At a time when the persecution of Muslims is becoming increasingly common, it has taken English royalty to offer insight on the subject. Referring to the worst genocide in Europe since the Third Reich, Princess Anne recently said: “The lesson of Srebrenica is that the stirring up of hatred and discrimination is always wrong, and if left unchecked, can lead to terrible evil.”
The Princess Royal was in Bosnia-Herzegovina this weekend to mark the 20th anniversary of the slaughter of 8,372 Bosnian Muslims over five days. All were killed by Bosnian Serb forces during the Bosnia War amidst the break-up of former Yugoslavia into independent states in the early 1990s. Srebrenica was officially a safe area nominally protected by Dutch soldiers from the United Nations, but it was overrun and captured by paramilitary troops led by the Serb commander Ratko Mladić on July 11, 1995.
In a message released before her historic visit, Princess Anne said: “The murder of thousands of Muslims, mostly men and boys, at Srebrenica was a terrible crime. The first case of genocide in Europe since the end of the Second World War.” She added: “So we should all, wherever we live in the world, work for understanding and tolerance between all peoples.”
Week of remembrance
The princess touched many of the Bosnians I spoke to during the past week of remembrance. One, Munira Subašić, a 57 year-old widow and president of the Mothers of Srebrenica Association who lost 22 members of her immediate family, said: “They were executed in the most horrific manner possible for no other reason except that they were Muslims.
“Boys and men were rounded up, tortured, and then exterminated in their thousands. Thousands more were killed in so-called death marches as they were trying to flee for their lives. Their bodies ended up being cut down, dumped and deliberately scattered in mass graves by mechanical diggers. Many mothers have still not found a single bone of their sons and other relatives. The princess has got it exactly right – discrimination against Muslims became acceptable to the Serbs, and this grew into mass murder. That is the nature of overwhelming evil.”
Even now, there are Bosnian Serbs living in and around Srebrenica who believe that the genocide was either entirely justified or simply did not happen. They say that, in any case, their soldiers had a duty to “defend” them, and that leaders such as Mladić and Radovan Karadžić – who are both on trial in The Hague for genocide – remain national heroes. The United Nations has still to even recognise the crime as genocide, even though international courts do. This has caused huge anger among the surviving family and friends of victims.
All of this has chilling parallels with the way some minority groups are treated today, and especially Muslims. In the latter case, blame for violent radicalism by criminals is extended to entire communities, as all members are stigmatised. A lone wolf sociopath who has got hold of a gun and carried out an act of barbarism suddenly becomes representative of the whole of Islam. Monstrous organisations such as ISIS, which manipulate faith for their own sadistic ends, suddenly become representative of the world’s second largest religion after Christianity.
Day-to-day prejudice against those unjustly associated with such cruelty is initially seen as routine, and soon escalates into something far more sinister.
This is currently the case in Burma, for example, where hundreds of Rohingya – or Burmese Muslims – are regularly killed by Buddhists and security forces before being tipped into mass graves, with the United Nations calling the Rohingya one of the most persecuted minorities in the world. This is also because abuses such as the rape of women, violent mass arrests, torture, the forcible displacement of hundreds of thousands, and the denial of humanitarian aid are widespread practices.
The Rohingya have lived in Burma for generations, but are oppressed because of their religion. A birth control law has been introduced to limit the size of their community. Members of the current population of around 800,000 people are denied citizenship, making them stateless and with almost no rights at all. The Burmese authorities do not even acknowledge the Rohingya name, instead categorising them as Bengalis, so they can treat them as illegal migrants from Bangladesh.
In the case of the old Yugoslavia, resentment against Muslims produced discriminatory legislation, imposing restrictions on all aspects of their life – from freedom of movement and speech, to employment and housing rights. This degenerated into concentration camps, mass rape, and then “ethnic cleansing”, the sinister euphemism for mass murder which shot to prominence during the three year war between 1992 and 1995.
It was the unspeakable horror of Srebrenica which finally brought the international community to its senses. Up until the massacres, countries including Britain, the United States and France were aware of a speech in which Mladić said he wanted the entire Muslim population in the region around Srebrenica to “vanish completely,” while Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadžić had pledged “blood up to the knees.” Documents newly declassified in the USA reveal that the CIA was watching the murders almost “live” from satellite planes. But the West did nothing about them.
Ms Subašić said: “That’s why I am dedicating my life to try to bring all the criminals involved to justice for their atrocities, and find out the truth about what happened. There are also those who failed to prevent the genocide – and by that I mean world leaders who need to learn lessons from Srebrenica, because they effectively gave the greenlight for the massacre.”
As persecution intensified and turned into a genocide, those in charge of democracies nominally committed to justice and human rights stood idly by. Srebrenica was a terrifying turning point which is rightly commemorated, not only as a hugely important tribute to the dead and those who survived, but as a warning about where day-to-day religious prejudice can so easily lead.