Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Comment: Revisionism Will Cripple Bosnia's Future
"Thank you for making me realise that I have to deal with my past if I want to have a future," Satko Mujagic told me on a hot, Bosnian August afternoon.
We were standing on the very spot where, 12 years ago, he lay beaten, bloodied and blinded by dysentery - waiting for a final bullet from a guard who was shouting at him nearby.
We were standing on the site of the infamous Omarska concentration camp.
Not far from us a ten-year-old boy walks up to my companion on this trip, tugs his sleeve and asks, in English, "Are you Ed Vulliamy?" When the man nodded yes, the child said shyly, "Thank you for saving my father's life," before turning back to the security of his mother's arms.
It is no exaggeration to say that this family unit is together thanks to the journalist Ed Vulliamy, a man I am privileged to call my friend, and who is viewed as a saviour by hundreds of other Bosnians.
For Vulliamy and the ITN crew he was with in August 1992 focused the world’s attention on the existence of Serb-run concentration camps where men and women were raped, tortured, humiliated and killed in a way that could only have come from the darkest corner of the human mind.
Had these abuses not been exposed, perhaps Satko's two-year-old daughter would not now be carelessly skipping around and picking flowers on the patch of grass on which her father once lay bleeding and in despair.
Mujagic thanked me for a very specific reason. The previous evening, when I asked him if he would accompany us to a commemoration ceremony that was being held in the Omarska mines, he said he didn’t want to come. Like many Omarska survivors, he said he would rather forget about what happened there than be reminded of it.
“I don’t want to go to that place ever again,” he said.
I felt he was wrong to take this stance and tried to convince him otherwise. Over the past year, having spoken to survivors of the war from every corner of Bosnia and Herzegovina and from different ethnic backgrounds, I have come to realise that the past cannot be forgotten.
For the way the past is addressed determines the way in which the future will unfold. Burying it somewhere at the back of our consciousness only increases the possibility that the same animosities may erupt to the surface again.
I now know, through my own feelings and those of my family, friends and countless encounters with those who lived through even worse horrors, that the only way to move on is to face the past - to deal with all its ugliness and horror - in order to be able to achieve that level of consciousness when a clean break can be made.
Burying or distorting the past is counterproductive.
I did not expect Mujagic to be swayed by my argument, but to my surprise, the following morning, he knocked on the door of the women’s refuge house where I was staying and with trepidation in his eyes and his future - his daughter - in his arms said they would both come with us.
Not long after, I encountered a different group of Omarska's victims.
I climbed down into a three metre deep mass grave, and stood among piles of human bones, clothes and watches, staring down at skeletal heads whose jaws were frozen in an everlasting grimace of pain. Days after the grave was unearthed, that distinctive smell of decay still lingered in the air. The remains of 175 camp inmates, buried twelve years ago, have so far been recovered from this pit.
A few days later, Satko's story was among those touched upon in an emotional and thought-provoking article by Vulliamy that was published by IWPR - see Comment: We Must Fight for Memory of Bosnia's Camps - in which he argued that the Omarska camp should be preserved as a monument to the horror that occurred there.
Vulliamy’s piece was republished in Bosnian in the Sarajevo weekly Slobodna Bosna, and subsequently sparked a much-needed local debate about how the memory of the camps should be preserved.
Other local media visited the camp site and its survivors, some even interviewed owners of the company that wanted to privatise the mine within which the camp was located. They too were open to suggestions about just how they could preserve the memory of the not so distant past.
For the memories are still fresh and true reconciliation impossible until the past is properly addressed - by all. The victims. The perpetrators. The observers.
Our trip to Omarska was not accidental. The idea came about earlier this year when Vulliamy was trying to think of a suitable way to mark his 50th birthday. I had for some time by then been trying to get him to revisit Bosnia, to be witness to the changes that have taken place since his last trip in 1996.
I hope Vulliamy will not mind me saying so, but I feel that he also was trying to escape from the past. What he saw and lived through would have left a scar on anyone. And the momentous discovery he made at Omarska and Trnopolje - another camp only a few kilometres away - was a heavy burden to carry for 12 years.
"Omarska has haunted me ever after," he wrote in his article. "I kept meeting survivors or relatives of the dead; in trenches during what was left of the war, across the diaspora and in The Hague where they (and I) came to bear witness."
It was particularly important for Vulliamy to come here again – to remind himself of the horrors he had witnessed – because of a small but persistent group of revisionists who have repeatedly challenged what he saw that day back in 1992.
After Vulliamy and the ITN camera crew reported what they saw, the UK’s Living Marxism magazine claimed that the camps captured by ITN cameras - and brought to life in Vulliamy’s article - were fabricated.
