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Institute for the Research of Genocide Canada

Peace and goodwill

Institute for the Research of Genocide Canada
Published: December 23, 2010  

Shaeleigh Spracklin, 11, of St. Lazare submitted this depiction of peace on earth as her Holiday Miracle.

By Suzana Vukic

The last weekend of November, I joined Toronto’s Bosniak community for their Bosnia and Herzegovina Statehood Day celebrations, as well as for genocide training and research.

I went to Toronto’s St-Lawrence Market upon arrival. Christmas trees, fresh holly and evergreen wreaths were for sale, a reminder that Christmas was near. It brought me back to a journey I began a year ago, when I first wrote about the Bosnian war and its aftermath, in my Christmas in Sarajevo piece.

Back then, I remembered the coming July would mark the 15th anniversary of the Srebrenica Genocide. Through a series of events, I wrote about this subject and also accepted an invitation by the Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) community of Toronto to join them for their Srebrenica Commemoration Weekend in July. I became acquainted with a community and its sorrow.

Soon afterwards, I was made an honorary member of the international team of experts of the Institute for Research of Genocide Canada (IRGC). This led to my being invited to the genocide training sessions in November.
• • •
Bosniaks had additional reason to celebrate. In October, the Canadian Parliament passed the Srebrenica Resolution, Bill M-416, which recognizes the events that occurred in Srebrenica in July of 1995 as genocide ( Prime Minister Harper had previously vetoed this bill).
This gift represents a great moral victory for Canadian Bosniaks. It means their adopted homeland recognizes the suffering that they’ve lived through in fleeing war-torn Bosnia, and acknowledges that genocide occurred there.

When reading about Harper’s veto last summer, I was dismayed. I couldn’t believe it didn’t make news. So I wrote about it. My involvement went beyond writing about the Srebrenica Genocide to actively lobbying the Canadian government for recognition of it.
I learned a lesson. I have an aversion to politics. Since writing my column for the Hudson/ St.Lazare Gazette the past two years, I realize that politics are a necessary evil. We can’t afford to be politically uninvolved. My involvement with the Srebrenica Genocide issue taught me that if you care enough about any political issue to fight for it, you’ll achieve your goal.

• • •

I knew that genocide training would be daunting. Stuck with a cold, I coughed incessantly throughout the two days of training. But this event was too important to miss. I was grateful for the empathy and understanding extended to me by those present, as well as for the hot tea and delicious bowls of wonderful homemade soup, soothing to my cold.

That weekend, I became reacquainted with the reality of the Bosniak community. Toronto’s Bosniak population was small before the war. Its numbers swelled during and after the war. It’s a diaspora community, made up of individuals who fled from their homes in horrific circumstances during the war.

Any Bosniak community gathering will include at least one or two, if not several, concentration camp survivors. There will be individuals present who have been tortured, beaten, raped, or harmed in some manner. Some have had (or even witnessed) at least one family member (parent, child, spouse, sibling) killed or harmed. Others have witnessed the death or disappearance of relatives, friends, and community members.

Younger adults remember a childhood or adolescence marked with memories of coming under direct sniper or artillery fire, and of watching the bombardment and destruction of their homes and communities. One man, an out-of-town guest, described watching his home being burnt to the ground. Some community members have had most of their male family members killed. Others were intended victims of “eliticide” - intellectuals and prestigious community members who, because of their elevated status, had their names on a list of people destined for death.
Considering the horrors of ethnic cleansing that they’ve lived through, all of these people are lucky to be alive. They’re also grateful to be living in a safe, democratic country like Canada. But they’ve never stopped grieving their losses or the homeland left behind.

I’ve met different people. There’s Aldina Muslija and her family, who’ve graciously welcomed me into their home. There’s Zijo Burgic, who was a journalist before the war and has just recently begun to write again in earnest. There’s a line of his that’s a common refrain in his poetry and prose: Bosnia! Struggle is your destiny!

There’s Dr. Emir Ramic, President of the IRGC, one of the first people to welcome me, as a guest, into the Bosniak community. I’ve met many others. It’s important to get to know people, their stories and worldviews.

The Bosniaks I’ve met are hard-working, contributing members of Canadian society. They’re excellent examples of the Canadian-immigrant success story. I’m also surprised at how many individuals have achieved incredible academic and professional success. This seems extraordinary considering the horrors of their wartime past.

• • •

Dr. Smail Cekic, Director of the Institute for Research of Crimes against Humanity and International Law University of Sarajevo (affiliated with the IRGC), was an honored guest speaker and lecturer. He was accompanied by honored guest speaker Asaf Dzanic, a journalist from Sarajevo.

Dr. Cekic gave us a questionnaire tool produced by the University of Sarajevo to interview, collect data and official accounts from victims of wartime atrocities (or their next of kin, in cases of murdered victims).
Two different questions pertaining to the type of atrocities committed contain exhaustive lists of the different ways in which victims were harmed.

Besides being killed and injured, other atrocities include: captivity (concentration camps); rape; forced pregnancy; forced displacement of children from one group into another; being maimed; forced deportation; being starved; being burned alive; being used as a human shield; being beaten; being tortured; being forcibly tattooed; plunder; and the destruction or seizure of property (not justified by military needs).

We practiced filling out the questionnaire to learn how it should be done. We were asked to use an example of a victim who’s story we were most familiar with.

I had trouble figuring out who to use. Being an outsider (a Canadian-born Croat with no direct ties to Bosnia), I had no such experience. For practice, I used the example of a victim I’d interviewed recently.
My position was unique. Every single other person in that room would have been able to use the example of someone they knew well - family, friend or neighbor. In fact, several people present would have been able to use their own wartime experience as a sufficient example for the purpose of practice.

The questionnaire is designed to make it impossible for respondents to successfully give false or embellished accounts of wartime atrocities. All data is ultimately verifiable. I found this quite gratifying. When confronted with the wretched, ugly reality of wartime suffering, there’s still joy to be felt knowing that the light and beauty of truth can come shining through out of a very dark and desolate place.

• • •

There was political discussion; a common view was that Bosniaks are in a vulnerable position given the status quo. They appear to be the only group within Bosnia-Herzegovina who wish to hold the country together. Serbs (in the Republika Srpska entity) would prefer to break away and join Serbia; Croats in Herzegovina (where they’re a majority) would prefer to join Croatia.

Responsibility for the war and the attempted partition of Bosnia-Herzegovina was discussed. The Republics of Serbia and Montenegro, as well as the Republic of Croatia, were cited as carrying principle blame for the wartime destruction of Bosnia and the near annihilation of Bosniaks.

I knew this was a historic truth, but had trouble with Croatia being assigned the same level of blame as Serbia.

While pondering this, an out-of-town guest, Semir, was asked if he could speak briefly about his experience as prisoner in the Dretelj concentration camp in Herzegovina. His description was bloodcurdling.
Although not mentioned outright, one fact about Semir’s captivity pervaded my being: Dretelj was a Croat-run concentration camp.

• • •

I always sidestepped this reality, holding Serbs principally responsible for the aggressions in the Croatian, Bosnian and Kosovo wars. I clung to CIA figures citing Serbs with 90% responsibility for Bosnian war atrocities.

But the presence and voice of a single victim demolished all of my constructs.

My physical illness seemed to reflect a moral and spiritual malaise. To be at peace with myself, I sought an opportunity to approach Semir and apologize for what my people had done to him. I explained how I found it hard to stomach the thought of a Croatian man doing harm to innocent Muslims or Serbs.

Semir told me that although Croats alone were responsible for all of his wartime suffering, he’s always believed in the importance of Muslims and Croats working together. He spoke of the importance of working through these issues towards a better future.

• • •

All of these insurmountable difficulties must be dealt with if Bosnia is to move towards a better future.

It’s horrifying to know there are people eager to see Bosnia being split apart again. This would be a disaster - for Bosniaks, and for Serbs and Croats in all corners of this nation.

Equally scary is knowing there are individuals eagerly awaiting another chance at warfare and a redrawing of the map, for the purpose of revenge and the “righting” of historic and recent wrongs. Considering that weekend’s topic - genocide - and the fact that Bosnians have yet to come to terms with the horrors that took place less than two decades ago, this scenario must never be allowed to occur again.
It’s difficult to envision a solution for Bosnia‘s troubles. Ideally, discussions on Bosnia’s future should include all of its people - Bosniaks, as well as ethnic Serbs and Croats from the region. It’s not easy, but must happen.

In order for inclusive discussion to work, all people involved must be decent, respectful individuals, with a firm commitment to human rights, capable of maintaining civility once discussions become heated or impassioned.

• • •

Before that weekend ended, Emir invited me, on behalf of the IRGC, to attend the commemoration ceremony and mass burial in Srebrenica-Potocari in Bosnia-Herzegovina, in July, 2011. This will be preceded by a peace march lasting three days and spanning 120 km. It commemorates the perilous route taken by Bosniak men to escape death before the Bosnian Serb army overran the UN-protected enclave of Srebrenica. Many never made it to safe territory.

I’m overjoyed with this great opportunity, hopeful that my work and personal commitments will allow me to be in Srebrenica in July, 2011. Hopefully, I’ll have the physical and moral strength for this journey. Regardless of the heartache in store, there will be joy in knowing that men who were destined for death survived and will be present amongst us. People from all of Bosnia’s ethnic groups will be present, along with members of the international community, to commemorate the dead and uphold human rights. Despite the difficulties of the past, there will be an opportunity to work towards a better future.

• • •

While amongst this community, I greeted people with “selam” - a Muslim salutation meaning peace, in an effort to make myself less of a stranger. I realize this greeting fits with the true meaning of Christmas - peace and goodwill to all humankind.

Those who celebrate Christmas should reflect on the birth of a child that signalled the beginning of redemption for humanity. We feel the need to be generous, and thus overdo it when buying gifts. We donate to charity at Christmastime; this should be a moral obligation throughout the year.

We also need to manifest the sentiment of “peace and goodwill”, in words and deeds. We’re all capable of going beyond the comfort zone of our existence and upbringing in order to make this wish manifest in our world - to recognize the suffering that exists in our world and work towards a better future for all of humankind.

Institute for the Research of Genocide Canada