Lessons from Srebrenica to Syria

Lessons from Srebrenica to Syria
Comment: The case of Srebrenica and the division of Yugoslavia after a bloody war can illuminate historically-grounded lessons for postwar Syria, argues James Denselow
4 min read
26 Mar, 2016
Bosnia is an example of a conflict's faultlines being frozen rather than reunified [Getty]

It was over twenty years since the forces of Bosnian-Serb General Mladic slaughtered some 8,000 Bosnian Muslims from the town of Srebrenica. I recently visited the graveyards that mark the victims, the mortuaries and laboratories that continue the search for the missing. I met those who lost their entire family and others who hid bleeding amongst the dead but managed to escape and tell their stories.

Two decades on the country's wounds are still open and the social divisions frozen, rather than healed. Meanwhile in Syria, the peace talks and cessation of hostilities have given the country a moment of calm following five years of slaughter. Whilst the present remains unstable, Syria's future is likely to be tumultuous and, for that matter, it's worth learning the lessons from other countries that have endured brutal civil conflict, massacres and splitting of society along ethnic and sectarian lines.

The division of Yugoslavia from one country to six with further divisions came at the cost of over 100,000 dead in Bosnia in the space of some three years. Europe, a continent that said 'never again' after the Holocaust, witnessed the re-emergence of concentration camps and mass slaughter. Civil society activists in Sarajevo, a city that endured the longest siege of modern times - 47 months, spoke of how quickly society disintegrated and how neighbours turned against each other. Survivors of the Srebrenica killings, recognised by the international courts as genocide, talk of how their favourite teacher became their callous jailer and torturer. Time has healed much of the hatred but with those who perpetrated much of the killings in denial and accountability partial at best, division remains, stymieing the development of a country that some are now calling a 'failed state'.

Crucially, the Dayton Agreement, which halted the killing, failed to chart a path of reconciliation and unity. Instead it enshrined division which is now reflected in a political system of rotating Presidencies and a bloated public service that makes up over 50% of GDP. In Syria, the temptation again is to do whatever it takes to stop the violence and already talk of de-facto, rather than managed, federalism has emerged with Kurdish groups leading the way.

Settling the issues of the short-term without a long-term vision is a recipe for inertia and, possibly, future conflict. There are a number of lessons to learn from Bosnia's experience. The first lesson is the importance of an accurate chronicling of what actually happened.

In Sarajevo, evidence of lethal shell damage is marked by red paint in what are known as 'Sarajevo roses'. The role call of the dead has been accurately tracked by the use of DNA sampling to identify who is buried in mass graves. In Bosnia, many of these have been moved, with some corpses scattered over various sites.

In Syria, the most famous 'incidents' after the uprising include the chemical attack on Eastern Damascus, the killings in Jisr al-Shughur and Darayya, the steady drumbeat of bodies that emerged in river that runs through Aleppo, and ISIS’s mass killings in Palmyra. Yet with the media coverage of Syria so partial and the UN having stopped counting the dead in 2014 due to access difficulties, numbers become political.

Justice in Bosnia gives hope for Syria

Therefore, a clear picture of what happened needs to be accompanied by a far harder process of justice and accountability. This March saw the verdict in the trial of Radovan Karadžić who was sent to prison for forty years for acts of genocide. Yet despite this legal process going through the highest courts on the planet, its results are disputed by the Bosnian-Serb leadership who recently opened a new student dormitory in Karadžić’s name.

Accountability sets the path for reconciliation. A former Bosnian soldier told me that he would forgive the perpetrators of the genocide if there were people seeking to offer forgiveness. Looking at South Africa's 'Truth and Reconciliation Committees' and Rwanda's steps to ban talk of ethnic or tribal division within the country, there are numerous examples of how post-conflict societies reconcile.

Bosnia is an example of a conflict's faultlines being frozen rather than reunified decades after the killing stopped. This could be the fate of Syria, unless reconciliation and justice turns out to be an institutional and effective process.

James Denselow is an author and writer on Middle East politics and security issues. He is a former board member of the Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU) and a director of the New Diplomacy Platform. Follow him on Twitter: @jamesdenselow

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.