When the West Stood Still: The Ravaging of Bosnia

This article originally appeared on my blog, “Musings from a Theo-Geek” on July 11, 2015 to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Serbian genocide in Bosnia.

By Marie Notcheva

This summer marked the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre in Bosnia, the single-largest mass execution Europe has seen since Nazi Germany. Between 1992 and 1995, more than 200,000 Bosnians were exterminated under Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic’s illegitimate “Bosnian Serb Republic”. On July 11, 1995, a two-day killing spree in the town of Srebrenica left nearly 8,000 men (aged 16-75) murdered and dumped in mass graves….while the UN “peacekeeping forces” stood by and did nothing.

When “Never Again” Happened Again

Earlier this year, the world marked the 70-year liberation of Auschwitz – the largest and most infamous Nazi death camp where more than 1.5 million people (most of them Jews) were exterminated. The expression “Never Again” has often been associated with the Holocaust, but the slogan often makes me think of Bosnia and other parts of the Former Yugoslavia where institutionalized “ethnic cleansing” occurred. Neighbors turned against each other – not in the name of religion, as many lazy journalists claimed – but in the name of nationalistic propaganda that revised the past; re-awakened old fears and ethnic hatred; and justified torture, rape, and murder.

It DID happen again.

And the world stood by.

In 1992, as a journalism major at Syracuse University, I wrote my senior thesis on the political situation in what was then Yugoslavia. Slovenia had declared independence first, and in July 1991 Serb forces (under Slobodan Milosevic) invaded seceding Croatia. Hundreds of Croats were killed in the city of Vukovar, which was the beginning of the mass executions. In April 1992, the US and European Community recognized the independence of breakaway Bosnia-Herzegovina, a Muslim-majority territory with roughly 32% Serb population. Sarajevo, the sight of the 1984 Olympics, became known as the city where Serb snipers gunned down civilians in the streets.

Systematic round-ups and killings began – entire towns were razed; their inhabitants deported to concentration camps (Omarska and Trnopolje the largest and most notorious). In his book,“The Tenth Circle of Hell: A Memoir of Life in the Death Camps of Bosnia”, Rezak Hukanovic relates how the Serbian militia controlled all media (and guns) in his hometown of Prijedor and pretended to be “protecting” civilians from “Bosnian Muslim forces” – before forcing them at gunpoint into a basement and transporting them to the prison camp of Omarska. There, Serb soldiers inflicted unspeakable atrocities on the prisoners – their former neighbors, teachers, teammates and friends. Hukanovic describes the anguish of a man cradling his 21-year-old son as he died from starvation and dysentery, and the horror of watching fellow prisoners being mutilated and beaten to death on a daily basis.

All because they were of the wrong “ethnic background”.

Ethnicity, Religion, or an Excuse for Vengeance?

The Serbs distinguished the population along three lines: Serb, Croat and Muslim. “Muslim” is not an ethnic description as are the first two; but rather, a religion. At the risk of painting with too broad of a brush, citizens of the Former Yugoslavia (as elsewhere in the Balkans) are not particularly devout adherents of any religion. Although most Serbs identify nominally as “Christians” and Bosniaks are officially “Muslim”, these labels are generally in the most nominal sense possible. The Balkans are a very secular region (although extremely nationalistic). The conflict was never about religion. Its roots were deep in historical alliances – who sided with whom during the Ottoman Empire; the Nazi occupation; which people groups enjoyed favored status under Jozef Tito, who died in 1980.

Grudges were brought front and center in the post-Communist breakup of six nations “re-unified” after WWII. Lifelong friends and neighbors turned against each other – driven by the revisionist history and hate-filled propaganda of Milosevic’s regime. In economic crisis, the national psyche was as ripe for manipulation as that of the Germans after WWI. (The 1998 film, “Shot Through the Heart”, is an extremely realistic and accurate look at how this happened. Angelina Jolie’s more recent film “In the Land of Blood and Honey” chillingly portrays the sexual slavery into which Serb forces conscripted Bosnian women.)

In one of the less-graphic passages of his book, Hukanovic describes a camp transfer:

“The buses stopped at the entrance to the village of Omarska. Every prisoner with a serious or visible wound was ordered off the bus. No one volunteered, since they knew this meant a slit throat or, as the Serbs liked to call it, “the shortcut.” Then a guy named Mrdja came barreling onto the bus with a club and began beating everyone; he just stepped on the prisoners lying on the floor between the rows of seats as he flailed away. Djemo got hit twice on the head and once on the side, in his ribs. He again felt that unutterable pain, but he neither moved nor cried out. Such responses only further excited the wild beasts. As the trip continued, Mrdja and his “interventionists” often stopped the bus to “intervene”.

During the time this was going on, I was living in Bulgaria – only vaguely aware of the atrocities being committed in the neighboring country of Bosnia. Most Bulgarians were concerned about the war in the former Yugoslavia insofar as it affected them economically – with the trade sanction imposed on Serbia, Bulgaria lost its biggest source of commerce. Journalists were given limited access to the camps, and while there were reporters documenting the mass graves and genocide, not much news seemed to be on the general public’s consciousness. On the whole, we were somewhat unaware of the scale of violence and atrocities against civilians happening just 350 miles away, while living a normal “European” life in Sofia.

