It shook my strong sense of optimism and faith in humanity when I walked through the sea of mass graves and heard the stories of an ethnic group savagely turning on innocent neighbours, babies as little as two days old murdered and men as old as 95 shot mercilessly. Pregnant mothers were beaten by drunken men in army boots till they bled and miscarried their babies. 50,000 women and girls between 10 to 60 years of age were grouped together in 100 concentration camps and repeatedly raped by the aggressor’s army. These women were enslaved for more than three years and the country was under brutal attack by an organized army.
These heinous crimes against humanity happened in front of the helpless families. The exact figure is unknown, but it is estimated that 500,000 people were killed in Bosnia in our life-time (just twenty years ago). Boys and men were separated from their families and trundled to the woods where they were shot and buried in mass graves. An entire generation annihilated while the pain and struggle to survive still endures.
Where and when did this genocide happen? In Europe, between 1992-1995 (the massacre of Srebrenica happened on 11th July 1995). This is a continent that we associate with “civilization”, “democracy” and “human rights”. And who exactly were the victims of this genocide? A community that is an integral part of Europe, and has been for the last 500 to 600 years: the Bosniaks or Muslims. Why were they targeted and victimized? They look entirely European (many Bosniaks are blonde and blue-eyed with fair complexions) their names are classical Muslim: Ahmed, Muhammad, Amina, Mustapha, Khadijah – these are their common names but spelt in the local vernacular. As a part of the research project entitled “Journey into Europe” led by my father, Professor Akbar Ahmed, across key areas of Europe to understand how we can build bridges of peace, I and our team interviewed hundreds of people from Bosnia – ordinary people, scholars, leaders (religious and political) and they said they were targeted “because we are Muslims”, locally labeled as “Turks”. Yet, this is a gross misunderstanding of the Bosniaks’ indisputable identity as European Muslims.
[quote]More than 1,000 mosques were targeted and blown up to “ethnically cleanse” the area of Muslim traces[/quote]
The history of the Balkans is complex. Most of the region, including areas like Albania, Serbia, and Bosnia was once under the Muslim Ottoman Empire throughout the early modern period – from the 14th century to early 20th century. Before the Ottomans arrived, Muslim Sufis and dervishes travelled to Europe to preach good behaviour and humanity, which encouraged locals to embrace Islam. Religiously, Bosnia retains a Muslim majority even today who define themselves as European. Some Bosnian Muslims, therefore, did not convert to Islam under the Ottoman rule, but practiced Islam even before the Ottomans after being inspired by saints. The Ottoman Empire was religiously, ethnically and linguistically diverse and was considered to be a much more tolerant place for religious practices as compared to other parts of the world at the time. A glaring disparity to the harsh treatment meted out to the Bosniaks by their neighbours, the Serbs and Croats, and the violence inflicted upon them in recent years. In Bosnia in the 1990s, more than 1,000 mosques were targeted and blown up to “ethnically cleanse” the area of Muslim traces.
In contrast, we saw a constitutional document called the Ahdnama, which was handwritten by the Ottoman sultan, Mehmet II. In this important document, showed to us by a Franciscan monk with great pride in his monastery, the sultan allocated rights to the religious groups under his rule, including the (Bosnian) Franciscan Christians by bestowing them with his own robe as a symbol of his protection. Mehmet II wrote, “Let no one trouble or disturb (them)… Let no one endanger them or their lives, their properties and their monasteries.”
Though there were intermittent tensions, this general religious tolerance lasted for centuries. Muslims, Christians and Jews co-existed as neighbours, school friends and fellow countrymen. Yet in the 20th century mass violence erupted with murders of Muslims, Jews and Romas (during World War II, 700,000 people were massacred during the Ustase genocide, 90% of Bosnian Jews were killed and the rest migrated to America).
Sitting amidst the sea of graves of the young and the old in Srebrenica, Potocari (a few hours from Sarajevo), I interviewed a “Mother of Srebrenica”, Hatidza Mehmedovic (the local spelling of Khadija Muhammad). Hatidza’s two young teenage sons (younger than me in age), and husband were forcefully separated from her along with more than 8,372 men from the village and were brutally shackled with steel wires, they were forced to take off their clothes and dig their own graves – starved and naked – and were massacred by the Serb army, known as Chetniks. The Chetniks are the Serbo-Croatian army part of the Balkan guerrilla force during World War II, a chain-link in the ugly pattern of terror and counter terror that developed in the region in the 20th century. Amongst the thousands of innocent men, 50 male members of Hatidza’s family were slaughtered. Hassan, our translator, recalled his own harrowing escape from Serb soldiers, alongside his twin brother and father; running through the woods for seven days, “hunted like an animal” in the mountains. Sadly, he alone survived the open fire ruthlessly rained down upon them.
Hatidza said that Bosniaks raised their children to be peace-loving and to live harmoniously with their neighbours. “We do not want war. We never taught them how to fight. We taught them how to write and be friends. We had beautiful, smart and good children. We did not teach them how to hate or kill, so because of this we became victims.” Her non-Bosniak neighbours joined the Serbs and took away their boys and young men and “killed our loved ones. Serbs had massive weapons (they were then the fourth largest army in Europe) and we had nothing. We were unarmed and couldn’t escape. The Serbian army told the UN to leave with a guarantee that they would protect civilians. Serbia planned this mass genocide systematically to ethnically cleanse Europe of Muslims. They kept killing everyone who crossed their path – farmers, children, the old, everyone.
To be continued…