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Past Tragedy, Present Visions Of 'Peace' Collide On New Srebrenica Monument

Work began last week on the Hand In Hand fountain and statue on a central square in Srebrenica.
Work began last week on the Hand In Hand fountain and statue on a central square in Srebrenica.

SREBRENICA, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- Officials have broken ground on a peace monument that threatens to deepen ethnic divides and emotional wounds in the Bosnian town synonymous with genocide and one of 20th-century Europe's most notorious wartime atrocities.

Work began last week on the Hand In Hand fountain and statue on a central square in Srebrenica, the small mountain town within a United Nations "safe area" that was overrun by Bosnian Serb troops, who then massacred thousands of trapped Bosniak men in the Bosnian War in 1995.

But the failure of local officials and the planned monument itself to recognize Srebrenica's tragic past threatens to eclipse the project's focus on peace, reconciliation, friendship, and solidarity.

Survivors and victims' families say there can be no meaningful monument to peace in Srebrenica until fellow residents -- including genocide-denying, ethnic Serb Mayor Mladen Grujicic -- acknowledge that a genocide took place.

"When they admit that genocide was committed in Srebrenica, that Srebrenica was killed by Serb Chetniks from here and Serbia, then we can think about it," Kata Hotic, a leader of the group Mothers of Srebrenica, told RFE/RL's Balkan Service, using an old term for Serbian nationalist detachments of the former Yugoslav Army.

"And apologize to the victims, ask for forgiveness -- then we can build a monument to peace. And that has not happened, and there is no peace, and those are just empty words," she added.

Serb troops and paramilitaries massacred more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys and raped and tortured many other Bosniak refugees in 1995 in ethnic cleansing in the Srebrenica area that both the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the International Court of Justice (ICJ) have declared a genocide.

INTERACTIVE: Timeline To Genocide

Srebrenica is now home to just some 12,000 residents in the easternmost sliver of the mostly Serb entity, Republika Srpska, that along with a Muslim-Croat federation composes Bosnia-Herzegovina.

The monument -- which was initiated by the UN Office of the High Representative in Bosnia -- was approved last year by the Serb-dominated mayor and town council in Srebrenica.

It is planned as a fountain and bronze sculpture that features four children embracing on a globe that is being held aloft by outstretched hands.

Remains of most of the more than 8,000 victims of the Srebrenica massacre were found in mass graves in the area and dozens of the atrocities' organizers and perpetrators have been prosecuted internationally in the past 25 years.

SPECIAL PROJECT: Here Are The Faces Of Thousands Who Died In Srebrenica

But more than 1,000 of the victims have not yet been located, and many who participated in the killings in and around Srebrenica remain unpunished.

Authorities in Republika Srpska have consistently resisted apprehending Serb war-crimes suspects on their territory.

In neighboring Serbia, the parliament and presidency have formally apologized for wrongdoing by Bosnian Serb troops during the wars of the 1990s, including at Srebrenica.

Grujicic, who has acknowledged "horrible crimes" against Bosniaks but rejects the term "genocide" because he says there was no "deliberate destruction of a people," defeated a Bosniak rival in Srebrenica's local elections in 2016.

He stressed to RFE/RL the need for the new monument to look forward rather than at the town's painful past.

"It means one message, a different message compared to the ones that have come from Srebrenica so far, and these are just messages from the past," Grujicic said. "By building this monument, we want to show that we are all committed to living together, a better life, a life of peace. The very word monument of peace says it all."

The head of the town assembly, Nedzib Smajic, echoed that approach.

"It has nothing to do with the last war or its events.... This is just a message of peace," Smajic said. "All the peoples in Srebrenica have their commemorations, they have their monuments."

But others, including Srebrenica survivor and chronicler Emir Suljagic, regard it as a hasty effort to turn the page on tragedy without acknowledging its motives and scale or respecting its victims.

"The idea of erecting a peace monument precisely -- but precisely -- at the place where Ratko Mladic called for revenge against 'the Turks' on July 11, 1995, in a reference to the rebellion against shameful," said Suljagic, referring to the commander of the Bosnian Serb forces' invocation during the Srebrenica rampage of a 19th-century conflict between Ottoman emissaries and local Christians.

Mladic is currently serving a life sentence after his conviction in The Hague tribunal in 2017 for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide while leading those Bosnian Serb troops with support from neighboring Serbia.

Suljagic, who wrote one of the first accounts of the genocide in his book Postcards From The Grave and now heads the nearby Srebrenica-Potocari memorial to its victims, called the omission of Srebrenica's history from the planned monument "shameful."

"It's not possible to talk [only] about peace in a city and municipality that for more than 50 percent of the population of Bosnia-Herzegovina is a physical location that is irrevocably linked to the attempt to destroy a group of citizens who make up more than 50 percent of the population," Suljagic said.

Bosnia's controversial 2013 census put the country's Bosniak population at just over 50 percent of its 3.5 million people, with Serbs composing nearly 31 percent and ethnic Croats another 15 percent.

The same census put the Bosniak portion of Srebrenica at around 54 percent, compared to around 45 percent ethnic Serbs.

Branimir Kojic, president of the Organization of Families of Captured and Killed Soldiers and Missing Civilians of Srebrenica, told RFE/RL that no one consulted his group regarding the monument.

"None of the authorities asked us. To be honest, we're against it because we don't know what it's about," Kojic said. "If it's in the spirit of coexistence, tolerance, we support it. But it would be nice if someone consulted us, to know, to give us an explanation of what it's about."

The monument – which will cost some 35,000 euros ($40,000) -- is scheduled to be finished by mid-September.

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    Sadik Salimovic

    Sadik Salimovic is a correspondent for RFE/RL's Balkan Service.

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    Meliha Kesmer

    Meliha Kesmer is a correspondent for RFE/RL's Balkan Service.

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    Andy Heil

    Andy Heil is a Prague-based senior correspondent covering central and southeastern Europe and the North Caucasus, and occasionally science and the environment. Before joining RFE/RL in 2001, he was a longtime reporter and editor of business, economic, and political news in Central Europe, including for the Prague Business Journal, Reuters, Oxford Analytica, and Acquisitions Monthly, and a freelance contributor to the Christian Science Monitor, Respekt, and Tyden.