Visiting the ghosts of Srebrenica

mitrovicav2When is a Serb a Serb and when is a Serb an Orthodox Christian? When is a Serb a practicing Orthodox Christian?

When is a Bosnian a Bosnian and when is a Bosnian a Bosnian Muslim? When is a Bosnian Muslim a practicing Bosnian Muslim or even an Islamist Bosnian Muslim?

These are the kinds of issues that journalists faced when covering the horrors of Bosnia-Herzegovina and, quite frankly, few reporters were up to the challenge. Los Angeles Times reporter Alissa J. Rubin — marking the 10-year anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre — ventured back into this journalistic minefield in a new report that bravely attempts to remind readers just how complex this region was and is.

As an Orthodox Christian, I can be accused of reading the story with an agenda. So be it. I am very aware that journalists during the fighting there had a tendency to say that all Serbians were Orthodox. Meanwhile, on the ground, leaders of the Serbian Orthdox Church were often attacked by the same Serbian government thugs loyal to Slobodan Milosevic — neo-Communist criminals who hated believers of all stripes — who proudly massacred Muslims and Catholics. Here is a Scripps Howard column I wrote back in 1999 trying to sort some of that out. It’s complex stuff.

And so is the territory that Rubin is trying to map. Clearly, this region is still haunted and almost all of the ghosts are religious, to one degree or another. The various religious groups live in a tense standoff, living their own lives in a divided land. The divisions are increasing with the passage of time, not healing.

Of course, “healing” is defined in this article as religious people compromising and erasing the lines between their faiths. “Progress” equals a loss of religious tradition. But this does not seem to be happening. Strong forms of faith tend to stay strong and gain strength.

Here is a sample, describing life among Bosnian Muslims:

Although Muslims, Serbs and Croats sometimes live side by side in the big cities or in neighboring hamlets in the countryside, they say they live in different worlds. The inter-ethnic and inter-religious marriages that were commonplace in the big cities before the war have almost entirely disappeared.

Muslims have developed “a consciousness of their identity as a nation and an awareness of their religion,” said liberal columnist Gojko Beric, a Bosnian Serb who lives in a mixed neighborhood of Sarajevo, the Muslim-majority capital. Before the war, most Bosnian Muslims, especially those in Sarajevo, rarely attended prayers except for the most holy days of the year and had friends from different groups. Few women wore head scarves.

Today, the Muslim call to prayer sounds from mosque loudspeakers five times a day — a reminder that the largest group in the country follows a different religion from that of the minority Serbs, who are Orthodox Christians, and Croats, who are Catholic.

Let me make one other comment. For Orthodox Christians, the bloody land of Kosovo has been described as the “Jerusalem of Serbia,” with 1,300 churches, monasteries and holy sites. Many of those are now in ruins, and the destruction goes on and on. There is no hint of that.

Again, I know that I am biased. I also know that Rubin could not deal with all of the wounds, all of the horrors. I also know — because I have tried to cover some of these stories — that the radical Muslims often burn the shrines of the believing Christians, just as the secular Serbs once massacred the families of Muslim believers. It is hard to keep the players straight in this kind of deadly game.

UPDATE: Well now. It appears that it is also possible to cover this story and pretty much ignore the religious complexity altogether. Check out this shallow New York Times report. Maybe the copy desk simply gutted the reporter’s work and this is what we were left with.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Will Linden

    What I want to know is why the MSM keep using “Serb” and “Serbian” interchangeably? And what is the difference between them and “ethnic Serbs”? Aren’t the “Muslims” just as much “ethnic Serbs” as anyone else?

  • Tom R

    Will, I suspect it’s similar to how the MSM talk about Iraq being divided between “Shi’ites, Sunni and Kurds”. To be precise, the Kurds are Sunni too. “Sunni” is shorthand for “Arabic Sunni”. It depends which of a person’s or group’s several identities — religious, ethnic, etc — determines their allegiance in some political battle.

    Eg, I bet when the media says “American Baptists” you think of Billy Graham, Jimmy Carter or Richard Land before you think of Jesse Jackson.

