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  • Writer's pictureNina Kolarzik

The Other Side of Srebrenica: A Conversation Beyond Genocide

“In the first few days, I felt guilty that I really enjoyed Srebrenica. It’s so beautiful and amazing. I love small towns in the mountains. I thought that I’m supposed to […] be angry about what happened […] Like, I’m not supposed to have these feelings,” Sara, a participant in the Srebrenica Summer School in 2021, told me. I empathize with Sara, and I understand her feelings. But who determines what we are supposed to feel, and where exactly do these notions and feelings come from? 

In July 2021, I had the chance to participate in a summer school in Srebrenica organized by the Post Conflict Research Center and the Srebrenica Memorial Center. It was the first time for me to meet young people from Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), and to see the area around Srebrenica and the town myself. After the week, I left the summer school with the feeling of having learned a lot about the Srebrenica massacre and the genocide during the Bosnian War. I wanted people at home to pay more attention to this part of history. At the same time, I wanted people to look beyond this widely known and all-encompassing image of Srebrenica. I had seen different aspectsjoyful and ugly ones, and things that simply areand I thought it to be important for others to recognize some of the pretty sides of Srebrenica as well.

Positive Journalism

This approach could be counted as an argument for positive journalism which aims at giving positive news a bigger share in the overall news coverage. It is a response to the dominance of negative news, like problems and disruptions in the system, which can lead to a distorted — and overly negative — picture of reality. This way of doing journalism can have discouraging effects: Constant bad news can create a feeling of helplessness because problems appear too big to be solved. Positive journalists, who aim to complement and expand this mainstream, one-sided type of journalism challenge this effect. Using different perspectives in their work, they provide a more diverse picture. Positive news which is outcome-oriented can support people and motivate them to invest in society even in times of crisis. Positive Journalism is not supposed to be propaganda or misplaced optimism that paints bad news in pretty colors, and traps like oversimplification are to be avoided. But it attempts an overall well-balanced news coverage. Critical reporting does not exclude looking at good results and positive processes.

Why is this so important for me in the case of Srebrenica? As Sara’s statement demonstrates, some of us do not even seem to think that we are allowed or that it is possible to be happy there. And if that were to become the only narrative, the idea of the place, it is in danger of becoming its only reality. Therefore, I want to show some other aspects, stories, and perspectives that concern Srebrenica. Because the stories we tell shape us, teach us, and inspire us.

Positive Stories

I am by far not the first one to do so. People from Srebrenica, who have experienced the massacre as Hasan Hasanovic talked about this before. They said to look at different sides of Srebrenica and their everyday life beyond the ceremonies. There are multiple examples of initiatives in BiH that collect positive stories of helpers and rescuers during the war; stories that connect and unite people, instead of dividing them. Their motivation is to break the dominant narratives of guilt and victimhood, to overcome the dichotomy of perpetrators and victims, and to emphasize that even in war, there exist good acts of humanity. The stories show that there are good people and serve as a reminder of the possibilities for peace in conflict. They give hope, not only for the moment but also for the future. Since positive stories open up other, more differentiated views of the past, it is possible to also see different paths for the future. 

During lunch at the summer school, the other participants and I discussed what is commonly known about Srebrenica and what brought us here. These conversations resulted in a group interview with five young people from BiH, or who are from a Bosnian family, on the aspects of Srebrenica which we see, and the aspects we want the world to see. 

First Impressions and Beyond

I was curious about what everyone associated with Srebrenica after the week at the summer school. So, the first thing I asked was what the others thought of the town. Very quickly their reflections strayed to and stayed with the memorial center and the graveyard. When I asked what they had learned about Srebrenica, they seemed to understand it as equivalent to learning about the genocide. These reflections are the dominant, and at times only, perspective on and knowledge about the place. 

