I recently attended the “Mothers of Srebrenica”; one of hundreds of events marking Srebrenica Memorial Week in the UK, commemorating the 20th anniversary of the 1995 Srebrenica genocide.
The Srebrenica genocide is the single greatest atrocity to take place on European soil since the Second World War. Yet despite the enormity of what occurred, it is quite a poorly understood and under-appreciated episode in European history. It highlights how we choose to emphasise certain periods of history, and how that process is intimately linked with our outlook on the present.
In a tiny central London building, a crammed group of British Muslims, Jews, Christians and those of no faith listened attentively to four mothers from Bosnia, who told us with utmost dignity, yet vividly fresh pain, the horrors they witnessed during the 1992-1995 conflict.
On 11 July 1995, the Bosnian Serb Army marched into the town of Srebrenica and systematically murdered 8,372 Bosnian Muslim men and boys. Bodies were buried in mass graves. Later, they were partially dug up and re-buried in secondary mass graves in attempts to hide the evidence.
It is difficult to listen when a mother tells you that, after several years of searching, forensic teams could only positively identify two bones of her teenage son. Even so, she was happy, as she could finally give him a burial. It is difficult to listen to the fact that the youngest victim shot was three and a half months old, while the oldest victim was 106 years old.
The list of cruelties inflicted by man on man during the conflict could fill hundreds of pages.
In the midst of all this pain, I find myself asking a question of history: why are we remembering Srebrenica and not other tragic events in history? Rwanda’s Tutsi and Hutu conflict, Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge, Iraq’s Halabja or other misguided endeavours of the 20th century. What is the purpose of remembering these painful episodes of history? And what is ‘history’ anyway?
The most common answer to why we remember such atrocious historic events is to prevent them from happening again. “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it” as Edmund Burke is quoted to have said.
The Holocaust is the most widely known example, as its memory has been embedded for most of us through countless history lessons at school, TV programmes and Holocaust memorial days. We, as a human race, have recognised the damaging effects of the inter-ethnic and inter-religious hatred that leads to genocides, and are choosing to heavily emphasise periods in our history such as the Holocaust that – if fully appreciated – would prevent their reoccurrence.
This conscious choice has involved a value judgement that proverbially says “this event is worth remembering in detail” compared to others. But who makes this value judgement? And why does it result in other periods of history receiving relatively less attention, even though they may carry an equal amount of value to society?
Historians play a pivotal role and their primary weapon is the selection of facts. It is no secret that some historical facts are given more weight than others. Any news journalist reporting a story will know, that by picking which facts to include in a report and which ones to omit, they can alter the emphasis given to various elements of the story. Similarly, the historian has facts, but he may choose how to utilise them. History is not just a collection of facts, it is how we select, sort, organise, and ultimately interpret them.
So perhaps a more mature definition of history acknowledges the inherently subjective role of the historian. “God cannot alter the past, though historians can,” claims Victorian author Samuel Butler. And Winston Churchill once famously remarked: “History is written by the victors.”
One of the key factors driving historians to assign value to certain events is current issues, as shaped by public discourse. For the Holocaust, post-1945, the attempted extermination of Jews was such a real threat that it has formed a core part of Jewish identity, as shown by numerous surveys, and has drawn real interest from wider society.
Like the Holocaust, the Srebrenica genocide is also a period of history we have consciously chosen to highlight, but unlike the Holocaust, it has only recently entered the memory of wider society. It took the European Union until 2009 to formally designate 11 July as Srebrenica Memorial Day. Yet many people today will still shrug at you with a confused look when Srebrenica is mentioned.
Increasing xenophobia and religious intolerance across Europe and the world today may have contributed to this gain in momentum. Perhaps, also, an appreciation of the ‘right’ type of multiculturalism to achieve a harmonious European society in the 21st century has been a factor. Sometimes, too, whoever is shouting the loudest will be heard.
As E. H. Carr suggests in his book, ‘What is History?’ history is “a continuous process of interaction between the historian and his facts, an unending dialogue between the past and the present.” Therefore, it is not just a list of facts about the past recorded in text books, but, rather, it is an active process that inextricably links our past with the challenges we face today.
When we read or listen about an episode of history, as I did very emotionally from those Mothers of Srebrenica, we are all momentarily historians, uniting in our minds that imaginary spectrum between the present and the past, and searching for solutions to our present-day problems.
I’ve certainly gained a better understanding of the world today from listening to those four mothers from Srebrenica. As we ponder on what other periods of the past are we choosing to emphasise today and why? It may tell us more about ourselves and our outlook on the present, than about the past itself.
Written by Hassan
Hassan is a mechanical engineer in the energy sector. He regularly blogs about faith, community and current affairs at www.increasingspeed.com. This article was originally published on www.increasingspeed.com