Your Neighbors Try To Murder You: 6 Realities In A Genocide
One of our favorite, most ridiculous horror movie tropes is, "What if everybody just went murderously crazy?" There's always some grossly unlikely setup for it, whether it's some unrecognizable dystopia, like in The Purge, or a weird mystery disease, like in 28 Days Later. You know, some flimsy pretext for that scene in which the heroes wind up running from someone they thought was the friendly neighbor next door.
It says something about how safe and comfortable our lives have become that we treat that scenario as a whacked-out slasher movie premise. After all, there's always a real genocide going on somewhere. Neighbor vs neighbor violence, often flaring up virtually overnight.
One such horror happened in Europe in the 1990s, in fact. We sat down with a survivor of the Bosnian genocide to try to get some small hint of what it's like, and to try to understand how the fuck this even happens.
Neighbors Can Turn On Each Other Overnight
So how does a relatively peaceful country descend into an orgy of violence so quickly? To understand, we'll have to run through a couple of paragraphs of history:
Yugoslavia was a Communist country in Southeastern Europe until communism imploded in 1991. It was located in the Balkans, which is historically Europe's "bad neighborhood," filled with ethnic groups who've been killing each other since the days of Rome. The iron-fisted dictator who'd been keeping the peace in Yugoslavia died in 1980, and all of the different factions (Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks) started turning on each other. Lifelong neighbors were splitting along racial lines.
Free elections and relative safety should never end up being an "either/or" kind of thing.
Our source, Sudbin, lived in a city (Prijedor) that had a slim majority of Bosniak Muslims, like him. But the surrounding area was Serbian, and although his group was the majority, the Serbs were almost as numerous and tended to dominate the ranks of the police. The local government was overthrown in a police-instituted coup, and within a matter of months, all the Muslims and Croats in the area -- including Sudbin and his family -- were rounded up and sent to death camps.
A similar story repeated all around Bosnia, with Serbs suddenly butchering everyone who wasn't Serbian. The two camps they established -- one at Prijedor and another in Srebrenica -- would go on to massacre well over 10,000 men, women, and children. The next time you start to feel too optimistic about the future of our species, remember this: Our fanciest continent couldn't even go 50 freaking years without death camps cropping up again.
Meaning there were Serbs who grew up during the Holocaust and still thought concentration camps would be a good idea.
But while most of the killing in the Holocaust was done by German soldiers and policemen to strangers from different countries, the genocide in Bosnia was committed by the neighbors and co-workers of the victims. In Prijedor, the massacres were carried out at a mine where mere days before the killers and victims had worked alongside one another. "... Serbs, Bosniaks, Croats. They were workers for this company," says Sudbin. "And now you have a place where those living together were killed. You don't have to work together anymore, you have to kill each other ..."
It's weird how quickly it happened. The Nazi "Final Solution" wasn't the state policy for years; the organized plan for the Holocaust was only laid down in 1942, and until 1941, the vast majority of people murdered in their camps were political prisoners, not Jews or other targeted groups. The Bosniak Serbs, on the other hand, started genociding within days of taking over. Sudbin pointed out a local church at one point during our interview ...
"... At the end of the 1980s, that church was renovated, and many Muslims donated money to help. A Muslim named Asaf Kapetanovic was sponsor number one. And as a thank you, he was beaten to death in Omarska camp." Did we mention that Sudbin was a teenager at the time?
Genocide Starts In The Schools
Yeah, Sudbin was roughly equivalent to a high school senior when the shit hit the fan. Even kids who'd gone to school together their entire lives started splitting on racial lines. "I was in my second class in technical school, and they started to make maps -- something like 'This will belong to Muslims. This will belong to Serbs.' These are kids, teenagers."
And then, in April of 1992, Sudbin watched as his town's police couped the shit out of Prijedor's government, then started a new one with the express goal of seceding to a new Serbian state. "We stop to go to the school, and Prijedor was full of Serbian military."
School kind of changed at that point.
