From the Balkans to Gaza

Taking Genocide Personally

Some scenes remain etched in our memories – pivotal events that change our world forever.

Post-Cold War politics. Srebrenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina.

A visit to Montenegro’s Plantaže vineyard in September 2023 was one such moment.

Europe’s largest but least-known single vineyard has a wine-aging cellar hidden inside a former military cavern reminiscent of a James Bond film.

In Yugoslavia’s heyday, the cavern was part of the military airport used to house fighter aircraft. Planes could emerge from the hillside’s camouflage directly onto the runway.

In 1999, NATO’s bombing campaign, launched to stop Serbia from committing ethnic cleansing in neighbouring Kosovo, included strategic targets like Montenegro’s military airport, then under the control of the federal Yugoslav forces.

The story goes that a bomb was dropped down an air conditioning shaft into the cavern, destroying the planes inside.

After Montenegro gained independence in 2006, the military cavern was converted into the state wine cellar we see today. It has a large, table-top model of the surrounding terrain, evoking its military history, and an impressive, tunnel-shaped room where pilots gathered.

Now, the cellar hosts wine tastings and receptions, including NATO delegations.

Local wines and peach brandy are matured here, unique to the region with its combination of grapes, dry climate and fertile soil found only in that location.

On our visit, a random group of Brits, Americans and Israelis gathered to sample Montenegro’s finest wine and cheese. We were an incongruous lot.

An American couple who remained aloof, an Israeli family who engaged more in the experience, and my British sister and brother-in-law who enthusiastically embraced the tour and wine tasting.

As we did our best to sip generous glasses of wine served to us, I caught a glimpse of the Israeli family across the table from us.

The father’s smiling face could not conceal his amusement at the effect so much alcohol in such a short space of time had on my sister. We became increasingly animated and merry.

Why is that scene etched in my memory? Because we shared a moment when our paths crossed and our lives converged. I don’t know the fate of the Israeli family or the American tourists we met that day, but I do know that tragic events since then changed the world for us all.

On Saturday, 7 October, Hamas launched its murderous attack on Israel, killing 1239 citizens and taking hostage over 250 others, sparking furious retaliation from Israeli forces and a sustained bombing campaign on Gaza.

That same weekend, my brother-in-law was hospitalised with a heart attack, and my sister developed a sudden case of bacterial pneumonia. He, a cycling enthusiast, survived. She, a fit and otherwise healthy nurse, did not.

My sister was admitted to intensive care, put on a ventilator and given every treatment the NHS could provide. Sadly, after three weeks of round-the-clock care, she succumbed to the infection.

Those weeks coincided with Israel’s air and ground campaign in Gaza, which I followed during sleepless nights when I was not at my sister’s bedside. Our family’s pain at watching a loved one slip senselessly away came to a head just as the bombing reached a crescendo, the likes of which I had not seen since the United States invaded Iraq in 2003.

That night, as we mourned the loss of a wife, mother and sister, I also wept silent tears for the victims of the Israel-Hamas conflict whose lives had also been senselessly destroyed.

It was as though two worlds of pain and suffering had blurred into one.

But, in those moments of personal tragedy, I also witnessed the best of humanity – an international medical team doing everything possible to keep our loved one and hope alive.

As we watched intensive care monitors for signs of improvement, I thought of the hospitals in Gaza.

How could anyone contemplate withdrawing fuel and medicines so life support systems switch off and vulnerable patients, including premature babies, are left to die?

Not to mention attack hospitals, as well as patients and medical staff coming to the aid of the injured. It was and still is terrifying to contemplate and impossible to comprehend.

We encountered other families in the intensive care unit going through similar personal tragedies.

We didn’t know them, but we shared first names and stories. They included one of my sister’s own patients. We discovered our common humanity in those moments.

Like the families of Israeli hostages who ask that their pain is not avenged by inflicting pain on others. Or the parents of deceased Palestinian children who have called for peace, not retribution.

We didn’t suffer the same trauma they have, but the emotion of tragically losing a loved one is no less painful. Our shared humanity can bring us together in times of loss and conflict.

Sadly, we didn’t see much evidence of humanity in the first weeks and months of the Gaza war.

From the outset, the lack of humanitarian principles displayed by Western leaders was appalling. In the name of fighting terrorism, American, British and EU leaders rushed to support Israel’s right to defend itself.

This raised alarm bells for those familiar with Israel’s history in Gaza.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and her European Parliament counterpart, Roberta Metsola, stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

UK Premier Rishi Sunak crassly cheered, “We want you to win.” Labour leader Keir Starmer, a human rights lawyer, declared that Israel had the right to cut off food, energy and water to Gaza – in contravention of international humanitarian law.

Starmer walked it back some weeks later when public approbation became too hot to handle.

