From nitrate bombs to parties on a farm: the migrant crisis is causing a fault line through the Netherlands


Refugees at Vienna West Railway Station. CC BY-SA 4.0


By Marieke Zoodsma

“Why did you come tonight to this meeting?”, an AT5 reporter asks one of the visitors of an information evening in Amstelveen, a municipality in the suburbs of Amsterdam, the Netherlands. “To defend my neighbourhood. This has scared me to death. Well, the whole thing is all of a sudden very near you.”* It is one of the many reactions to the opening of an emergency asylum centre in Amstelveen, which in this occasion is more emotionally charged due to the large Jewish community living in this neighbourhood.** However, it is not an uncommon reaction of inhabitants of any Dutch town, village or municipality confronted by the influx of asylum-seekers*** in their neighbourhood. Quotes such as “I cannot let my daughter outside alone at night anymore” or “All they do is come and take our money and houses”, are frequently heard in the media.


And then, unavoidably, come the ‘incidents’. First in Oranje, a small village of 140 inhabitants in the east of the Netherlands, where the decision was made that in total 1.400 asylum-seekers will be sheltered. When the Dutch State Secretary of Security and Justice came to explain the reasoning for this decision, his car was blocked and attacked by the angry residents of Oranje. A nitrate bomb is what scared the inhabitants of Woerden, a small city close to Utrecht, on Friday evening 9th of October. A group of about twenty men with black coats and balaclavas broke into the gates of the recently opened emergency asylum centre and threw nitrate bombs, fireworks and eggs at the facility. The shaken group of 148 asylum-seekers, many of who came here to escape violence, have been relocated to a different location four days later. This week, councillors of the municipality of Rijswijk (close to The Hague) have received threatening letters in response to the announced opening of an asylum centre. One of the letters read: “First of all, what a lovely daughters you have… Mmm. If that asylum centre will come, I will go and look for them at school.”****


So far, it have been mostly Dutch citizens who publicly exercised, or threatened with, violence – not those feared refugees. While they are being portrayed as criminals, racists and free riders, a fair share of Dutch society is getting more and more anxious with ‘such people’ living around ‘their’ corner. It is as correspondent Rob Wijnberg rightly puts “the fear of high numbers”. If the news tells you every day that there are “ten thousand refugees” here and “millions of refugees” there, the whole subject will dehumanize eventually. In the end, one does not notice that those numbers actually represent individuals. Fortunately, there are also positive reactions to the influx of refugees. Last Saturday, the people of Onnen (a small village in the north) organized a party for asylum-seeker who were sheltered in the neighbourhood and in Woerden, after the attack, there were so many people bringing food, clothing and flowers that the municipality was overrun by the donations.


Short to say; the European migrant crisis is causing a fault line through the Netherlands, dividing its people as well as its politics. There is a clear divide between those that would like to discourage or even block asylum-seekers from coming to the Netherlands (or Europe for that matter) and those looking for a solution within the framework of European cooperation and who are working for a sustainable solution to this issue. But the protection of refugees, as stipulated in the 1951 Refugee Convention, entails more than only their safety. It also pertains a perspective to rebuild or continue to build a life for themselves and their families. If that is still not possible, as is often the case with sheltering refugees in ‘the region’, then the actual protection of refugees is in the end not guaranteed (see also: protracted refugee situation).


In my opinion, anyone who thinks that the solution to this problem lies in the closing of the ‘gates of Europe’, does thus not understand the core of the migrant crisis that we are facing. The solution lies in European cooperation, similar as to what the unfortunately heavily criticized German Bondskanselier Angela Merkel has been propagating. Responding to the critique to her stance toward the crisis, Merkel said that “slamming the door ‘shut in the 21st century of the Internet era is an illusion.’” For instance, one of the options for European cooperation would be to broaden the possibilities for legal seasonal labour within the EU for people from Eastern Europe. This would be in order to confront or even avoid the misuse of our refugee policy by economic migrants from, especially, the Western Balkans.


