The Wounds of the Bosnian Genocide Haven’t Healed
An Oscar-nominated film exposes the crimes of Srebrenica at a time when the perpetrators are still celebrated in Serbia and beyond.
The Oscar-short-listed film Quo Vadis, Aida? is a cinematic tribute to the women of Srebrenica and those killed in a massacre that remains an open wound for Bosniaks around the world. Survivors of the genocide and concentration camps, many of whom served as extras alongside the large crew and cast, knew the pain of a trauma triggered and relived so vividly. But they participated proudly; this experience meant taking part in a new episode of history-making.
The movie is based on true events—although some characters are fictional and some scenes are fictionalized for creative purposes. The film focuses on the days between July 11 and July 13, 1995 in an enclave in Eastern Bosnia after the town of Srebrenica fell to the Bosnian Serb Army under the command of Gen. Ratko Mladic. The enclave was formed in the summer of 1992, and in April 1993, it was declared a “safe area” by U.N. Resolution 819 in response to an escalating humanitarian crisis.
The film focuses on Aida Selmanagic (played by Jasna Djuricic), a teacher who ends up working as a translator for the U.N. peacekeeping task force—a Dutch battalion that was in charge of the battery factory in Potocari that became a refuge for thousands of Bosniaks who fled the Serbian attacks.
In the movie, Aida’s husband (played by Izudin Bajrovic) and two sons (played by Boris Ler and Dino Bajrovic) were among the Bosnian Muslims trapped in the factory. The audience follows Aida’s frantic, desperate attempts to save her family from Mladic’s (played by Boris Isakovic) army against the backdrop of a global political drama that occurred in the days prior to the mass killings.
While commenting on the five-year-long movie production process, world-renowned Bosnian director Jasmila Zbanic stated that one of her intentions “was to help the audience to identify with those people and to focus on the human dimension of the story rather than on the political one.” There is no doubt that she succeeds in that brilliantly. But the political background of the story deserves attention too—because the perpetrators are still being glorified and their ideologies celebrated today by many in the region and around the world who refuse to confront the historical crime and human pain that the film portrays so powerfully.
The International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) ruled that the crimes in Srebrenica were acts of genocide. And the genocidal intent of the perpetrators did not appear out of nowhere.
Despite various attempts at historical revisionism, there is an increasing body of evidence confirming the role of Serbian elites in shaping genocidal policies. On March 1, when many Bosnian nationals celebrated the country’s independence, the Srebrenica Memorial Center published “Genocide Papers.” They are a set of searchable transcripts that reveal shocking details from the so-called National Assembly of the Republic of Srpska sessions from 1991 to 1995. They are not new and have been used at the ICTY trials. But this is the first time that such documents—providing insight into the most important decisions of the Serbian war leadership of Bosnia and Herzegovina—have been presented in an accessible way as a historical document.
We thus have another testimony of a planned joint criminal enterprise aimed at creating ethnically pure Serb territories. All of it reaffirms the process of “reconceptualization of Bosniaks as cultural aliens,” wrote Emir Suljagic, director of the Srebrenica Memorial Center, so “the assembly not only construed the enemy but also created and implemented very specific policies aimed at eradicating ‘the Turk.’”
But the public still isn’t aware of the many small decisions that led to genocidal acts—and the details matter. On May 12, 1992, the illegal Assembly of the Serb Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina (later named “Republika Srpska”) adopted the so-called Six Strategic Goals of the Serb People in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Number three, one of the most important goals, concerned the area of Eastern Bosnia: “Establishment of a corridor in the Drina River valley, that is, elimination of the Drina as a border separating Serb states” clearly shows the intention to eliminate the Bosniak people in Eastern Bosnia. According to a later ruling by the ICTY, the document explicitly laid the foundations for the Srebrenica genocide. Indeed, in March 1995, the Republika Srpska command issued a seventh directive to “create an unbearable situation of total insecurity, with no hope of further survival or life for the inhabitants of Srebrenica or Zepa.”
These decisions led to the events of July 1995, which are depicted correctly and compactly in the movie. On July 10, 1995, the commander of the Dutch Battalion, Col. Thom Karremans (played by Johan Heldenbergh) promised airstrikes. Yet after one insubstantial NATO strike the next day, more airstrikes were called off due to Mladic’s threats to execute Dutch peacekeeping hostages and harm the civilian population in the Dutch compound.
Instead, the U.N. troops started evacuating thousands of civilians from Srebrenica to the Potocari battery factory.
On July 11, Mladic triumphantly gave a statement after entering Srebrenica: “Here we are, on July 11, 1995, in Serb Srebrenica. On the eve of yet another great Serb holiday (the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul), we give this town to the Serb people as a gift.” Not shown in the film, Mladic added in real life, “Finally, after the popular uprising against the Turkish tyrants, the time has come to take revenge on the Turks in this territory.”
The killings had already started in the evening of July 11 in Potocari, while organized executions took place between July 13 and July 16 in the towns of Bratunac and Zvornik. Large mass scale executions, not portrayed in the film, occurred in the Cerska Valley, in a warehouse in Kravica, in the town of Orahovac, in Petkovac, at the Branjevo military farm, at the Pilica village’s cultural center, and in Kozluk. To this day, many of these crimes continue to go unpunished.