But US President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken shocked the most.

Despite devastating attacks on Palestinian civilians broadcast daily by the world’s media and the onset of famine, they stubbornly provided cover for Israel’s actions.

In so doing, the White House gave carte blanche to Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to kill an estimated 35,000 Palestinians, destroy over 70% of Gaza’s housing and leave over 75% of the population homeless.

Collective punishment doesn’t even begin to describe it.

Meanwhile, US AID head Samantha Power, a former journalist who covered war in Bosnia from a besieged Sarajevo, heralded aid deliveries.

Power released photos of her posing in front of a US plane full of relief supplies and then of meeting Netanyahu and his advisers to convince them to let more aid into Gaza.

Subsequently, Israeli troops fired into crowds around a food convoy, resulting in the deaths of over 100 Palestinian men and boys.

US aid was then air-dropped in crates – which in some cases killed people on the ground or landed in the sea.

The policy dissonance was off the charts. What can only be described as a bombs and bread strategy was clear for all to see, except apparently the Biden Administration.

It will be curious to read Power’s future memoir of Gaza, given her documented angst over being unable to prevent genocide in Srebrenica.

The Case for Genocide

Parallels between Gaza and Srebrenica loomed into view as claims of genocide grew louder and the number of casualties in Gaza reached equivalence.

In 1995, Dutch UN peacekeepers left the so-called safe haven of Srebrenica – delivering its defenceless population into the hands of Bosnian Serb forces.

The world watched on as men and boys were separated from women and girls. What was likely to happen was obvious, and the public cried out for political leaders to prevent it.

No one had the moral courage to hold Ratko Mladić and Radovan Karadić publicly and directly accountable for the civilians’ safety.

It was later discovered that more than 8000 Muslim men and boys separated from their families were systematically murdered in a mass killing operation.

It took several days for the Bosnian Serb forces to execute and dispose of their victims in mass graves. If world leaders had spoken out, they might have prevented genocide.

The Mothers of Srebrenica who lived to tell their sons’ and husbands’ stories continue to bear witness and call for justice. Many of the victims’ remains have yet to be found or identified.

Who will tell the stories of the mothers and children who have died in Gaza?

Perhaps if today’s governments had intervened when genocidal intent was already being expressed by members of the Israeli government and military, we could have avoided what looks like genocide in Gaza.

If Srebrenica is a guide, mass graves uncovered in the grounds of Gaza’s hospitals may take years to fully investigate, if ever.

Will we have forgotten about the atrocities by then? Hopefully not.

On the 25th anniversary of Serbia’s 1999 ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić was recently taken to task at the UN by the President of Kosovo, Vjosa Osmani.

Vučić was Information Minister in Slobodan Milosevic’s government at the time and still expresses his support for the former Serbian leader, indicted in 2001 for genocide and crimes against humanity in Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo.

Osmani asked Vučić to apologise to victims of war crimes who were present in her delegation. Instead, he cast doubt on their testimonies of rape and the killing of family members.

Meanwhile, almost 30 years on from Srebrenica, the UN General Assembly has just passed a resolution to declare an International Day of Remembrance of the 1995 Srebrenica Genocide.

Unsurprisingly, the leaders of Serbia and Bosnia’s Republika Srpska are objecting.

Whilst they are prepared to admit an atrocity was committed in Srebrenica, they refuse to recognise it as genocide, despite the rulings of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the International Court of Justice (ICJ). It reflects continuing genocide denial and historical revisionism in the region.

The purpose of the resolution is to ensure remembrance and education do not allow history to be rewritten.

Symbolically, the Srebrenica resolution was proposed by Germany and Rwanda (also commemorating 30 years since its own country’s genocide), co-sponsored by the United States, together with former Yugoslav states and other supporting UN members.

All the more surprising therefore that Germany has chosen to defend Israel at the  ICJ, currently considering charges of genocide in Gaza. I wonder if they (and the US) will be for or against a day of remembrance for Gaza thirty years from now.

Much depends on the final ruling in the case brought by South Africa to the ICJ, but also on the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague that is considering issuing arrest warrants for Premier Netanyahu and Israel’s Defence Minister, Yoav Gallant, as well as senior Hamas leaders.

At the very least, setting out charges of targeting civilians, using starvation as a weapon of war, destroying the means for life, and various other war crimes and crimes against humanity has put Israeli and Hamas leaders on notice that international law will be equally applied.

Regardless of the legal outcome, we can only hope that such a warning gives all parties pause for thought about their actions and what will follow.

Norway, Spain and Ireland moving to recognise Palestine as a state is a sign of things to come.

We need a ceasefire, now.

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Photograph courtesy of Julian Buijzen. Published under a Creative Commons license.