Perhaps it is important to keep in mind that this is not only an abstract issue for politicians in the European Parliament, the Dutch government or town municipalities to act upon. ‘The whole thing’ is literally ‘very near you’, as the visitor of the information evening in Amstelveen told us. When the Dutch Red Cross called out for help two weeks ago, I signed up to volunteer – and with me, as it turned out later, 10,000 other Dutch citizens that week. The day after they asked me if I could come and help at a recently opened emergency asylum centre in Amsterdam. Already 600 asylum-seekers were sheltered in the huge building on the outskirts of Amsterdam and when I arrived, busloads with new arrivals kept on coming. Because there was such a large influx at the moment, it was deemed impossible to register all the newcomers and it was decided they first had to be given food, water and a bed. In this chaotic setting, I cleaned used camp beds from dirt of their previous users, handed out food that was donated by the catering of Schiphol Airport, explained to people where they exactly were (address? city? Amsterdam?), and played with the children that gathered in the recreation room. There was a mobile shower-facility outside the building that looked like the showers after a multiple-days-music-festival and the food for babies was too little. What I am trying to portray here is the situation that these people, these families like yours and mine, ended up in. Not for us to pity them, but to realise that this is not only happening somewhere on television and is for politicians to deal with. This is what is happening now, right around your corner.


* (Newsreporter) “Waarom bent u op deze bewonersbijeenkomst?” (visitor) “Nou, om onze wijk te verdedigen. Nou je schrikt je eigen de pest. Het komt dan wel heel erg dichtbij”. News item AT5, 13/10/2015

** According to several Jewish organisations, it unwise to locate refugees (400 in total), “many of whom have grown up with the idea that Jews are their enemy”, in one of the only municipalities in the Netherlands with clearly recognizable Jewish inhabitants and institutions.

*** Although a large part of the immigrants that enter the Netherlands would be considered refugees, such as people from Syria or Eritrea, there are also those to be found who cross our borders due to economical reasons. Economic immigrants are officially defined as asylum-seekers. For the sake of generalization, I therefore decided to use the term asylum-seekers instead of refugees. Please see the definitions for asylum-seeker and refugee in the conflict dictionary for more information.

**** “Ten eerste wat een heerlijke dochters heb je… Mmm. Als dat azc er nog komt, zoek ik ze nog wel eens op op school.” NOS News, 14/10/2015



Film Review: Im Labyrinth des Schweigens – “The Disclosure of a Disturbed Past”

Copyright: Beeldbank WO2- NIOD


Main defendant Wilhelm Boger, on the photo left, awaits the beginning of the Frankfurt Auschwitz trial in April 1964. In the background a map of the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp. Copyright: Image Bank WW2- NIOD


By Laurien Vastenhout and Marieke Zoodsma – 


It was not the handsome leading actor on the promotion poster of the film Im Labyrinth des Schweigens (Labyrinth of Lies) that stirred our young historians’ blood. This was rather caused by the endless number of high-up filling cabinets with documents and dossiers surrounding him, perhaps sloppily archived, but a dream for any historian to dig into. These dossiers are the thousands and thousands of personnel files of the Schutzstaffel (SS), the major paramilitary organization that was, under the command of Heinrich Himmler, primarily responsible for many of the crimes perpetrated during the Nazi-regime. The poster depicts the Berlin Document Center, the central collection point of the American administration for documentation from the time of Nazism. Here, our leading actor, the Frankfurter prosecutor Johann Radmann, initiates his major investigation into the crimes committed at the Auschwitz concentration camp. The film starts at the end of the 1950s in West Germany. Radmann is startled by the fact that no one ever seems to have heard of Auschwitz concentration camp – let alone of the atrocities committed there.


