Eastern Bosnia is a land of rolling hills, low mountains, and narrow valleys. Most of these narrow valleys house small towns or large villages. In the height of summer it is as green as anywhere I’ve ever seen and the foliage is as thick and vibrant as a rain forest.
The stunning colors of the landscape do however lie in total contrast to the houses and buildings dotting the landscape.
Many are half finished, some are abandoned, and all too many are pockmarked with the scars of bullet fire, shells, and mortar shrapnel.
The result is an eerie landscape of beauty and bucolic scenery where nature seems to be rejecting its human influence. Each town looks like it’s in a slow and continual state of decline and rejection.
One of these towns is Srebrenica, or “Silver Mine,” an old source for precious metals as well as salts and mineral water.
Srebrenica lies in a narrow valley like most of the other towns, and like many of them contradicts the natural beauty with pockmarked houses, crumbling slabs of concrete and abandoned shops.
Five miles north of the town center the valley starts to open up, and in a field to the west of the road a sea of shimmering white monuments cut brightly through the otherwise greyness of the other structures.
This is the Srebrenica-Potocari memorial, honoring the more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim, or Bosniak men who lost their lives in a 1995 massacre at the hands of a Serbian force during the Bosnian War. Europe’s most recent genocide.
Each headstone is individually addressed and named. Each one representing individual closure, the result of a painstaking process of exhuming remains within mass graves and identifying the dead for a proper burial. More than 8,000 bright white headstones standing like proud sentinels and yet also resembling thousands of chess pawns.
Only a few days prior to visiting Srebrenica I was at an exhibit in Sarajevo for the 1995 massacre that featured humbling and terrifying photos by a Bosnian photojournalist who chronicled much of the efforts in the past twenty years to mend families, honor the dead, and provide closure for the living.
Among the photos was a quote on the wall from Holocaust Survivor Primo Levi; “It happened, therefore it can happen, it can happen everywhere.”
I found it stunning in its simplicity. Stripping down the logic of genocide’s continued occurrence without using the word itself. In his simple phrasing genocide is something akin to learned behavior, and therefore a normal part of the human catalogue of action.
Rationalizing its occurrence once is to open the door for its rationale again.
I live and work in a peaceful city that is in an active war zone.
Two years ago, before I was there, and not more than fifty miles from the city, genocide happened. The victims were the minority Yazidi religious sect at the hands of the Islamic State. The world’s most recent genocide.
The United States, though aware of events in northern Iraq in August of 2014, did not officially declare the Yazidi massacre a genocide until March 2016.
Maybe because once recognized, genocide requires immediate and thorough action from the participating and aware international community. Maybe because officially recognizing such an event at a later date protects the observer while providing deniability, as if to say, “we know now that these events occurred, but we were not aware at the time”.
It is through this inaction, latent responsibility, and dehumanizing of those we don’t easily relate to that we can and sometimes do as a collective legitimize genocide, its rationale, and allow its pattern.
America is not alone in this politicized approach, as foreign relations still keep many countries from declaring the existence of several genocides, and thus forces many of us to engage in an argument of what constitutes a genocide and where the line is drawn.
The very existence of this argument only ever benefits the deniers and creators of genocide by providing slivers of deniability and space to maneuver.
And in doing so relegating the deaths of thousands, whether they were given a headstone or not, to pawns of geopolitical motives.
I imagine that in a generation, if things have settled down enough, there might be a memorial built in northern Iraq.
The dead will be exhumed, identified and properly reburied, and a beautiful gallery with heart-wrenching photos will recount the losses of the individual, the suffering of the Yazidi people, and the nominal victory of humanity by quantifying the destruction and providing closure to a dark chapter of human history.
On a wall in this memorial will be a quote from a survivor of a prior genocide, one that occurred roughly seventy five years before the Yazidi genocide; “It has happened, therefore it can happen, it can happen everywhere.”
The quote will not only help to relate the Yazidi genocide to past occurrences, but also unintentionally frame it in the context of an unbreakable pattern of human action, a learned behavior. As if in recognizing and remembering history, we’re doomed to a self-fulfilling prophecy of repeating it.