Trying to look back at the War in Bosnia-Herzegovina

Twenty years ago this week the war in Yugoslavia began its most horrific stage, the destruction, slaughter, and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia Herzegovina. Can you remember where you were at this time in 1992? I was still in primary school. Many of the students I teach now in the university where I work were no more than a year or two old. Irish people were more concerned that they wouldn’t be getting Yugoslavia’s berth in the European Championships, than the fact that the country they would hopefully replace was about to experience the worst atrocities in Europe since the Nazis.

Wars seem to define decades more than anything. Sure a politician may have a lot to do with particular wars, such as George Bush in Iraq, but wars often do not stop with the transition of power. If you look down through the twentieth century, we see war after war, conflict after conflict, and if there’s very little conflict then there’s probably outright conquest. Stretching through the decades, wars and conflict have featured throughout and they define our decades with chapters in history books, each one an individual mark on our conscience for every time we forget and fail to learn from the mistakes society has made over and over again.

There was the Boer War at the turn of the twentieth century, the colonial wars between the great powers at the start of the century, World War 1, the rise of Communism (which effected the next seventy years of world politics including the Yugoslav war), the rise of Fascism and the Spanish Civil War, World War 2, the Korean War but also the decline of the colonial powers and the wars which helped to reduce them (Kenya, Indo-China, Algeria), the Vietnam War which started in the 1960s but continued into the 1970s where conflicts exploded all over the globe but most notably in Cambodia, the Middle East, and in sub-Saharan Africa where problems have still yet to be solved. The 1980s saw the disastrous Soviet Union invasion of Afghanistan. In the 1990s so much happened, but the war in Yugoslavia was, from my perspective, the war that defined that decade more than any other. It was the first war that I really saw unfold before me on television.

At the time it started I was young. A few years before Desert Storm had rattled through Iraq showing the full power of the US war machine. I marvelled at sights of F-16s and Abrams tanks on the television actually in combat. I was the kind of kid who grew up playing with tanks, so seeing them really working and fighting on the nine o’clock news was a bit of a treat. When I was a little older the atrocities in Yugoslavia were in full swing, I got the idea that there was nothing glorious about this war. Here was pictures of refugees, villages being bombed, citizen armies, starvation, death, and failed strategies by the armies with the big, fancy modern machinery.This was brutal and savage. But my memories of it are blurred; I was becoming a teenager at the time and there were much more important things for me to be concentrating on, such as the joys of puberty.

A few months ago I started to think about this war. Ratko Mladić, the leader of the Serb forces during the war in Bosnia, had finally been caught hiding out in Serbia somewhere. I’m not sure if it was in May when he was caught that I started to reminisce and I found that I knew nothing about the war, other than the eventual result of the conflict and what popular culture had forced on me. I recalled watching or hearing about a documentary called The Death of Yugoslavia. So I searched for it, found it, watched it, and still found that I knew and understood little more.

(you can watch the first of six episodes from here, and I recommend you do).

So much happened during those years that it’s hard to understand what happened. Of course people are at fault and of course people made decisions that changed the lives of thousands, if not millions forever. Some of these people are answering for their decisions today. Others never will. I’m far from an expert and I won’t dare to go into it in detail.

During the week, The Observor had a story from one journalist, Ed Vulliamy, who covered the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia in great detail (kudos to Wet Casements for sharing this on twitter). He even went as far to catalogue the lives and experiences of some of the people who were affected by the conflict. I would also suggest that you read this article as it really hits home.

Also, courtesy of the @Ireland twitter feed, I was shown this article showing the passage of another one of the defining features of the conflict in Bosnia, and that was the siege of Sarajevo. This siege was so horrific but it is probably superseded by the one event which, without doubt, strikes the greatest fear in all of us, and that is the events around and in the town of Srebrenica.  I remember seeing the news reports of the mortar attacks on the market place in Sarajevo, and seeing on the earlier praised nine o’clock news, bodies severed being dragged across the glass covered ground to the nearest hospital. These images are all too familiar after the Iraq conflict and the suicide bomber attacks which have been equally, if not more violent.

Some months ago I read a story in the New Yorker last December by a man called Aleksander Hemon which allowed an insight into the real tragedy of the Bosnian conflict, and especially the siege and destruction of Sarajevo. Hemon was fortunate enough to escape most of the conflict, but he is able to give a clear picture into what the city was like before, and also the tragic outcome of the war in the city’s existence today. Again, I would recommend that you read this.

In the story Hemon talks about seeing entire Bosnian families, distinctively shaped walking down city streets completely out of their depth and comfort zone. These people were refugees, and in Ireland the war brought the first large groups of refugees to Ireland that I can recall. I remember people talking about these people as if they had jumped on the boat eager to get as much as they could from Ireland, without any consideration for what the real situation in Ireland was. Sometimes Irish people forget that so many Irish have had to leave Ireland for a lot less worse than the reasons the Bosnian people came to Ireland.

This short account, I hope, will offer us a chance to think about what happened in Europe twenty years ago. I hope it will remind us that war is an evil and brutal act, and that all around the planet people are killing and being killed, and for what? While the reasons may essentially be different, the overall goals are the same; to take and hold power for the betterment of one’s own greed.

The war in the former Yugoslavia was tragic, evil, and brutal, and I hope we never see anything like it again. But I know this will not be the case. Look at what is happening in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and then there’s the continued tragedy that is constantly taking place in central Africa, the most brutal and undocumented carnage of all.

I’m not an activist nor a religionist, so I won’t ask or tell you to get out there and try to make a difference through action or prayer. If you want to do any of these then do them. The channels for trying to change the world are the same as they’ve always been.

I only want to help you to remember this tragedy among so many more. I hope that we, on the outside, can never forget what normal people like all of us had to deal with, and deal with all the time.

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