  • Will Linden

    Even though Carter does not belong to the American Baptist Convention, and I would guess that Jackson does not either.

  • Stephen A.

    I was, and remain, appalled at the one-sided, extremely biased coverage of Kosovo since 1999 and before.

    Prefacing this by saying that Serbs obviously and without question committed horrendous atrocities in the region, nonetheless, watching and reading the Western media, one would think that the Serbs were evil incarnate while the Muslim Kosovars were completely innocent of any crimes.

    In fact, the KLA is a rather unsavory terrorist outfit with ties to Bin Laden and years ago embarked on a campaign to cleanse Serbs – and their religious shrines – from Kosovo, and that continues under NATO supervision.

    It was amusing and maddening to see the US State Dept. spokesman in 1999 calling the leader of the KLA “my friend” every day when it was expedient to ignore the group’s drug smuggling and terrorist ties. I guess it’s still expedient.

    At the very least, there needs to be fuller reporting of the destruction of religious sites in Kosovo.

  • Terry Tee

    Hmm … the critique made by t.matt is that there is not enough context given in reports about Kosovo, Srebenica and other Balkan hot spots. But this complaint can be made about ANY article. For example, reading t.matt himself would you have guessed that 90% of the Kosovo population are ethnic Albanians, and only 10 % are Serbs? And that the Serbs fought hard to keep this province part of the rump Yugoslavia in the teeth of opposition from the vast majority? (None of this justifies the destruction that has taken place of churches and holy places, nor the harassment of the Serbian minority. These things are unjustifiable, period.)

    As for Serbs being Orthodox. Sorry, t.matt but large chunks of the Serbian Orthodox church was fully behind Karadzic’s fascist state. Remember those pictures of his parliament? Remember the clergy in full robes who were part of it? Mind you, the whole region marries religion and nationalism in a ghastly way. We also remember the Catholic Croats with pictures of Mary stuck on their rifles. The same people who shelled the medieval bridge in Mostar. (Recently rebuilt and re-opened.)

    By the way, t.matt, there was widespread resistance in Serbia to the truth about Srebenica’s massacres; people refused to believe the truth until recent showing on TV of a video clip showing row after row of men and boys being shot. Even now some still believe it was exaggerated.

    To me the real shameful story of Srebenica is the story of Europe’s failure. We stood by as genocide took place and wittered until the US stepped in with its big stick and restored order. Forty years after the send of World War II we were still waiting for the Americans to come and sort out our problems.

  • tmatt


    I wasn’t just talking about context. As someone who writes 666 words every week, I know all about the pains of close editing and formats.

    No, this had more to do with my ongoing obsessions about terminology and the struggles of journalists to be as accurate as possible in very view words.

    And on the Orthodox in Serbia: There were bishops who played it safe, as in all of the Communist lands. But when the time came to lead a opposition on the ground or to reach out with Jewish, Catholic and Muslim leaders the key players in the upper heirarchy stood their ground — and were clubbed for doing so.

    And the West left them standing in the snow, ignoring the multi-faith calls for cease fire.

  • C. Wingate

    “I am very aware that journalists during the fighting there had a tendency to say that all Serbians were Orthodox.” Weeeeellllll, OK, that leads up to the really difficult question: how do people identify themselves as “Serbians”? After all, the typical linguistic/nationality tests of Western Europe/North America/East Asia don’t work in this case; indeed, I think that’s a big part of the problem for American reporters in particular. And particularly where religion is a part of cultural identity, there’s the especial problem of “the church I don’t go to.” That’s a particular problem in this issue because while Patriarch Pavle certainly spoke out, it’s hard for me at least to discern that he was much heeded, even by churchgoers.

  • rob moll

    For great reading on the history of this region, see Rebecca West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. At 1,100 plus pages, there’s time to get into the religious complexities.

  • Tom R

    > “Even though Carter does not belong to the American Baptist Convention, and I would guess that Jackson does not either.”

    Well, Will, that’s true, but would a true Baptist ever say that someone else can’t be a true Baptist just because they don’t officially belong to a particular denomination?