Sudbin remembers listening to the radio that day to see if his school had been canceled on account of coup. And if you're hoping for an emotionally satisfying story of how some idealistic teachers tried to teach the kids to trust one another and work together even while their country fractured around them, well ... this isn't that story. Sudbin recalls how his Serbian teachers suddenly showed up to school in "military uniform."
And the non-Serb teachers? They got straight-up fired. The Serbs seized power on April 29th, and Sudbin recalled how they "immediately" fired all non-Serbs from government jobs and made it illegal for them to own businesses. Almost every Muslim in the city found themselves unemployed. Within classes themselves, the racism of some Serb teachers ratcheted up to 11 immediately. Muslims like Sudbin suddenly found themselves singled out, even though they looked like everyone else.
This is Sudbin. Typical blonde Muslim, right?
"And in the last hour, a Serbian professor, at the end he closed the class book and said, 'OK guys, see you next year -- but only those who survive.'"
The genocide started in May.
Not Everyone Goes Crazy -- And That's Your Only Hope
"The next weekend, we have war. First the killing of persons, and then military actions and massacres ... you're sitting at home and people are coming to kill you. And then from one day to another, I become detainee of a concentration camp. I lost my father. Forty-four family members. School friends. Teachers. Everybody."
Sudbin was one of the only survivors in his family. The Serbs primarily targeted adult men.
"... you had to be not old enough, big enough to be killed. I was 18. It was well-organized planned ethnic cleansing ... We went to the camp, and those camps are in one line -- it was well-organized, connected with train line, with highways, and the whole community took part in this." We really can't emphasize that last part enough. Sudbin's family wasn't massacred by some sinister Serbian government; they were massacred by his neighbors. Familiar faces. Go out and walk around your neighborhood sometime, and try to imagine it.
Don't think it's the scariest-looking place in Europe, either. This cute little town offered enough killers to end 5,200 innocent lives.
Sudbin doesn't know precisely how long he was in the camp. "I know that it started Thursday, 23rd of July, but how many days I was in, I don't know. I was outside of reality." Between 500 and 900 people, mostly Muslims, were massacred that spring and summer in the Omarska camp. (An exact count is impossible to get: other estimates place the death toll at between 2,000 and 5,000.) Many were shot and buried in mass graves. And if you're wondering if there weren't at least some sane ones among the murderers, the answer is that there were. Sudbin was rescued by one.
"... a Serbian soldier, a friend of my father, he started to scream at the bus driver, 'No no no!' and he rescued me and my brother from the massacre. We were sent ... to be killed. It was at the bank of Sana river, and he said 'Go swimming,' and I saw dead people are in the Sana. It was not so deep, so the bodies were touching stones and flowing down ... He said 'Go and swim,' and I prayed to God and I took the hand of my brother and I'm thinking ... how long do you suffer with a bullet in you?"
When It's Over, The Bad Guys Get Away With It
Sudbin and his brother weren't shot. They floated away and were eventually rescued by the Czech Red Cross and taken to a refugee camp. This was a gigantic improvement over "death camp," but also no kind of place for an 18-year-old trying to restart his life. "... you are there, you are doing nothing, in some sort of ghetto again. For two years, you don't know what is going on with Bosnia. You are thinking about your future, you wish to have your own job, to work, to have money -- to not be a parasite. And we think ... 'Go to Germany -- it is the Promised Land.' Irony, those who destroyed Jewish population are now the promised land for everybody."
They were smuggled into Germany by "the Hungarian mafia," a detail Sudbin seemed uncomfortable providing any more detail about. They actually traveled to Germany twice -- failing to start up there in 1993, but trying again in 1994. Eventually, Sudbin found a place for himself working in theater in Munich.The Bosnian genocide ended in 1995, at which point all those neighbors who'd been murdering each other just ... stopped and went back to work. Like it had never happened.
So this was, what, a fad?
Oh, there were some token efforts made at getting justice for the dead and displaced. Serbia's President, Slobodan Milosevic, was forced from power in 1997 and arrested in 2000, but declared innocent of the genocide committed by his armed forces during his time in office. Many of the soldiers (and civilians) responsible also evaded prosecution. Sudbin described his town as "#1 in terms of war criminals per capita ... We have 11 war criminals prosecuted ... and can you imagine nine of them are free? And you have a chance to sit with the same table as them!"
