A book about not forgetting
‘The Flowers of Srebrenica’ and understanding the past.
In May, I traveled to Prishtina, where the International Literature Festival “Polip” was being held. In the evening, I found myself in a slightly hippie environment, under the smoke of tobacco, the smell of Peja beer and energetic conversations between the writers and the audience, before we lined up in the small and dark stairwell of the Oda Theatre to listen to some short literary readings.
The evening opened with a recital of lyric verse in Serbian and continued with pleasant readings in German, Croatian, Albanian and English by different authors from the region and the rest of Europe. Then came two excerpts from “The Flowers of Srebrenica” by Aidan Hehir and David Frankum. The excerpts’ descriptions of shells falling in Sarajevo’s streets and mass graves being opened around Srebrenica were so dramatic and heavy that they felt more like scenes from a movie.
“The Flowers of Srebrenica,” published this June, is not an ordinary book about inhumane crimes that occured in Bosnia. Hehir, a long-time researcher concerned with international interventions and war crimes in the Balkans, has written a profound and shocking reflection on his personal experience after visiting Srebrenica in 2019.
The book was written as a reflection on the sites of memory of the crimes against humanity that were committed in Bosnia, where Ratko Mladić’s Serb forces massacred over 8,000 Muslim Bosniaks over a few days in July 1995. David Frankum, a U.K.-based artist, visualized the narration of Hehir’s book with illustrations that are deeply thought provoking and serve as a map for the reader.
The book’s characters are Hehir and his traveling companion, Mustafa, a Bosnian ex-combatant who survived the bloody conflict in the early 1990s. At the beginning, the atmosphere is liberating. As soon as they leave behind the narrow streets of Sarajevo and their car begins to turn onto the open roads towards Srebrenica, the vibrant green nature of rural Bosnia appears. The description of these landscapes, the slopes and green fields on the way to Srebrenica leaves you with a sense of a naturalist’s adventure.
A few kilometers in, after the ice has been broken between the researcher-tourist and Mustafa, who experienced the horrors of the conflict in Bosnia, a divide slowly begins to emerge. That is, the divide between those who experienced the war and outside observers’ inability to understand the scale of the largest massacre in Europe since the Second World War.
The dialogue between Hehir and Mustafa reveals how Bosnia slipped into bloodshed while the West wasted time in diplomatic talks with Slobodan Milošević, Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladić. Sarajevo, Mustafa says, “was an oasis of coexistence between Muslims, Orthodox and Catholics.”
However, things changed with the fall of the communist regime in 1991, when Milošević began to spew chauvinist hate against Albanians and Bosnians.
“My close friend knew that the war was coming,” says Mustafa. “He was Orthodox, meaning Serbian, and we went to school together. One weekend he told me that he was going to Novi Sad, in Serbia, and that he would be back on Monday,” Mustafa continues the story. “He never came back. He knew the war was coming because I later found out his father was a member of Karadžić’s party. He knew we were going to die, but he didn’t tell me. I would have warned him,” says Mustafa with a sigh.
Srebrenica did not happen overnight. It took years to put into motion the largest genocide Europe has seen since the Holocaust.
Hehir does not spare us his anger at the impotence and hypocrisy of the West when it came to stopping the genocide in Srebrenica. He bursts into cursing at the international community as he watches a video at the Srebrenica Center of Remembrance that shows the departure of Dutch troops from the United Nations (UN) base, which the troops celebrated with packs of Heineken in Zagreb.
As a war crimes researcher, Hehir feels hopeless in the face of this insanity. “I have spent nearly 20 years reading, writing, thinking, and researching, criticizing and providing solutions to atrocities like this. But now it seems to me that some external force is laughing at me,” writes Hehir.
However, between Hehir’s intellectual and human inability to understand the abandonment of Srebrenica and Mustafa, who stands before him with tears in his eyes, there is a great moral gap. The victim stands stoically in front of those who acted and those who stood by passively in Bosnia, while the academic reveals the extent of the “betrayal” of European politics towards Bosnians.
Hehir’s narration is both damning and harrowing. He makes explicit the West’s crude racism in Srebrenica when he tells of the derogatory graffiti against Bosnians scrawled by international soldiers at the UN base. The description of the mass cemetery where thousands of white grave markers stand with the same year of death, contrasted with the empty graves awaiting the missing that have recently been found, show that the genocidal act at Srebrenica is not resolved. According to Hehir, “everyone, living and dead, has been caught in a trap. Those who were buried by their killers, and those who still do not have a grave to rest in, where their mothers can cry.”
In the last part of the book, Hehir’s narration is both dreamily hopeful and realistically somber. He dreams about what he had seen and heard in Srebrenica, how those who died rise from their graves then embrace under the rain of Srebrenica flowers, as a sign of the triumph of life and love. Immediately after this, in the last chapter, the tone of the narration becomes gloomy and suffocating. Before Hehir’s eyes, Mustafa appears crying, he sees the UN base, the Dutch colonel drinking Mladić’s wine while the latter laughs and shouts “women and children on the left, men on the right.” Everything seems to crack and break, but no one listens, until the author wakes up and wakes us from his nightmare.
Above all, “The Flowers of Srebrenica” is a book about not forgetting. As historian Alexander Etkind rightly says, “If we fail to bring justice to crimes against humanity, fail to understand what happened, fail to mourn the crimes, then we find ourselves in the post-disaster.” In such a world, the past haunts us, divides us and kills the future.
Over two decades after the ethnic cleansing and genocide in Bosnia, there is a common tendency to deny crimes against humanity in the Balkans, to revise history and present the facts in an alternative way. Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić has personally taken to leading the genocide denial campaign in the Balkans. Some in the West have also fallen into this apparently repetitive trap. Not long ago, the Austrian writer Peter Handke, who has long denied the genocide in Srebrenica, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.
Despite the genocide in the Balkans, the convictions by the International Tribunal for War Crimes in the former Yugoslavia and thousands of articles, reports and books on the massacres at Srebrenica, it seems that forgetting is an incurable disease even for societies with strong historical memory. “The Flowers of Srebrenica” is an attempt to deconstruct our understanding of crimes against humanity, the past and a future where the dead are not forgotten.
Hehir and Frankum wrote a book about the importance and power of places concerned with the remembrance of tragedy. You cannot remember massacres like Srebrenica without realizing the true scale of the genocide against Bosniaks. The authors have carved a narrative for the future, so that the past can be understood and not repeated.
Feature Image: Atdhe Mulla / K2.0.