The writer is the director of the Srebrenica Memorial Center.
A part-time lecturer at the International Relations Department of the International University of Sarajevo (IUS), Suljagic is also the author of two books: Ethnic Cleansing: Politics, Policy, Violence - Serb Ethnic Cleansing Campaign in former Yugoslavia and Postcards from the Grave.
They killed us in euphemisms. They killed us in “ethnic cleansing,” “tragic conflict,” or civil war. They first robbed us of words, then they robbed us of our experience.
The phrase “ethnic cleansing” typifies how words changed the meaning of what went on in Bosnia and Herzegovina between 1992 and 1995. In the English language, the notion “ethnic cleansing” was first used in a Washington Post article in August 1992, relaying the accusations leveled by the Croatian government against their Serbian counterparts that their “aim . . . is obviously the ethnic cleansing of the critical areas that are to be annexed to Serbia”.
In order to explain, however, how the term not only gained prominence outside the former Yugoslavia but came to signify a particular set of policies and practices implemented by the Serb military and political leadership in Bosnia and Herzegovina, it is worth quoting Eric Gordy:
“The term appears to have entered the language through a squeaky back door carved out by Serbian regime media in 1992. Naimark (2001) describes it as having ‘exploded into our consciousness’ (ouch!) in May that year. Without the ‘ethnic’ modifier, ‘cleansing’ appears to have had a variety of military and propagandistic uses over a much longer period.”
“Ethnic cleansing,” in other words, was part of the vocabulary, or, if you will, the discourse created by the perpetrators of genocide to normalize their actions, and successfully supplanted genocide, crimes against humanity and other, more precise and less morally, legally and politically ambiguous ways to describe policies and practices implemented by Serbia in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the early to mid-1990s. Those words would have been far less believable had the targets of genocide not been Muslims.
Europe’s is a history of final solutions, of one “monumental historical crime” after another. There is no – to borrow from Holocaust scholar Timothy Snyder – “golden age to look back to” in the history of Europe as nation-states.
There is no place for Muslims in that history either. Today there are few things left that would help to prove how Ottoman Muslims were not only physically removed from the Balkans, but have also been removed from the narrative and wiped from history.
The genocidal attack on the Bosniaks was in fact a Third Balkan War, most significantly in the way that a majority population was reduced to a minority through a combination of measures that involved mass murder, deportation, pillaging and mass rape. As with the two previous Balkan Wars, it also involved the systematic killing of officials, town and village leaders; all in all, the elite. In addition, the paramilitaries of the 1990s continued the work of the “komitajis” when dispensing with civilians, women and children. Along with the practice of sieges, there was also widespread participation of the populace. The final goal was “de-Turkification.” In the same vein, Ratko Mladic stood on the square in Srebrenica in July 1995 and vowed an act of revenge against “the Turks.”
But the slow-motion genocide against Ottoman Muslims spanning the 19th and beginning of the 20th century was disturbingly modern. The description of the fallout of the siege of Edirne, for example, (from Justin McCarthy’s book, “Death and Exile: The Ethnic Cleansing of the Ottoman Muslims, 1821-1922”) reads very much like the reports coming from Srebrenica in 1995:
“It is a manhunt, a hunt for the Turks, with all the refinements of cruelty. Day and night the machine guns rattle – these are the executions.”
By the end of the Balkan Wars in 1913, 62 percent of the Muslim population living in the Ottoman Empire in Europe was gone. The crime committed against them is not only celebrated in the history of several states that emerged in its place, but has a central place in the narrative of “national liberation.”
When the Serbian elites set out to destroy Yugoslavia in the 1990s, they drew on a “repertoire of contention” informed by a successful history of executing genocidal policies against Balkan Muslims. They knew the words the European elites would understand and they were correct in assuming that “the Turk” still occupied an important place in the imagination of European political class.
At the beginning of December, I travelled from Sarajevo to Stockholm to take part in the protest against the decision of the Swedish Royal Academy to award the Nobel prize in literature to Peter Handke, an avowed genocide-denier. At the Munich Airport, a police officer asked me how long I was going to stay “in Europe.”
I duly stated that I would return in four days, but it was a crystalizing moment: being killed in Levi’s jeans and Adidas shoes, as so many of my countrymen were, does not and did not make one a European. It is still all in the name. Mine is unmistakably Muslim.
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