A Bosnian Muslim woman prays between the tombstones of her sons who were killed during the Srebrenica massacre in 1995 A Bosnian Muslim woman prays between the tombstones of her sons who were killed during the Srebrenica massacre in 1995 

25 years from the Srebrenica genocide: a nation divided

A quarter of a century has gone by since more than 8,000 Bosniak men and boys were slaughtered in what had been designated a UN “safe area” in the town of Srebrenica in eastern Bosnia and Herzegovina during the fratricidal war that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia.

By Alessandro Di Bussolo & Linda Bordoni

The families of over 1,000 victims of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre are still waiting and hoping to bury the remains of their loved ones in a quest for peace and some measure of closure. This year, as every year on 11 July — the anniversary of the beginning of the ten-day killing spree — mothers, sisters, daughters and wives will gather for a funeral of the recently identified.  

The enclave had been set aside for civilians fleeing fighting between Bosnian government and separatist Serb forces during the breakup of Yugoslavia. But Bosnian Serb forces overran the few UN peacekeepers protecting Srebrenica in the closing months of the country’s savage 1992-95 fratricidal war.

They laid siege to the town and systematically massacred Bosnian Muslim men and boys, ploughed the bodies into hastily made mass graves, then later dug them up with bulldozers and scattered them among other burial sites to hide evidence of the crime.

In interviews with Vatican Radio’s Alessandro Di Bussolo, Mustafa Ceric, Grand Mufti Emeritus of Bosnia, and Franciscan Fr. Franjo Ninić, parish priest of Srebrenica, say the path to national reconciliation and the healing of wounds, both at a local and national level, is a slow and bumpy one.

Nothing has changed,” says Mustafa Ceric, “in Bosnia we are in a permanent process of seeking truth, demanding justice, praying for peace and dreaming of reconciliation. This is not easy, but there is no other way forward for us here.”

Franciscan Father Franjo Ninić
Franciscan Father Franjo Ninić

Open wounds and division

As parish priest of Srebrenica, Fr. Franjo has first-hand experience of the struggle for Bosnian Serbs, Bosnian Croats and Bosnian Muslims to live in peace with the memory of the massacre and the ongoing investigation. 

He says, too, that “in the relations between the national communities of Serbs, Bosniaks and Croats, there are no special changes. Wounds from the war, especially the crimes committed during the war, burden the life and coexistence of the Serb and Bosniak communities in particular.”

He explains that the commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre is viewed differently “from the Bosniak side, which was the victim, and from the Serb side, whose military and political leadership was convicted of genocide at The Hague Tribunal.”

Unfortunately, Fr Franjo says, the genocide has been politicized, “as well as the denial and exploitation of victims for recent political and inter-ethnic clashes in and around Srebrenica.”

Mustafa Ceric, Gran Mufti Emeritus of Bosnia
Mustafa Ceric, Gran Mufti Emeritus of Bosnia

The role of political leaders

The Grand Mufti Emeritus notes, “There are some individuals and groups among the Serbian people who are willing to confess the Serbian sin of genocide and to ask for forgiveness but the Serbian official approach is still caught in the chains of denial, which is an obstacle to a reconciliation that must be based on truth and justice, as well as on a promise that such crime will never be repeated.”

“Hopefully the whole Serbian nation will realize that the confession of the sin of genocide is the only way toward forgiveness,” he says.       

Serbia's President, Tomislav Nikolic, has apologised for all "crimes" committed by Serbs during the break-up of Yugoslavia, including Srebrenica, but stopped short of calling the massacre an act of genocide as recognized by UN war crimes prosecutors.    

Mustafa Ceric and Fr. Franjo agree that the ongoing process to identify the remains of the dead, to return houses and land to their rightful owners and to bring culprits to justice is a necessary step on the way to true reconciliation and peace. 

Forensic experts identify the remains of victims and name them
Forensic experts identify the remains of victims and name them

Fr. Franjo says that although it is taking a long time to process the pain and the anger, important steps have also been taken on the political level.

“Twenty-five years after the war, the democratic parliamentary system is partly functioning, elections are being held, positive moves are being made towards EU and NATO membership, [the] civil and the NGO sectors are developing, the GDP is slowly growing. All of this thanks to interventions and mediation of the international community," he observes.