This idea of (willful) ignorance of the atrocities committed during the Second World War by the Nazis in the post-war period has been thoroughly investigated by Dan Stone in his recent work Goodbye to all That (2014). He underlines that a consensus on the memory of the Second World War was formulated in Germany. In the communist East-Germany, the capitalist system was blamed for this dark period in German history. In the West, there was a tendency to remain entirely silent on the period. Instead of finding a way to deal with the difficult past in which particular groups had suffered tremendously, the idea that this history had already been sufficiently dealt with prevailed, particularly in the West. Those that were deemed guilty had received their punishments through the Nuremberg trials and, from this perspective, the country had been completely denazified.  Stone has argued that this was a constructed consensus that was necessary in order to restore the country, allowing the German citizens to go on with their lives rather easily without having to think of the disturbing past. This can be seen as the central starting point of Im Labyrinth des Schweigens, with an ambitious young prosecutor who, as the story continues, slowly and painfully opens up this disturbing past.


In his publication Legacies of Dachau (2008), Harold Marcuse has also illustrated this deliberate silencing of the past by describing the way the Dachau concentration camp was viewed by German society in the post-war period. The municipality of Dachau refused both to construct signs indicating where the camp was located as well as the construction of a metro stop when a new metro line was built. All efforts were directed to make people remember the ‘good’ things of Dachau, for example that it used to be a place with a significant community of painters before the war. The war period was, in short, entirely ignored. This unwillingness of authorities to investigate the past, or even to pay attention to it in the first place, is a reoccurring theme in Im Labyrinth des Schweigens. Johann Radmann and his prosecuting team become visibly frustrated with the fact that the authorities they have to work with, refuse to actively help find the alleged Nazi perpetrators.         


The film neatly portrays how politically charged this search for, and the eventual arrest of, alleged Nazi war criminals has been. Even though 50 years have passed since the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials (1963-1965) and international law has quickly developed afterwards, with international tribunals sprouting up like sunflowers in the sun, the politicization of the arrest of alleged war criminals is still as relevant today as it was then. As Radmann digs further in the evidence on crimes committed at Auschwitz, he learns about Joseph Mengele, the infamous Nazi-doctor of Auschwitz who performed medical experiments on the camp prisoners – at that time Mengele is at large and living in Argentina. Radmann decides he wants to bring Mengele to justice, that he ought to be the ‘big fish’ of these trials; “Mengele is Auschwitz”, he claims. The unwillingness of the West-German authorities to arrest Mengele, even when he visits his family in Germany, is reminiscence of the International Criminal Court’s (ICC) 2009 arrest warrant of Omar Al-Bashir – the still presiding Sudanese president who is indicted for genocide and crimes against humanity (see Iona’s recent interview with professor Samuel Totten on the Sudan-conflict). When the Mossad (the Israeli intelligence agency) captures Adolph Eichmann in May 1960, Mengele flees to Paraguay and eventually dies a free man in 1979.


As the film is largely based on events that have actually taken place, it is a decent and thorough portrayal of the difficulties faced by anyone who wanted to call attention to the troubled past in a period (1950s and early 1960s) when the large majority remained silent. The historical accuracy is praiseworthy, despite the dramatization of some events – with arrests of suspected Nazi criminals taking place even while they are in the dentist’s chair. The film ends with the actual start of the trials which could leave the viewer feeling somewhat unsatisfied. However, the director’s choice not to focus on the perpetrators and the trial itself but mostly on the pre-trial period, where the silence and lies present in German society are most visible, is a favorable decision. This story is not about the war criminals and the actual trial, it is about the difficult disclosure of a disturbed past.


Only last week, the 93-year old “Accountant of Auschwitz” Oskar Gröning, who was assigned with the confiscation of luggage of prisoners at Auschwitz, has gone on trial in Germany. Of the approximately 7,000 SS-officers who served at Auschwitz and its sub-camps, no more than a hundred of them have faced trial and even less went to prison. On January 27th of this year, the 70th commemoration of the liberation of Auschwitz was held. Next week on the 5th of May, the Netherlands will celebrate their 70-year liberation of Nazi-occupation. Let these trials, how belated and perhaps incomplete as they might be, be a remembrance of the stories untold by the thousands of victims of dictatorial and genocidal regimes. Perhaps not justice but the opening up of silence, of the labyrinth of lies as the film cleverly portrays, is thus primarily served.

