
  • "'A Problem from Hell': America and the Age of Genocide" by Ambassador Samantha Power

Ismail Cidic is a Duke alumnus from Bosnia and Herzegovina. He is president of the Bosnian Advocacy Center. Twitter: @IsmailCidic

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