Healing the scars of Srebrenica – interview with Vahidin Omanovic

July 2015 marks 20 years since massacres in Srebrenica left 8,000 Bosnian-Muslim men and boys dead. The slaughter in Srebrenica remains the worst massacre committed on European soil since World War II.

It was an exceptionally dark episode in a series of mass killings of local Muslims in eastern Bosnia during the war of 1992-1995, in which Bosnian Serb forces waged a campaign of ethnic cleansing in the country after Bosnia’s declaration of independence from Yugoslavia, which had been opposed by Bosnia’s large Serbian population. The territory carved out by the Bosnian Serbs is known today as Republika Srpska, a de facto autonomous entity comprising 49 per cent of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Ethnic divisions in the country are deep-rooted, exacerbated by the scars of slaughter and a general feeling of helplessness in the wake of a lacklustre international response to the killings. The United Nations ‘failed to protect the people who sought shelter and relief in Srebrenica’, said Jan Eliasson, the UN Deputy Secretary-General, during discussions last week to adopt a resolution that redefined the massacres as ‘genocide’. The measure failed to pass with ten votes in favour, four abstentions and Russia exercising its veto against.

In the past 20 years, significant progress has been made towards building peace in Bosnia, but much remains to be done. Vahidin Omanovic, a winner of our Tomorrow’s Peacebuilders award 2014, spoke with Peace Direct this week to reflect on the tragedy and on what his organisation Centar za Izgrandju (CIM) is doing to secure lasting peace in Bosnia.

What are the lasting lessons of genocide in Srebrenica for the peacebuilding community?

VO: We have to continue to raise awareness about what we are capable of doing to each other. Saying “never again” means nothing unless we put in solid efforts to make sure it will not happen again.

How do local people feel about the massacres now?

VO: There is huge denial coming from Republika Srpska and Serbia, and we feel very disappointed that the international community couldn’t agree to pass the resolution in the UN. It looks like within the UN structures nothing has changed in relation to Bosnia since 1995, when the UN created Srebrenica as a safe area, and genocide was committed. We feel there is a huge amount of responsibility from the UN to prevent such disasters. Today, we see there is again denial coming from them. The victims need acknowledgementWe understand that certain actors blocked the resolution, however we still see the UN as a whole responsible.

What more can be done by local peacebuilders to heal ethnic divisions in Bosnia?

VO: We need to bring people together and focus on reconciliation through the civil sector, as the government doesn’t have any strategy on reconciliation, and without it we cannot move on. I deeply believe we have corruption and a broken system – because people don’t trust each other, they are afraid of each other, and we never even started the process.

How do you see peace efforts in Bosnia developing over the next 20 years?

VO: I hope we will be working on more actively bringing young people together to break down their prejudices and have even more influence at the political level to create legal frameworks for reconciliation.

Since winning the Tomorrow’s Peacbuilders award in 2014, what progress has CIM made towards building lasting peace in Sanski Most?

VO: Since we won the award, CIM has been able to network more and to sustain ourselves to implement projects. We are starting to see great results. In the past year we have established an interreligious council at the grassroots level, to promote dialogue between people of various religious backgrounds here in Sanski Most.

This week we organised a public interreligious iftar meal (a Ramadan dinner) in a park, and all three religious leaders attended, together with around 530 local community members. Seeing local authorities, including the mayor, talk about the importance of reconciliation in such a public space is, we believe, another achievement. Usually people with power in Bosnia have little to say about this – on the contrary, would preach the opposite.

We believe this is a great achievement, and that we’ve come very far, considering interreligious dialogue ten years ago.

We believe the structures in Bosnia are ill, and have to change: but it is unlikely when those in power wish to maintain it. This is the reason we have been working so much with local authorities to change their mindsets, priorities and rhetoric, whilst empowering young people to advocate, to educate those around them, and to build a better future for Bosnia and Herzegovina – a future that breaks down barriers in hearts and minds, and will transform the current structures that keep people living in fear.

This article was originally published at Peace Direct on July 13, 2015.

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