Sarah Kenyon Lischer: A Tale Told in Srebrenica

Roundup: Talking About History

Sarah Kenyon Lischer, an associate professor in the Department of Politics and International Affairs at Wake Forest University, is the author of Dangerous Sanctuaries: Refugee Camps, Civil War, and the Dilemmas of Humanitarian Aid.

"We give this town to the Serb nation.… The time has come to take revenge on the Turks." Seventeen years later, the words still hang in the air like poison gas over Srebrenica. With that speech, Bosnian Serb Gen. Ratko Mladic pronounced the death sentence on more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys. On July 11, 1995, the slaughter began. Bosnian Serb soldiers loyal to Mladic hunted down, tortured and killed the male inhabitants of Srebrenica in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which the United Nations had blithely declared a "safe area" for Muslim civilians. The Serbs expelled the women and children, brutally tearing teenage sons from their wailing mothers. The exceptional savagery of the killings was justified by a story. A story that happened 200 years ago.

In newly conquered Srebrenica, Mladic referred to the 1804 Serb uprising against the Ottoman Empire. The "Turks" put down the revolt in 1813, reinforcing the victim status of Serbs in their national identity. By a bizarre yet deadly transference of historical myth, he cast the 20th century Bosnian Muslims as the legitimate target for perceived past injustices. Any action against them counted as "revenge on the Turks." (No matter that the Serbs and Muslims share a Slavic ethnic lineage.) There is no national narrative more dangerous than that of victimhood.

Last month, I was in Srebrenica when I first heard Mladic's speech in a heart-rending video at an abandoned factory that had served as the U.N. peacekeepers' headquarters. There, in 1995, 5,000 terrified Muslims had desperately sought shelter. I stood alone in the dank, echoing space haunted by ghosts of the refugees. The factory now forms part of the official memorial to the genocide. Mladic's boastful promise of revenge accounts for a mere 20 seconds of footage. Yet the malevolent hatred in his words filled me with an irrational fear. Evil has that effect...

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