July 11 was a sad day for Srebrenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina. Sad not just because it marked the twentieth anniversary of the genocide, the worst atrocity to occur in Europe since World War II that left over 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys dead, their bodies dumped in mass graves littered across eastern Bosnia. Nor because so many people — some 50,000 — packed into the Srebrenica-Potočari Memorial and Cemetery to witness the burial of 136 victims whose remains had been identified over the previous year. It was a sad day because violence broke out in a place of peace and mourning, interrupting the grief of surviving families, especially those who had gathered at long last to lay their loved ones to rest.
The attack on Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić that marred the twentieth anniversary of Srebrenica came as a disappointment but not a surprise. It’s a violence that springs from slow-boil provocation: Bosnian Serb and Serbian political elites have spent the last two decades dismissing, diminishing and denying the crimes of Srebrenica on July 11, 1995.
One of those deniers himself, Vučić has persistently refused to call the campaign to expel and exterminate the Bosnian Muslim (Bosniak) population in the United Nations “safe area” of Srebrenica a genocide. Instead he spent the last two weeks fanning the flames of controversy. As anger flared in Bosnia over Serbia’s attempts to extradite Naser Orić, a Bosniak wartime military leader and hero to many within the Srebrenica community, Vučić played coy. Would he attend, would he not attend? Could his safety be guaranteed?
Vučić had reason to be concerned. As a member of the Serbian Radical Party, in July 1995 just days after the genocide in Srebrenica, he urged the slaughter of Muslims, saying before the Serbian National Assembly “If you kill one Serb, we will kill 100 Muslims.”
Twenty years later, those words resurfaced at the Srebrenica memorial center, unfurled on a huge banner for all to see. When the political speeches ended and the VIPs including former President Clinton threaded their way through the crowd, Vučić’s denial came home to roost. The jeering whistles quickly morphed into more sinister taunts — “Ubij ga” (“Kill him!”). Young men pushed their way through the metal barriers and past the security guards, while others hurled rocks and bottles. For a few brief seconds, the crowd teetered on the edge of panic.
Pulling us back wasn’t the threat of force but a different set of words, those of Reisu-l-ulema Husein efendija Kavazović, the head of the Bosnian Muslim community. He stepped to the microphone and reminded those assembled where they were and why they had come. “Let us be dignified. . . . Turn your faces toward the coffins, and not towards those who have come today.” In an instant the ugliness drained away.
But the damage was done. As one survivor later put it, Srebrenica community lost an opportunity to commemorate the genocide and its victims before the world in the way they should be. She, like many others, had hoped July 11, 2015 would be a day of peace and solemn reflection.
Peaceful reflection in this part of the country, however, is hard to come by amid a culture of denial propagated by Bosnian Serb and Serbian political elite since the war’s end. What happened at the memorial center was a predictable reaction to recent fruits of that culture — from Vučić’s own public provocations to Serbia’s extradition attempts and Russia’s veto of the United Nations resolution on the Srebrenica genocide.
Sadly, for some among those gathered at the memorial center Vučić’s presence was too bitter a pill to swallow when his wartime words still ring in their ears and the crimes he and others urged are still being denied. But their rush to violence jeopardizes those Bosniaks who have returned permanently to their prewar homes in the Bosnian-Serb controlled entity of Republika Srpska. When the melee began, one woman cried out, “Don’t do it. We have to live here.” When Srebrenica empties out of VIPs, media, its diaspora and those who threw the rocks, it is the returnees who will have to live with the consequences. They, along with the memory of their loved ones, deserve a better future than one stained by the denial of the past and the violence such denial provokes.