By Einat Levi
As a Jewish Israeli, I had assumed that the Holocaust ceremonies that take place in Israel every year would have made me more immune to grief than others. I was wrong – being present at a ceremony commemorating the 8,000 Muslims killed in Srebrenica, Bosnia during the wars in the former Yugoslavia was particularly difficult for me. The thought that this massacre had taken place many years after the Holocaust gave rise to a terrible thought that perhaps we haven’t learned from the mistakes of the past.
Together with Jews and Palestinians, most of them American, I participated in a memorial service at the Srebrenica cemetery last year. During that ceremony more than 600 narrow coffins draped in green cloth were brought in to be buried. They carried the bodies of victims of the massacre who had been identified during the past year. The heat was intolerable and I was dripping sweat, unsure whether it was the heat or what I was witnessing.
We sat on a hill in the cemetery watching about 30,000 Muslims bowing to the ground to the chanting of the Surah Yasin, the traditional Muslim burial prayer. Although I could not understand the words, tears streamed down my face. What I was witnessing seemed to break through the barriers of language.
We had been brought together by the conflict transformation organisation Abraham’s Vision to visit Serbia, Kosovo and Bosnia as part of a fellowship programme which bound together the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with the conflict in the Balkans. As a group, we underwent a process which, along with the experience of observing the Balkan conflict as outsiders, made each one of our own realities seem even more complex. For example, the massacre of Jews in the Holocaust was linked to the massacre of Muslims in Srebrenica.
I listened to the young Muslim guide who accompanied us through the ceremony as he repeated “We will never forget, we will never forget.” I felt as though he placed a mirror before us: is this what we sound like when we talk about our traumas? In Israel, when we commemorate the Holocaust we say “to remember, and never forget” and I assume that Palestinians say the same when commemorating the Nakba.
Following the ceremony, we gathered in a supportive forum to share our thoughts and feelings. I remember an embrace full of dread that I shared with an Israeli-Palestinian friend and how we cried together at the thought that this could be our future.
The process of identifying the victims of Srebrenica is still taking place, even 17 years later. This no doubt makes it difficult for the residents of Srebrenica to face the past and move on with their lives.
Whoever walks the streets of Sarajevo or Mostar these days can feel the undercurrents of history. Despite the heavy price both sides have paid for the conflict, the process of reconciliation in Bosnia is only beginning. Perhaps 17 years is not enough time for victims and perpetrators to deal with the trauma they have experienced. Each side needs acknowledgement from the other if they are to deal with the past and move on.
It is important to remember that the massacre in Srebrenica didn’t occur out of the blue, but had deep roots in a history of demonisation and dehumanisation of the Muslims in Bosnia. Today, there are various organisations at work in Bosnia, such as the Nansen Dialogue Network and the Global Children’s Organization, which promote reconciliation and dialogue between different ethnic communities.
Those of us who live in the shadow of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict witness the dehumanisation and demonisation of the other side on a daily basis. In this sense, the chain of events in Bosnia should serve as a warning.
The first step towards dealing with demonisation is setting up opportunities to communicate with and learn about the other side. The key ingredients in this process are knowledge and transparency, two concepts which help make the unknown familiar and challenge pre-existing conceptions.
I have observed that Israel continues to build walls and fences as a means to deal with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. But during my visit to Bosnia, I saw bridges being built across ethnic and religious divisions. The opportunity to connect with and learn from individuals dealing with a different conflict made me rethink how we might deal with conflict in our own Israeli-Palestinian context – and conclude that we, too, should build more bridges that connect the two sides.
Einat Levi served as an officer in the Israel Defense Forces for five years and is currently a Masters student at Hebrew University and a media researcher at Keshev – The Center for the Protection of Democracy in Israel.