Moreover, as we see in the film, years after the Srebrenica genocide, Aida still experiences a new post-war trauma while trying to identify the remnants of her sons. Along with many other men and women—both on and off screen—survivors continue hoping to hear or find any evidence of their family members. The process of hiding and destroying evidence of the crimes committed started at the same time as the mass executions. The majority of this work was done by the Republika Srpska Army’s engineering units.
Today, new drones equipped with light detection and ranging as well as remote sensing technology could help find the 7,573 people still missing 25 years after Bosnia’s war ended. The criminal operation of systematically transferring bodies from primary mass graves under code name “Sanitation,” the creation of secondary and sometimes even tertiary graves between August and November 1995, and the political cover-ups and ongoing concealment of gravesites by entire communities might be further unmasked thanks to this powerful technology.
As far as the complicity and inaction of the Dutch battalion, much has already been written about its shameful role. The consequences of its failure to act are irrefutable and the implication unassailable. In July 2019, the Netherlands’ Supreme Court affirmed that the country’s troops were “partly to blame for the deaths” of 350 Muslim men and boys after the fall of the Bosnian enclave of Srebrenica. This February, the Dutch government also stated it would pay 5,000 euros to all veterans who were in Srebrenica in July 1995, as a gesture of appreciation for their trauma and sacrifices.
The move was not welcomed in Bosnia. As the memorial center’s director Suljagic argued: “as long as they continue to place Dutchbat soldiers at the center of their narrative of Srebrenica, Dutch society, and in particular the Dutch government, are colluding with the revisionist forces attempting to obfuscate the human cost of the Srebrenica genocide and confine our story to the peripheral margins of European history.”
The perpetrators of the genocide then, and its deniers and defenders today, have used an array of what renowned social psychologist Albert Bandura coined as “moral disengagement,” techniques in the “perpetration of inhumanities”—including dehumanization, moral justification, victim-blaming, euphemistic labeling, diffusion of responsibility, distortion of consequences—for their mission. In what is planned to be an annual publication, the 2020 edition of the “Srebrenica Genocide Denial Report” crystallizes in major detail “talking points and tactics of the genocide deniers.” Beyond the 10 stages of genocide, the Bosnian genocide is now in the 11th phase, which Bosnian American scholar Hariz Halilovich named “triumphalism”—a situation where even convicted war criminals are respected and glorified as war heroes.
As long as pervasive nationalism remains the primary political force in Serbia, all political exchanges between Serbia and Bosnia, without clear distance from previous regimes’ atrocities, will only maintain a facade of normal diplomatic relations. The educational curriculum in each country presents different histories, and the distorted image of the past in Serbia is the result of continuous deliberate efforts by opportunist politicians, intellectuals, church leaders, and poisonous media rhetoric. There are also those who speak up against the pervasive Serbian nationalist myths, but they risk unavoidable online lynching (like Serbian actress Milena Radulovic who recently publicly praised Quo Vadis, Aida? on her social media channel) and often grave consequences offline.
“Post-war intellectual discourse in Serbia is still focused on the unification and liberation of all Serbs, which represents a genuine obstacle to its future as a state as well as to the normalization of relations in the region,” said Sonja Biserko, a human rights activist and founder and president of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia. Belgrade-based columnist Tomislav Markovic pointed to the chilling results of a recent survey conducted by Demostat in Serbia: Two-thirds of citizens deny the genocide in Srebrenica, and more than 70 percent of respondents have never heard of a city in the region under siege.
And it is not just a question of history. Today, Bosnia and Herzegovina continues to face grave dangers. Regional expert Janusz Bugajski recently reminded readers that “the status quo between the two Bosnian entities is not a viable solution and can explode at any time to generate regional havoc” and advised the Biden administration to address “persistent threats against Bosnian integrity by politicians in Banja Luka and Mostar.” Not only have officials from Croatian Democratic Union, a Croat nationalist party, pressed for certain electoral law changes, but some have also adamantly pushed for a third, ethnic Croat entity in the country. Additionally, Serbian member and chairperson of Bosnia’s tripartite presidency, Milorad Dodik, once again threatened secession at a recent Republika Srpska National Assembly session.
Many might wonder how the Bosnian genocide took place in the heart of Europe 25 years ago. In an interview with Cineuropa, the film’s director put it bluntly: “What’s hard for me is to think that if Srebrenica were to happen again, at this very moment, Europe or indeed the world wouldn’t lift a finger.” These are important alarms; yet to a majority of Bosniaks, a history of genocide is a continued reminder of both the fragility and indispensability of a free multiethnic state—something that is still very much in jeopardy.
Toward the film’s end, Aida returns to her old apartment in Srebrenica, and the man walking up the building’s stairs turns out to be Joka (played by Emir Hadzihafizbegovic), Mladic’s right-hand man, whom she recognized from his haughty visits to the Potocari factory in 1995. Nonchalantly climbing up the steps with bread in his hands, he lived as if nothing had happened.
Today, a quarter century after the U.S.-brokered Dayton peace agreement, the returnees in Republika Srpska and around Bosnia still have to confront their relatives’ murderers on a daily basis.
Although it has already achieved extraordinary success, an Oscar award for Quo Vadis, Aida? would bring welcome global recognition for Bosnian genocide survivors. In contrast with the fiasco surrounding the 2019 Nobel Literature award—which was given to genocide denier Peter Handke—an Academy Award would show that, this time, the victims and survivors aren’t invisible and mass executions will be acknowledged.