Srebrenica Remembered: 21 Years Later

Family members mourning in the compound at the Potocari Memorial Centre. Photo by: Marieke Zoodsma

 

Family members mourning in the compound at the Potocari Memorial Centre. Photo by: Marieke Zoodsma

Family members mourning in the compound at the Potocari Memorial Centre, July 2015. Photo by: Marieke Zoodsma

By Marieke Zoodsma

Yesterday, the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina and others all over the world remembered the genocide that took place in Srebrenica – a small town in Eastern Bosnia – in July 1995. As much as Srebrenica used to be famous for its thermal spa resorts in Yugoslav times, it is now known to the world as the place where one of the worst atrocities after the Second World War in the European mainland has taken place. During those dreadful days, approximately 8.000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were systematically killed by Bosnian Serb forces in the days following the fall of Srebrenica. Under the auspices of an UN peace-force, which was there to protect the large Bosnian Muslim population that sought refuge in and around town, the troops of Ratko Mladić carefully sorted out the men from the women – the men to be executed in the nearby fields or warehouses and the women to be bussed to the Bosnian Muslim safe area around Tuzla.

 

Of the estimated 8.000 victims of the genocide, so far only 6.615 bodies have been identified and buried at the Potočari Memorial Centre. Each year new mass graves are found from which the bodies are exhumed and identified. In case of a positive identification, these victims are traditionally buried by their families during the mass funeral that is part of the commemoration on the 11th of July. This year 127 victims were brought to their final resting place. The fact that this process of searching the lost is already taking over twenty years is not only because of the time-consuming task the exhumation and identification of bodies from mass graves take, but also because many mass graves simply have not been localised yet. As I wrote before, 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.

 

Last year, WHN-colleague Koen Kluessien and I visited the commemoration in Srebrenica – during its 20th “anniversary”.  Srebrenica and its surroundings were for a couple of days the stage of an international media circus, with the coffins of the victims and the tears of their families as perfect attributes for clean shots. During last year’s ceremony, Serbia’s Prime Minister Aleksander Vučić was chased away by a stone-throwing crowd because he – as well as many other Serbian officials – refused to acknowledge the massacre as genocide. This year, families of the victims demanded that those who deny the nature of the crime were not to be invited at the ceremony. As a result, no official from Belgrade or the Serbian part of Bosnia (Republika Srpska) came. Quarrels such as these turn the ceremony each year into a political game.

 

The events that happened in Srebrenica do not only keep a large part of the former Yugoslavia busy, but also those countries that were back then closely involved. Commemorations are being held in the United States, memorial sites are set up in the United Kingdom, law suits are started in the Netherlands against those that are deemed co-responsible, and investigations are conducted to shed more light on those crucial days in July. In March this year, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) sentenced ‘big fish’ Radovan Karadzić to forty years’ imprisonment in Europe’s biggest war crime trial since Nuremberg. The judgement clearly states Karadzić’s direct involvement in the killings:

 

“As the President of the RS [Republika Srpska, MZ] and Supreme Commander of the VRS [Army of the Republika Srpska, MZ], the Accused was the sole person within the RS with the power to intervene to prevent the Bosnian Muslim males from being killed. Yet far from intervening to prevent the killings from taking place at all, the Accused himself ordered that the Bosnian Muslim male detainees who were then being held in Bratunac be transferred elsewhere to be killed; they were then taken to Zvornik and killed.”
Karadzić’ Judgement Summary, 24 March 2016, p. 13

 

Karadzić’s appeal is currently under the jurisdiction of the Mechanism for International Tribunals, the follow-up of both the Yugoslav and the Rwandan tribunals.

 

For the people of Srebrenica, life goes on as a divided town under poor economic and social conditions (Bosnia has one of the highest unemployment rates in the world: 42%), with many abandoned skeletons of houses of those who didn’t return. Last year, I asked a restaurant owner – who earned his year income only during the commemoration – about his thoughts on the turmoil, media circus and political games that were being played. He told me: “We can turn Srebrenica into a museum which will only be opened around the 11th of July, that’s fine. But then we have to decide that that is the course we want to take”. That is what is happening now in Srebrenica.

 

“Our Political Frankenstein Constitution” – The Dayton Agreements Twenty Years Later

President Slobodan Milosevic of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, President Alija Izetbegovic of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and President Franjo Tudjman of the Republic of Croatia initial the Dayton Peace Accords.