“No one before me, history is written after me” – The destruction of cultural heritage as a tactic of war

Stari Most, the Old Bridge, in Mostar – Bosnia and Herzegovina. Destroyed by Croat nationalists in 1993, reconstructed in 2004. Photograph by Marieke Zoodsma 2010


Stari Most, the Old Bridge, in Mostar – Bosnia and Herzegovina. Destroyed by Croat nationalists in 1993, reconstructed in 2004. Photograph by Marieke Zoodsma 2010

Stari Most, the Old Bridge, in Mostar – Bosnia-Herzegovina. Destroyed by Croat nationalists in 1993, reconstructed in 2004. Photograph by Marieke Zoodsma 2010

By Marieke Zoodsma -


The destruction of the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud in northern Iraq by the Islamic State has generated great international uproar these past weeks. Irina Bokova, director-general of UNESCO, released a public statement condemning these acts by framing that they constitute a war crime. The BBC called the buildings and artworks ‘irreplaceable’ and the destruction a huge loss for the world. For Joanna Farshakh, a Lebanese archeologist, these actions should be considered a “cultural genocide”. Sadly and despite the consternation, these acts of cultural violence by IS were not their first and will most probably not be their last (there is even a Wikipedia-page dedicated to it). The following YouTube video, for example, shows the tragic destruction of statutes in the Niniveh-museum in Mosul, Iraq.


The destruction of heritage as a tactic of war is not new to mankind. It can be traced back to the first Christians in Egypt and their destruction of pharaonic monuments, and is an almost inseparable part of violent conflict. Take the destruction of multiple Tibetan monasteries during the Chinese Cultural Revolution in the ‘60s and ‘70s, the bombing of the Buddhas of Bamiyan (Afghanistan) by the Taliban in 2001, or the destruction of the ancient city of Aleppo during the current protracted Syrian civil war. The annihilation of ancient sites by Islamic State are reminiscent of the deliberate attacks on cultural and religious heritage during the Bosnian war, a tactic widely used by the Bosniak (Muslim), Croat and Serb side in the conflict. For example, on the 25th of august 1992, the National Library of Sarajevo was bombed with phosphorus shells by Orthodox Serb nationalists during the siege of Sarajevo. Over a million volumes and a hundred thousand rare books were destroyed in the largest book burning in modern history. Or the destruction of the Old Bridge, Stari Most, in the city of Mostar in Herzegovina. This graceful, stone arch bridge (Mostar’s defining landmark) was constructed by the Ottomans in 1566. In 1993, it was destroyed by Croat Catholic nationalists. The Stari Most has been reconstructed in 2004 and listed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2005.


Heritage is a peoples connection to the past, it distils this past into icons of identity. Heritage is that with which we all individually or collectively identify. The difference between heritage and history lies in the fact that heritage has to be widely accepted by insiders but inaccessible to outsiders; only then can it serve as a collective symbol for its possessors. It is this intangible feature of heritage, the mystique, fantasy and invention of it, that makes it distinct to each people. The uniqueness and exclusiveness of heritage is what makes it important for national identity, since, like our past, the heritage we possess differentiates us from other people.


Exactly the above characteristics of heritage make them justifiable to destroy by foreign invaders. Heritage is often used by previous political leaders to build up a national identity that will cross over boundaries of cultural, ethnic, national or religious groups. Such a national, heterogenic identity is exactly what the perpetrators of cultural destruction, such as IS or the nationalists during the Bosnian war, are fighting against. By eliminating every trace of material evidence, future generations cannot be reminded that people of different ethnic and religious traditions used to share a common heritage and space in that area. It is the denial of a community’s historical roots that is done by the destruction of its religious or cultural shrines. Conveniently, the perpetrators are thereby also ensured against the possibility that the expelled and dispossessed people would one day return and reclaim their homes and property.


