How White Nationalists Have Been Inspired By The Genocide Of Muslims In Bosnia
On a spring day in 2017, a monument was raised in the Bosnian town of Višegrad, in memory of a terrible mass murder that had occurred there two decades earlier. In a somber ceremony attended by local dignitaries, a 5.5-meter reflective steel monument was raised on top of a grassy hill overlooking the town. Višegrad was the site of some of the worst atrocities that took place during the ugly wars following the collapse of Yugoslavia. Over the course of one summer in 1992, as many as 3,000 Muslims were shot, raped, and drowned in this historic town along the banks of the Drina River. A resort hotel, the Vilina Vlas, was transformed into a concentration camp for the rape of young women. On at least two occasions, dozens of elderly people, women, and children were herded into homes by jeering Serb gunmen and burned alive.
Those atrocities are exactly what made the new memorial so jarring. The shining cross was not erected in memory of the Muslim victims of the genocide. It was put up to honor the perpetrators and their allies: Serbian paramilitaries and the Russian volunteers who helped them ethnically cleanse the town.
Nearly two decades after the war ended, Bosnia is still struggling to emerge from the vortex of hatred that destroyed the country during the 1990s. Yet what may be even more alarming is that outside of Bosnia, the memory of the genocide committed against its Muslims has become a source of inspiration for the global far right. The shooter who killed 51 people at two mosques in New Zealand this March wrote the names of Serbian nationalist leaders on the rifle he used to carry out the massacres. During his livestream of the attacks, he played a jaunty song performed by Bosnian Serb soldiers during the war, nicknamed “Remove Kebab,” that has become popular among the online “alt-right.” The Norwegian extremist Anders Breivik, who murdered 77 people during a 2011 shooting rampage, reportedly also showed a “strange obsession” with the genocide in Bosnia, heaping praise on wartime Serb leaders in a manifesto he wrote before his attacks. A domestic terrorist in Pennsylvania who killed a state trooper in 2014 was similarly infatuated with the wartime Bosnian Serb military, posing images of himself on social media in a uniform from the notorious Drina Wolves unit. On websites like 4chan that are helping to breed a new culture of racial hatred and glorification of violence, it’s not hard to find the Bosnian genocide favorably discussed. These new online connections are also helping to foster real-world links between the Western far right and its Balkan counterparts.
In the ethnically cleansed areas of Bosnia, where the genocide occurred, today the perpetrators seem to have narrowed their responses to either ignoring what happened or celebrating it. In addition to the memorial on the hill above Višegrad, in the town center a bronze statue stands in honor of local military veterans, several of whom have been convicted of war crimes at The Hague. Aside from a few small plaques put up by victims’ groups in neighborhoods where mass killings happened, there is no recognition of the massacres — and those plaques have been placed on the upper floors of buildings to keep them out of reach after repeated vandalism. A few years ago, the local municipality even sandblasted the word “genocide” off a memorial stone erected by victims’ families in the town’s Muslim graveyard. When I visited that cemetery this summer, the word had still been obliterated from the monument — though someone had defiantly written it back in with black marker.
In order to understand the ideology of the emerging far right — obsessed with demographics and starry-eyed over the Bosnian genocide — it’s important to look at what actually happened in Bosnia. The grim success of the genocide in cleansing much of Bosnia should give a hint as to why it has become an inspiration. Around 100,000 people are believed to have been killed during the Bosnian war. The majority of them were Muslims. The cleansing of places like Višegrad, Foča, Srebrenica, Prijedor, and Zvornik was not a war between two equal and opposing forces. It was a campaign of murder and cruelty against a defenseless people, waged in the name of demographics and ethnic purity. It mixed equal parts racism and misogyny. The level of sexual violence against Bosnian Muslim women was so targeted and systematic — educated women were singled out for the worst treatment — that it led to rape being recognized for the first time as a weapon of war under international law.
In the years before the war broke out, ultranationalist politicians obsessively raised public fears about the demographic balance of Yugoslavia. As historian Michael Sells wrote in his history of the war, “Birthrates became so heated an issue that Serb nationalists charged Muslims with a premeditated plot to use their higher birthrates to overwhelm and ultimately destroy the Christian Serbs.” That same fever dream of birth rates and racism is now taking hold in the minds of many people outside Serbia and Bosnia, including in the United States. The young man who murdered 22 people in a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, left a manifesto online despairing over the demographic growth of Hispanics in his state. His goal for the massacre was to kill as many of them as possible. It doesn’t take much to connect the rhetoric about a Hispanic “invasion” to violence as a response to the supposed threat.
The Balkans are often condescendingly stereotyped as a backward region stuck in the grip of old prejudices. In reality, Serbs, Croats, and Muslims had lived together as compatriots in the former Yugoslavia for a long time before violent demagogues came to power; it took years of effort during the late 1980s and early 1990s for ultranationalist leaders to drum up the level of fear and hatred necessary for war to start. Before it fell apart, the former Yugoslavia was a relatively modern place, with a highly educated elite in its cities and a solid professional class. In some ways, politically, the region might be ahead of us. It was decades ago that the former Yugoslavia began to experience the top-down encouragement of racism that the United States is now undergoing. We are only witnessing the early stages of a process that the former Yugoslavia has already been through in its entirety. The war and genocide in Bosnia proved that it is, in fact, possible to incite and kill your way to an ethno-state. The eastern half of the country, where towns like Višegrad are located, was cleansed of almost all of its non-Serb populations and transformed into an entity known to this day as Republika Srpska.
As the United States and Western Europe now grapple with political movements demanding ethnic purity and demographic change — through individual acts of terrorism, as well as government policy — it feels more urgent to take a look at the inspiration for these demands and the consequences. To put it another way, with Bosnia as an example, what does it actually look like when you get your ethno-state?
For Full Article: