I spent most of last week in Bosnia, part of the former Yugoslavia. 20 years ago in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica 8,372 Muslim men and boys were murdered, systematically by Serbian troops whilst a Dutch United Nations battalion watched on, apparently helpless. The massacre was preceded by a three year siege of the capital Sarajevo where hundreds were shot, shelled and starved. The physical scars remain, represented by 'Sarajevo Roses' - red resin rather than tarmac marks the spots where people perished at the hands of their former next door neighbours.
I was there as part of a study tour, organised by the charity Remembering Srebrenica, whose goal is to raise awareness of what happened in the mid-nineties in the Balkans and prevent a reoccurrence. The International Criminal Tribunal has already ruled, unequivocally, that what happened in Srebrenica was 'genocide'. There have already been convictions whilst some of the key players are still on trial. Names like Ratko Mladić and Radovan Karadžić rang bells with me as I thought back to seeing them on the news in 1995.
The history of the region is complex and there are a variety of views of the conflicts over the years but there was no real sense of healing in Bosnia. The scars seemed raw and the wounds still open. You could sense an undercurrent of unfinished business, of resentment, maybe even of trouble ahead. There were glimpses of this, most memorably this quote from the visitors' book at the Srebrenica Memorial, written the same day we visited. It read, simply "NEVER FORGET. NEVER FORGIVE". No Mandela inspired truth and reconciliation here.
We watched tragic footage of six teenage boys, taken by soldiers from their mothers and siblings, to a field. There was a delay, whilst the troops sent away for a spare battery for the video camera so they could film what followed. Four of the boys were shot in the back, murdered. The two remaining boys, skinny and weak from years of malnourished survival under siege were forced to drag their recently murdered mates from the murder scene, sparing the soldiers this unpleasant task. And then of course, they were slaughtered too, just like their mates had been minutes before. This happened here, in Europe, in our lifetime in what had been a popular holiday destination. It is a plane journey away. You can get there more quickly than you can get to Tenerife.
Spending time with the Bosnian people showed how real and present is our capacity to rise up against those we see as a threat - to our identity, ideals, faith, nationality, politics, class, difference - the list is endless. One of the trademarks of genocide is the de-humanisation of a section of the population, the target for 'ethnic cleansing' (a term I still struggle to say or type). Once 'they' are seen as less than human, killing is easy, or at least easier. This happened in Srebrenica. It happened in Rwanda and in Nazi Germany. Referring to people dying in the Mediterranean Sea as cockroaches is a start of that dehumanising process - media celebrities, take note.
Neighbours. Isn't that the lesson that Srebrenica and Sarajevo provide? Think about your next door neighbour or the people you see every day at work, school, college, when you're out. Or when you're 'out out'. Or the people who feature in the media that we consume daily. What could possibly turn you or me against him or her? Or both of them? Or their parents or kids? And turn us so far that we would take up arms against them because 'they're not human anymore'?
So yes. On the 11 July, Remember Srebrenica. Remember the horrors of a genocide on our doorstep only twenty years ago. Remember that number - 8372. It's still rising. But let's also remember to guard against the rise of the sentiments and language that can so easily turn people to acts of horror that they would never have thought possible.