However, I wanted to discuss Srebrenica beyond the frame of genocide. The place is more than that, it has several faces. Sandro, whose family is from Srebrenica, said to everyone who “has heard about Srebrenica because of the genocide… [that] we also have another, brighter side.” He told us about the history of the town, how old it is, how it had seen empires from the Roman to the Austro-Hungarian, how important it was for the region, and how it was once well-known for mining and freshwater resources. He enjoys talking to people and showing them the beauty of the town: “And when I talk to them, I try to share my experience and all historical parts with them, to show that Srebrenica is not [a] big city […], but it’s a city with big history here. And if you focus on other things, before the genocide, Srebrenica was [a] really important city, not only for Bosnia but for the whole Balkan.”

Following this, I asked specifically what they thought of the town of Srebrenica itself as most summer school participants stayed there during the week. It often seemed as if peoplesince the genocide is often the only thing they know about Srebrenica unless they are from the areapicture the town as empty, without life, without perspectives. And for some of us, this picture held true throughout our stay. “I know I heard Srebrenica is [an] empty town, but when I went there, and I saw it’s empty and no one is there, I kind of felt that it’s really empty […] and it’s so sad,” said Belmin.

For others, it did not. The reductionist image of Srebrenica that stems from media reports as well as photos and stories about the genocide started to erode and become more diverse. Kristina said that she “was surprised with the beautiful nature […] I was always certain of the potential of the town. But it’s not even mentionable that there is a lot of beauty in Srebrenica.” 

Similarly, Vildana admitted that “when I came there, my whole picture of the town was changed.” She learned “[t]hat Srebrenica has amazing youth, that Srebrenica is an amazing town. We need to remember that and for me, that was the most important part of that school. The experience of the town. So my picture changed and […] I would like to come in winter to see how the city looks during that time of the year.” Sara said that “the perspective and way of life of the people in Srebrenica is just… ‘we do not give a fuck about the end of the world, we need to make it work’, you know? That kind of approach I like, so I really enjoyed everything that happened and the support that I got. […] So, that’s something that I cannot explain and find the right words for, but I love Srebrenica.”

Hearing that people easily find these bright spots and are capable of seeing the good gives me a lot of hope for the future; hope that Srebrenica will not stay the empty town that people expect to find. However, I do not intend to ignore or sugarcoat the holes, cracks, and emptiness that still exist as the posters of war criminals that are still being celebrated by some in the area show. After hearing much praise about the town, Sandrowho previously listed a lot of good sides himselfsaid that Srebrenica is indeed empty and that according to him, there is no perspective at this point: “I can see that Srebrenica is a city of ghosts and everything and we need to wake up this city, not only this city but the whole country.” I do not want to romanticize emptiness but show that there is more than just one view and that there is potential in Srebrenica which needs to be supported to let it grow beyond a single event, telling more than a single story. “[W]hen you talk about Srebrenica, you need to know that Srebrenica is not just about genocide, but when you talk about genocide you need to understand that not only Srebrenica but the whole world has lost some great potential,” Sandro explained.

This leads me to the greatest potential, which is young people who often move away leaving this potential unfulfilled and problems unsolved.

On Youth and Future

Young people moving away from Srebrenica and going to the EU due to the lack of perspective is not a phenomenon unique to the Western Balkans. Whether it is to find a good job or to create real change, they are looking elsewhere. Like Sandro, young people love their homes and want to create change, but the possibilities to do so are often lacking. Therefore, I found it encouraging to hear and see that there are people who are taking on this big challenge and working actively to shape the future of Srebrenica. “[T]he town as a town […] sometimes felt empty, but people in the city amazed me, especially young people. I was so amazed by their positivity, happiness, and stuff like that, how much they try to present Srebrenica in other ways than genocide. They are trying to promote Srebrenica as a town. I mean, I know it’s important that we know what happened there, but at the same time we need to know that Srebrenica isn’t just that,” said Vildana.

Organizations and local news sometimes report about the small heroes from next door. Making these aspects of Srebrenica visible is one way for the potential to grow and bear fruits in overcoming its past. “I was really surprised by what everyone said about youth, about how smart they are… Maybe that’s a stereotype, maybe that’s something that we shouldn’t be thinking when we [first meet] them, but I was really surprised with how they are full of life. […] they are just the future and we were thinking about how Srebrenica can evolve with them,” reflected Kristina.

When we talked about this, it reminded me of a (politically) divisive debate that is at the heart of the discussions about Srebrenica’s future: the question of reconciliation, often framed as a question of discovering the truth or fuelling conflicts again, reconciliation or giving-in to the enemy, working with the past to prevent genocide from being repeated, or moving on and looking into the future? I expected these questions, which are discussed in academia and politics, to shape life in Srebrenica. I should not have thought in either-or terms in the beginning and was therefore surprised by some responses, for instance when Sandro shared what his father had told him: ‘‘[Learn] anything you can. Learn from the internet and that stuff, but… [the] only thing I want to say to you is that you need to be human, with all those people, no matter that [the] father of your friend has killed your part of [the] family, that’s not important. It’s important, but for you that’s not important. You were born after the war, you need to live your life.’’

I heard these kinds of sentiments, of moving on, more than once. Have people found their answer without talking about it? I do not know. The impression that I got was that they are most concerned with their current lives, with everyday struggles: having a job, an income, a future. These are the most pressing issues to take care of. It does not mean that they forgot about the genocide but they do not want to be stuck in the past but to create a future. Sandro said, “[i]f you think about our past, it’s okay, but we need to think about our future and the future of our kids, our grandchildren, and so on.”

There was a moment when Sandro took charge of the interview when we switched roles for a while because he asked me about what I felt and thought of the days in Srebrenica, Bratunac, and Bosnia. Following my answer, he asked: “Would you believe me that I think that nobody will ask you, in Srebrenica, nobody will ask you this question and nobody would care about what you think about what is happening here?” He told me that people just want to live and talk about their “normal” life. Not that the past would not matter in general, but at least for everyday life it does not. This is only one perspective of many. Others might say that they cannot move on, that there is no chance for a good future until the past has been worked with and until there has been some justice. 

Learning in School and On-Site

“In Bosnia, we don’t learn about the war in Bosnia and I don’t know if it’s shocking for you, but people here need to learn from their parents, fathers, and grandfathers. The first time that I heard about [the] war, […] was because of Iron Maiden and their concert in Sarajevo during the siege of Sarajevo,” Sandro told me.

We started by talking about what each of us knew about Srebrenica, and what we had learned before about it. As is often discussed in debates about problems in peace building and genocide denial in Bosnia, no one had learned much in school about the genocide. The group told me how hard it is to discuss the issue. Vildana described how she had been to Srebrenica as a young teenager and was very confused about what to feel when she heard what had happened there. In the summer school, however, she “was there for seven days, so I had the time to process everything and think about it more [in case I had] some questions to ask. And I had people with me [who] I could have discussions with and share my opinions with.” Vildana said that while she knew some basic facts before, she knew nothing about the people and their stories. What might be missing, besides factual knowledge, is exactly that, an emotional understanding.

Despite those gaps, all of us who went to the summer school knew about the events around Srebrenica in 1995, and everyone had some kind of interest in learning more about it. Yet, no one could be prepared for what we were to learn, see, or feel during the days we spent there. Being in a place is something entirely different than reading about it. “[W]hen I see all the graves and stuff in the memorial center, you can feel the one part of the genocide and it’s way, way better than when you study in school. So, my knowledge increased during the camp this July,” said Belmin.

It was not always an easy experience to see the places where things happened, or to read names that were too familiar for some of the participants. However, the group agreed that more people should go to Srebrenica themselves to have their own experience that might spark interest in another way than learning about it from a distance. “I think more people need to go there, in order [to] actually understand the story. […] being there and talking with mothers of Srebrenica, talking with the youth or people who went through it, it’s just a different experience,” reflected Sara.

