Holocaust Memorial Day 2014: remembering genocide on 27 January and throughout the year

In 2014 I was invited to Hull’s Holocaust Memorial Day service to speak about genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The text below is my speech from the service – shorter and simpler than most of my writing, but still hopefully conveying some of the way I’ve tried to approach nationalism and historical memory as a researcher. The text is unchanged, so references to ‘this month’, ‘this year’ and so on are as of January 2014.

Among the genocides we come together to remember today are the terrible events that took place two decades ago during the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. It’s thought today that a hundred thousand people died during this war, and more than a million were forced to flee their homes. Their journeys took them all over the world, including here, to Hull. For many of you, this may be a war that you remember once a year. But in Bosnia’s towns and villages, and in Bosnian communities across the world, it is a war that is remembered every day.

I wanted to talk today about the town of Visegrad, in eastern Bosnia. Visegrad is a small town, but a historic one. A Bosnian Muslim from Visegrad, Mehmed Pasa Sokolovic, rose to become a grand vizier of the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century, and he had a great bridge built in Visegrad as a gift to his home town. One of the great works of Yugoslav literature, by Ivo Andric, was written about the history of the bridge. It is a symbol of south east Europe’s Ottoman past, and the past of the Bosnian Muslims, or Bosniaks, as a people.

But in April 1992, Visegrad was one of the towns attacked by the Bosnian Serb armed forces and Serb paramilitaries, at the beginning of the Bosnian war. They had identified Visegrad as a place that had to be purged of Bosniaks and made exclusively Serb. This meant killing or expelling two thirds of the town. More than sixteen hundred people have been recorded as killed or missing, and Bosniak townspeople believe the numbers could be higher. Mass graves are continuing to be discovered. Two years ago, when the bodies of 60 victims were buried at the Muslim cemetery in Visegrad, an organisation of victims put up a monument, commemorating the Bosniaks who had been victims of genocide in the town.

Politically and demographically, Visegrad is a Serb town today, as the war aims of Radovan Karadzic intended. The town council in Visegrad opposed the monument. They said it had been put up illegally. This very month, the council sent workers to remove the word ‘genocide’ from the inscription. It would be more convenient for their version of the past if the fact that genocide took place in Visegrad would be forgotten. There are too many testimonies about what happened there for it to be forgotten. But for a town’s local authorities to reject a memorial in this way is itself a symbol: a symbol that non-Serbs and their past are no longer welcome in Visegrad. And we must hope that in Visegrad’s future the town will account better for its past.

Today is a day when we remember victims, and why they need to be remembered. But we also remember how people have resisted genocide and ethnic cleansing. And so I also wanted to talk about the memory of a young man called Srdjan Aleksic.

Srdjan lived in the town of Trebinje, in the south of Herzegovina. He was 25 years old when the war broke out in 1992, he was a promising amateur actor and a swimming champion. Trebinje was also taken over by Bosnian Serb forces, who wanted to cleanse the town of Bosniaks and Croats. In January 1993, he saw a group of Serb policemen assaulting another young man, who was a Croat, Alen Glavovic. Srdjan was a Serb himself; he could have walked past and been in no danger. But he put his body between the policemen and his neighbour Alen. Alen escaped, and is alive today in Sweden. The policemen beat Srdjan to death. His father wrote in Srdjan’s death notice ‘He died carrying out his duty as a human being.’

Trebinje still has no monument to Srdjan Aleksic. But there are streets named after him in Sarajevo, Tuzla and Prijedor, and even in other countries – in Serbia, and Montenegro. Commemorating someone in a street name, in the former Yugoslavia and elsewhere, is a way of honouring them as a hero. And Srdjan was. Not just for his courage, though his courage was great. But also for the independence of his mind. Against the distorted history that Karadzic’s regime wanted to impose on Bosnia, Srdjan asserted a greater solidarity, although it cost him his life.

To be able to save the life of his neighbour Alen, Srdjan had to be able to see through the lies of those in power, who wanted their actions to seem like common sense to Serbs. He had to be able to see that these were not police actions to make Bosnia safe for Serbs, but that this was ethnic cleansing, part of a strategy of war crimes. And such an independence of thought is something it falls to all of us to nurture, so that we and those we educate might be able to see through whatever we might otherwise become complicit in.

Commemorations happen once a year in time. Memorials stand at one particular place. But the values they ask us to remember need to be remembered actively, throughout the year, and acted on. Not only when it’s easy, but most of all when it’s hardest to do so. So in remembering the genocide in Bosnia, we remember what is at stake in commemorating the past, and the responsibility that we each hold towards our neighbours, near and far.