To put that in geographic perspective for American readers, imagine you are enjoying a latte in a café in San Francisco. Meanwhile, down in Los Angeles, men are being rounded up and sent to concentration camps – or shot; their bodies dumped in mass graves.

Unthinkable, isn’t it?

“In Omarska as in Auschwitz the masters created these walking corpses from healthy men by employing simple methods: withhold all but the barest nourishment, forcing the prisoners’ bodies to waste away; impose upon them a ceaseless terror by subjecting them to unremitting physical cruelty; immerse them in degradation and death and decay, destroying all hope and obliterating the will to live.
“We won’t waste our bullets on them,” a guard at Omarska, which the Serbs set up in a former open-pit iron mine, told a United Nations representative in mid-1992. “They have no roof. There is sun and rain, cold nights, and beatings two times a day. We give them no food and no water. They will starve like animals. (Source: Frontline “The Horrors of a Camp Called Omarska and the Serb Strategy”)

There are so many unanswered questions about the Bosnian genocide. Why didn’t the United Nations do anything? Given the footage of the horrors of Omarska and Trnopolje, why weren’t the concentration camps liberated? The Red Cross was already on the ground. Why did it take 13 years to extradite Radovan Karadzic to the Hague to face a tribunal for war crimes? (As of this writing, he is still awaiting sentencing). Why did it take NATO and the United States three years to begin any effective military intervention? At Saturday’s memorial to the Srebrenica victims, former US President Bill Clinton admitted that he had done too little, too late to save the victims. After the war ended in the autumn of 1995, with over 200,000 Bosnians dead and 2 million refugees, US Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke called the war “the greatest failure of the West since the 1930s”.

The Ripple Effect – and Implications for Christians

Returning to the United States in 1995, I was shocked and dismayed at how little many Americans seemed to know about the “ethnic cleansing” that had just occurred in the center of Europe. Some were only vaguely aware that there was even a country called “Yugoslavia”, or that there had been a war. During the summer of the Srebrenica massacre, the American media seemed more interested in bringing rouge figure skater Tonya Harding to justice than Karadzic or Milosevic. Although collective knowledge of Hitler’s genocide is quite high in the United States, fewer people are aware of the tens of millions killed in Stalin’s purges; the Armenian genocide (which preceded and inspired Hitler’s extermination of the Jews), or the Bosnian genocide. This is dangerous, as history keeps repeating itself…while we entertain ourselves to death. Moreover, Christians in particular need to be aware of what happened in Bosnia – and how Bosnians themselves view Christianity because of it.

In the Foreword of “The Tenth Circle of Hell”, Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel wrote:

“How to explain such cruelty, such sadism, among people who only yesterday lived in brotherhood with their victims of today? Why, among them, such a thirst to hurt, to injure, to humiliate human beings whose only wrong – whose only “crime” – is to believe in Mohammed rather than in Jesus?”

That passage – written by a Jewish author questioning the “ethnic cleansing” of Muslim Bosniaks, should make any Christian cringe. And yet, imagine you are from a country terrorized by aggressors claiming the Name of Christ. It is inconceivable for us American evangelicals (who presumably read our Bibles and go to church), but the Serb forces claimed to be “Christian” – no matter how nominally. It disgusts me to type this, but there were reports of Serbian Orthodox priests blessing the troops – often drunk on rakia – before they went off on killing sprees of their Muslim countrymen (and raping their women). These monsters did not believe in Jesus either, of course; and relatively few of their victims had much interest in Mohammed. Nevertheless, religious propaganda is a powerful tool, and was used brutally and effectively in the former Yugoslavia to take vengeance. It does little good to protest “But they were not real Christians!” when it was under the pretext of the Church that genocide was carried out.

Is it any wonder, then, that Bosnia remains, 20 years later, the most unreached nation in Europe with the Gospel? According to the Pew Research Center, 93% of Bosnians say that most or all of their close friends are Muslims, and between 14-16% say they would be comfortable with their son or daughter marrying a Christian. While Bosnia remains a secular nation, it has become a prime target for Islamic “evangelists” coming from the East. These well-funded groups build schools and mosques and view Bosnia as a prime recruiting ground for their terrorist organizations (despite the fact that nearly 95% of Bosniaks distrust Islamic extremism).

In Bosnia, (as in neighboring Kosovo, which also endured atrocities and human rights violations for years under the Serbs), Christianity is seen as the religion of the enemy. Distrust towards Christians of all stripes is common when conversion becomes an issue – much more so than in neighboring countries (which, despite having a Christian “tradition”, cannot be considered “Christian nations” in any sense). This makes for an extremely difficult mission field, and generations will be needed before the wounds of war start to heal. The fact that the Christian faith was hijacked and bastardized by evil men who never knew God is not in question. However, a true understanding of the Gospel is hard to convey when one’s entire family has been wiped out in the name of religion.

The commemorative expression “Never Again” needs to be applied to Bosnia as much as to the earlier, enormous genocide of 6 million Jews in 20th century Europe. Their lives mattered, and the tragedy must be remembered. Perhaps the greatest tragedy of all is that the media dutifully reported; the world knew; politicians hemmed and hawed – and nothing was done. Three years; a quarter of a million men, women and children obliterated; and “ethnic cleansing” continued unabated in the middle of Europe.

The rape and destruction of Sarajevo, Srebrenica, Banja Luka, Omarska and the rest of Bosnia must never be forgotten.

Never again, indeed.

Brain Droppings