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World Jewish Congress: We Will Not Stand Aside, We Mourn the Victims of the Genocide in Srebrenica

“Never again” does not mean and cannot be allowed to mean never again only for Jews; that means never again to anyone, to any people, to any minority, writes Menachem Z. Rosensaft for Just Security.

Earlier this month, I had the privilege of leading the delegation of the World Jewish Congress to Bosnia and Herzegovina at the commemoration marking the 28th anniversary of the genocide in Srebrenica. On a personal level, I find this pilgrimage deeply meaningful in two respects: first, because as the son of two survivors of the Nazi death and concentration camps Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen and as someone who was born in a displaced persons camp, I intuitively identify with victims and survivors of genocide and crimes against humanity; and second, because this was my last substantive initiative as WJC’s Associate Executive Vice President and General Counsel before I step down from these positions at the end of August, writes Menachem Z. Rosensaft in an op-ed for Just Security .

“The terrible facts about the genocide are not in doubt, except in certain extreme – and discredited, mostly Bosnian Serb circles and among Serbs. Between July 11 and 16, 1995, the paramilitary forces of the Bosnian Serb separatist proto-state known as Republika Srpska, under the command of General Ratko Mladić, massacred more than 8,000 Bosniak – that is, Bosnian Muslim – men and boys in and around the Bosnian town of Srebrenica. , which the United Nations declared a “protected zone” under its protection.

Those same Republika Srpska forces also deported more than 25,000 Bosniak women, children and the elderly from Srebrenica. The Dutch battalion of the UN, known as Dutchbat, based in the former battery factory in nearby Potočari, not only repulsed the desperate Bosniaks, but callously handed them over to Mladić’s stormtroopers.

Since then, a number of trial and appeals panels of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), as well as the International Court of Justice, have declared the murders in Srebrenica genocide. Among the Bosnian Serbs convicted of genocide – the first such convictions in Europe since the UN General Assembly adopted the Genocide Convention in 1948 – were Mladic and Republika Srpska President Radovan Karadzic.

According to the provisions of the Dayton Agreement of November 1995, which was supposed to restore a semblance of peace to Bosnia after four years of brutal war, Bosnia was divided into the Bosnian Croat Federation and the aforementioned Republika Srpska. While the genocide in Srebrenica and the countless crimes against humanity committed by ultra-nationalist Bosnian Serb units under Mladić’s command against the Bosniaks are a continuously burning scar for the Muslim population of the country, the prevailing attitude in the ruling circles of the Republika Srpska is genocide denial and even affirmative glorification of Mladić and his units. and their Serbian supremacist ideologies, explains Rosensaft.

Identifying with pain and suffering

The main goal of the WJC delegation in Bosnia from July 9 to 11 was to identify, both individually and as an organization representing more than 100 Jewish communities around the world, the enormous pain and suffering that the Bosniak people endure to this day. Over the years, some Jewish leaders and activists have also been in Bosnia for this July anniversary. I had the privilege of speaking at the commemoration in Potočari in 2022. This time, however, we wanted to emphasize the collective Jewish presence on this occasion, and the delegation was truly international and represented the WJC as a whole.

The group included two members of the WJC Board of Directors, Mary Kluk from South Africa and Eli Novershtern from Israel, as well as two members of the WJC Executive Board, Dr. Efrat Sopher from the United Kingdom and Sonat Birnecker Hart from the United States; Konstanty Gebert, a prominent Polish-Jewish journalist and writer who was a war correspondent during the 1990s in the former Yugoslavia; members of the WJC’s Jewish Diplomatic Corps, the organization’s flagship future leadership division, from Bosnia, Germany, Israel, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States; and members of WJC’s senior staff, including Daniel Radomski, Head of Strategy and Programs and Executive Director of JD Corps; Ernest Herzog, Executive Director of Operations; Maya Cimeša Samokovija, executive director for community affairs; and Cory Weiss, executive director of communications strategy.

This was not the first identification of the WJC with the commemoration of the genocide in Srebrenica. Three years ago, two members of this year’s WJC delegation, Gila Baumöhl from Frankfurt and Vladimir Andrle from Sarajevo, launched the JD Corps social media and opinion writing campaign to raise awareness of the Srebrenica genocide. “As Jews, we look back on a history of more than 4,000 years that was affected by discrimination, persecution and extermination of our people, culminating in the deliberate extermination of six million Jews during the Holocaust,” wrote Gila Baumöhl on July 9, 2020 in Germany’s Jüdische Allgemeine . “We carry this history and the memory of the victims and our relatives with us. It’s part of our DNA. So we know what it means when human beings are systematically killed because of their religion or ethnicity – like in Srebrenica.”

The concept of the JD Corps delegation came from a meeting a few months ago between Ambassador Sven Alkalai, then Bosnia’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations (and now his country’s ambassador to the United States), Daniel Radomski and myself, followed by a Zoom call with Emir Suljagić, Director of the Srebrenica Memorial Center in Potočari. We decided to hold a day-long conference on collective memory at the center on July 10, 2023, the day before the commemoration, allowing our delegation to share and exchange views with members of Bosniak civil society, as well as senior staff at the center. Among the topics to be discussed are how to remember the missing and the dead; memorial roles, museums and education in memory preservation; dealing with the denial and distortion of the Holocaust and genocide; our responsibility to the dead and survivors; and the fight against political and ideological extremism in Europe.

