Defend Truth


Srebrenica genocide commemoration reminds us that ‘there are no humans more human than others’


Mary Kluk is president of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies and director of the Durban Holocaust and Genocide Centre.

As the huge truck covered in flowers and carrying the 30 coffins turned the corner to the Srebrenica Memorial Centre for the burial, there was a collective gasp at the enormity of this occasion.

As a Jewish South African mother, deeply committed to and involved in Holocaust and genocide education, a profound intersection of my identity was brought to the fore during my visit to Srebrenica, Bosnia, this month. 

On 11 July 1995, towards the end of the war in Bosnia, a genocide occurred in the United Nations “safe area” of Srebrenica. By the time it ended, 8,721 Muslim men and boys were dead, systematically massacred not because of anything they had done, but simply because of who they were.  

I was in Bosnia to participate in the 28th anniversary commemorations of the genocide as part of a World Jewish Congress (WJC) delegation of Jewish scholars and young diplomats.

The visit included a conference co-organised by the WJC and the Srebrenica Memorial Centre (SMC), and I was a panellist for a session titled “Preserving Memory, Memorials, Museums and Education”.

I was particularly pleased to present on the important work being done in South Africa by the Holocaust and Genocide Centres in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban (the last of which I am the founder and current director).

The audience was impressed and also outraged that, whereas in South Africa the study of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust is mandated in the national curriculum, in Srebrenica under the governance of Republika Srpska no aspect of the horrors that took place in and around the town in July 1995 is mentioned in schools.  

Denialism on the part of the perpetrators, as well as their apologists, is in fact a typical feature of genocides the world over. In light of this, an important focus of the conference, along with preserving the collective memory of genocide victims, was on confronting Holocaust and genocide denial. 

Atrocity revisited  

Our few days began on 9 July with the harrowing ceremony of the arrival of this year’s coffins. Despite the efforts of the perpetrators to sabotage the evidence by bulldozing mass graves, the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) has conducted a DNA-led programme whereby over 7,000 of the more than 8,000 victims of the Srebrenica Genocide have been identified.

Following the identification and reassembly of skeletal remains (a process that can necessitate recovery from multiple clandestine gravesites and may continue for years), the remains of the individuals are buried every year on 11 July. 

In some cases, relatives chose to delay burial when the initial remains of their loved ones were identified some years ago in the hope that more would be gathered. At some point, the family makes the decision to bury what they have. However, ff further remains of those already buried are recovered, the coffins are exhumed and those remains are added.  

At this year’s memorial event, 30 coffins were brought to the Memorial Centre for burial. A huge truck covered in flowers brought the coffins to the venue, and as it turned the corner to meet the throngs of people, there was a collective gasp at the enormity of this occasion.

It was impossible to fully comprehend the combination of wretched heartache and perhaps some relief for the hundreds of relatives who surrounded those green cloth-clad coffins in anticipation of finally laying their loved ones to rest.  

Kathryne Bomberger, the Director-General of the ICMP, told the conference that the scientific process developed in Bosnia and Herzegovina to identify victims of the Srebrenica Genocide and other atrocities has contributed to a fundamental change in the way that countries address issues of truth and justice in war.

Bomberger said that in Ukraine the authorities have already launched a process to account for those who have gone missing as a result of the Russian invasion — even in the midst of the conflict — because “they understand the absolute necessity of securing truth, justice and reparations for families”. 

The SMC, located in what was the vast United Nations compound in Srebrenica, is an impressive centre with a hugely impactful exhibition. In addition to the permanent exhibition and many poignant photographs, one of the huge white UN trucks we have all seen on television is displayed in one of the vast spaces. 

SMC director Emir Suljagic, himself a survivor, is the driving force behind the incredible impact the centre has on visitors. An extremely moving moment was when Emir, in his conference welcome, dealt with the elephant in the room head-on:

“While I hold no official charge, apart from my post as the director of the Srebrenica Memorial Centre, I feel deeply compelled, here, and now, to say the following: 80 years ago, some among my countrymen joined the ranks in service of German Nazi ideology, bringing harm upon you, your people, and your forebears — your fathers and mothers, grandfathers, and grandmothers. For this, I apologise to you and hope that you may find forgiveness in your hearts.” 

Preserving memories and truth

Following my participation on the conference panel, an emotional member of the audience presented me with a long deep hug and her book, On the Side of Humanity, a collection of interviews she had conducted with various legal experts and practitioners of international law.

Those interviewed include South Africa’s Richard Goldstone as well as many Jews who were involved in the ICC and the investigation into the genocide and other crimes committed during the aggression perpetrated against Bosnia and Herzegovina from 1992-1995. As a Jewish South African, I received such warmth and gratitude for their fight for truth and justice on behalf of the victims.  

I was also deeply moved by the testimony of Munira Subasic, president of the organisation Mothers of Srebrenica. Hers is the face of tens of thousands of mothers, the voice of countless victims and the strength and courage to tell and retell the harrowing story of her own son and husband’s murders when so many others have found themselves silenced by their trauma.

Munira knows it is her role to continue telling her story to all who will listen so that it is never forgotten. It is this organisation — or force really — of mothers, who pushed for the truth behind what happened during that fateful week. In many ways, it had to be. Who else but a desperate mother would move heaven and Earth — quite literally in this case — to find her son, husband, or father?

In his address, the Imam of the Islamic Community in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Damir ef. Pestalic, spoke of the mothers as their biggest heroes, “teaching us that we have to accept others and fight for justice. Many died before they found the remains of their dearest and yet I have never seen them without strength and energy.” 

Imam Damir opened his remarks about the importance of cooperation and partnerships with the WJC — this for me was symbolic affirmation that there is hope for a shared future for Jews and Muslims. 

Then there was my moving conversation over lunch with a beautiful young woman who as a refugee had moved with her mother and sister to Colorado in the US after the genocide. She now volunteers as a translator for the SMC and annually attends every 11 July ceremony as her father and brother were buried here in 2003.  

Denial and false information 

Amid the political challenges, and all the distortion and denial that continues to pervade public discourse about Srebrenica, a deeply moving memorial ceremony was hosted at the SMC on Tuesday. Menachem Rosensaft, who headed the WJC delegation, delivered the keynote address where he reminded us that hatred unleashed leads to Auschwitz, Kigali and Srebrenica.    

We then walked to the cemetery, joining with thousands of others who had travelled from all over the country to pay their respects on this most poignant day.

As we did so, I found myself thinking how it all comes back to what Romeo Delaire, commander of the UN peacekeeping force for Rwanda in 1993-1994, once said: “All humans are human. There are no humans more human than others.” DM


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