Srebrenica and Demagogues


Srebrenica–Potočari Memorial and Cemetery for the Victims of the 1995 Genocide. Photograph by Kathleen Franklin

by Keith Doubt

It is difficult to understand the organized, systematic genocide of Bosnian Muslims by Serbian military and civil authorities from the Republic of Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. In July 1995, the Serbian army and police forces murdered more than 7,000[1] Bosniak males, many with hands tied behind their backs, in merely a few days. As the men were first separated from their families and then slaughtered, thousands of women and children were forcefully relocated, and women were raped. This hateful and unconscionable operation, carefully planned, according to the International International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), actually started in May of 1992 during the siege of Srebrenica.

The town was quickly filled with 50,000 to 60,000 terrified refugees from eastern Bosnia-Herzegovina, and people died from starvation in the town. It even continued after July 1995 when Serbian authorities did all they could to conceal the forensic evidence of genocide, reburying remains from mass graves hoping to make it impossible to identify the individual victims. The goal of this action, self-consciously preformed on the part of Serbian military and civilian authorities, was to exterminate Bosniaks in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

It is difficult to understand the genocide because of the social relations and shared histories that existed between the executioners and the victims. Bosnian Muslims were killed by former friends, neighbors, colleagues and schoolmates. Buses that drove Bosnian Muslims to places where they were murdered had been buses used to drive them to work. Schools inside which victims were executed had been their former classrooms (see Suljagić 2017).

It is difficult to understand the genocide because the genocide occurred not in a secret place, but in full view of the observing world. In 1993, Lieutenant General Philippe Morillon, the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) Commander in Bosnia-Herzegovina, came to Srebrenica and, after seeing the death camp circumstances of the civilians living under the siege, declared that Srebrenica was under the protection of the UN. In April 1993, the UN Security Council, adopted Resolution 819 which formally declared Srebrenica a UN “safe area,” following after Morillon’s declaration, and sent UNPROFOR soldiers from Canada, and later the Netherlands to the town. As part of the demilitarization agreement, military commanders defending Srebrenica agreed to turn over their heavy arms in exchange for UN protection. As early as April 1993, Ambassador Diego Arria, Permanent Representative of Venezuela to the UN Security Council, described the situation in Srebrenica as a “slow-motion genocide under the protection of the UN forces” In July 1995, Srebrenica—under the protection of UN forces—became a fast-motion genocide.


Who are the Bosniaks? Bosniaks are European Muslims, to draw from the title of William Lockwood’s well-known ethnography. Bosniaks are South Slavs, sharing cultural customs and social heritages with Serb and Croat South Slavs. Bosniaks are not Turks. Bosniaks reside between two panethnic identities, their South Slav heritage and language and their faith brethren in Turkey, which is becoming stronger after the genocide.

One academic effort to understand the genocide is as follows: “In Bosnia, Muslims once considered good neighbors and fellow Yugoslavs became enemies [Bringa]. In some views the Bosnian Muslims were “really” Serbs or Croats who had foolishly and weakly converted to Islam during the Ottoman period and now needed to be forcibly dehydridized and returned to their true ethnic fold. Violence in Bosnia was thus antisyncretic; aimed at reducing people to unalloyed ethnic identities” (Steward 1999:54). The academic effort fails to recognize human beings as human beings. The account accepts the nationalistic ideologies that the perpetrators of genocide in Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina used to frame their collective action. The account labels the victims, blaming the victims for being other inside a prejudicial rhetoric that purports to frame the cultural reality of modern Yugoslavia, when being other is a natural, positive aspect of social life in a vibrant community. The account mines, unwittingly, the discourse of Radovan Karadžić, convicted of genocide and sentenced to forty years in prison by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, who had said during the war: “There are ethnic communities unable to live together in the heart of Europe. This is simply because they hinder each other’s development. There are species among plants that cannot grow together. They have to be separated in order to grow” (Suljagić 2017: 27). Karadžić’s point of view absolutely controls the academic account, which becomes a regression in the attempt to understand the genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina, limiting itself to the primitive conception of life Karadžić used to incite genocide.


Jean-Paul Sartre identifies the trap pundits step in when analyzing the rhetoric of a demagogue.

