It has been said that the Balkans produce more history than they can consume, so it spills over to affect the entire world. This region in southeastern Europe has experienced such a turbulent history in the past century that the word “Balkanization” means the breaking up of an entity into smaller and often hostile units.
The hostility culminated in the Srebrenica Genocide in 1995, to date the most horrific war crime on European soil since the Second World War. In July 2020, as we mark the 25th anniversary of this event, its impact is still unraveling, an enduring reminder of the potential consequences of Islamophobia.
The Balkans have historically been home to a variety of ethnic and religious communities. Many of these associated themselves with nearby empires which for centuries competed for influence in the region, most notably the Ottomans, Russians, and Austro-Hungarians.
The influence of these empires maintained a delicate balance of power in the region, as a local power play by any group could set off a large-scale regional conflict. As the famous German chancellor Otto von Bismarck said in 1888, “One day the great European war will come out of some damned foolish thing in the Balkans”—26 years later the First World War was triggered by an assassination in Sarajevo.
None of the empires which had maintained the balance of power survived the First World War, creating a power vacuum in the Balkans. With ambitious visions of what the post-war map of the Balkans might look like, local political leaders headed off to the “Peace Conference” held in Paris in 1919 to seek the support of the European powers and the United States.
These powers were often poorly informed about the region. British Prime Minister David Lloyd George famously asked one of the representatives whether Serbs and Croats spoke the same language. However, they did not see their lack of knowledge about any region as an obstacle to redrawing the map of entire regions and recklessly “installing” loyal political actors into positions of power. The rise of Nazi Germany, the Srebrenica Genocide, and even current conflicts in the Middle East can all be traced to decisions made at this conference.
The seeds for ethnic conflict in the Balkans were planted in 1919 with the creation—and endorsement by the Western powers—of a state that was eventually called Yugoslavia. The idea of jugoslovjentsvo had been around since the 1860s, and promoted a single state for the South Slavic people: Serbs, Bulgarians, Croats, Bosniaks, Slovenes, Macedonians, and Montenegrins. If it was any indication of things to come, the delegation was led by two men who deeply distrusted each other: Nikola Pašić, a Serb, and Ante Trumbić, a Croat. They failed to even discuss crucial aspects of creating their state, such as a constitution. Instead, they had conversations on how they would “manage” the differences among their diverse people. In one case, a Serbian official attempted to convince Trumbić that Bosnian Muslims would not be an issue; the Serbian army would generously give them 48 hours to return to the Orthodox Christian faith, and “those who won’t, will be killed, as we have done in our time in Serbia.” A shocked Trumbić asked him to confirm that he was joking, but he said that he was “quite serious.”
It is impossible in this article to trace all of the developments in Yugoslavia which ultimately led to the Srebrenica Genocide. However, signs of deep-seated resentment among the ethno-religious groups were always present. By 1940, as Yugoslavia was caught in the storm of the Second World War, any dreams of South Slavic unity were collapsing. Axis forces led by the Germans and Italians, Serbian paramilitary forces known as the Četniks, Croatian fascists known as the Ustaša, and communist forces led by Tito all fought for control. The Muslims, who were a minority, were often actively targeted or “caught in crossfire”, and by 1943 more than 100,000 Muslims of Yugoslavia had been killed.
Ultimately, Tito’s communists came out on top, and Tito’s leadership set the trajectory for Yugoslavia until his death in 1980. During this time, Muslims and other religious groups faced the communists’ suppression of religion. However, especially after Tito’s death and the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, Muslims began to be increasingly viewed as a threat, and described as such in public discourse in Yugoslavia.
By the late 1980s, Yugoslavia had come full circle to its origins as an attempt by Serb leaders to establish ‘Greater Serbia’. President Slobodan Milošević’s unapologetic support for this led Slovenia, Croatia and Macedonia to secede from Yugoslavia in 1991, setting off ethnic conflict in the newly-formed states. In 1992, Bosnia also chose to secede, and its independence was recognized by the European Union and the United States.
However, the Serb minority within Bosnia refused to accept the secession, and Milošević began to arm these Serbs to fight for control of the country. As the conflict intensified, the Serbs had a difficult time holding on to the territory they were seizing, so they resorted to ethnic cleansing. Bosnian Muslims were systematically tortured, raped, murdered; their property was seized; and they were held in concentration camps. The Croats, who had until recently been the Bosnians’ allies, also turned on them and joined in Milošević’s terror campaign.
It has been estimated that at least a million Bosnian Muslims were displaced due to the conflict, many of them only able to flee to places where the conflict would soon catch up to them. One of these places was Srebrenica, a small Muslim town about 45 miles northeast of Sarajevo. By early 1993, it was hosting more than 30,000 refugees. The United Nations proclaimed Srebrenica as a “safe haven,” allowing atrocities in the surrounding areas to continue. The international powers simply watched the tragedy unfold, unwilling to put any significant military pressure on the Serb forces.
On July 6, 1995, the Serbs attacked Srebrenica, massacring over 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys, and raping and/or displacing thousands of women. It was the single worst war crime since the Second World War. The conflict in Bosnia was eventually brought to an end through the Dayton Agreement of December 1995, but other conflicts due to the break-up of Yugoslavia would soon erupt in Kosovo and then Macedonia.
A quarter-century later, the impact of the Srebrenica Genocide continues to be felt. The traumatic memories of the events still haunt the minds of many survivors; victims’ graves are still being discovered, and there is ongoing debate over the use of the word “genocide”. But there are more sinister repercussions.
Brenton Tarrant, the Australian man who massacred 51 people and injured 49 others in a shooting spree at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand in March 2019, had the word “Turkofagos” (Greek for “Eater of Turks”, in which Turk really means “Muslim”) etched onto his rifle. Tarrant had travelled through the Balkans in recent years, and it is likely that is where he learned of this term. As one journalist described it in Foreign Policy magazine, trips to the Balkans are “grand tour of the West’s far-right historic imagination, which centers on the genocidal Balkan wars of the 1990s, which pitted the region’s Christians against its Muslim populations.”
While the wounds of Srebrenica Genocide are still fresh in many ways, the brutal event continues to inspire Islamophobic violence, a horrible cycle set in motion a century ago largely due to the blessings it received from the West’s ignorant and reckless policymakers.