Yale-professor in Assyriology Eckart Frahm states: “What is however quite unique in the case of ISIS, is that the destruction is directed against images that are thousands of years old, often damaged, and no longer worshipped by anyone, and that there is a concerted effort to use these acts of vandalism as propaganda by broadcasting them through videos.” However, as argued above, I would not frame the case of IS as unique. It is an attitude labelled as “no one before me, history is written after me” that is propagated by these perpetrators, even if these predecessors have been gone for over thousands of years. Islamic State is vigorously rewriting the past by destructing these cultural and religious sites. Similar tactics were used during the Bosnian war. In Zvornik, a town in the current Republika Srpska, there were once a dozen mosques. In the Yugoslav census of 1991, 60 percent of the residents called themselves Muslims. By the end of the war, the town was 100 percent Serb and Branko Grujić, the Serb-appointed mayor, was telling foreign visitors: “There never were any mosques in Zvornik.”


The use of internet and social media as propaganda for these terror tactics, as also previously discussed by Koen, is however indeed quite unique for Islamic State. Dr. Neville Bolt, teaching fellow at King’s College London, referred to this strategy as the Propaganda of the Deed (POTD). To use Bolt’s phrasing, POTD is a well-planned ‘act of political violence’ which aims to create a shocking media event ‘capable of energizing populations to bring about state revolution or social transformation’. As we have seen in the case of destruction of Nimrud, global outrage leads to international condemnation. The opposite effect is that it also instigates the group’s enemies to overreact forcefully, which then helps legitimize IS’s revolutionary agenda. To use the destruction of cultural and religious heritage not only as a tactic of ethnic cleansing or even genocide, but also to utilize it for the justification of the conflict is indeed a new phenomenon in the context of warfare.


Where does this leave us? Will the past then be rewritten and those ancient treasures forever be lost? Which vision will eventually prevail out of the ashes may depend in part upon the world community – in this case human rights workers, international development officials, historians, policy makers – to see through these provoking acts of violence and propaganda. Unfortunately, it does leave these riches of the world to the violent vagaries of Islamic State.



Further reading:
Commemorations: The Politics of National Identity – John R. Gillis (ed.), 1994. Princeton: Princeton University Press

The Violent Image: Insurgent Propaganda and the New Revolutionaries – Neville Bolt, 2012. Hurst and Columbia University Press

Whose Genocide? An Analysis of the Definition of Genocide

Sarah McGowen/Flickr


Sarah McGowen/Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA)

By Marieke Zoodsma -


Almost 25 years ago, the countries that once formed Yugoslavia were disrupted by heavy violence. The consequences of this bloody war, as I also wrote in my previous article on missing persons in Bosnia and Herzegovina, are still alive and present today. The judgment ruled in the Croatia vs. Serbia case by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague this week was one of these echoes of the Balkan wars, except this might be seen as the final closure of one bitter chapter. The crucial and leading question that led this chapter to endure for a quarter of a decade; did either one of the parties commit acts of genocide?


For Croatia, who filed the suit at the ICJ in 1999, genocide had been committed during the three months bombing by Yugoslav forces of the town of Vukovar in 1991. Serbia, considered to be the legal successor of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, filed a counter-claim of genocide in 2006 for the crimes that were committed during ‘Operation Storm’ in 1995 – an operation led by the Croatian army to re-take the territory that had been lost to the Serb forces in 1991. The fifteen judges of the ICJ this week rejected both claims of genocide, thereby ending one of the most bitterly contested disputes left by the Balkan wars. Not only does this judgment open up the way to more peaceful relations between the two countries (as Serbian president Nikolić repeated in the media), it also eliminates the question of the compensation of damages, and spares the European Union the humiliation of having one member state (Croatia) and an applicant member (Serbia) state being found guilty of genocide.