We appreciated that we could stay for several days. In our opinion, a one-day visit to the annual ceremony is too short to grasp what the memorial is about, although one week is still short. Learning more about the place means looking beyond the big events and the main narratives that we are usually presented with. This is not to say that the ceremony is not important for the remembrance and acknowledgment of the crime, yet actions should not stop there. “[C]ome to Srebrenica to learn more about the individuality of people, about the youth of Srebrenica and not just about… of course, to visit the memorial center and the rest, but I feel like […] you have the wider perspective when you go to a city like Bratunac and then you sleep in Srebrenica,” said Kristina.

In our conversation, there was a general agreement that education on genocide is crucial for genocide prevention and to counteract hate speech and crimes. “Well, I think the main thing about Srebrenica is the genocide and we have to talk about genocide, so we don’t have to experience it again. It’s a well-known historical fact that in Višegrad, in 1943, 50 years before Srebrenica, there was a genocide during which 1000 Muslims were killed. And after 50 years, we have genocide again. So, we can observe that genocide is something that was before, happened again, and possibly could happen again in Bosnia and Herzegovina, so we have to talk about it, we have to […] be aware of that phenomenon,” explained Belmin. Sensitive to the question of responsibilities, Sara also noted: “[W]e need to take into consideration that people who went through it are not obliged or they’re not… they’re not there to teach us, you know, what happened. We need to do that on our own.”

Currently, the world seems to remember Srebrenica once a year on the 7th of July for the commemoration. What if people from outside the region, if all of us, engaged with it more often than that? What if we did not only talk about a “never again” in the Balkan context but recognized and named the actual patterns of what happens today in other places? And what if we expanded our view, our picture of Srebrenica beyond the genocide to all the other things that constitute this town?

Those who went to the summer school are certainly not representative of all the young people across the country. But they show that there are youth who are interested, informed, and concerned about these issues. 

A Final Question

I wanted to look beyond some typical stories, beyond the annual ceremony and the “never again” speeches, and hear what is less talked about, the everyday aspects of those narratives or the perspectives besides them. In the summer school, there was some space for exchange, to talk about different views. More open and safe spaces for that purpose are needed. What I learned from our conversations and the week at the summer school is that there are several different views on the town of Srebrenica. I did not hear all of them, but I now know more than before. I had the chance to form my picture of the place which I can continue to develop.

The memorialization of the genocide is very important, as is research on why it happened, and education for genocide prevention. However, I want to remember that Srebrenica as a place is more than this genocide, and that genocide is a phenomenon that concerns not only this region. Crimes like genocide need to be treated as an issue of humanity, and not just one that concerns Srebrenica, or Rwanda, or Armenia. A commemoration alone is not enough to address them because one might get the impression that at such an event people can be sad, shocked and sorry for one moment just to leave the place a moment later and leave the issue behind, as well. This is one more reason to not limit our attention to one day in the year and Srebrenica to the massacre. 

I think that it is problematic to promote only one narrative, in this case, a negative one. A more differentiated view is needed to move beyond dichotomies and fixed categories like victims and perpetrators. Showing the positive sides of the place, the potential and the light, can inspire and bring courage to people who want to create something new in the region; and young people who want to stay and build a life or a business there. Catastrophes often seem more newsworthy, but when one only looks at the bad past, one might overlook the potential for the future. For this reason, I consider it crucial to look for different perspectives, through different lenses, for different sides and opinions on a subject that make up complex realities, not only in the case of Srebrenica but everywhere.

My final question to the group was what they want the world to see and know of Srebrenica. “Potential” was mentioned several times. Allowing the town to grow and show other sides and encourage the world to experience those as well. “Well, I just want to say that people in Bosnia, and people all around the world need to know that Srebrenica isn’t a sorrowful city of ghosts,” said Vildana. “For me, it represents sleeping beauty that needs to be woken up by all of us […]. And we need to see it from this perspective and we need to give a chance to young people in Srebrenica to show what they can actually do because they can do a lot. And I think that we are not even conscious of what power they [have]. If they had the power, what would they do for the local community and for the country? And for me, that’s the most important message that we need to remember, […] what Srebrenica actually is.”

Written by Nina Kolarzik.

Cover photo by Jelle Visser.


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