As a South African Jewish mother, deeply committed to and involved in Holocaust and genocide education, a profound intersection of my identities came to light during my visit to Srebrenica, Bosnia, this month.
On July 11, 1995, near the end of the war in Bosnia, Genocide took place in the UN “safe zone” in Srebrenica. By the time it was over, 8,721 Muslims and boys were dead, systematically massacred not because of anything they did, but simply because of who they were.
I was in Bosnia to participate in the 28thy Commemorating the Genocide as part of a World Jewish Congress (WJC) delegation of Jewish scholars and diplomats.
The visit included a conference co-organized by WJC and Srebrenica Memorial Center (SMC), and I was one of the speakers in a session titled “Memory Preservation, Memorials, Museums and Education”.
It has been a particular pleasure for me to present the important work being done by the Holocaust and Genocide Centers in South Africa in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban (the latest of which I am the founder and current director of).
The public was impressed and also outraged that in South Africa the study of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust was mandated in the national curriculum, in Srebrenica under the Republika Srpska, no aspect of the atrocities that occurred in and around the city in July 1995 was mentioned in the schools.
Denial of the perpetrators, as well as their apologists, is in fact a typical feature of genocides around the world. In this light, an important focus of the conference, besides preserving the collective memory of the victims of the genocide, was on countering the denial of the Holocaust and genocide.
Revisit the atrocities
Our few days on July 9 began with the harrowing celebration of the arrival of this year’s coffins. Despite the perpetrators’ efforts to sabotage evidence by bulldozing mass graves, the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) implemented a DNA-led program in which more than 7,000 of the more than 8,000 victims of the Srebrenica genocide were identified.
After the skeletal remains have been identified and reassembled (a process that can require recovery from several secret graves and may take years), the individuals’ remains are interred each year on July 11.
In some cases, relatives chose to postpone burial when the initial remains of their loved one were identified a few years earlier in hopes of collecting more. At some point, the family makes the decision to bury what they have. However, more remains of those already buried are exhumed, coffins exhumed and those remains added.
For this year’s ceremony, 30 coffins were brought to the memorial center for her burial. A huge truck covered in flowers brought the coffins to the place, and when it turned the corner to meet the crowds of people, there was a collective gasp at the enormity of the occasion.
It was impossible to fully comprehend the mixture of wretched heartache and perhaps some comfort for the hundreds of relatives who surrounded those green cloth coffins in anticipation of their loved ones finally being laid to rest.
Kathryn Baumberger, Director General of the International Commission on Missing Persons, told the conference that the scientific process developed in Bosnia and Herzegovina to identify victims of the Srebrenica genocide and other atrocities has fundamentally changed the way countries address issues of truth and justice. at war.
Baumberger said that authorities in Ukraine have already launched a process to hold accountable those who went missing as a result of the Russian invasion — even in the midst of conflict — because they “understand the absolute necessity of securing truth, justice and reparations” for families.
Located in what used to be the vast United Nations complex in Srebrenica, the SMC is an impressive center with a hugely influential exhibition. In addition to the permanent exhibition and many poignant photos, one of the huge white UN trucks we’ve all seen on TV is on display in one of the vast spaces.
SMC Director Emir Soljacic, himself a survivor, is the driving force behind the center’s incredible impact on visitors. It was a very moving moment when the Prince, in welcoming the conference, came face to face with the elephant in the room:
“While I bear no official responsibility, apart from my position as Director of the Srebrenica Memorial Centre, I feel deeply compelled, here and now, to say the following: 80 years ago some of my countrymen joined the ranks in the service of Nazi Germany’s ideology to harm you and your people.” And your ancestors – your fathers and mothers, grandfathers and grandmothers. For this, I apologize to you and hope that you will find forgiveness in your hearts.
Save the memories and the truth
After my participation in the conference panel, an emotional attendee gave me a long, deep hug and her book, On the side of humanityA collection of interviews she conducted with several legal experts and practitioners of international law.
Among those interviewed was Richard Goldstone of South Africa as well as several Jews who participated in the International Criminal Court and its investigation into the genocide and other crimes committed during the aggression perpetrated against Bosnia and Herzegovina from 1992-1995. As a South African Jew, I received such warmth and gratitude for their fight for truth and justice on behalf of the victims.
I was also deeply moved by the testimony of Munira Subasic, President of the Mothers of Srebrenica. She is the face of tens of thousands of mothers, the voice of countless victims, and the strength and courage to tell and retell the horrific story of her son and husband’s murder when so many others found themselves silenced by the trauma they experienced.
Mounira knows it is her role to continue telling her story to everyone who will listen so that she is never forgotten. It was this organization – or power really – of the Mothers, that pushed for the truth behind what happened during that fateful week. In many ways, it should have been. Who but a desperate mother would move heaven and earth – literally in this case – to find her son, husband or father?
In his speech to the head of the Islamic community in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Damir Ev. Pestalic, speaking of mothers as their greatest heroes, said, “We knew we had to accept others and fight for justice. Many died before finding the remains of their dearest, and yet I have never seen them without strength and energy.”
Imam Damir opened with his remarks on the importance of cooperation and partnership with the WJC – for me this was a symbolic affirmation that there was hope for a joint future for Jews and Muslims.
Then there was my poignant lunch conversation with a beautiful young woman who had moved as a refugee with her mother and sister to Colorado in the United States after the genocide. She now volunteers as a translator at SMC and annually attends the July 11th ceremony where her father and brother were buried here in 2003.
Denial and false information
Amidst the political challenges, and all the distortion and denial that still prevails in public discourse about Srebrenica, a very moving memorial service was held at the Salmaniya Medical Complex on Tuesday. Menachem Rosensaft, who headed the WJC delegation, delivered the keynote address where he reminded us that unleashed hatred leads to Auschwitz, Kigali and Srebrenica.
Then we walked to the cemetery, joining the thousands of others who traveled from all over the country to pay their respects on this most poignant day.
When we did, I found myself thinking about how it all came back to what Romeo Delaire, commander of the UN peacekeeping force in Rwanda in 1993-1994, once said: “All human beings are human. There are no more human beings.” DM