Srebrenica Genocide: 22 Years Later

On July 12, Shlomo Bolts, SAC’S policy and advocacy officer, served on the panel of the Srebrenica Genocide: 22 Years Later, hosted by the Advisory Council for Bosnia and Herzegovina. Held at Capitol Hill, Shlomo shared the panel with two Srebrenica genocide survivors, Vahidin Zagorica and Elvir Klempic. Shlomo gave powerful remarks on the Srebrenica genocide and its similarities between the Holocaust and current day Syria.

Read Shlomo's full speech below. 

On this day 22 years ago, near a UN compound outside the town of Srebrenica, Serbian forces began to separate Bosniak Muslim men and boys from the women and children – the Srebrenica Genocide had begun.

In the days that followed – and as our friend Vahidin so hauntingly described – thousands of Bosniak men and boys were systematically gunned down, while the women and children were raped, abused, and displaced by the tens of thousands. And I want to emphasize that this all happened before the eyes of the world community – in many cases, within shouting distance of a compound for UN peacekeepers who were supposed to be protecting these victims.

Yet UN peacekeepers did not intervene. They withdrew armored vehicles from Srebrenica, leaving civilians behind them to the mercies of war criminals. They kicked some civilians out of their compound, where they were safe, and into the arms of Serbian soldiers waiting to kill them. They watched with bare eyes as dozens of civilians were gunned down every hour by Serbian forces. At one point, they even approached the notorious “White House” where executions were happening, only to back down when confronted by Serbian soldiers.

 The story of Srebrenica is one that should trigger outrage and a will to act among us all. It is a story of cold-blooded genocide, of callousness and cowardice, and of international apathy until it was too late.

But sadly, it is not an isolated story. It is also my family story. 

On a July summer day like this 76 years ago, Nazi tanks rolled into the Jewish town of Vitebsk, in modern-day Belarus. 24,000 Jews unable to flee were quickly herded into a ghetto without food. The Nazis sent photographers to document and memorialize their crimes; their Jewish victims became so desperate that they begged to be killed so that the torture and starvation would stop. Within a week, 15,000 Jews were executed.

My great-grandfather had left Vitebsk for the United States with his brother only a few years before. Their plan was to go to America, set up a new life away from Nazi persecution, and bring the rest of the family along. But a rigid quota system designed to keep out undesirable Jewish refugees made this impossible. Most of my great-grandfather’s family was stuck in Vitebsk when Nazi tanks rolled in; after the massacre, they were never heard from again.

I grew up hearing this story as a child and the stories of many other Holocaust survivors and I was always shocked that the world simply watched it happen. How could the United States have been so deaf to the warnings of American Jewry that this Hitler fellow was a maniac who was slaughtering his own people and that isolationism was not an option?

America only moved against Hitler and his Axis alliance after Pearl Harbor – but even then, the U.S. did not make saving Jews a priority. Not even one warplane was diverted – not even one – to bomb the railroads and train stations that transported Jews to die in ghettos daily. Hitler treated the killing of Jews as a core military objective; toward the end of the war, he diverted fighters and weapons from the front to ensure the killing could continue. The U.S. did not make saving Jewish civilians a similar priority. 

And we keep repeating the same mistake over and over again.

Throughout the course of the Bosnian Genocide, the U.S. doggedly prioritized making peace with the murdering Serbian dictator Slobadan Milosevic over action to protect civilians. When the genocide began in 1992, the world made a vow that it would not reward Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing. In the run up to Srebrenica, that vow was lifted to facilitate peace, and the world community started talking partition.

 And as as late as 1994, a partition map circulated by the world community left Srebrenica as a part of Bosnia contiguous to other territories – meaning that Srebrenica civilians would be able to run. But the Serbian junta strenuously objected. The world community yielded for the sake of “peace” and produced new maps that left Srebrenica exposed.

 I had a chance to visit Bosnia’s capital of Sarajevo a few years back. As I stood looking at rows of rows of white graves, all from very recent victims of the Bosnian Genocide, I could not help but be deeply moved. I saw a vibrant society that was beginning to move on from its tragedy, but it was still a tragedy that should never have happened. I took solace in the fact that at least Bosnia and Srebrenica were a warning to dictators that if they went too far in butchering their people, the world would intervene.

Little did I know that only years later, it would be my own ancestral city, Aleppo, that would evoke comparisons to Bosnia and Srebrenica. While half of my family was wiped out in the Holocaust, the other half is Syrian, from the ancient Jewish communities of Aleppo. This community has been one of the main Jewish cultural centers in the Middle East for millenia – until the 1960s when the Baath Party and dictator Hafez al-Assad took over.

