Week 6: Srebrenica Reflections

“…Those who devise and implement genocide seek to deprive humanity of the manifold richness its nationalities, races, and ethnicities and religions provide. This is a crime against all humankind, its harm being felt not only by the group targeted for destruction, but by all of humanity…” – Appeal Judgment in the case of Radislav Kristić, 19. Apr. 2004

When you study security, genocide isn’t a word you often pay a second thought to. It’s a horrible thing, yes, but when you study security, genocide just seems to be another one of those ugly consequences that happens during war. Sometimes, it often seems inevitable. Other times, it appears to be strategic—for a piece of territory or political survival. As a security student, I have been taught from the very beginning of my academic career to separate “abstract moralities” from the cold, hard calculations of interests and objectives. We are expected to think about political interests like they are mathematical equations—to close the door on our emotions and leave our sympathies behind us. If we bring them with us, even tucked away carefully somewhere in the back of our minds, we risk compromising the overall mission. At least that is what I’ve always been told.

Before this trip, I did everything I could to study the political history of Bosnia, to try to understand the war through the lens of security and political interests and failed agendas. I tried to understand why the United States stayed out of the conflict for as long as possible. “We don’t have a dog in that fight,” Secretary of State James Baker infamously said of the Balkans. I tried to justify the lack of authority the United Nations exerted. That’s just how the United Nations is, that’s how it’s always been, I tried to tell myself.

All of this changed after visiting Srebrenica. There is no excuse for letting 8,373 people die over the course of nine days in a declared United Nations “safe zone.” There aren’t any national interests that are achieved by sitting back and allowing defenseless people to be slaughtered. I am no longer able to think about the word genocide in plain calculations of rationalized policy objectives and national interests and overarching strategies. I can no longer think about human lives being represented by just a number. I have smelled their bodies, seen their graves, and heard their stories. I have viewed the things they carried in their pockets as they fled their homes and expected to reach safety, and I have peered into paper bags that still hold their earth-covered blue jeans. For every life that makes up that haunting four digit number—8,373—there is a story that we will never get to hear.

Writing this blog is one of the most difficult things I’ve ever had to write. I’ve been avoiding it for so long, because to go back to Srebrenica and to relive the second-hand horrors of what happened there is akin to ripping a scab off of a wound that still hasn’t healed. To think how painful it is for me, someone who just visited Srebrenica and heard the stories of survivors twenty years after the event makes me realize that the pain that people live with every day after personally going through such an ordeal must be indescribable. Words will never be enough to convey it or to bring anyone justice. But it’s the best I can do.

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Srebrenica Memorial
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