Sunday, July 11, 2010
A pile of more than 16,000 shoes, each pair representing a victim of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre are placed with a UN sign in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, Sunday July 11, 2010. The shoes were collected to make 'The Pillar of Shame', German activist's Phillip Ruch's monument to Srebrenica.
Just 15 years ago, as the Bosnian War was waged in Bosnia and Herzegovina the United Nations tried to claim safe haven for thousands of refugees. Declaring Srebrenica a “safe area” impervious from armed conflict in the UN Security Council’s Resolution 819, masses of Bosnian Muslims gathered there. A few hundred U.N peacekeepers, mainly Dutch soldiers, were stationed in Srebrenica to safeguard the refugees. However, the peacekeepers’ weapons and food supply were inadequate to keep up a long-term operation. At the top of the command chain, the U.N officials were overwhelmed by the number of refugees and misjudged in taking action.
Consequently, Bosnian Serb troops seized control of Srebrenica and took around 18,000 Bosnian Muslim men, teenage boys, and children. The U.N peacekeepers did not attempt to wrestle with the Bosnian Serbs over the refugees but merely watched as they were led away. The executions of the Bosnian Muslims began almost immediately after they were taken away with “no intention of harming them” according to the peacekeepers. As more than 11,000 Bosnian Muslims attempted to escape, they were “hunted down like animals” recalls one survivor.
In 1999, then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in a report that the UN failed at Srebrenica because of errors, misjudgment, and "an inability to recognize the scope of the evil confronting us." The Dutch troops were cleared of blame by an independent study by the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation, which concluded the troops were outnumbered and undersupplied and had orders to shoot only in self-defense. After the publication of these two important reports in Holland Prime Minister Wim Kok, Minister of Defense Frank de Grave, and the rest of the Dutch cabinet resigned. It was a surprising -- even astonishing -- move. Many of those who resigned had not even been in power during the siege and fall of Srebrenica. Yet they declared that the “moral thing to do” was to take responsibility for the previous government’s actions. Soon afterwards, the Dutch Army chief of staff also resigned. In the intervening years, the Dutch government has since allocated tens of millions of dollars to Bosnia.
Elsewhere, remembrances are very much a part of two nations. In Israel, there have been mass demonstrations for an Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, kidnapped and held by Hamas for four years since July 2006.
And in Colombia, a rebel group FARC still holds 20 military and police officers, in spite of a recent rash of operations that have successfully freed other hostages, some of whom have been held for 12 years in the jungle.
Even the recent spy swap of 11 Russians who plead guilty for spying against the US, for 4 individuals accused of spying and held in Russia, contained the characterization of remembrance. One US official said the swap proved that the West does not forget those being held - efforts are constantly being made to "get them back."
So complicated, so much of what shapes nations and peoples' world views - remembrances. But when is remembering the good thing - the loyal, the right, the principled thing to do - and just as importantly, what causes remembering past injustices to turn negative, to become a bitterness that's unreasonable, preventing new beginnings, and inflaming the probability of revenge. Are there parts of remembering that always remain healthy, and other aspects need to be dealt with and relegated to the past.