Let Us Not Remember Srebrenica With Empty Promises, But With Moral Resolve

Shovels are stacked beside graves in Potocari near Srebrenica, 150 kms north east of Sarajevo, Bosnia, on Wednesday, July 8,2
Shovels are stacked beside graves in Potocari near Srebrenica, 150 kms north east of Sarajevo, Bosnia, on Wednesday, July 8,2015. The memorial center in Potocari, is a cemetery for victims of the Srebrenica massacre who were killed in the summer of 1995 during the worst atrocity on European soil since the Second World War.(AP Photo/Amel Emric)

This post is adapted from remarks delivered on July 10 to mark the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre, at a gathering of youth from all parts of Bosnia, Serbia, Croatia, Kosovo and Montenegro.


This is a sad but important anniversary.

I am overwhelmed by the sorrow and the beauty of this Valley -- where Nature reveals its most pleasing face -- even if humanity has not. Too many words have been spoken here -- before, during and after the tragedy we have come to remember today. Too many promises have been broken here, too much useless outrage has been spilled on Srebrenica. So, I hesitate to speak on this hallowed ground. Except for those who suffered the greatest possible losses here -- all of us have reason to speak softly and humbly.

Silence, however, is not an acceptable option. Silence would add another crime to the unspeakable crime of July 1995. We do not need another memorial -- or another apology for the atrocity that occurred here -- especially not from those who might have prevented it 20 years ago. The only fitting memorial to those the world failed to rescue in July 1995 is to hate what occurred here and be prepared for the next time. Anyone who hears the word Srebrenica and does not hate what it stands for does not understand what happened here. Next time, let us not be surprised; let us be prepared.

We assumed Europe's era of mass killing had ended with World War II; Srebrenica proved us wrong. Srebrenica revealed a terrible truth about the institutions on which the post-War world depends. The so-called "International Community" -- the European Union, NATO, the United Nations -- above all the United Nations, which promised 50,000 Muslim refugees safe haven, and then broke its word. All parties named demonstrated their dysfunction.

There is no need to list all the statesmen, the generals and the many "peace" negotiators who turned their backs on a human catastrophe not seen on this continent since Auschwitz and the Katyn Forest. They and we know who they are. Nor are apologies from any of them appropriate today. To honor the eight thousand, we need something more meaningful.

But first of all, let us place the full weight of history's shame and scorn where it belongs: on the evil cowards who were responsible for turning Srebrenica into a killing field. They were not soldiers. Soldiers do not trap and execute unarmed men and boys and then hide their remains. Genocidal murderers -- not soldiers -- did this.

The organizations that have so painstakingly documented the crime that took place here 20 years ago have performed a vital service for the victims and the survivors. Documentation is of more than historic value. It is our best weapon against those who would deny genocide. Just as there are those who even now deny the full truth about the Holocaust, deniers of this genocide have been loud and shameless.

Facts are the only way to counter the current Bosnian Serb leadership's attempt to deny responsibility for the massacre of their fellow Bosnians. In 2004 many of the same leaders acknowledged Bosnian Serb role in the genocide, and apologized to the victims' families. But hate is a powerful political weapon, and by 2010 Srbska's leading politicians fanned still flickering flames to get elected to office. These politicians have won a short-term victory. But, as all tyrants on the wrong side of history eventually learn, they will pay for complicity in mass murder's cover up.

With the greatest humility, allow me to say just a few words to mark this terrible anniversary. I am here as a daughter of the region -- I was born and raised in a blood-soaked neighboring country, a child of two of the 20th century's prior catastrophes: the Holocaust and the Soviet occupation of Eastern Europe. I am also the grandchild of people who perished in a prior genocide -- the Holocaust.

I am also here as a journalist who came during the war, and several times since, not to cover war and its sad aftermath, but representing the Committee to Protect Journalists, to negotiate with the man who lit the fuse of the Balkan wars, Slobodan Milosevic. Milosevic promised access and protection to journalists. He, too, broke his word. I am also the widow of Richard Holbrooke who did so much to end that war.

No two losses should be compared. Each is singular in its horror, and unique in the grief which it leaves in its wake. I know you who have lost husbands, fathers, sons and brothers will never not grieve for them. Nor should you. I did not even know my grandparents before they were exterminated for the crime of being from the wrong ethnicity. Yet I still feel their absence. I will never hear their stories, learn their customs, or their faith. That, of course, is the point of genocide. To erase a people. Ethnic cleansing -- the awful term which was coined here 20 years ago -- is just another euphemism, like the Final Solution, for destroying a people for the crime of being who they are.