Stories everywhere

Our group arrived in Potočare on Sunday, July 9, and was taken through the memorial center, which is located in the very buildings where 28 years earlier, the supposed peacekeepers of the Dutch Battalion betrayed the Bosniaks they were supposed to protect. The Srebrenica Memorial Center that is now located there is extremely impressive in every way – it is in the same league as other large Holocaust or Genocide memorial centers anywhere in the world. This is all the more remarkable because it was achieved in such a short time — and mostly in isolation, with Potočari a few hours’ drive from the nearest town.

But perhaps this is one of the center’s strengths – its staff is a group composed mostly of survivors of the genocide, fueled by internal fires and defiant by the ideological heirs of the killers of their families and friends, who seek to distort or completely erase their nightmarish, still-living memories.

Amra Begić Fazlić, deputy director of the Center, has been there for more than 18 years. Her steady, encouraging presence is the yin to Suljagić’s exuberant yang. Amra’s father, grandfather, 26 other relatives and her best friend were killed in the genocide. “We have been waiting to see our loved ones off to eternal rest,” she says, echoing the sentiments of the entire staff, “and now we keep the memory of all of them. That’s why it’s more than a job. It is a mission that never ends.” In a very real sense, she and her colleagues carry visible and hidden scars. “The victim does not necessarily have to be dead,” she explains, “we are indirect victims of the genocide in Srebrenica.”

Almasa Salihović, the Center’s communications director, was only eight years old when Bosnian Serbs literally tore her brother from her hands and took him to be killed. These are memories that could – and probably should – leave her mentally scarred for life. And yet she is an upbeat, usually smiling, consummate professional who has channeled her understandable anger and anguish into a passionate commitment to her brother’s memory and the memory of more than 8,000 other victims of the genocide.

Azir Osmanović, the Center’s chief curator, took us through the exhibition entitled “In the footsteps of those who (do not) cross” which depicts the desperate attempts of Bosniak men and boys to escape through the forests from Srebrenica to the relative safety of Tuzla, the nearest free city. Most of these Bosniaks were killed in a relatively short period of time. The exhibit features artifacts found in their wake, including shoes—all that’s left of those who once wore them—arranged like ghosts in an endless, motionless death march. Seeing these shoes made me think of the mountains of shoes in Auschwitz, perhaps including the ones my brother and grandparents wore before they were gassed.

Azir survived the death march as a 13-year-old boy. His 16-year-old brother Azmir, who was part of a group of unarmed boys, was not. Azmir’s skull was found and identified by DNA analysis in 2018. “After I found out it was my brother’s skull,” Azir said, “I felt like he was killed instantly.” Azir buried his brother’s remains on July 11, 2021.

Hasan Hasanović, who runs the center’s impressive oral history program, is the co-author of the book “Voices from Srebrenica: Stories of Survivors of the Bosnian Genocide”, a collection of stories that is both convincing and heartbreaking. Hasan showed us his growing archive, which will guarantee that the memories of the survivors will serve as an academic resource, as well as ensure that the individuality of the crime, the descriptions of each crime as witnessed or experienced by the survivors, and the identities of the dead will be permanently inscribed in Bosnian – and world – history. collective memory. What amazed us all was the sophisticated professionalism of Hasan and his team – the oral histories they have compiled and continue to collect are on par with those collected at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum or the USC Shoah Foundation.

Suljagić, the director of the center who gathers his well-coordinated team, is a force of nature. Tall, exuberant, charismatic, intellectually brilliant with a sharp sense of irreverent humor and utterly fearless, he transformed the center from a provincial local monument into a world-class memorial institution. He is also regularly vilified by Bosnian Serbs and Serbian ultranationalists. In July 1995, he was a translator for the Dutch Battalion and survived because an American NATO official stationed in Tuzla actually ordered the command of the Dutch Battalion to take all necessary measures “to ensure the safety and safe evacuation” of Suljagić and another Bosniak translator. Suljagić then worked as a journalist, reporting from the ICTY in The Hague, and was the Deputy Minister of Defense of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Unique tragedies — with universal implications

One final thought: we commemorate the victims of the Holocaust because they are our families, our communities, our people, but also because they were victims of genocide, because they were victims of terrible crimes against humanity. We too must recognize and commemorate with equal force the genocide and crimes against humanity committed against the Bosniak people in Srebrenica and elsewhere.

Our moral imperative must be that all victims of genocide, crimes against humanity and other such crimes deserve dignity and respect, that their agony and suffering be acknowledged and remembered. Auschwitz survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel taught that “the Holocaust was a uniquely Jewish tragedy with universal implications.” In the same sense, I believe that the Srebrenica genocide was a uniquely Bosniak tragedy, albeit with universal implications, just as the Rwandan genocide was a uniquely Tutsi tragedy, albeit, again, with universal implications.

Every genocide and every crime against humanity must be seen as a unique tragedy from the perspective and through the prism of its victims, but always, always, with universal implications.

I also firmly believe that only if we ensure that all the past and present horrors – Auschwitz, Srebrenica, Bergen-Belsen, Kigali, Bucha – are inexorably integrated into the world consciousness, we have at least a chance of winning against the forces of darkness, bigotry, anti-Semitism, racism, Islamophobia, xenophobia , homophobia and hatred in general that threaten humanity as a whole. “Never again” does not and cannot be allowed to mean never again only for Jews. That means never again to anyone, to any nation, to any minority. We will not stand by – we cannot stand by – when any group, any minority is victimized, persecuted, oppressed or killed. That is why our WJC delegation traveled to Potočare and why we joined the Bosniak people in commemorating the victims of the genocide in Srebrenica on July 10 and 11, concludes Rosensaft.”