(Editor’s note: This article is adapted from the author’s speech at today’s commemoration of the 27th anniversary of the Srebrenica Genocide, delivered at Potočari, one of the killing sites during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina and now the location of the Srebrenica-Potočari Memorial and Cemetery.)
On July 10, 1995, 26-year-old Nihad ‘Nino’ Ćatić delivered his last radio broadcast from Srebrenica:
“Srebrenica is turning into a vast slaughterhouse. The killed and wounded are being brought to the hospital continuously. It is impossible to describe it. Each second, three deadly projectiles are falling on this town. Seventeen casualties have just been brought to the hospital, as well as 57 severely and lightly wounded people. Will anyone in the world come and witness the tragedy that is befalling Srebrenica and its residents? This is an outrageous crime against the Bosniak population of Srebrenica. The people of this city are disappearing.”
The following day, as troops from the breakaway predominantly Serb part of Bosnia, Republika Srpska, began implementing the final horrific stage of the genocidal slaughter of Srebrenica’s Bosniak inhabitants, Nino told his mother that he and his friends planned to escape through the woods. Hajra Ćatić remembered watching her son and the other young people walking away. “I kept looking at them as they faded away through the forest. That is the last time I saw Nino. At the petrol station. Then he faded away into the column.”
Hajra Ćatić kept a recording of Nino’s last broadcast on her mobile phone. “When I lie down and when I get up,” she said, “I lie down with that sentence: ‘Srebrenica is turning into the biggest slaughterhouse.’ I mean, it never goes out of my head, I can’t forget.”
Hajra Ćatić spent more than 26 years searching in vain for Nino’s remains. She founded and headed the Association of the Women of Srebrenica, devoting herself tirelessly to ensuring that the horrors and suffering endured by the Bosniak people in the Srebrenica genocide would never be forgotten. She was a driving force behind the creation of this powerful and moving Memorial here at Potočari.
Numbers and statistics are by definition anonymous and can be simultaneously overwhelming and desensitizing. We have difficulty visualizing 8,372 murdered men and boys, their images and faces merging into one another, just as we are unable to conceptualize the six million Jews murdered in the Holocaust.
The survivors, of course, and the families of the victims, carry their loved ones in their hearts and in their minds, today and every day.
In order for the rest of us to be able to truly relate to the enormous human tragedy of the Srebrenica genocide, especially on a day like today, we, too, must think of the individual victims, and try to imagine their fear, their anguish, their pain, and the monstrous way they were killed.
And so, ladies and gentlemen, allow me to dedicate my remarks here today to the memory of Nino and Hajra Ćatić in the hope that through them we can expand our remembrance to encompass all those whose lives were so brutally cut short in and around Srebrenica by individuals who showed no human compassion or decency, and to enable us to empathize, if not identify with, all those who suffered so terribly during and in the 27 years since the Srebrenica genocide.
What can I, the son of two survivors of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, tell you, the survivors of the Srebrenica genocide and your families that you don’t already know and feel?
We understand, of course, how heartbreaking this anniversary is for you. But it is also of momentous significance for all who care about international human rights, for all who have a conscience.
In his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, Elie Wiesel said, “Wherever men or women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must – at that moment – become the center of the universe.”
In July of 1995, Srebrenica indeed became the center of the universe, and the international community must be forced to remember the crime against humanity, the genocide, that it allowed to happen here because of its abject failure and refusal to prevent it from happening.
It’s not that the world did not have ample warnings. Nino Ćatić was far from alone in trying to sound the alarm. Samantha Power, David Rohde, and other war correspondents had covered the gruesome developments of the war in Bosnia. But their words failed to set the world on fire, just as 42 and 43 years earlier, the reports of the systematic annihilation of European Jewry fell largely on deaf ears.
Where, then, do we go from here? What do we – both you who suffered through this genocide and we who were not there – need to do together going forward?
My friend Dunja Mijatović, the commissioner for human rights of the Council of Europe, has called for July 11 to be declared an official Remembrance Day of the Srebrenica genocide.
Just as Jan. 27, the date that the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp was liberated by Soviet troops in 1945, is observed around the world as International Holocaust Remembrance Day, it is critical for the entire international community to follow the example of the European Parliament and formally commemorate the Srebrenica genocide every year on July 11. This should be done not just out of respect for its victims, but as a public countermeasure to the repeated efforts, especially — but by no means exclusively — in Republika Srpska, to deny this genocide.
Let me make myself very clear. We all want reconciliation; indeed, we need reconciliation for society to move on after genocides and other crimes against humanity. But any genuine reconciliation must be rooted in truth, in a common understanding of established facts. And the facts are that, over the course of several days beginning on July 11, 1995, Bosnian Serb paramilitary thugs commanded by General Ratko Mladić murdered more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys between the ages of 12 and 77 from Srebrenica and its surroundings, which the U.N. Security Council had previously designated “as a safe area which should be free from any armed attack or other hostile act.” Bosnian Serb forces also forcibly and viciously expelled 25,000 Bosniak women, children, and elderly men from the Srebrenica enclave.
We cannot allow the deniers of the Srebrenica genocide to continue to spread their lies with impunity, or to try shamelessly to shift the blame to the victims, as was done last year in a report by a self-styled “independent” commission appointed by authorities of the Republika Srpska, now an “entity” cemented into the 1995 Dayton Agreement that ended the fighting but created a dysfunctional system of governance for Bosnia that threatens the peace to this day. That report was an intellectual and jurisprudential abomination that flies in the face of unambiguous and consistent findings by the International Court of Justice and numerous panels of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia that a genocide was indeed perpetrated at Srebrenica.
Nineteen years ago, when the first 600 victims of the genocide whose remains had been identified were buried here, a survivor, Almedina Dautbašić, expressed the moral imperative that must be our guiding principle in confronting the perpetrators of all genocides and crimes against humanity and in challenging the unscrupulous genocide deniers who seek to falsify and desecrate history:
You did kill our children, our fathers, our mothers, our brothers, our husbands. You did try to kill a whole people. But remember, you did not kill our memory, because as of today, it will be stronger than any evil that you did to us … Our remembering your crime is our right and our pledge.
Today and tomorrow, we who were not there stand in full solidarity with the survivors and their families. Let us dedicate ourselves together to permanently enshrining the genocide that occurred at Srebrenica and Potočari in the annals of humankind, for the sake of remembrance, of course, but also, equally importantly, as a warning.