Everyone has moral responsibility but not all of us choose to exercise it. This is the main lesson I have taken from the four day Remembering Srebrenica visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina from 16th to 19th September 2018. The charity organises regular visits to BH as well as facilitating visits from survivors of the genocide to the UK. We had a busy program over the four days of our visit, learning about the siege of Sarajevo as well as the genocide in Srebrenica, travelling to different cities across Bosnia and Herzegovina. There are many detailed histories and accounts of what took place and I will not repeat it here. If you want to read more, then some books you could read include Endgame, The Cellist of Sarajevo and Zlata's Diary. There is a BBC series on the historical background.

While in BH, the inhumanity of man to man (and I am deliberately staying with the male of the species here) has struck me once again. The reminder came from our discussions of the siege of Sarajevo. It came just eight years after Sarajevo hosted the Winter Olympics and lasted three times as long as the siege of Stalingrad, from 5th April 1992 to 29th February 1996. 

Life was terrible within the city, and difficult for me to comprehend. The War Childhood Museum brought some of it to life with stories from those who were children during the war. One story that struck me particularly was the account of production of “Pineapple” magazine, which was produced by children aged between seven and twelve years old, who lived in the Ciglane district of Sarajevo. They produced ten issues in all, with the help of two adults, and each was adorned with a picture of a Pineapple (Ananas in Bosnian) always accompanied by a witty rhyming phrase that summarised the current situation in the city (“The electricity no longer illuminates the city. Pineapple was delayed and couldn’t pester you until the 15th”). The titles, page numbering and illustrations were hand drawn and the rest written up on a typewriter. Between fifty and one hundred copies of each issue were printed, and every single copy was hand coloured before distribution. To quote the reflection: “Pineapple magazine was an expression of children’s longing for normal childhood, something that was not merely unattainable in time of war but an abstract notion equal to the ‘mystical’ fruit, a pineapple, that we saw only in pictures.’ 

The museum has also produced a book of short reflections of those whose childhood was destroyed by the war. Two give a flavour: “Childhood in a cage, all the time we should have spent at play, we spent in shelters…” (Sanin, 1983) and “War childhood is eating an onion and pretending it’s an apple, ’cause you haven’t had one in months” (Amina, 1985). But the most harrowing reminder came from the discussion of what I could perhaps describe as “hunting humans.” Our guide explained that certain individuals, primarily from Russia, paid for (or had funded) trips to the hills around Sarajevo where they were given a sniper rifle and the chance to shoot the inhabitants of Sarajevo, just for sport. The inhumanity of man to man, reducing our fellows to targets for fun.

The issue of moral culpability really struck me as we learned more of the details of the Srebrenica genocide. My biggest learning point is that there were opportunities to make a difference that were not taken. They may or may not have made a significant difference – second guessing history is a foolish game – but they leave big questions about moral culpability. For me personally the biggest questions are over how the Dutch forces behaved. They did not resist the Serbian army at all and even assisted by evicting refugees from their compound and facilitated division of men and boys from women and children. When they left they did not immediately report what had taken place either.

In his book Righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust, David Gushee argues that the Holocaust makes Christianity look morally bankrupt because so few Christians acted to protect Jews. He suggests that the many who stood by and did not help did so because they felt their obligation to their own family and neighbours was primary; it was not because they did not want to help Jews but because they were worried about the consequences to their own family. This echoes the dilemma faced by the Dutch soldiers, who were concerned with self-preservation as much as protecting others. For Gushee Christianity can only redeem itself when individual followers of Jesus take morally courageous stands, which cost them personally, demonstrating that their faith is not just rhetoric, but a living reality.

We live in a complex world, and it is not always appropriate to challenge everything or campaign of all issues. Moreover, I am unlikely to ever face the decisions the Dutch commander in Sarajevo did. But there are times in my life when I have opportunities to take a moral stand, to do something to resist the dehumanisation of others. Faced with such a situation, the question is what I do, not who else should act. It may seem only a small issue, but failing to confront small issues can have big consequences. The path to genocide begins with the entrenching and mainstreaming of a simplistic binary worldview. When everyone sees the world as “us” versus “them,” especially if the “them” are described as oppressors or we have a grievance against them, and “we” are just the poor put-upon victims, then you are in dangerous territory.

Our host for the visit talked about how childhood friends became enemies overnight because of ethnic differences; how Serbian friends suddenly upped and left without even saying goodbye because now their ethnic identity – which previously had been irrelevant – was suddenly the defining factor in who they were and how they were to behave. Although it is tempting to live in a simplistic, black-and-white world, and many in today’s society are succumbing to that temptation, the only hope for humanity comes if we are prepared to embrace the more complex reality we live in. We need to know our neighbours, develop relationships of understanding and trust with people who are different from us. We have to cooperate to ensure our society is one where all can flourish, regardless of their religion, ethnicity, social class and political views. I have come back to the UK more determined to continue the work of the St Philip’s Centre, of enabling people to continue learning how to live well together.

Tom Wilson

Centre Director

20th September 2018