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Institute for the Research of Genocide Canada

Srebrenica’s ghosts revisited

Institute for the Research of Genocide Canada
Published: January 5, 2012  

Srebrenica’s ghosts revisited

Dreaming of a better Bosnia
By Suzana Vukic

Last July, the world commemorated the 16th anniversary of the Srebrenica Genocide, when over 8,000 Muslim men and boys were murdered by Serb forces. But few people know about the Srebrenica Peace March, a journey preceding the anniversary that commemorates the perilous trek undertaken by Bosnian Muslims (known as Bosniaks) in July, 1995 in an attempt to flee death and reach safe territory.

New Yorker Senahid Halilovic survived this genocide by joining a group of people who escaped the town on foot as Gen. Ratko Mladic (now standing trial for war crimes at The Hague) and his forces overtook what was supposed to be the U.N. safe haven of Srebrenica. However, Mr. Halilovic’s father and three brothers were killed in what would be remembered as the greatest atrocity to take place on European soil since the end of World War II. He lost a total of 70 relatives in the Bosnian war.

Mr. Halilovic had returned to Srebrenica three times prior to this summer; his father and brothers are all buried at the cemetery and memorial center in Srebrenica-Potocari. But this past July, Mr. Halilovic participated in the Peace March for the first time since undertaking that ominous journey 16 years ago.

Before the trip, Mr. Halilovic expected to face many difficult, emotional moments. “You can try to imagine what it [the Peace March] will be like, but until you actually go through it, you really have no idea what to expect”, he explains.

Mr. Halilovic lived through a harrowing venture 16 years ago. People were tired and hungry. They followed guides through heavily mountainous and forested terrain while Serb fighters attacked them with gunshots, bombs and grenades.

These images of the past came back to Mr. Halilovic during the Peace March. The first day was difficult. During the second and third days, Mr. Halilovic kept himself busy meeting and interviewing people via camcorder, to learn more about other individuals’ stories and reasons for being there. It made the journey more bearable. But the arrival at the Srebrenica-Potocari Memorial Center at the end of the third day was quite hard. Seeing the graves brought back memories of his family, friends, and childhood.

Mr. Halilovic was pleased to see people of from all over the world - even from as far away as Japan - at the Peace March. “There were people from Serbia who came, people from the organization Women in Black…I think this is good. This can help bring about what I truly would like to see - a lasting, just peace in this region. When you see someone from Serbia come and face victims of genocide, to recognize it, and to say, ‘Yes indeed, it was genocide that took place in this region, there is no real peace until we all start thinking this way’, then you start to get a different feeling”, says Mr. Halilovic.

This is phenomenal when one ponders Serbian reluctance to acknowledge any wrongdoing in the Balkan wars of the 1990’s. For this reason, groups like Women in Black are often reviled in Serbia, where the voice of dissent and conscience is often stifled. That is why organizations like Women in Black are so necessary in that country. They challenge their fellow countrymen’s perceptions of Serbia’s role in the Balkan wars and also demonstrate that it is possible for Serbs to take responsibility for what went wrong following the break-up of the former Yugoslavia.

Mr. Halilovic moved to the U.S. in 2002, where he lives with his wife and three children. He earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering while still in Bosnia, and a master’s degree in chemistry since settling in America. Despite his hardships and losses, he is blessed with a good and successful life. Regardless, it is difficult for him to return to Bosnia and witness certain injustices - the principal one being the existence of Republika Srpska.

The Dayton Peace Accords that ended the war in 1995 divided the country into two entities: The Bosnian Serb Republic (Republika Srpska) and the Muslim-Croat Federation. Mr. Halilovic rightfully sees the Dayton Accord as a failure. It was supposed to guarantee the safe, unhindered return of refugees to their former homes. But this simply hasn’t happened. He points out that the majority of non-Serb refugees (Bosniaks, Croats) would never return to live in Republika Srpska, where they would feel like outsiders; likewise, Serbs do not want to live in the Federation.

Mr. Halilovic’s solution to this dilemma is simple: the existence of a single, unified Bosnia and Herzegovina minus the two entities - a nation where equal rights would be guaranteed to all citizens in all regions regardless of ethnic origin. It sounds simple, but he acknowledges that with time, this seems less and less likely to happen. He points out that international leaders were the ones who pushed for the Dayton Accord. And now, it feels as though a major world player would prefer to continue having Bosnia remain a nation where growth and prosperity will forever be hindered.

We need to listen to the voices of Bosnia ’s survivors when they tell us that change is necessary. While the West may be to blame for Bosnia’s current predicament, it also has the power to create the change so desperately needed in that country.

-Suzana Vukic is a freelance journalist from Montreal, Canada, who reports extensively on the Balkans. She is also a member of the International Expert Team of the Institute for the Research of Genocide Canada.

Institute for the Research of Genocide Canada