By Gwynne Dyer,
“Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown,” says an old friend to Jack Nicholson as the mother is killed, the little girl is handed over to the bad guy and the police wash their hands of it at the end of the 1974 classic film ‘Chinatown’.
The movie was about the triumph of power and the futility of hoping for justice. ‘Chinatown’ was just a metaphor, and any other place where justice is denied would do as well. Which is probably why today I feel like saying
“Forget it, Mehmetçik. It’s the Balkans.”
Saturday was the 25th anniversary of the massacre of Bosnian Muslims (‘Bosniaks’) in Srebrenica towards the end of the 1992-95 war in Bosnia. The Bosnian Serbs wanted to break up Bosnia and unite with next-door Serbia, and since a lot of Bosniaks lived amongst them there was much ethnic cleansing. But this was special.
Srebrenica was then a Muslim-majority town, and when Bosnian Serb forces captured it 20,000 Muslims took refuge with the Dutch troops who were there to protect a UN-declared ‘safe area’. But the Dutch soldiers handed them over to the Bosnian Serbs.
Most of the Muslim men and boys fled into the woods, but 2,000 who had taken refuge with the Dutch UN troops were handed over to the Serbs. The Serbs separated those men and boys from the women and girls, chased down most of the men who had fled into the woods, and murdered them all – 8,000 of them. It took ten days, even with bulldozers to scrape out the mass graves.
Twenty years later a special UN war crimes tribunal sentenced the Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, to life in prison for genocide. But few of the Bosniaks have been able to go home again – and denial reigns both in the Bosnian ‘Serb Republic’ and in Serbia proper.
For the Serbs it’s all a “fabricated myth” in the words of Milorad Dodik, the Serb member of Bosnia’s three-person presidency. The president of Serbia, Alexander Vucic, admits some people were killed, but denies that there was a genocide. It’s all very ‘Balkan’.
From great tragedy and vile lies to mere churlishness: next week, in Istanbul, there will be Muslim prayer services in Hagia Sofia for the first time since 1934. The massive cathedral overlooking the Bosphorus, built nearly 1,500 years ago, was the world’s largest building for almost a thousand years.
When the Ottoman emperor Mehmet II conquered Istanbul in 1453, he had it converted into a mosque. Four minarets were built at the four corners, and for the next half-millennium only Muslims prayed there.
The Ottoman empire went on to conquer almost all of the Balkans, so nobody in the Christian world seriously dreamed of getting Hagia Sophia back. But the centuries passed, and eventually the empire collapsed.
The Turkish republic that Ataturk rescued from the wreckage was a secular state, and in 1934 he declared that this ancient Christian church should no longer be used as a mosque. It became a museum, open to all – until Turkey’s current president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, decided to turn it into a mosque again.
There’s no shortage of mosques in Istanbul. Erdogan is only doing this because his popularity is waning: his proxy wars aren’t going well, his party has split, and the economy is on the rocks. So do something spiteful to the neighbours. That should play well at home.
It’s 500 km from Bosnia to Istanbul, but we’re still in the Balkans.