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Srebrenica and the spectre of Auschwitz

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Gravestones at the Srebrenica massacre memorial WIKI COMMONS PHOTO
Gravestones at the Srebrenica massacre memorial WIKI COMMONS PHOTO

I was in The Hague in December 2011 part of the Canadian delegation to the International Task Force on Holocaust Education, Research and Commemoration, since renamed The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. It was created in 2000, and Canada was admitted in 2007 and made a full member three years later.

I was invited to join the delegation by the multicultural branch of the Ministry of Immigration and was assigned to the Education Working Group. The task force met biannually and that year, the host was the Netherlands.

A few weeks before the meeting in The Hague, a notice was sent to the delegates (about 200 from approximately 30 countries) offering us a visit to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. The tribunal was held in a separate building across the plaza in the complex that housed our meetings. I was one of about a dozen task force members who signed up.

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We were given a detailed briefing about the civil war in Yugoslavia, the creation of the tribunal, and the charges against Radovan Karadzic for crimes against humanity against Muslims in the former Yugoslav republic of Bosnia. Historically, Yugoslavia was a mixture of Muslims, Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs. They spoke the same language, and during the reign of Josip Broz Tito, from 1945 to 1980, lived in relative harmony. With the breakdown of the Yugoslav federation, the two main nationalities, Croats and Serbs, sought to divide Bosnia. But their mutual animosity and the acceleration of territorial demands by Serbia led to the creation of Republika Srpska, an autonomous Serbian state within Bosnia, with Karadzic as the self-appointed president in 1992.

Karadzic was born in 1945 and was an acclaimed poet in his youth. He attended the University of Sarajevo and the Columbia Medical School and studied neurotic disorders in Denmark before becoming a psychiatrist in Sarajevo. He spoke at least three languages fluently – Serbo-Croatian, English and German. His paramilitary began a program of “ethnic cleansing” – specifically the persecution, deportation, hostage taking and murder of the Bosnian Muslim population. Under his direction, the male population of Muslims, numbering more than 7,500 in Srebrenica, was systematically murdered and buried outside the town. When the regime fell in 1995, Karadzic was indicted by the tribunal. The Srebrenica action was declared to be a genocide. He avoided capture for 13 years by disguising himself  and adopting an assumed name and identity. His trial began in 2010 and he chose to represent himself.

After our briefing, we were taken to a gallery of the tribunal with one-way glass separating us from the proceedings. Karadzic, looking very much the urban European intellectual, with his well-known mane of white hair, was about 20 feet from our seats. A report on the Srebrenica massacre was being explained by an Australian forensic archeologist who had worked at the site.  His account was factual, and its impact was graphic. Karadzic listened without translation and in his cross examination, speaking Serbo-Croatian, asked specific, pointed questions, seeking to poke fissures into the report. He was calm, incisive, unflappable.

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I witnessed this grotesque spectacle, captivated and repelled. As a child of survivors and a student and teacher of this history, I have never been able to grasp the incongruity in the human capacity to navigate between benevolence and evil. Karadzic, a doctor who ministered to all Bosnians, orchestrated the first genocide in Europe since the Holocaust.

That night, I paced my room until dawn, boarded a train for Amsterdam, and flew home.

Karadzic had shaken my hope for humanity. In my naiveté, I had believed that Europe had learned a lesson in the Holocaust. But the disintegration of Yugoslavia, and the current breakdown of civility throughout the continent, is evidence that the spectre of Auschwitz has not been erased.

Karadzic, born as I was in the shadow of the Holocaust, was found guilty on all counts on March 16.  He was sentenced to 40 years in prison.


Franklin Bialystok teaches in the Canadian Studies and Jewish Studies programs at the University of Toronto.