Genocide denial has such a beguilingly pleasant façade. It’s nothing like what I imagined as a child. I grew up thinking that ‘deniers’ were skinheads or crackpots who collected Nazi paraphernalia. The reality is, of course, far more uncomfortable.
I have lost count of the number of people I have come across, some of them friends, who have offered a different interpretation of the conflict in Bosnia-Hercegovina and Croatia, despite little or no knowledge of the subject. Some call it historical revisionism, but often it isn’t so much revision as doubt and denial. If I were ignorant of the subject, I might call it scepticism, but the most charitable description I can muster is prejudice. They create a narrative to fit their prejudices.
These doubters and deniers often come across as reasonable and well-informed. They say things like “I’m led to believe that the numbers may have been exaggerated” and “there is some doubt about whether the victims were civilians or soldiers” and “we have to be careful not to jump to conclusions”. It all sounds so reasonable… until you think about it, until you realise that Srebrenica is quite possibly the most well-documented war crime in the history of the world. The number of victims is fairly certain: 8,372. Almost seven thousand of those victims have had their remains positively identified using DNA.
On a personal level, however, the most astounding denials come from those who accept my testimony but point out that my experience of the war wasn’t representative of what really happened. They are, of course, quite correct. When I arrived, the UN Protected Area I worked in had already been ethnically cleansed to a large degree. I did not experience firsthand the grievous violations of international law and human decency that epitomised the siege of Vukovar. It is true that my work with Bosnian refugees was not in places like Omarska or Sarajevo. I was not among the brave Western reporters, such as Ed Vulliamy, Roy Gutman, and Penny Marshall, who went into the ‘lion’s den’ so that we might know the truth about the concentration camps of Bosnia. And is it true that, by the time I arrived in the burgeoning refugee camps across the border in Croatia, indefensible atrocities in places like Ahmići, Bijeljina, Foča, and Prijedor had already taken place.
So, I am forced to admit that my personal experience, as disturbing as it was, was not representative of what happened in the war. I was not raped, tortured, or killed. I was not incarcerated in a concentration camp. I wasn’t forced to walk across minefields and mountains into another country so as to escape such a fate.
However, my good fortune does not cast doubt on the horrific crimes experienced by those to whom I ministered. Quite the contrary! The whispered confidences of emaciated men who had spent months in concentration camps confirmed the pictures we saw in the newspapers. Children in my care took the crayons we gave them to draw scenes of tanks rolling into their towns, their homes burning, and soldiers shooting their fathers and raping their mothers and sisters. Old women held my hand and wouldn’t let go, crying and saying one word over and over again: hvala, thank-you. And fellow aid workers drank themselves into oblivion after each foray into Bosnia, ending up sobbing on the floor in the dead of night as they tried and failed to erase the memories.
To those who have said that my book represents “only one experience” and doesn’t reflect the “whole truth”, I say: Quite right, the war was far worse than anything I could write. If you want a firsthand account of a concentration camp, I recommend Rezak Hukanović’s The Tenth Circle of Hell. If you want the dead to speak to you, I suggest you peruse The Graves by Eric Stover and Gilles Peress. Or if you’re too lazy to read a book, you could simply take a look at Scott Anderson’s article in the New York Times Magazine. He has interviewed people with contrasting views, and the result is a poignant and nuanced exposition. (It also includes some excellent photography by Paolo Pellegrin.) He lets his readers draw their own conclusions, but genocide denial isn’t much of an option for the sane and rational among us.
So, next time someone says that all these anniversaries and commemorations are a “big fuss” or “making a mountain out of a molehill”, please tell them it’s something worth making a fuss about. Please tell them that every single one of those 8,372 lives mattered.
Lest we forget….