Never believe that anti-Semites are completely unaware of the absurdity of their replies. They know their remarks are frivolous, open to challenge. But they are amusing themselves, for it is their adversary who is obliged to use words responsibly, since he believes in words. The anti-Semites have the right to play. They even like to play with discourse for, by giving ridiculous reasons, they discredit the seriousness of their interlocutors. They delight in acting in bad faith, since they seek not to persuade by sound argument but to intimidate and disconcert. If you press them too closely, they will abruptly fall silent, loftily indicating by some phrase that the time for argument is past. It is not that they are afraid of being convinced. They fear only to appear ridiculous or to prejudice by their embarrassment their hope of winning over some third person to their side. (1968:14-15)

Academics, judges, journalists, authors, and leaders are obliged to use words responsibly since they believe in words. Their obligation makes them vulnerable to becoming the foil of the demagogue, who plays with words and does not use words responsibly. Sartre points out the demagogue promoting and exemplifying hatred knows that his words are ridiculous and absurd. There is a small degree of self-consciousness here that interlocutors, in their desire to resist the demagogue, overlook. It is easy to say the demagogue’s speech is irrational and ignorant, but the demagogue already knows this. The critique allows the demagogue to assume a sense of intellectual superiority since the demagogue sees the interlocutor is taking the demagogue more seriously than the demagogue takes himself. Demagogues use words to disconcert and intimidate and for no other reason. The demagogue is uneducable, a cue ball. The vainglory seriousness of the interlocutors’ words is feeble, and maybe irresponsible. While speech for the demagogue’s interlocutors is an opportunity for understanding, it for the demagogue is a ruse for play and sadistic enjoyment.


It is difficult to understand the executioners of the genocide. What were they doing? Why were they doing it? What were they thinking? How could they have done what they did? In Srebrenica MCMXCV [2017], Emir Suljagić recounts a testimony from an executioner told to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia after a massacre near Srebrenica in July 1995:

From that pile, that heap of dead bodies that did not resemble human bodies any more, a human being emerged. I said human being, but it was actually a boy, five or six years old. It was unbelievable. Unbelievable. A human being came out and started walking towards a path, a path along which men were standing, doing their job, carrying automatic rifles… And then, out of nowhere they all put their guns down and all of them were just paralysed. And it was only a child in front of them. . . . And this child was covered in the tissue and intestines of other humans . . . And this child emerged from the pile of executed people, calling: «Babo»…. this is their word for father. The boy said, «Babo, where are you?»

It is not possible to understand the genocide, whether in Bosnia-Herzegovina or elsewhere. This executioner’s testimony, however, uncovers the face of genocide: its blank, humanless face, as perhaps no other testimony can. When the executioners saw the young child, they saw a human being and put down their guns. They stopped doing their heinous job because they saw in that moment how heinous it was. We have to ask ourselves: What happened to the young child searching for his father? Was he killed? Did the executioners spare him?

Marš Mira, the long, three-day peace march from near Tuzla to Srebrenica which has since 2005 annually retraced the steps of those who were able to escape the genocide in Srebrenica and honoring those who did not, occurs without understanding the reasons for genocide. All the intellectualizing, analyzing, rationalizing, and theorizing that seeks to do its best to understand genocide is transcended in the march, restoring a human face to humanity.



Bećirević, Ednina. 2010. “The Issue of Genocidal Intent and Denial of Genocide: A Case Study of Bosnia and Herzegovina.” East European Politics and Societies. Vol. 24: 480-502.

Lockwood, William. 1975. European Muslims: Economy and Ethnicity in Western Bosnia. Cambridge: Academic Press.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. 1948. Anti-Semite and Jew: An Exploration of the Etiology of Hate. New York: Schocken Books.

Suljagić, Emir. 2017. Srebrenica MCMXCV.  Zenica: Vrijeme

Stewart, Charles. 1999. “Syncretism and its Synonyms: Reflections on Cultural Mixture.” Diacritics. Vol. 29: 40-62


[1] Some estimates the number of those killed to be over 8,000. The Preliminary List of People Missing or Killed in Srebrenica compiled by the Bosnian Federal Commission of Missing Persons contains 8,373 names.

About the Author:

Keith Doubt is Professor of Sociology at Wittenburg University. He is the author of Towards a Sociology of Schizophrenia: Humanistic Reflections (University of Toronto Press), Sociology after Bosnia and Kosovo: Recovering Justice (Rowman & Littlefield), Sociologija nakon Bosne (Buybook, Sarajevo) and Understanding Evil: Lessons from Bosnia (Fordham University Press). With Omer Hadziselimovic he is the co-editor of the interdisciplinary, bilingual journal, Duh Bosne / Spirit of Bosnia. His most recent book, Through the Window: Kinship and Elopement in Bosnia-Herzegovina was published in 2014 by Central European University Press.