This April marks the 20th anniversary of the beginning of the conflict in Bosnia, which carried on for three and a half years from 1992 until the Dayton Peace Agreement in late 1995. The violence that followed the April 1992 recognition of Bosnia as a country independent from the Serb-dominated then-Yugoslavia claimed the lives of over 100,000 Bosnians, Serbs, and Croats – and included the constant siege of the Bosnian capital Sarajevo that resulted in over 11,000 deaths. The violence between the different ethnicities, which also practiced different religions, scrambled millions – around half the population of Bosnia – out of their homes.
And these mass casualties are what most 20-somethings know about the Bosnian genocide in the early 1990s. It is often included in history textbooks, but a lot of the time, in that chapter your high school class just didn’t quite get to before the end of the year – a small subsection of a chapter probably called “End of the 20th Century and Beyond,” next to a picture of a man sitting in front of “The Internet.”
Although Clinton-era America played a large part in the eventual peace agreement after the shocking 1995 massacre at Srebrenica, Bosnia is absent from discussions about social problems in the 21st century world. American knowledge of the Bosnian War is limited. So much so, we do not even know what to call it, as evidenced by my use so far of three different commonly used names for the same event; war, conflict, and genocide. Often, American knowledge of the crisis focuses around the Clinton administration’s response to it, coming after criticism of the administration’s lack of intervention in the Rwandan genocide.
Perhaps the reason why Bosnia is not a more prominent topic, besides its occasional presence in discussions of intervention in Syria, is that it falls victim to the problem of our discussions of many genocides: It is seen as far away from us. Americans often see genocide as something that is “over there,” in the Global South. Genocides happen in places like Africa (Sudan) and Southeast Asia (Pol Pot); these are the places with that nasty “ethnic tension.”
Despite not fitting into this imperialist stereotype, Americans think of Bosnia as one of those places that has tension. It is true that Bosnia has almost always been a place where cultures clash, as beautifully described in works such as Nobel Prize winner Ivo Andric’s mid-20th century book “The Bridge on the Drina.” However, this should not justify westerners’ dismissal of the Balkans as different from the United States or Western European countries like France, where religious demographics have been shifting to make it more and more akin to the former Yugoslavia.
The Bosnian genocide, perhaps because of how close it seems, has also been exiled not just to “over there” but to “then,” as if the tensions between the Serbs, Croats, and Bosnians were something that the world dealt with at Dayton. In our desire to stay as far away from how real genocide is, we forget that the effects of death and mass displacement do not fade away as the signatures on a piece of paper dry. Discussion of the tension, still shown in the popular nationalist parties in each of the Bosnian mini-states of different ethnicities, is absent both in the United States and the European community to which Bosnia and its Serbian neighbor are trying to join. Despite the fact that the worst European atrocities since World War II have occurred in the past two decades, Bosnia is forgotten.
While I still do not know enough about Bosnia, I have been fortunate enough to share in the life stories of Bosnians who had survived the genocide. I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, which has the largest population of ethnic Bosnians outside of Bosnia. When I was eighteen I worked at the International Institute of St. Louis, a center for immigrants and refugees. Many of the new immigrants that the Institute worked with were fleeing more recent conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Bhutan. In teaching English classes though, I met Bosnians who were still putting their lives together after the war in their homeland. Many studied English for decades in order to get better jobs in America or to be able to work at jobs they had been trained for in Bosnia, like nursing. The effects of mass displacement are still felt for decades after conflict. For those who have no choice but to remember, the pain of genocide and lost loved ones is still felt for decades after.
The people of Sarajevo have marked the 20th anniversary of the beginning of the conflict by placing 11, 541 empty red chairs, one for each citizen of Sarajevo killed in the siege, in the middle of Marshal Tito Avenue, one of its main streets. So far, media from around the world have reported on the powerful symbolic act and watched as Bosnians remember the recent past. Whether the world at large will just watch again, or will truly engage with the memory of the events, is yet to be seen.