Rewriting the past does not make for a peaceful future.
The English historian Anthony Beevor is familiar with controversy. His books on Stalingrad and Berlin and The Second World War are notable for their re-evaluation of recent history, based on new information and newly opened archives. However, as he notes in “Why did Ukraine ban my book?” (The Guardian, 3 February 2018), history is a battleground for:
“The perpetuation of nationalist myths and political attempts to reshape the past. In recent decades there have been encouraging developments, with many more international history conferences and foreign academics recruited by universities. All of this has helped to reduce the tendency of countries to view the past uniquely from their own patriotic perspectives. At the same time governments of all shades still long to impose their versions of the past through education, pressure on the media and if necessary outright censorship and even legislation.”
After the Bosnian war of 1992-95, Bosniaks faced public amnesia about what the Serbian armed forces under Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladić (both now convicted war criminals) had inflicted on them. Even today, the scale of such atrocities is denied by Bosnian Serbs and those across the border in Serbia, whose nationalist and racist ideology has poisoned the region. Fortunately, public awareness of the Bosnian war – its genocide and crimes against humanity – has been partly restored through the trial and conviction of some of its perpetrators. Even so, many accomplices remain at large, living openly in Bosnian towns and villages.
Anyone who doubts this history should read two books by British journalist Ed Vulliamy: Seasons in Hell: Understanding Bosnia’s War (1994) and The War is Dead, Long Live the War (2012). Writing about Bosnia in the way he did, Vulliamy was heavily criticised by professional colleagues for crossing the line of journalistic objectivity by taking sides and reporting the truth of what happened. His reply was that objectivity could not be neutral in the face of human rights violations: “When something is fact-specific, I remain objective, but I do not attempt to try to be neutral.”
During the Bosnian war, Višegrad, the famous bridge on the Drina (the subject of a novel by Nobel prize winner Ivo Andrič), became a site of butchery where hundreds of Muslims were killed and thrown into the waters below. Nearby, hundreds of people were incinerated in their own homes. And, a little further away, the Vilina Vlas spa hotel was the scene of other atrocities. Today, as reported in “Back on the tourist trail: the hotel where women were raped and tortured” (The Observer, 28 January 2018):
“The hotel features on the tourist website for historic Višegrad town, and older editions of the only guidebook to Bosnia-Herzegovina by Bradt. So unsuspecting guests travelling through Višegrad can – and do – book into a building used for murder, rape and torture by a sadistic paramilitary group less than 25 years ago…
And though the mattresses may have been changed, and the walls repainted, the bed frames that tourists sleep on today are the same ones on which dozens of women were attacked. The dated lobby is floored with the same stone that in 1992 had to be hosed clean of blood, and visitors using the swimming pool splash around in what was a killing ground.”
This is incredible – until one recalls the undercurrent of nationalism in many European countries, where populist leaders invoke old animosities and imagined grievances in order to seize power. The Bosnian war took place because Serbs and Croats living in Bosnia wanted to annex Bosnian territory for Serbia and Croatia respectively. To do so, Bosnian Serbs began a policy of “cleansing” large areas of Bosnia, playing on ethnicity and religious difference to inflame tensions and to incite violence. Tragically, the European Union failed to intervene and the United Nations looked the other way.
At the end of 2017, Ratko Mladić was convicted of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. However, as Ed Vulliamy bitterly noted in “Ratko Mladić will die in jail. But go to Bosnia: you’ll see that he won” (The Guardian, 22 November 2017):
“The Hague tribunal’s remit was in part judicial, but also to ‘promote reconciliation’ in the Balkans. Well, there is none. Mladić got largely what he wanted: a Bosnian Serb statelet from which almost every non-Serb was banished in 1995, to which only a bold few precariously return… Life in Bosnia is more sectarian now than at any time since the war, all sides settling into the comfort zone of mutual hatred – which is, incidentally, financially lucrative to the political class leading all of them. Mladić is no doubt a furious man, but he can start his sentence with the satisfaction of a mission in no small part accomplished.”
In case this seems to be not so ancient history, it is reported that a shipment of 2,500 automatic rifles from Serbia is due to arrive in the Serb-run half of Bosnia in March. The purchase of new weapons by the Bosnian Serb police raises concerns over the intentions of the separatist-led regional government and increasing Russian influence in a divided and economically depressed nation. Ominously, it raises the spectre of a heavily armed police unit being used by the Bosnian Serb separatist leader, Milorad Dodik, to further his aims of independence, at the risk of a new war in the region.