 

President Slobodan Milosevic of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, President Alija Izetbegovic of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and President Franjo Tudjman of the Republic of Croatia initial the Dayton Peace Accords. 14 December 1995

President Slobodan Milosevic of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, President Alija Izetbegovic of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and President Franjo Tudjman of the Republic of Croatia initial the Dayton Peace Accords – 14 December 1995 – Picture taken by: U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Brian Schlumbohm

 

By Marieke Zoodsma

 

This week marks the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreements, which ended the wars in the countries of the former Yugoslavia. It was November 1995 when the peace conference took place in Dayton, Ohio, and where the representatives of the parties to the conflict (see the image above) were coerced by mediators to participate. Coerced, because none of the parties really wanted to participate nor really got what they wanted. The Bosniaks, or Bosnian Muslims, fought for a unified state, while the Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats both fought to annex those parts of the Bosnian territory that respectively were believed to belong to Serbia or Croatia. The compromise that was made decided that 49 % of the Bosnian territory remained Serbian (the Republika Srpska) and 51% would belong to the Bosniak-Croat federation – thereby cementing the country’s divisions among ethnic lines, as this infographic shows.

 

Although Dayton did put an end to the fighting in Bosnia, an ‘uneasy cease-fire’ is perhaps a more apt description of the circumstances in Bosnia-Herzegovina today. It is ‘a truce’, enforced at a crucial moment by the international community – and the military power of NATO. Or, as Ɖermana Šeta – one of my research respondents in Bosnia – firmly stated, “our main problem is our political Frankenstein constitution”. When I was doing fieldwork in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2013, many of my respondents would refer to this problematic political constitution as being a serious obstacle to the rebuilding of Bosnian society and the reconciliation process. Dissatisfaction with the political and economic situation was often voiced by my respondents. This discontent was exemplified during last year’s protests in many of Bosnia’s greater cities. The official unemployment rate in Bosnia and Herzegovina is around forty percent, with over 57% youth unemployment. Shady privatization schemes have left thousands of workers jobless and pensions have dropped while the wages of Bosnia’s many bureaucrats have grown.

 

One of the most obvious explanations for this general dismay with the current state of affairs in Bosnia is the overly bureaucratic political system that is implemented through Dayton. To begin with, Bosnia has a tripartite presidency with each of the three members being from the constituent nations. They are in charge of foreign affairs, diplomatic and military affairs and the budget of state-level institutions. However,  many important subjects such as the educational system, healthcare or police affairs are being decided on at the entity level. Since competing memories of the war and a profound lack of trust still run strong between the three ethnic groups, an elaborate system of political control ensures that each ethnic group has a veto. Within the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, ten cantonal governments were created under which 142 municipalities were established. The 3,8 million citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina are thereby governed by 168 ministries consisting of 70,000 employees on four governing-levels. Time has shown that this system is not only highly expensive but also completely ineffective for governing.

 

The ineffectiveness of this system for governing is exemplified country’s educational system. In the Republika Srpska, school curricula is decided on at the entity-level and in the Federation, the courses and content offered differ per canton. Which classes are offered, what the content of these classes is, or how it is being taught can therefore vary on one’s geographical location within the country. One of the most devastating effects of this policy, as this article fittingly describes, is the “two schools under one roof” system in the Bosnian-Croat Federation, whereby students of different ethnicity are kept completely separate during their education. Bosniaks enter the school through a different door than the Bosnian Croats, they are taught in different classrooms and receive different curricula – particularly with regards to the wars of the 1990s.

 

For my research into the reconciliation process in Bosnia and Herzegovina, I interviewed a high-school teacher at his school in Sanski Most, northeast Bosnia. During this meeting with him, I asked if he ever talks about the war during his classes. He firmly responded: “No, I do not talk about the war in class. That topic is too sensitive. … You never know how people are going to react”. Since he had just told me that ‘dialogue is the future’ and that it is the only way to ‘give up weapons and avoid violence’, I was confused with his answer. Recognizing his contradictory answers and thus having trouble to find words, the teacher tells me that he does not feel comfortable speaking about the war since he is afraid the students will misunderstand him:

 

Unfortunately the problem is, maybe even in the West, school is not the same as life. So within the walls of the school, some things are losing because you cannot express them as you wish. Maybe outside the school in some sessions, when you do not have to think about some things because there are some laws or some rules. … I had a situation that when you speak about something, that children misinterpreted it. It is too early I think. You speak about something, but every child accepts that a little differently.

 

Commentators praise Dayton for its effectiveness of creating peace in the violent political stalemate that the countries of the former Yugoslavia ended up in. According to British politician Paddy Ashdown, who served as High Representative of Bosnia; “Dayton was regarded as an outstanding international agreement … and many now look at Syria, and think Dayton might be a model for that war-torn country.” Dayton, in the end, has left Bosnia and Herzegovina in a political, economic and socially divisive malaise. And now, twenty years later, Bosnians want more. After the first steps towards rebuilding their livelihood have been taken, the Bosnians want a functioning country. And yes, European Union membership.

 

 

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

WIEN_-~1
WIEN_-~1

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