I don’t remember much of the history that I was taught at school, which is a sobering thought for a history teacher, but I do remember learning about the Holocaust. I remember watching footage of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and I remember my history teacher, who was visibly moved by the footage, charging us with the responsibility to ensure that nothing like that ever happened again. It’s easy to commend her compassion and when you consider the enormity of the crimes that constitute the Holocaust, an emotional response is perfectly understandable. But in that very moment she had unwittingly provided us with a sense of closure; the camps had been liberated, the Holocaust was over and the world had said “never again”.
No mention was made of the physical, material, or psychological challenges encountered by those who had survived extermination in the weeks, months and years that followed, or the more than 13,000 former prisoners who died in Bergen-Belsen after liberation. There was no indication that the Nazis had not invented the act of genocide, nor any suggestion of its recurrence after the fall of the Third Reich. When you consider that this was the 1990s, the decade in which approximately 800,000 people were brutally killed in the Rwandan genocide, this omission is all the more striking.
It was also the decade that saw genocide return to the European continent during the Bosnian War of 1992-95. Next week marks twenty-three years since Ratko Mladić, the commander of the Bosnian Serb army, ordered his tanks to advance on the UN-designated “safe area” of Srebrenica, rendering it anything but safe for the Bosnian Muslims who had sought refuge there. Families were torn apart as women and young children were separated from their male relatives. In the days that followed more than 8,000 people (mostly men) were transported to nearby execution sites and murdered. The youngest among them was a new-born baby whose name would have been Fatima had she been permitted to live.
In Britain today, crimes fuelled by Islamophobia are on the rise, which is hardly surprising when you consider the persistent misrepresentation of Muslims across some sections of our media. While teachers have limited control over societal prejudices and education may not inoculate people against hate, teaching and learning about genocide does involve a critical engagement with what human beings are capable of and what it means to be human. Teaching students about the historical context in which previous genocides unfolded and encouraging them to think about genocide as a process, gives them the knowledge that the Holocaust was not in fact the epilogue to “man’s inhumanity to man” but simply another chapter. And that’s an important lesson in a world still haunted by the spectre of genocide.
We can’t teach everything, but we can help students make sense of the world they’re growing up in by drawing explicit connections between the past that they encounter in history class and the world outside their window. Whether that means highlighting the legacy of imperialism and the continued impact of the slave trade, pointing to the significance of the Crusades for today’s Middle East, or casting a light on the recurrence and persistence of genocide since 1945, it is incumbent on teachers to make the past appear relevant to their students. Historical anniversaries and memorial days can provide a useful vehicle for this.
In 2009, the EU designated 11th July as Srebrenica Memorial Day and in 2013 the charity Remembering Srebrenica was established to raise awareness of the genocide in the UK. Teachers in particular can take this opportunity to discuss the subject with their students, something that many of them will know little about. Teachers wanting to improve their own subject knowledge, can use the charity’s website where they will also be able to download educational resources for use in both primary and secondary schools. The charity also runs a ‘Lessons from Srebrenica’ initiative and to date they have taken more than 1,100 British citizens to Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Earlier this year, I was privileged to be part of an education delegation that travelled with the charity to Bosnia-Herzegovina, where we were fortunate enough to meet with some of the survivors of the genocide. As you would expect, the experience was incredibly humbling, but when our tour guide, Suvad Cibra, shared his experiences of the war years with us, we were reminded that the majority of people in Bosnia harbour memories of the war, even if not all of them are willing or able to share theirs. Suvad was just four years old when the war broke out and his testimony was a poignant reminder that then, as now, the ‘Rights of the Child’ mean nothing in a country ravaged by war. It was particularly jarring to hear that Suvad considered himself lucky as he had only lost one member of his family – his father. He was quick to suggest that in eastern Bosnia things had been far worse than where he had been, and he described cases where several generations of the same family had been wiped out, a sad fact borne out by the names inscribed on the Srebrenica-Potočari Memorial.
For the survivors of the genocide, 1995 didn’t mark a happily-ever-after any more than 1945 had for the survivors of the Holocaust. And so next week when we commemorate the more than 8,000 individuals whose lives were cut short, we should also consider the impact that their absence continues to have on their family members who survived them. Not all of the bodies of their relatives have been, or ever will be, fully recovered. This is because several months after the Bosnian Serb forces executed and buried the victims, they uncovered the graves to remove and rebury the bodies in an attempt to hide the crimes they had committed – the final stage of genocide. This led to a situation in which the bones of one victim could be found strewn across several graves. To this day 782 bodies remain missing and the partial remains of hundreds more lie at the Podrinje Identification Project forensic facility in Tuzla. The remains of at least 25 victims will be buried this year in the annual ceremony held on the 11th July at the Srebrenica-Potočari Memorial Complex. It has already been reported that Peter Ivancov, the Russian ambassador to Sarajevo has been refused permission to attend this year’s ceremony on the grounds that he denies the genocide, reminding us of another burden the survivors have to bear – the denial of this crime by the perpetrators and their allies.
Remembering Srebrenica hopes that educating people in the UK about the consequences of what can happen when hatred goes unchecked will help to bring about a better and safer society for us all. This seems particularly salient in the current climate, where both at home and internationally evidence of racism, xenophobia and intolerance abounds. The real power to prevent genocide, or to help the 68.5 million people who have been forcibly displaced worldwide, rests with politicians, individual states and the international community and not with students. But precisely because those with real power are far more adept at invoking the rhetoric of “never again” than they are at promoting policies in the spirit of that idea, it’s important for teachers not to close the book in 1945 and allow students to leave the classroom armed with the illusion that “never again” meant precisely that.
For ideas about how you could mark Srebrenica Memorial Day with your students or in your community and to find out more about the important work being done by Remembering Srebrenica you can visit their website http://www.srebrenica.org.uk
Jackie Teale is a doctoral student at Royal Holloway, University of London. Her thesis is supervised by Professor Dan Stone and focuses on the ways in which press photography has shaped public responses to genocide.