The careful use of the term "genocide" represents a fragile yet critical strand in the fabric of internationally shared and legally recognized values. Genocide is a term that can be manipulated and misused. It is also a name for something that seems to elude naming. It is embodied in the Geneva Convention of 1948 outlawing genocide. That convention also requires signatories not only to prevent genocide when it occurs but to punish it, a provision that can provide a disincentive to speak out and name genocide when it does occur.
The problem of language is illustrated by the case of the invisible mass killings. On October 18, 1995, a front-page headline in the New York Times indicated that there had been new "mass killings" of civilians in the Banja Luka region of northern Bosnia. The story described the last phase of the four-year "cleansing" of the Banja Luka region, during which some 500,000 non-Serbs were killed or expelled. The final phase involved the last 20,000 non-Serbs, mostly Bosnian Muslims. They had survived over three years of atrocities and use as slave laborers by Serb nationalists.
As the Bosnian and Croat armies closed in to within a few miles of the Banja Luka area, the final killings were launched. In late October 1995, women and children were brutally expelled. Serb militias selected out men and boys (twelve years and older) and led them away. Refugee workers on the scene warned of a
mass killing similar to that carried out earlier by Serb army forces at the UN "safe area" of Srebrenica.
Despite its placement on the front page of a leading American newspaper, the story did not register. In the aftermath of the NATO air strikes of September 1995, which broke the siege of Sarajevo, a statement by NATO that mass atrocities were a cause for resumption of air strikes would have been enough to forestall any killings and probably secure release of the captives. No such statement was given. The last surviving non-Serb population of the Banja Luka region was being taken away, before the eyes of the world, yet unnoticed. For three years the phrases "civil war," "age-old antagonisms," "blame on all sides," and a coded set of stereotypes about Muslims had helped make the killing of Bosnian Muslims appear natural and helped naturalize the refusal to stop it.
What has been called "ethnic cleansing" is not only invisible but also unspeakable. To describe it is to be forced to use a language from which any compassionate human being recoils. Herein lies the irony: the more obscene the crime, the less visible it is. The human capacity for acknowledging religiously based evil is particularly tenuous. The crime is committed by those who appeal to religiously sanctioned absolutes to justify their behavior. Then it is condoned by those who base their response, in part, on religious stereotypes.
For a moment what was being committed in Bosnia became visible. On August 6, 1992, the camps of Omarska and Trnopolje, near Banja Luka, appeared on television screens around the world. We saw those skeletal figures, eyes riveted to the ground, too terrorized to lift their gaze. We knew what had happened there. And when the television crew persisted in demand-
ing access to the camp and the manager of the camp patiently insisted that it was not a camp, but a center, we knew of what kind of realm Omarska was the center. Subsequent reports indicated that those who perished at Omarska would have been saved if the United Nations and the NATO nations, which had had information on the camps for months, had revealed them. We knew what the repression of the reports entailed.
That moment of visibility at Omarska was made possible, in part, by recent meditations on the Holocaust, the extermination of six million Jews by Nazis and their collaborators in World War II. It was not in a house of worship, then, that the truth was most effectively spoken. It was during the dedication to the Holocaust Museum on April 22, 1993, that Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel could turn to President Clinton and demand that the killing be stopped. What was happening in Bosnia was not the Holocaust or Shoah. Yet much of the response to the atrocities exemplified by Omarska has appealed to categories of value shaped in response to that event, which entered its final phase fifty years earlier. To be faithful both to those who perished in the Holocaust and to those who perished in Bosnia, however, we need to deepen our understanding of all acts of genocide. Then the phrase "Never again" might be retrieved as meaningful.
Was this article helpful?