Genocide is not about numbers: whether eight or eight thousand or six million souls are massacred is not what determines genocide. The determining factor is the intent to wipe out a people, a race, a tribe or a faith -- not the numbers that make it so.

Genocide is never spontaneous. It takes preparation, and it always starts with words. Words that single out a group as less than human and turn neighbors into the dangerous Other. Genocide involves logistics and planning and the knowledge by many that it is happening. Every step of the way, the world has time to react.

Before the Bosnian Serb thug General Ratko Mladic separated Muslim men and boys from the girls and women of Srebrenica, he had tested the international waters. He heard one peacemaker declare that Bosnia should not count on Europe to pull it from the fire. He knew that those European nations with soldiers on the ground here would not risk their lives to stop him. When those soldiers -- UN peacekeepers -- turned their weapons over to Mladic, genocide was virtually assured. In the corridors of European power, eyes looked the other way.

And Washington still debated during the summer of genocide: Was this really genocide or just inevitable, unstoppable ancient ethnic rivalries -- the Balkans being Balkan? The American military feared "mission creep" -- an imprecise mandate. Washington displayed neither the will nor the energy to lead the Western nations and stop the killers in their tracks. Yet without American leadership, not much happens in Europe.

The world could plead ignorance, or a shade of ambiguity, about the fate of hundreds of thousands of men, women and children who disappeared into packed trains during Hitler's War Against the Jews. There was not a shred of doubt as to what was happening here -- as UN peacekeepers were disarmed and imprisoned by Bosnian Serbs, and Muslim men led into holding camps -- the familiar antechamber to extermination. And still the International Community stayed on the sidelines, and wrung its collective hands, and debated what to do.

I observed this as Richard Holbrooke's new bride during that heartbreaking summer of 1995. I learned a great deal about the use of power -- diplomacy backed up by force -- and how America can be a force for good when a society breaks down, as happened here after the fall of Yugoslavia.

Richard was determined to move his government to fight Mladic and his sponsor, Milosevic. In the White House, his combativeness was not always welcome. He was one voice against many. I will never forget my brand new husband shouting into the telephone line to the State Department and the White House on our wedding day in Budapest, "Start the bombing!" He wanted NATO to show Mladic that our bombers meant business - not just little pinpricks here and there. But NATO did not start the bombing on our wedding day in May. It only did so after the terrible crimes committed here in July. By then it was much too late to save eight thousand souls.

But let us also remember that imposing collective punishment on a people is a crime too. The only way to lift the weight of collective guilt from Bosnia's Serbs is to punish the worst of the worst criminals. Mladic and his partner in genocide, Radovan Karadic, have been imprisoned and on trial in the Hague for seven and four years respectively -- with still no verdict. Why this halfhearted pace? It took the Nuremberg War Crimes trials less than one year to convict the Nazi leadership. So where do we go from here?

We cannot today look you in the eye and declare, "Never Again!" because you would not believe us. Twenty years ago in this lush valley "Never Again" turned into "Here We Go Again," just as it has in Rwanda, Darfur and Syria. In all those places, the world watched the slow wheels of genocide turn from words to murder -- each night on CNN and, more recently, on YouTube.

So let us not insult you with another empty promise. There is much talk about the need for forgiveness now. We are speaking of it in the wake of a terrible, racist killing spree in the town of Charleston, South Carolina. It is, indeed, a beautiful act to forgive those who have sinned against you. But let us not confuse generosity of spirit with forgetting. We must not forget what happened here. But remembering alone is not enough.

We are so good at memorials. Is there a European town of any size without a memorial to the Holocaust? More than memory is required of us today. Instead of building another memorial, let us all admit that evil exists in the world. Above all, let us not be shocked and paralyzed the next time the haters start their engines. Let us channel our indignation at what happened here for the next time. Because there will be a next time. It is not enough for our military to be prepared to strike. All of us have to be morally prepared to counter hate. We must be as determined and as relentless against the haters -- wherever they are -- as the haters are against their prey. If our leaders waver the next time, let us do our part and disrupt their endless conferences and evasions.

We have that right. We are all members of the same human family. Let us bind our hate to the terrible crime that took place here. That is the only fitting memorial to those we abandoned to their fate 20 years ago.


Kati Marton is a former Chair and current member of the Board of the Committee to Protect Journalists. Her new book, The True Believer: The Secret Life of Noel Field, Stalin's Last American Spy will be published next year.