“After Srebrenica, you said never again…Shame on you World!” These were the words written on the posters of demonstrators who gathered in Sarajevo in 2016 to condemn the Assad regime’s siege of Syria’s Aleppo.
This month marks the anniversary of the UN’s failure to protect its so-called “safe zone” in Srebrenica, Bosnia, which led to the slaughter of some 8,000 Muslim men and boys. Twenty-five years on, it appears that no lessons have been learnt. In Syria, the UN estimates that 400,000 people have been killed since 2011.
Undoubtedly, the Srebrenica genocide remains a black stain on the history of peacekeeping operations across the world. Prior, some 20,000 refugees had fled to Srebrenica from the capital Sarajevo under the protection of a Dutch contingent of UN peacekeepers. However, Bosnian Serb forces led by Ratko Mladic besieged the town.
One survivor at the Srebrenica Genocide Memorial-Potocari told me: “We were protected by the UN, in Srebrenica and Zepa, where the safe zones were created. In these two places, there were around 60,000 people.”
We had no arms to confront the enemy and that’s why we trusted the UN to protect us, guarantee our survival, our belongings and the town. But, we suffered genocide under the banner of the UN and then they say they are not responsible.
Last year, a court in the Netherlands ruled that the Dutch state was ten per cent liable for the deaths of 350 of the men who were killed by Bosnian Serb forces, bringing the actions of the Dutch UN peacekeeping force in Srebrenica back into the spotlight. It all started in April 1992 when a peaceful march for Bosnian unity descended into violence in Sarajevo and later spread to other cities of Bosnia and Herzegovina, inclding Srebrenica. It is important to recall that the siege of Sarajevo, which lasted from April 1992 to February 1996, was the longest of a capital city in the history of modern warfare.
From my meetings and interviews with survivors of Bosnian and Syrian conflicts, I have found astonishing similarities among both peoples and their experiences. In 2012, I met with Hatidza Mehmedovic, founder of the Mothers of Srebrenica Foundation. She had survived the war in Bosnia but lost her husband, Abdullah, and her two sons, Azmir and Almir, together with many family members. She said: “My husband and two sons were not criminals, they did not hurt anyone, they were killed only because they were Muslims. As I lost my family, we cried a lot but now I do not need to cry anymore. I need employment and economic power to protect the genocide survivors.”
Syrians like Bosniaks are highly resilient and industrious, even in the face of genocidal wars. During a 2017 visit to Bab Al-Salam refugee camp in Azez district of Aleppo, a Syrian young man told me: “My sister, you do not have to put yourself in someone else’s shoes from this camp. Just, teach those young generations of this camp how to fish rather than give them fish.”
We do not need empathy from the world community. We need a future.
Like the Assad regime, the Bosnian Serbs had a military advantage over their Bosnian Muslim (Bosniak) and Bosnian Croat opponents. Similarly, the siege of Sarajevo illustrated an important strategic lesson for an understanding of the Aleppo siege. In both cities the humanitarian corridors were crucial for survival.
This underground network became the main passage for the transport of food, humanitarian supplies and weapons; they prevented both Sarajevo and Aleppo from descending into chaos and hopelessness.
Today, tunnels and other subterranean structures have become a persistent feature of the Syrian battlefield. Syrian opposition groups in Aleppo, like their Bosniak counterparts, have built underground labyrinths, fitted with hospitals and military headquarters.
To understand the importance of humanitarian aid in a war-torn city, Sarajevo’s ‘Tunnel of Hope’ stands as a good example. This 800 metre tunnel kept the city alive during the siege and prevented the people of Sarajevo from dying of hunger and extreme weather conditions. When Sarajevo was besieged in 1992 with no source of food and electricity or food, one family, the Kolar, allowed the digging of their backyard and supporting work for the tunnel. Their residence has since been turned into a museum.
After nine years of relentless war, the Syrian people are still struggling to overcome their dictator. To many, his presence represents a major obstacle on the road toward reconciliation and normality in Syria. After Dutch Peacekeepers failed to prevent the Srebrenica genocide, the world can no longer afford to delay action on Syria. As the Bosnian Oscar winning film producer Danis Tanovic asserted in his film “No Man’s Land”, “neutrality does not exist in the face of murder”.
If the international community were to repeat in Syria the fake neutrality that was conducted in Bosnia and Herzegovina 25 years ago, the consequences will certainly be another genocide.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.