The main argument for genocide to be rejected was that “the specific intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group” was missing in both claims. This leads us to the definition of genocide, which has been controversial ever since its inception through the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. According to Article 2 of the Genocide Convention:


“… genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group as such:

  • Killing members of the group
  • Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group
  • Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part
  • Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group
  • Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group”


There are several striking aspects to be found in this definition of genocide that can be seen as problematic. What exactly is meant by ‘in whole or in part’, at what point is such a proportion of a group destroyed that it can be seen as ‘in part’? Also, the distinction between victim categories are rather limited by leaving out other historically targeted groups such as political or economic groups. And who is the genocidal perpetrator, the agent of destruction? Can this be one person, a group or should it be a regime? But what has often been called one of the core issues with the UN definition of genocide is its inclusion of the word ‘intent’. How does one prove ‘intent’? How does one connect a ‘genocidal intent’ to the actual events that happened on the ground? As seen in the ICJ-ruling of this week, or in others before that at the ICC (International Criminal Court) and ICTY ( International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia ), proving intent turned out to be one of the most challenging aspects of this definition, for scientists as well as jurists in a court of law.


There is no doubt that terrible crimes have happened during the Yugoslav wars, and the ICJ judgment emphasizes that crimes against humanity did occur. However, the assumption of explicit prior intentionality as the criteria for genocide is often difficult to reconstruct or to connect to specific behaviour. Although a campaign of annihilation might be evident, intent might not be publicly declared and therefore difficult to demonstrate where no proof of thoughts exist. The only expression of a guilty state of mind would be a confession, public statements or speeches. Such expressions are rare to almost non-existent, not even for acknowledged genocides such as the Holocaust or the Rwandan genocide. The court ruling in the Croatia vs. Serbia case was therefore not very surprising, especially since no Serb or Croat has ever been charged with genocide in each other’s territory. In its decision, the court wrote, “What is generally called ‘ethnic cleansing‘ does not in itself constitute a form of genocide. Genocide presupposes the intent physically to destroy, in whole or in part, a human group as such, and not merely a desire to expel it from a specific territory.”


So where does this leave us? The obvious conclusion is that the generally used definition of genocide creates more ambiguity than it resolves. Social scientists have been trying to escape the ‘conceptual muddle’ created by the inclusion of genocidal intent in the definition of genocide by using different definitions, by excluding the word altogether or by substituting it for a different term. In the world of international criminal law, however, ‘intent’ is included in the definition of genocide that is incorporated in the statutes of the international courts, thus making it impossible to avoid the problems created by it. As Natasha Kurt, lecturer at King’s College London, rightly states; “Ultimately this case shows the politically motivated nature of the claims and counterclaims by both Serbia and Croatia, which cannot be upheld legally”.


The ambiguity of genocide has made it an attractive and thereby misused and misunderstood concept. It is considered the crime of all crimes, the denotation of absolute evil, and has therefore been applied to – justifiable or not – very different situations of mass violence. But genocide does not only consist of the killing sites where the murders were carried out. Genocide is not just an event, it is a long and enduring process – a continuum of destruction – involving many agencies, actors, and institutions. The intentionality of such actors and institutions to commit genocidal acts is, as is seen in cases before the ICJ and ICTY, highly unlikely to be proven in court. Perhaps it is thus time to depart from the narrow definition drawn in the Genocide Convention and start exploring, as social scientists have done, a broader, less political or morally challenged, definition to define the crime of genocide.