Historically, this is a painfully common trend in the aftermath of genocide. For instance, the "vast majority" of the hundreds of thousands of SS officers and German police who gunned down the victims of the Holocaust were never prosecuted for their crimes. The particular douchebag who presided over the killing of most of Sudbin's family and friends was a Serbian doctor named Milomir Stakic:
Even his facial hair is an evil stereotype.
That bank-teller looking dude was charged on eight counts of "genocide" and genocide-related crimes by the UN. He received a life sentence. Here's his rap sheet:
For those wondering what "crimes against humanity" really means in practice.
You'd think a life sentence is kinda the least someone deserves for being guilty of "extermination." We can all agree that someone responsible for "crimes against humanity" can't be rehabilitated, right? This isn't a guy who accidentally killed someone while driving drunk and might change his ways and go on to do something positive with his life. But Stakic's legal team appealed his life sentence ... successfully. His sentence was reduced to 40 years.
As you might be starting to realize ...
People Want To Forget
Whether it's a genocide, the Alamo, or 9/11, the motto for years afterward is some variation of "Never forget." After all, you don't want history repeating itself. But as it turns out, people can't wait to forget about genocide. The Omarska mine is now the property of ArcelorMittal, the world's largest steel manufacturer. They still operate the mine/death camp where several thousand people were brutally murdered. Metal from the mine was most famously used for this art piece, called the Orbit, for the London Olympics:
There is still no monument of any kind for Europe's largest modern death camp. Some survivors, including Sudbin, have declared the Orbit a "monument in exile." Since the Omarska mine is owned by a giant corporation, survivors of the genocide aren't permitted to visit the site of their family's deaths unless they obtain permission ahead of time. "And you have to write a letter ... you have to tell them when you want to come, in which period of the day, who is coming with who ... once I asked, 'Would you like to have my DNA, too?'"
ArcelorMittal recently announced that they were giving genocide survivors eight additional days per year during which they could organize tours, etc. Though work continues on those days.
Nothing shows respect for mourning survivors like the sound of heavy mining machinery.
Then again, it's not like all of the victims are eager to relive those days. "We had one lady who survived a massacre -- a Serbian commander put 70 women in one house and they burned them alive. This lady is the only survivor. She doesn't speak Bosnian now, she speaks French ... She doesn't want to have anything with her past; she says 'I have a new life...'"
Which leads us to the biggest bummer of this whole article ...
That's right. We said it. You can go buy your "Genocide Works" T-shirts in the Cracked merchandise store right now.
Oh, there are still Bosniak Muslims, just as there are still European Jews. But in both cases, the genocide accomplished much of its goal. At the time the killings came to Sudbin's sleepy town of Prijedor, Muslims were the largest ethnic group in the city, composing 43 percent of the population. Today, only a tiny fraction remain:
"... we had in 2003, in my Vilagge of Carakovo, 465 only. It's falling down; we have less than 300 citizens now. Elderly are dying. Those who were 50 are now 67 ..."
With entirely too many residents having moved here.
The killers primarily targeted adult men. Most women survived ... and were raped repeatedly by Serbian soldiers, the idea being that they'd then give birth to more Serbian kids. Between the death camps and the rape, most of the Muslim population in Bosnia was scattered to the wind and wound up living in other parts of Europe. The war criminals who wanted to turn Sudbin's chunk of Bosnia into a Serbian, Christian-dominated region succeeded. Even if the dead of Omarska get a monument someday, even if people "never forget" what happened in Bosnia, the Bosniak Muslims who survived still lost their homeland.
"They lost this kind of feeling which we all have of being at home. This kind of feeling is the same for everybody -- to be at home, to be happy, to have a family. And this is the most expensive thing in the world. This is happiness."
And if history has taught us anything, that state of being is both fragile and temporary. Don't take it for granted.
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