Today is July 11th, twenty-eight years after the genocide in Srebrenica, where 8,372 Bosniaks were killed in and around Srebrenica in just a few days.
After the signing of the Dayton Agreement, survivors immediately started saying "never again."
This sentence has become one of the slogans that emphasize the importance of dealing with the past and preventing the repetition of attrocities. But are we moving in the right direction? As I write this text, the world is facing war, numerous conflicts, and violence in different parts of the world, such as Ukraine, Palestine, Iran, and others. These conflicts indicate that the cycle of violence and attrocities still continues. Have we learned anything from the past? Has education improved? Do the media report better or do they still spread hate speech, target, and dehumanize minority groups? Are these young people our future?
"Burdening" the past and looking to the future
During formal education in Serbia, young people do not learn about the wars of the 1990s, and when they do, a one-sided ethno-nationalistic perspective is often emphasized. Consequently, young people are more susceptible to accepting nationalist narratives and extremist ideologies. They may choose to preserve a mural dedicated to Ratko Mladić on the corner of Njegoševa and Alekse Nenadovića Street, simply because they heard in the media that he is a hero who defended the Serbian people. They may choose to chant "Knife, wire, Srebrenica" in the football stands because "Mladić fought for Serbs." When critical thinking is not encouraged in educational institutions and the past, which is deeply connected to the present, is not discussed, it leaves room for the radicalization of youth and violence.
In addition to not talking about the past, some question why young people should be "burdened" with the past, arguing that they are young and should look to the future. However, it is not possible to disregard the past and its role in shaping society. It is crucial for young people to learn about the genocide in Srebrenica because it would allow them to understand the mechanisms and processes that lead to genocide. Consequently, they would start thinking about their role in society and understand that just because something happened in the past does not mean it cannot be repeated, and they would be encouraged to oppose the mechanisms and processes that lead to genocide.
Furthermore, learning about the genocide in Srebrenica would enable young people to identify propaganda, misinformation, and hate speech when it comes to genocide and when it is used as a tool for political purposes. Understanding the past allows young people to grasp the importance of facing the consequences of hatred and policies of crime and to develop values such as respect, solidarity, and empathy.
The responsibility of the media in dealing with the past
Convicted war criminals often appear as guests on national television, most commonly TV Pink and TV Happy, where they continue to deny war crimes and promote the policies that led to those crimes. By giving media space to those convicted of war crimes, their actions are legitimized, and they are integrated into public life with the claim that they are heroes who defended their country.
This kind of promotion equates war criminals with heroes, creating a dangerous perception that their crimes are justified. Consequently, the promotion of criminals creates an atmosphere of fear and retraumatization for the survivors and their families.
The denial of the genocide in Srebrenica is not limited to traditional media but also extends to social media. In traditional media, this narrative is most commonly found in daily tabloids and their online portals. The fact that such content has high visibility on social media platforms, coupled with the fact that the limitation and regulation of comments on their articles is sparse, opens the space for the proliferation of denial of the Srebrenica genocide and hate speech directed towards Bosniaks in the comments.
In Rwanda, where genocide was committed against the Tutsi ethnic group, radio was the main means of spreading hate speech. In Serbia, the majority of the media continue the last phase of the Srebrenica genocide by denying it. It seems that media representatives have not learned anything from the past.
Where we are now and where we are headed
It seems that we are at a crossroads when it comes to dealing with the past and preventing the repetition of war crimes. The phrase "never again" is repeated— while it is a fact that violence, discrimination, genocide denial, and conflicts still occur in our society, as well as in the world. Values that are crucial for building lasting peace and a fairer society, such as justice, respect, and compassion, are constantly under attack. Denial of the Srebrenica genocide, celebration of war criminals, and the spread of hate speech are everyday occurrences in Serbia. However, there are brave voices fighting against it, as well as new political forces willing to visit the Srebrenica Memorial Center in Potočari and show respect for the victims and empathy towards the survivors and families of the victims.
If one Srebrenica happened, we must not allow another to occur. In order to build a society that deals with the past, learns from it, and prevents the repetition of crimes, it is necessary to fight together against all forms of discrimination, Islamophobia, homophobia, xenophobia, and all policies of hatred and violence.
Ivana Jovanović is a human rights activist and program coordinator at the Youth Initiative for Human Rights. She graduated journalism at the Faculty of Political Sciences in Belgrade.