He laments, however, that the inter-ethnic reconciliation process, “and what you call the ‘healing of wounds,’ is slow.”

He says nationalistic narratives are still very strong and present in society, “supported in part and by the close connection between religious communities and national policies.”

The role of religious leaders

That’s why, Fr. Franjo explains, the responsibility of the religious leaders of the different faith communities is enormous: “The Interreligious Council of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the representatives of all the main religious communities (Catholic Church, Islamic Community, Serbian Orthodox Church and Jewish Community) are committed on several levels, not only to heal war wounds but also to heal memories, which often burden the current life and reconciliation processes.” 

The Grand Mufti Emeritus is totally in agreement and adds, “They can do a lot and they must do it now and here for the sake of humanity which is at great risk of extinction if the world religions do not take serious steps toward [the] peace and reconciliation of mankind.”

“We are now aware, more than ever before, that we are one single human family," linked as if  in marriage "for the better or the worse, (...)  according to God's supreme and eternal law of faith and morality." 

This, he says, is the solemn vow that we must confess today to God Almighty and to each other for the sake of our mere survival as humanity, just as demanded by Pope Francis and the Great Imam Ahmed Al-Tayeb of Al-Azhar, in the Abu Dhabi document on Human Fraternity. 

View of the funeral of 22 newly identified Bosnian Muslims at the Potocari Memorial Center
View of the funeral of 22 newly identified Bosnian Muslims at the Potocari Memorial Center

As parish priest heading the small Catholic community of Srebrenica, Fr. Franjo says the community is a witness to the possibility of reconciliation among ordinary people in the city and its surroundings. 

“However,” he says, “the problem is not the relationships of ordinary people who communicate, work and share the fate of life in Srebrenica. The problem of reconciliation is in the domain of politics, interpretations of history, wars and inter-ethnic/interreligious relations in the region,”

Ecumenical and interreligious dialogue

He explains that ecumenical and interreligious dialogue in Srebrenica, Bratunac and Zvornik (where he is active as a Catholic priest) follows the model established by the Interreligious Council of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which includes the establishment of local Committees for Interreligious Cooperation and active communication among the representatives of the different religious communities.

He says that in some local communities, the influence of national policies on the religious representatives is stronger than in others, and impacts ecumenical and interreligious dialogue. But he affirms the commitment of the Franciscans, “in accordance with their charism and long existence in Srebrenica, to be initiators and mediators in the dialogue and reconciliation process.”

Potocari memorial cemetery near Srebrenica
Potocari memorial cemetery near Srebrenica


Finally, in this year defined by the global Coronavirus pandemic, it was impossible not to ask a question about the common emergency and whether it has united, or further divided, the three communities living in Bosnia and Herzegovina.  

In his experience, Fr. Franjo says, the pandemic “has created a little more solidarity among ordinary people and national communities, especially in the first months.”

He notes that the nationalist and exclusivist narratives usually used in the country gave way to a call to be responsible and help preserve everybody’s health.

“Religious communities have done much to sensitize people to respect protection measures, to protect those most at-risk groups, and we could generally conclude that the current pandemic has brought people of different nationalities, political or religious backgrounds in Bosnia and Herzegovina together,” he says. 

The Grand Mufti believes it is not only the three communities in Bosnia that Covid-19 has brought together, but the whole of humanity, in awareness of how vulnerable we are and how dependent on each other.

“I hope that Covid-19 has taught humanity an important lesson, and that is that we must change our behaviour in a way to obey the eternal moral divine law of love for God and love for our neighbour” and creation, he says, so that life on earth may continue for the good of humankind.

“May God save us from our own evil deeds,” he says.    

A labour of love

Meanwhile, the world is called never to forget the Srebrenica massacre, a sombre warning that any effort to divide people into "them" and "us" is cause for the gravest concern.

That’s why Bosnian and international scientists continue in their labour of love to slowly unlock what has been described as “the biggest forensic puzzle anywhere in the world,” unearthing the bones from those gruesome death pits and connecting them with the names of the people they belonged to, in the name of truth, justice, and ultimately, much-needed reconciliation.

Bosnian women pray in remembrance of victims of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre
Bosnian women pray in remembrance of victims of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre
10 July 2020, 16:11