I learned about the Holocaust from my family, from school and from history books. The Holocaust was so horrific that we hoped humanity as a whole had learned something from history and would never commit such atrocities again. Yet I watched with my own eyes, on TV, as it happened again and again, only on a smaller scale: which, of course, didn’t take away from the suffering of the victims. It was the early 1990’s. Between 1992 and 1995, I followed with horror the news reports about the atrocities committed by Serbian soldiers upon ethnic Bosnians in Bosnia-Herzegovina. In the span of a few short years, Bosnian Serb forces backed by the Serbian Yugoslav Army attacked Bosnian Muslims. They raped and tortured countless women and girls. They forced tens of thousands of people to leave their homes. This campaign of “ethnic cleansing” led to the deaths of 100,000 Bosnians. At the time, it was the worst genocide since the one perpetrated by the Nazis during WWII.
Surprisingly, these atrocities happened during an era in which Europe was filled with hope. By the early 1990’s, we had recently celebrated the anti-communist revolutions in Eastern Europe and the end of the somber Cold War. There was an atmosphere of renewed hope—and faith in democracy–throughout Europe, but particularly in the former communist countries. Yet with the death of totalitarian leader Josip Broz Tito in 1980, and the end of the communist rule, the former Yugoslavia disintegrated into tension. It became a place of ethnic struggles and hatred rather than one of burgeoning democracy.
By 1991, the population of Bosnia included about 40 percent Bosnians, 30 percent Serbs and 20 percent Croatians. Tensions built between the ethnic Bosnians and the ethnic Serbs in the region. Under leadership of Radovan Karadzic, the Serbs in Bosnia created their own entity, the Serbian National Assembly. The problems began when the Bosnian Serbs sought to incorporate–by force–Bosnia into a Greater Serbia. Bosnia declared its independence. The U.S. and the European Community recognized Bosnia’s independence in May 1992: a well-intentioned diplomatic move that proved to have disastrous political consequences.
Soon afterwards, Bosnian Serb forces led by the ruthless nationalist leader Slobodan Milosevic attacked Sarajevo, Bosnia’s capital. This beautiful town, which many of us remember as the picturesque place of the 1984 winter Olympics, became in 1992 a place of death: murder, rape and “ethnic cleansing,” or the forcible expulsion of ethnic Bosnians by Serbian forces.
Although officially the policy of “ethnic cleansing” may not have the same goals as genocide—the physical eradication of a people—it often employs the same inhumane and destructive methods: rape, torture, even murder. Unfortunately, the U.N. refused to intervene and restore peace. This emboldened the Serbian nationalists and worsened the crisis in the region. In 1995, Bosnian Serbs attacked Srebrenica, a Bosnian town, and began a bloody campaign of “ethnic cleansing”. Serbian soldiers separated men from women and girls. They often shot the men in the forest while beating and raping the women and girls. About 8000 Bosnian men were massacred and about 30,000 civilians were expulsed from their homes.
I will never forget one particular incident from the massacre in Srebrenica that was covered on the news in the U.S. What troubled me most was a true story about a Serbian soldier who apparently “saved” a Bosnian girl from gang rape by fellow Serbs. He removed her from the dangerous situation, fed her, protected her and talked to her reassuringly and tenderly for several days. Once he secured her trust, gratitude and devotion, he raped and killed her himself. Afterwards, he boasted about his exploits in English, on an interview on the international news. This degree of psychological sadism exceeds even that of the brutes who raped and killed women without initially faking niceness and caring. What he did to her was more insidious, duplicitous and perverse.
Unfortunately, his action was not an isolated incident. This widespread cruelty was made possible by the cruelty of soldiers pushed to an extreme by misplaced nationalist feelings. It was made possible by a national policy led by unscrupulous leaders that encouraged one ethnic group to view another as, somehow, less than human. And it was also made possible, indirectly, by the U.N.’s lack of intervention until it was too late for tens of thousands of innocent civilians.
Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon