The entrance to Sarajevo’s Gallery 11/07/95 is unassuming, tucked away off a small square with little more than a poster-board sign indicating it’s presence. However what the entrance lacks in presence, the gallery’s displays more than make up for with intense and immediate impact. This is an exhibition place dedicated to preserving the memory of the Srebrenica tragedy, in which 8,372 people lost their lives.
After exploring the images, maps, and video material on display, Travis and I met up with one of two young girls working in the gallery who had offered to provide us with some more information and context to the events that occurred in Srebrenica. With a hushed voice she began to talk about the disintegration of Yugoslavia, the creation of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina by referendum, and the attack on the newly formed republic by Bosnian Serb forces backed by the Serbian Government and the Yugoslav People’s Army with the intention of unifying and securing Serb territory within Bosnia.
Our guide explained that in April 1993, the United Nations entered the small town of Srebrenica, an area of high conflict in the east, with a small contingency of Canadian troops and declared the area a UN safe area “free form any armed attack or other hostile act”. A year later, the small group of Canadian forces were withdrawn and replaced with a larger infantry of Dutch soldiers. By July 1995 Srebrenica was surrounded by Serbian forces and lacking necessary supplies, rations, medicine, and weaponry. After finding little resistance in previous assaults, Serbian forces took the city while Dutch UN forces fired warning shots and flares over their heads. The UN Protection Forces never fired directly on any Serb units.
In the evening of July 11, 1995, between 20,000 and 25,000 Bosniak refugees from Srebrenica gathered in Potocari seeking protection within the UN compound there. While several thousand had already pressed inside the compound, thousands more spread through neighbouring factories and fields. Knowing that the men of military age would face death outside the compound, the Dutch claimed their base was full and on July 13th more than 5,000 Bosniak refugees from the compound were expelled.
In the events that followed, men and young boys were separated from women and the elderly, massacred, and carted away to be buried in mass graves.
As our guide talked about this senseless slaughter I found my attention elsewhere. For three years between 1992 and 1995, the United Nations, North America, and the rest of Europe chose not to intervene in the conflict in Bosnia, claiming that it was a civil war and they would not take sides. Not until the Markale massacre on August 28, 1995, nearly a month and a half after the events of Srebrenica and Potocari, did the West intervene when NATO launched a bombing campaign against Serbia. The campaign lasted 21 days and ultimately ended the conflict.
21 days of intervention by North America was all it took to end a bloody three-year long conflict in which roughly 100,000 people lost their lives and 2.2 million people were displaced from their homes.
The debates surrounding the general effectiveness and purpose of the UN and the circumstances as to when, if at all, one country should intervene in the affairs of another are muddy, complex, and not something I’m prepared to take a firm position on here. However the events of the Bosnian War do clearly illustrate the notion that opting to not to make a choice is a choice in itself. By deciding not to get involved in Bosnia the rest of the world, Canada included, sided with Serbia by default.
For most, investigatory boards established in the aftermath of this conflict concluded that the Canadians aren’t to blame for the events that unfolded in Srebrenica. After all, they had been removed for nearly a year before July 1995. However standing in the small, dark hallways of Gallery 11/07/95, surrounded by the names of those who were massacred in the Bosnian War, my notions of what it meant to be Canadian were challenged for the first time. Why didn’t I know Canadians had been dispatched into Srebrenica? More so, why hadn’t I learned about this conflict before? After five painstaking years tracing Jacques Cartier’s journey up the St. Lawrence for school projects I knew about the establishment of Canada, yet I knew very little about Canadian contributions to world history. Like a teenager first discovering her parents have flaws I struggled to accept the role my country played in this conflict as well as the fact that events of this magnitude had occurred during my lifetime.
At home July 1st is Canada Day, a celebration the anniversary of the enactment of the British North America Act of 1867, under which the British North American colonies of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and the Province of Canada united together into a single country named Canada under the British Empire. Generally recognized as Canada’s birthday, celebrations are held across the country each July 1st complete with maritime air shows and firework displays, however this year my mind continues to drift back to our time in Bosnia.
As a carefree eight year old, July 1995 was spent sprawled out in the sunshine with my family, roasting hot dogs over a bonfire, my mouth likely dyed pink from a can of sugary cream soda. Meanwhile, halfway around the world in Bosnia, children the same age were hiding in UN camps, dodging bullets on their way to the market in downtown Sarajevo, and praying for someone to come help them.
Having now explored Bosnia and Gallery 11/08/95 I’ll likely never approach a summer holiday at Shuswap Lake with the same pre-travel mindset I had just a year before, and I find myself in awe of the impact travel has had on areas of my life and mind I never expected. Sitting in the sun, rattling off the last few lines of this article with a cool beer by my side I also wonder how many people around the world find themselves in similar situations to those in Srebrenica twenty years ago. With the passage of time nothing appears to stay the same, yet in some ways nothing ever really changes.