Greater Surbiton

The perfect is the enemy of the good

Remembering the Bosnian Genocide

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Review of Hikmet Karcic (ed.), Remembering the Bosnian Genocide: Justice, Memory and Denial, Institute for Islamic Tradition of Bosniaks, Sarajevo, 2016, 350 pp.

Hikmet Karcic, who this month defended his PhD at the International University of Sarajevo, combines an intellectual seriousness in his research into the Bosnian genocide with a readiness to engage with the painful essence of the topic in a way that is all too rare. He is not one to rest content with safe platitudes about reconciliation, memory, civic values and the like that often seem to substitute for such an engagement. His readiness to rock the boat was apparent when his exhibit on the Srebrenica genocide, due to be shown at the European Parliament this month, was cancelled by the latter for displaying ‘too many skulls and bones’. For all that the Srebrenica genocide is now commemorated and recognised in Europe, elements of the EU establishment clearly do not like to see their sleek corporate veneer tarnished by a display concerning it that is too frank and prominent. Subsuming the story of the Srebrenica and wider Bosnian genocide within a ‘progressive’ democratic European narrative remains difficult to achieve, given the extent to which ‘progressive’ democratic Europe was implicated in the genocide

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The current volume of essays arose out of an conference organised by the Islamic Tradition of Bosniaks and held in Sarajevo in 2015 to mark the twentieth anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide. Karcic has managed to assemble a collection of texts covering a range of themes related to the genocide – trials and courts, remembrance and memory and destruction of denial – that are generally of a high scholarly level and likewise pull few punches. In particular, Sandra Cvikic and Drazen Zivic have contributed a withering critique of the form of ‘transitional justice’ promoted by the international community and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), whereby the genuine trauma and memory of the genocide among communities in Bosnia-Hercegovina and Croatia are expected to be suppressed in the name of ‘reconciliation’ and a blander, value-neutral form of memory that tends in the direction of equalising the guilt and suffering of the parties to the conflict and their respective populations. Similarly, former ICTY investigator Nena Tromp provides an account of the tribunal’s pragmatic compromises in the pursuit of truth and justice, in particular with regard to its failure to compel Serbia to hand over the uncensored minutes of the Supreme Defence Council; Tromp’s account is as well informed as one would expect given its author’s expertise, but also very critical of the tribunal’s policies. Norman Cigar’s critique of the US military’s contribution to the Bosnian catastrophe, in the form of its exaggerated estimates of the Bosnian Serb armed forces’ capacity to resist militarily and consequent bad advice to the Clinton Administration, provides an excellent antidote to cliches of US hawkishness, militarism and imperialism.

There are too many more good essays and individual points contained in this volume to list them all, but just to give an example of the range, there is an essay by Safet Bandzovic on the abuse of Bosniak refugees from Srebrenica and Zepa in Serbia during the war – a sideshow to the genocide that has had little attention paid to it – and an essay by Alexandra Lily Kather on the international law regarding genocide that serves as a very good introduction to the subject. I am just sorry that Karcic was apparently unable to prevail upon the always interesting Geoffrey Nice to contribute a fully referenced academic article; his contribution here consists of a rather tantalising list of numbered points.

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Hikmet Karcic

There is, however, one criticism to be made of this collection of essays that transcends any single article, and it applies to many other similar collections relating to the war in the former Yugoslavia: various cliches have crept into several of the texts that should rightfully be dispensed with. Thus, John Weiss claims that in the Communist era in Yugoslavia, ‘The popular memories of the battles of World War II that set Partisan against Chetnik or White Guard, Ustashe against Serb or Jew,  Handzar against Chetnik or Jew, and Yugoslavs against Russian were not allowed expression in the public sphere’ (p. 114). It was certainly a grievance of the Serb nationalists in the 1980s and 1990s that the memory of the Ustasha genocide against Serbs and Jews was supposedly suppressed, but it was not a legitimate one; the genocide was commemorated very publicly, for example in the memorial parks at Jasenovac and at Vraca in Sarajevo, while the Partisan battle against the Chetniks at Neretva in 1943 was depicted in the famous 1969 film ‘Battle of the Neretva’ starring, among others, Yul Brynner and Orson Welles; a more high profile commemoration could barely be imagined. Weiss also argues, in relation to comparisons between the Bosnian genocide and the Holocaust, that ‘As a tocsin to assemble and stir up the righteous, then, “Never again !” retains power, perhaps even more power than it had before the 1970s. But as analytic framework or policy guide, it has to be judged often misleading and occasionally dangerous’ (pp. 122-123). This seems to be an unwarranted concession to the ‘all sides are guilty’ attitude that dominated UN and international community thinking during the 1990s conflict, yet it was the latter, not the ‘Never again !’ position of pro-Bosnia activists, that resulted in the catastrophic international policy that culminated in the Srebrenica massacre.

Bandzovic notes without criticism the view that ‘Everything that happened in Bosnia and Herzegovina and to the Bosniaks between 1992 and 1995 can be observed, according to a number of Serbian politicians and academics, as the continuity and completion of a process that began in 1804. Earlier events included Karadjordje’s uprising against the Ottoman government in the Smederevo Sanjak, the establishment and expansion of the Serbian state, as well as the disappearance of Muslims from this territory’ (pp. 224-225). Such a teleological, essentialising attitude toward Serb nationhood and nationalism as intrinsically genocidal has predominated among some of their critics, but it isn’t warranted: Serb national politics was historically at least as ready to co-opt the Bosniaks as it was to exterminate them, as witnessed in Ilija Garasanin’s 1844 ‘plan’, the readiness of the Serbian government in the 1850s and 1860s to recognised the land-rights of the Bosnian Muslim landlords, the Serbian Army’s generally correct treatment of the Muslim population of the Sandzak during the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913, the 1921 Vidovdan constitution’s recognition of Bosnia-Hercegovina’s historic provinces within the the new Yugoslav state, Milan Stojadinovic’s partnership with the Yugoslav Muslim Organisation in governing Yugoslavia in 1935-1939, and so on. Treating the genocide of the 1990s as simply the logical culmination of Serbian history detracts from the specific responsibility of the Milosevic and Karadzic regimes for organising and launching it.

Samuel Totten’s recommendation, that there be established two major museums and research centres on the Srebrenica genocide (pp. 87-88) seems to follow the trend of over-emphasising the latter to the point where it overshadows the rest of the Bosnian genocide, treating the 1995 massacre as if it were something of an aberration. In fact, as Edina Becirevic’s research has shown, the Srebrenica massacre was the culmination of the genocidal policy begun in the preceding years, and followed on logically from the massacres of 1992 and the siege of Srebrenica of 1992-1995. Since the German courts found, in the Nikola Jorgic case, that genocide had already taken place in Bosnia outside of Srebrenica in 1992, and since the European Court of Human Rights upheld the legitimacy of this conclusion under international law, there is no need to commemorate the Bosnian genocide as if it only occurred in Srebrenica in 1995.

All told, this is an excellent collection of articles that will be of interest to the newcomer to the subject and to the expert alike. But it highlights the fact that there is still more to do in challenging the stereotypes.

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Wednesday, 18 July 2018 - Posted by | Balkans, Bosnia, European Union, Former Yugoslavia, Genocide, Marko Attila Hoare, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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