Searching the Lost

Paul Katzenberger/Wikimedia (CC BY-SA)


Paul Katzenberger/Wikimedia (CC BY-SA)

Photo: Paul Katzenberger/Wikimedia (CC BY-SA)

By Marieke Zoodsma -

On our way to Prijedor, one of the major cities in north-eastern Bosnia and Herzegovina, my host points out over the green, mountainous, and sunlit landscape and tells me: “Right over there behind those houses, they just found a new mass grave”. A couple of minutes later he explains that the men found in the grave are probably the men missing from the village up on the hill in front of us, since there are still so many unsolved cases. It is October 2013 and the  International Commission for Missing Persons (ICMP) has just discovered one of the largest mass graves of the Bosnian war (1992-1995) nearby the small town of Tomašica, Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The mass grave had the size of a football field, measured some 10 meters deep, and would, according to officials, hold the remains of around 1,000 Bosniak and Croat men, women, and children – as several media outlets reported. Until now, 435 bodies have been recovered from the grave of which 284 have been identified and buried in July 2014. According to the numbers of the ICMP, from the 30,000 persons that were registered as missing person at the end of the Bosnian war, so far 22,000 persons have been accounted for. A large number of the remaining missing persons are from the region where this mass grave was found, the Krajina. The big and looming question that remains: how could it take 18 years for such a mass grave, a couple of hundred meters from local houses, to be found?

“The issue of missing persons can only be solved if the local community changes their attitude regarding the war crime that was committed” (Karčić 2013). The grave at Tomašica is located close to the border between the Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the two entities in which Bosnia and Herzegovina is split up after the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreements in 1995. During the war, Prijedor (which was to be included in the Republika Srpska) and its surroundings saw ethnic cleansing taking place on a massive scale – with as many as 52,000 non-Serbs being forcibly expelled from Prijedor’s total 120,000 pre-war residents. Three of the largest and most notorious concentration camps during the Bosnian war (Trnopolje, Omarska, and Keraterm) were located in the city’s vicinity. Professor Pettigrew (professor of Philosophy, Southern Connecticut State University) writes: “The mass graves are a testament to the genocide that was committed in Bosnia, as well as to the failure of the authorities of the Republika Srpska, as part of their genocide denial, to reveal their location”. Perhaps this must be seen as the most poignant explanation for the fact that not one individual living in the surroundings of Tomašica (and, for that matter, other mass graves) found it appropriate to notify local and international investigators about the existence of it. The three mutually exclusive narratives (that of the Bosnian Serbs, Bosnian Croats and Bosnian Muslims) about what happened during the war, who started it, and who is to blame, keep on being perpetuated in Bosnian society today. One of the key ingredients of the Bosnian Serb narrative is the denial of genocide in Bosnia and Herzegovina – hence the denial of the existence of mass graves since that would counter fact their story.

With the finding of mass graves and the uncovering of new facts, the search for truth is continued – often even revitalized. On December 13, 2014, local as well as international media reported that 15 Bosnian Serbs have been indicted for crimes against humanity over an attack on a village near Prijedor in 1992. During this attack, 150 Bosniak men, women, and children were killed and their bodies dumped in the Tomašica mass grave. Prosecutors at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) have desperately tried to reopen their case after the Tomašica-site was found, especially the cases of the so-called ‘big fish’. For the trial against the former Bosnian Serb politician Radovan Karadžić it was too late. However in the case of Ratko Mladić, former Bosnian Serb military leader, new forensic evidence stemming from the mass grave has recently been tendered.

The challenges with the search for missing persons is not unique for Bosnia and Herzegovina. Forced disappearances are rife in conflicts and are often used as an explicit tactic of war. They wreak havoc on families and certain villages in Bosnia were left after the war without any male inhabitants. Besides the grief these families have to live through, such circumstances have high economic consequences for rural, patriarchal societies where the male is the main breadwinner. In the Bosnian film Snijeg (unfortunately only available online without subtitles) the ramifications of such a situation are vividly put to life on the big screen.

This year, 2015, the 20th commemoration of the ending of the Bosnian war will be held – the silence of those missing looming over the ceremonies. For the people in the small village up on that hill in north-eastern Bosnia and Herzegovina, that is what is happening now.


Further reading: An Appeal for Truth: The Human Rights Chamber and the Search for Missing Persons in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Hikmet Karčić (2013)