ITN subsequently sued Living Marxism for libel and won, and the magazine collapsed under the cost of the damages they were ordered to pay.
But Living Marxism’s defeat did not deter a fringe group of die-hard Serb apologists in western Europe and the United States who have been remarkably successful in keeping their version of revisionist history alive.
Proponents of Living Marxism’s stance argue that the West conspired against Milosevic in order to destroy the “the last standing socialist bastion in Europe”.
Apart from being false, such claims are detrimental to the process of reconciliation in Bosnia.
In his IWPR article, Vulliamy recounted how a Swedish magazine called Ordfront, or Word Front, carried an interview last year with Diane Johnstone, author of “Fool’s Crusade”, a book that questioned the number of victims of the Srebrenica massacre, the authenticity of the Racak massacre in Kosovo, the use of rape as a tool of war in Bosnia, and the number of people killed throughout the war in Bosnia.
He then expressed his profound disappointment that “members of the chattering classes, unbelievably, have hailed this poison as ‘outstanding work’, in a letter signed by, among others, Noam Chomsky, Arundhati Roy, Tariq Ali, John Pilger et al”.
It is not hard to understand Vulliamy’s frustration. In her book, Johnstone claims Milosevic did not preside over a campaign of ethnic cleansing, but rather that he was advocating ethnic tolerance and harmony amongst Yugoslavia’s peoples.
She also casts doubt on the generally accepted figure (as noted, for example, by the Red Cross) of nearly 8,000 killed in Srebrenica, claiming the number is “inflated”. She further argues that what happened in Srebrenica was not genocide. “One thing should be obvious,” she writes. “One does not commit ‘genocide’ by sparing women and children.”
If anyone wanted more proof that these claims were false, they could look to the case of Radislav Krstic, the Bosnian Serb general who was convicted of genocide by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia for the crimes committed in Srebrenica.
Or they might look to the 2002 confession by the former Bosnian Serb president Biljana Plavsic, who admitted that her government carried out a campaign of ethnic cleansing.
They might even have looked to the admission earlier this year of the massacre in Srebrenica which finally came from the government of Republika Srpska itself, at the same time revealing the existence of 32 new mass graves.
If the perpetrators themselves are ready to admit the atrocities they committed, why is it so difficult for armchair commentators to do the same?
Johnstone's book has inflicted new pain on those who matter the most: those who underwent endless days of mindless torture and survived; on the brave and almost forgotten women of Srebrenica who are still desperately searching for their loved ones; and dishonours the memory of the victims.
But by questioning the established facts, she is also damaging Bosnia’s chances for reconciliation by giving credibility to revisionists who don’t want to acknowledge their wrongs.
Following public outrage over the Ordfront interview, the magazine apologised for the pain caused. But the resulting infighting over the decision led to a split in the editorial board, and the removal of the editor.
This prompted a group of several well-known intellectuals, Noam Chomsky, Arundhati Roy, Tariq Ali, John Pilger to sign an open letter to the Ordfront board, referred to earlier, denouncing the magazine for “censorship”.
“We regard Johnstone's Fools' Crusade as an outstanding work, dissenting from the mainstream view but doing so by an appeal to fact and reason, in a great tradition,” they wrote.
Less then a week after this letter was mentioned in Vulliamy's article for IWPR, Ali sent a message to Slobodna Bosna insisting instead that the letter was a simple denunciation of censorship, not an endorsement of Johnstone’s views.
That may be, but that is certainly not how it was interpreted by Vulliamy or Bosnia’s victims.
In a response to Ali's denial, Quentin Hoare sent a letter to Slobodna Bosna supporting Vulliamy and denouncing Ali's claims.
Hoare's letter is bound to provoke further denials and attacks from the revisionists.
It is surprising how hard it is for grown men and women to admit they made a mistake, let alone to apologise.
Yet instead of the probable tirade of denial and counter accusations likely to be provoked by this comment article and Hoare's letter to Slobodna Bosna, perhaps the esteemed thinkers of the West can make amends.
Perhaps such commentators can show the victims, the survivors and their families that they are not living in a merciless unfeeling world.
They should realise that their words have reopened deep wounds and instead of poring salt on them they should help heal them - by apologising.
They should accept that their words lend credibility to radical nationalists who remain active in Republika Srpska and who are still calling for ethnic and territorial division in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
They should understand how their continuing revisionism over the past still, today, clouds the future for people like Mujagic’s little daughter, the future of the grateful young boy I wrote about at the beginning of this article, the future of all Bosnia's children.
Nerma Jelacic, IWPR's Bosnia and Herzegovina project manager, wrote this article in a personal capacity. Comments to firstname.lastname@example.org
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