The hard­est word to say

The Guardian (Charlottetown) - - OPINION - Gwynne Dyer Gwynne Dyer is an in­de­pen­dent jour­nal­ist whose ar­ti­cles are pub­lished in 45 coun­tries.

It’s hard to say sorry, but it’s even harder to say you’re sorry for a geno­cide. The word just sticks in the throats of those who should be say­ing it, as the Turks have been de­mon­strat­ing for the past hun­dred years in the case of the Ar­me­ni­ans of eastern Ana­to­lia. And the Serbs have just shown them­selves to be just as tongue-tied in the case of the Bos­nian Mus­lims slaugh­tered at Sre­brenica.

Satur­day was the 20th an­niver­sary of the mur­der of be­tween 7,000 and 8,000 peo­ple when Sre­brenica was taken by Bos­nian Serb forces in 1995. The town’s pop­u­la­tion was swollen by refugees who had fled there to es­cape the “eth­nic cleans­ing” that was be­ing car­ried out against Mus­lims else­where in eastern Bos­nia, be­cause it was a United Na­tions-des­ig­nated “safe area” de­fended by NATO troops. Or rather, not de­fended.

When the Bos­nian Serbs, hav­ing sur­rounded Sre­brenica for three years, fi­nally moved to take it in July 1995, the UN and NATO com­man­ders re­fused to use air strikes to stop them. And the Dutch troops who were there to pro­tect the town de­cided they’d rather live and let un­armed civil­ians die.

So all the Bos­nian Mus­lim men and boys be­tween the ages of 14 and 70 were loaded onto buses – the Dutch sol­diers helped to sep­a­rate them from the women and chil­dren – and driven up the road a few kilo­me­tres. Then they were shot by Ser­bian killing squads, and buried by bull­doz­ers. It took four days to mur­der them all.

The crime has been been for­mally de­clared a geno­cide by the UN war crimes tri­bunal for for­mer Yu­goslavia. Both the Bos­nian Serb pres­i­dent of the time, Radovan Karadzic, and the Ser­ban mil­i­tary com­man­der at Sre­brenica, Gen­eral Ratko Mladic, are await­ing ver­dicts in tri­als for di­rect­ing geno­cide. You would think that even the Serbs can­not deny that it was a geno­cide, but you would be wrong.

There are cer­tainly some Serbs, like jour­nal­ist Dusan Ma­sic, who are will­ing to call it what it is. His idea was to have 7,000 vol­un­teers lie on the ground be­fore the Na­tional Assem­bly in Bel­grade on Satur­day, sym­bol­is­ing the ap­prox­i­mate num­ber of Mus­lim vic­tims at Sre­brenica. “On July 11, while the eyes of the whole world are on the killing fields near Sre­brenica”, he said, “we want to send a dif­fer­ent pic­ture from Bel­grade.”

“This will not be a story about the cur­rent regime, which has failed to de­fine it­self in re­la­tion to the crime that hap­pened 20 years ago,” he con­tin­ued, “or about a place where you can still buy sou­venirs with im­ages of Karadzic and Mladic. It will be a story about...a bet­ter Ser­bia.” But the bet­ter Ser­bia has not ac­tu­ally ar­rived yet.

Ser­bia’s in­te­rior min­is­ter, Ne­bo­jsa Ste­fanovic, didn’t like the pic­ture Ma­sic wanted to send. When right-wing groups threat­ened to dis­rupt the demon­stra­tion last week, Ste­fanovic banned it in or­der to guar­an­tee “peace and se­cu­rity in the whole of Ser­bia.” And the Ser­bian gov­ern­ment had al­ready asked Rus­sia to veto a UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil res­o­lu­tion de­scrib­ing the Sre­brenica mas­sacre as a “geno­cide”.

Rus­sia was happy to oblige, and ve­toed it on Wed­nes­day. Maybe Moscow was just suck­ing up to the Serbs, whom it would like to steer away from their cur­rent am­bi­tion to join the Euro­pean Union – but maybe Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin was also think­ing that he didn’t want any prece­dent for some fu­ture at­tempt to de­scribe what he did dur­ing the sec­ond Chechen war in 1999-2002 as a geno­cide.

Words mat­ter. Ser­bia’s Prime Min­is­ter Alek­sandr Vu­cic, who seems to have changed his mind about Sre­brenica since his early days in Ser­bian pol­i­tics, still can­not bring him­self to use the word “geno­cide” when he talks about it.

Back in 1995, Vu­cic was a rad­i­cal na­tion­al­ist who de­clared in the Ser­bian Na­tional Assem­bly, only a few days af­ter the Sre­brenica mas­sacre, that “If you kill one Serb, we will kill 100 Mus­lims.” By 2010, how­ever, he was say­ing that a “hor­ri­ble crime was com­mit­ted in Sre­brenica.”

Vu­cic even trav­eled to Sre­brenica on Satur­day to take part in the com­mem­o­ra­tion of the events of 20 years ago, a brave ges­ture for a Ser­bian prime min­is­ter who must con­tend with an elec­torate most of whom do not want to ad­mit that Serbs did any­thing es­pe­cially wrong. But he still doesn’t dare say the word “geno­cide”. The vot­ers would never for­give him.

Most Serbs would ac­knowl­edge that their side did some bad things dur­ing the Balkan wars of the 90s, but they would add that ev­ery side did. They will not ac­cept the use of the word “geno­cide” – whereas that is the one word Bos­nian Mus­lims have to hear be­fore they can be­lieve that the Serbs have fi­nally grasped the na­ture and scale of their crime.

That’s why, when Vu­cic was at Sre­brenica pay­ing his re­spects in the ceme­tery, some Bos­nian Mus­lims started throw­ing stones at him. His glasses were bro­ken, and his se­cu­rity de­tail had to hus­tle him away.

It was a stupid, shame­ful act, and the Bos­nian Mus­lim author­i­ties have apol­o­gised for it. But like the Turks and the Ar­me­ni­ans, the Serbs and their neigh­bours will never re­ally be rec­on­ciled un­til the Serbs say the magic word.


Ser­bia’s Prime Min­is­ter Alek­san­dar Vu­cic speaks dur­ing a press con­fer­ence af­ter talks with Bos­nia’s three­mem­ber pres­i­dency, in Bel­grade, Ser­bia, fol­low­ing re­cent ten­sions over the 20th an­niver­sary of the Sre­brenica mas­sacre of Mus­lims by Serbs.

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