I came across the above bit of wisdom while re-reading Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix on a train from Budapest to Bratislava during my post-Bosnia trip. While Sirius Black uses this argument to assuage Harry’s fears that Dolores Umbridge could be working for Lord Voldemort, I think its applicability extends to Muggle society as well.
When learning about genocide, whether in the field or from a book, a lot of people tend to focus on the incomprehensible force of evil that drives the perpetrators, or the innocence of the helpless victims. I’m not trying to argue that Ratko Mladić was simply misunderstood, or that any of Srebrenica’s Bosniak victims and survivors deserved to experience a genocide, but that the default narrative of black and white does a disservice to an understanding of what genocide (or ethnic cleansing, or any other crime against humanity) is.
While the people who order acts of genocide certainly make some appalling decisions, their plans could not be carried out without some level of popular support, or at least apathy. Maybe it’s easier to think that every person who participates in an act of genocide is an evil maniac, but throughout history we’ve seen countless ordinary individuals commit heinous acts in the right confluence of circumstances. And while it’s easy to remember the individual victims of a mass atrocity as “innocent,” their unfortunate and undeserved persecution for their identity does not negate any past misdeeds. Conversely, a lack of agency is not a prerequisite to victimhood; a group that actively resists or with forces fighting back on their behalf can still become the targets of a genocide or other human rights violation.
So why are these Harry Potter-inspired musings relevant to my wrap-up Bosnia blog? In both Bosnia and Rwanda, I’ve had the privilege of meeting genocide survivors, many of whom have stated that their hope when sharing their experiences with outsiders is to prevent future genocides from occurring. If you want to prevent a genocide from happening in the first place, or intervene in a mass atrocity already underway, you have to understand what you’re dealing with. If you’re looking for a “perfect” conflict, in which the roles of villain and victim are clearly dichotomized, you’ll quite possibly analyze the situation incorrectly or mistake it for a “normal” war.
For as much as I’ve heard people with good intentions speak of genocide as an aberration, I’ve yet to hear of a genocide which occurred in a vacuum. Past decisions and relations, and particularly issues which remain unresolved, will continue to affect present and future events. I could play the what-if game until this blog post reaches book length: if the victims of WWII-era Ustaše violence had received adequate recognition or compensation, would there have been enough support for the war in the 1990s? If different leaders had risen to power after Tito’s death, would Yugoslavia have had such a violent demise? If other countries had intervened sooner, would the violence have escalated as it did? These hypotheticals can’t change the past, but they represent considerations that can be taken to prevent future atrocities.
Reconciliation is an extremely important part of sustainable peacebuilding, as it promotes social cohesion. That previous statement is nothing groundbreaking, however I think it is important to emphasize the importance of inclusive reconciliation, meaning that the grievances from parties on all sides of the conflict are aired and addressed appropriately. That’s not to say that one side of a conflict won’t have endured a disproportionate amount of losses and hardship at the hands of another, but that what each side has experienced must be acknowledged.
Bosnia, with its three presidents, two entities, segregated schools, self-segregating population, and prevalent ethno-nationalism, has yet to achieve such a reconciliation. I’m not trying to predict Bosnia’s future from what I learned in two short months, but from what I can tell, the type of social cohesion that can inhibit violence like the Bosnian War has yet to be built. And it seems to me that purposeful separation and a lack of inter-ethnic interaction and relationships are a big part of this. It’s easy to believe that all of the Bosniaks, Croats or Serbs are Death Eaters when you’re repeatedly told of their evil deeds against your kind of people, and you don’t know any of them personally to contradict that idea. Perhaps this mentality is a piece of what does lead otherwise nonviolent people to participate in largescale killings. But we can’t say that definitively without listening to them, no matter how much we might not want to. And it is through listening to all sides that conflict can be effectively understood, resolved and prevented in the future.