Lessons from Bosnia-Herzegovina’s Forgotten War

As people struggle to understand the scale of the carnage in Israel-Palestine, many will inevitably come to the conclusion that “Western hypocrisy” is the answer.

The recent popularity of Osama bin Laden’s letter justifying the September 11, 2001 attacks against the United States is a warning sign. In many ways the resurgence of interest in this forgotten man and his (largely decimated) terrorist organisation is not so much a sign of radicalisation as it is of confusion. As Israel continues its horrific war in the Gaza Strip, using the horrific attack of Hamas on October 7 as the justification, most people are trying to desperately trying to make sense of the scenes they see every day of enormous human suffering. More importantly, they struggle to understand why the world – particularly the United States – is allowing and facilitating this.

To a certain degree this is because of ignorance. People everywhere are quick to reach conclusions about faraway conflicts about which they know little versus ones close by about which they might know a little more. For example, Indians – with honourable exceptions – banging on about how easy it may be to resolve the issues in Israel-Palestine seem to be largely mum about the horrors of Manipur or our colonial policies in Kashmir. The Chinese are silent about Xinjiang and Tibet, Iranians about the rights of their own women, and so on and so forth.

But that is not the sum of things, and such rationalisations can easily descend into whataboutery. The scale of the carnage in this particular conflict is enormous. As Save the Children states, “The number of children reported killed in just three weeks in Gaza is more than the number killed in armed conflict globally – across more than 20 countries – over the course of a whole year.” For a scale of reference, in that other conflict, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, over 500 children have been killed between February 24, 2022 and October 9, 2023. In the Gaza Strip, the number is about 4,000 in five weeks. Tens of thousands of tonnes of bombs have been dropped into the most densely inhabited zone on the planet, fuel has been denied, and water and medicines have been restricted.

We are watching an atrocity unparalleled compared to almost every other conflict in the world. It is no wonder that people struggle to understand why the world is not acting to stop it.

This has happened earlier. During Israel’s similarly brutal invasion of Lebanon, the then US President Ronald Reagan called up the Israeli Prime Minister Menachim Begin – former head of the Irgun terrorist militia – in 1982 and called the enormous damage a “holocaust”. Reagan had initially supported the operation – in fact he had overridden the advice of the US State Department to meet Begin – but his use of such a term to an Israeli PM showed how badly it had all gone, and how much the daily destruction on TV was affecting US views on Israel. The invasion led to the destruction of Lebanon, a violent civil war, numerous atrocities, and the rise of Hezbollah before Israel’s final decision to withdraw – many years later – in 2000.

But the bin Laden connection stems from another war, one far more publicised, which was the Balkans conflict after the collapse of Yugoslavia in the early ’90s, in which the siege of Sarajevo, when Serbian forces ringed the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina dropping mortar shells and sniping at will, lasted for four years (April 5, 1992 to February 29, 1996). Rape and ethnic cleansing were used as tools of war, and the murder of more than 7,000 civilians in the UN designated “safe zone” Srebrenica by Serbian forces in 1995 would be for many the defining moment of the war.

Also read: Bosnia’s Srebrenica Genocide 25 Years On

As with the current conflict, many did not understand why “Never Again” did not apply. Why did Europe dither? NATO, primarily pushed by the US President Bill Clinton – launched air strikes after the Srebrenica massacre in 1995 – the largest mass murder in Europe after World War II, leading to a negotiated settlement. So why did NATO wait so long?

For many people the answer was simple: Bosnia-Herzegovina was majority Muslim (largely pork eating and alcohol drinking Muslim, but when has religiosity mattered in ethnic conflict?). Europeans and the US were hypocrites, and the “West” would not save Muslims. Human rights had no meaning except for those the “West” liked.

For most European policymakers the answer was different. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in 1914 set off a chain of events that led to World War I, then World War II, and then the Cold War. They were terrified of getting involved again. Even the US, which finally pushed for the bombings and was instrumental in the end of the war, was initially hesitant. The then US Secretary of State, James Baker III, famously said, “We don’t have a dog in that fight.”

But for the young, for those not of Europe or the US, and the non-European immigrants now living in Europe and the US, this was neither obvious, nor was it ever made clear. They watched the horror play out every day on their screens, a “holocaust” as Reagan would have said, and did not understand why the world did not act. A very tiny section became easy to recruit for Osama bin Laden.

Today, such scenes are repeating. For the US and Europe – particularly for Germany – the backdrop is the Holocaust. “Never Again” has a particular resonance given that the Hamas massacre of October 7 – primarily of civilians – was the largest murder of Jews since World War II. But for the rest of the world, watching the horrific images of all suffering – Jewish, Muslim, Christian, whatever – “Never Again” has a separate meaning. It is not about Jews alone, but about humans as humans. They will inevitably conclude that for the US, Europe, and the settler colonial states like Australia, Canada and New Zealand, brown lives, Muslim lives, do not matter, and the suffering of those from the Global South has no meaning.

And there will be inevitably those that traffic in the trauma of others for their own purposes who will use this.

When applying for my Masters degree in the US, I had written about how I wanted to study the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina and how it had been seen as a “just war”, a defensive jihad. I arrived in the US in August 2001. A month later, things changed.

Omair Ahmad is an author and journalist.