Assad vigorously persecuted the Syrian Jewish community, assuming that every Jew was a security threat who might join the Israeli army. When Syrian Jews wanted to travel, they required special permission just to go over 3 miles from their hometowns. When they wished to hold a religious or cultural ceremony, Assadist intelligence agents would dampen the joy by infiltrating the event and taking notes. Jews also had limited access to government jobs and were at times even placed under house arrest. When they tried to leave, they risked torture or death. 

I never believed Assad’s propaganda that he was the protector of religious minorities.

 When the Syrian Revolution started in 2011, Hafez al-Assad’s son Bashar ordered a full crackdown on  protesters under the guise of “protecting minorities.” Like the Serbian Chetniks in Bosnia, Assad’s sectarian Shabiha paramilitaries went house to house – killing the men, raping the women, stabbing the children while the world looked on. Assad’s henchman proudly filmed their exploits as they raped, beat, stabbed, whipped, and summarily executed detainees. International war crimes investigators later compared Assad’s torture chambers to Nazi death camps.

By 2014, my ancestral hometown of Aleppo was a major opposition center that was under growing threat. Iran-backed foreign militias were creeping up the eastern suburbs of the city, carrying out numerous massacres in the process, and they were close to placing Aleppo under siege. ISIS was also trying to attack Aleppo, and the regime was bombing the city with a new weapon called “barrel bombs” that Human Rights Watch would later call the main killer of Syrian civilians.

As I worked with others in the Syrian American community to spread awareness of this growing crisis, we heard two responses:

  1. No one cares about Syria. Americans don’t want to get involved.
  2. There’s a peace process in progress, so diplomacy comes first.

 Of course, this was diplomacy with Assad, a vicious dictator who would not even speak to his own people except with bullets. And every time there was a Geneva talk, the world would pressure the rebels of Aleppo to give more ground, and the regime would respond with bullets and bombs that left Aleppo more and more isolated. The city finally fell to the Assad regime last December after a final offensive that was inaugurated with a Russian attack on a UN convoy during peace talks and became so brutal that rescue workers lost count of the dead and women killed themselves to avoid mass rape.

 And the so-called “peace process” continues now. Last week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson adopted a Russian “de-escalation zones” plan that is very likely to leave Assad in power, after having killed hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians. If we are to honor the victims of Srebrenica and the Holocaust, this can not be acceptable – famed Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesal himself said: “And have we learned anything from [the Holocaust]? If so, how is it that Assad is still in power?”  

Congress can help save lives and hold Assad accountable for his crimes right now by quickly taking up and passing S. 722, which passed the Senate by a wide margin of 97-2 last month. The bill should be a no-brainer. It sanctions Russia for invading Ukraine, Iran for its ballistic missiles testing – and both countries for aiding and abetting Assad’s slaughter in Syria. But in recent days, oil companies have been working furiously to stop Russia sanctions that would hurt their profit margins. Secretary of State Tillerson also opposes the bill because it restricts his options.

To which I want to ask: what options are those, Secretary Tillerson? Is it the option to make a deal with Russia and Assad while leaving the Syrian people to slaughter? Some options need to be restricted because they are beyond the pale.

For instance – while Syrians have been demanding safe zones since the start of the conflict that are patrolled and defended by Syrians, Putin’s “de-escalation zones” dangerously twist this demand into something closer to the ill-fated Srebrenica “safe zone.” Particularly concerning are provisions that Russia and Iran – who have each committed war crimes for Assad in Syria – will be patrolling a section of the zone with two rebel pockets of some 700,000 civilians. This could be a recipe for mass slaughter. If we’ve learned the lessons of the Srebrenica “safe zone,” we can’t let it happen.

Congress members should make clear statements that any peace deal in Syria has to end with the departure of Assad. Congress should pass the Russia sanctions quickly to put Putin on notice that yes, the killing if civilians has consequences, and yes, if he enables his Syrian and Iranian butchers to go into the safe zones the way the Russian-backed Serbs went into Srebrenica – then even stricter sanctions than those of S. 722 are in the pipeline.

There needs to be accountability to Assad for his crimes and there needs to be real steps for Syrian civilian protection. Ultimately, it took substantial NATO intervention in Bosnia before the butcher Slobodon Milosevic finally stopped killing and went to the negotiating table. Given Assad’s history of mass killings, I have no doubt that serious military action will be needed against Assad in order for Syrians to have peace.

I am deeply honored to be speaking here and all of us at Syrian American Council are deeply honored that the ACBH has chosen to share such a deeply moving day with us. May the souls of those killed in Srebrenica have peace, and may we honor their memory by acting in Syria before it is too late.

Thank you.