The headline in the Chicago Tribune read “Muslims mourn victims of Srebrenica massacre.” Muslims mourn. 8300 old men and boys were lined up and executed, or herded into all buildings where Serbs grenaded and machine-gunned them to death, then bulldozed their still warm bodies into anonymous pits, where they believed the bodies would never be found. Yet another of Ratko Mladic’s brave and glorious victories.
Muslims mourn. See, that’s how to gauge the true place of Muslims in this society. Or maybe it is an indication of the state of Humanity’s conscience that “Muslims mourn,” rather than the “World Mourns,” or “Nations remember,” or “Memorials recall.” 8300 old men and boys. Two and a half September 11 attacks. The story warranted a single paragraph, pressed between the 16 pound baby in Texas and Sarah Palin boasting she could be president.
I passed through the narrow corridor between encircled Srebrenica and Bosnian territory to the west back in 1993 and again in 1994, passing thoroughly bombed out villages still smoldering from battles. I still regret declining an invitation from a French Doctor with Medicines sans Frontiers to visit the town. I thought that Sarajevo was really where the war was happening. Passing through smoking villages pocked by craters, the smell of death carried on the wind, this was the war.
Without doubt the Serbs around the Srebrenica pocket, amid the lush green mountains of east-central Bosnia, felt just as besieged as their Muslim former neighbors and friends. But few of these Serbs took part in the actual siege or in the massacres that occurred when the pocket collapsed in July 1995. That was the work of regular Bosnian Serb soldiers and likely special forces from Serbia proper. As proof, the Serbs brushed aside Danish peacekeepers and flaunted their arrogance, scoffing at threats of NATO airstrikes and wider retaliation. They were far too coordinated, and executed movements far too precisely to have been ad hoc civilian conscripts or local militias. They were too brazen and confident, and far too politically savvy, as there was a sophistication and calculus involved regarding the West’s response. I met them at the bridge into Bosnia, regular soldiers with cruel and terrible eyes already stained with the blood of thousands of innocents. Alone there, I felt for the one and only time in my life in the presense of true evil.
By all accounts the long prelude to Bosnia’s Srebrenica was terrible beyond any accurate description. violence was the least of it. The constant fear and deprivation, the brutal Bosnian winters without heat water and food, the hopelessness at a world many perceived had abandoned them or a government they suspected had bargained away their fates were much worse. I still recall a UN soldier in Sarajevo recalling with a tortured gaze how he’d witnessed girls so desperate to feed their families that they’d offered their bodies for a sandwich.
“Muslims mourn.” But this was not a crime against Muslims, just as the Holocaust was not a crime against Jews, Nanking a crime against Chinese or Wounded Knee a crime against Lakota. Srebrenica was a crime against humanity, and a stain upon the human soul. Unacknowledged and all but forgotten I fear that stain becomes a cancer of the soul. Like any sin, they must be cleansed and atoned for collectively as a species, not relegated to a single paragraph easily skipped over or skewed and segemnted along racial or ethnic lines. The ultimate cost is that no crime against humanity has value, and that those that are promoted and inflated instead become an hypocrisy. Srebrenica, like Mai Lai in Vietnam, Rwanda, Auschwitz and 9-11 must be remembered and mourned equally and by all of us.