  • Nathan

    Sorry, but the Serbian Orthodox Church came out against the war in Bosnia very early on and continually pronounced its opposition to the use of force up through the Kosovo conflict. Focusing on the Bosnian conflict, the Serbs were not the only ones committing atrocities. During my Army service in Bosnia, I met a Bosniac (Bosnian Muslim, as we called them) who had worked at a Croat-run POW camp. He described how he had to walk through a room littered with human ears in order to get to the commander’s office – the commander apparently had a penchant for ripping captives’ ears off with a pair of pliers. By the end of the war all sides had very, very bloody hands. As it stands now, you can notice a marked distinction between the Republika Srpska and the Bosnian Federation (Croat & Muslim territory) because the Federation has received copious amounts of international aid while the Serb areas are left to muddle through pretty much on their own. There was nothing good about that war while it happened, and since then, things really haven’t gotten better.

  • Mila

    Will Linden:

    The division of ethnic and religious groups here is very complicated, however – Croatians, Serbians, and Bosnians are distinct people.

    Slavs first came to this area in the 5th Century and settled in what is now Bosnia. They were soon followed by a second wave of Slavs who settled the whole region, including modern-day Croatia, Serbia, and Bosnia.

    Through the influences and remnants of the Roman and Byzantine Empires, almost all Slavs converted to Christianity. In Croatia, most converted to Roman Catholicism. In Serbia, most converted to Eastern Orthodoxy. In Bosnia, most converted to Roman Catholicism – however – Bosnia’s mountainous terrain and geographic isolation made it impossible for the church to be led from Rome, and eventually a distinct Bosnian Church developed.

    This Bosnian Church, whose followers are sometimes referred to as Bogumils, lived under constant attacks by Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christian forces. Records – from as far away as Rome and Istanbul/Constantinople – show their extermination was requested numerous times for religious leaders, as they were considered to be heretics.

    Despite this, a Bosnian culture and nation did thrive – as did the Croatian and Serbian cultures and nations. There were, of course, numerous wars. Bosnia’s King Tvrtko Kotromanic, a Bogumil who described himself as a Roman Catholic, even conquered Serbia and ruled it for decades.

    However, by the time the Ottomans arrived, Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians once again had the upper hand and Bosnians were suffering tremendously under their policies of conversion and extermination.

    This is why, most historians believe, that most members of the Bosnian Church converted almost immediately to Islam, even though the Ottoman Empire did not require it. Bosnians were among the most supportive subjects of the Ottoman Empire. For example, Bosnians who converted to Islam still insisted their sons, one from each family, was taken to Istanbul to be trained as a soldier for the Sultan’s armies. We were the only Muslims in the entire empire to request this.

    Those Bosnians who did not convert to Islam generally fled to neighbouring Croatia. They were gradually converted to a more pure form of Roman Catholicism and the only remant of their history today can be found in their family names – for example – ‘Bosniak’.

    Before the Ottoman Empire, a majority of Bosnians were fairly nomadic people. There were permanant villages and towns across the country, and several fortified cities, but the majority of the population farmed the countryside, moving from north to south with the seasons. Because of this, the Ottomans literally built Bosnia from the ground up. The cities they established or developed – like Sarajevo, Mostar, Tuzla – quickly outgrew existing cities like the old Bosnian capital, Jajce.

    Bosnia’s new cities and settlements were now nearly completely Ottoman in architecture and lifestyle, with strong, traditional Bosnian influences in city layout and residential home designs. This further removed the Bosnian culture from it’s Croatian and Serbian neighbours, who had always been more similar than they were different (and still are today, from the outside looking in).

    In fact, it wasn’t until the end of WWI – when Bosnia was incorporated into the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes – that Bosnians lost their individual identity. Until ‘Muslim’ was officially recognized as a nation by Tito, most Bosnians responded “nationality undeclared” on censuses taken.

    Originally Tito claimed, and educated the populace to believe, that Croats, Bosnians, and Serbs were all one people, exactly the same, with an identical history. As Croatia earned more rights – for example, to officially use the Croatian language – this gradually faded. However, Bosnians were still considered to be Croat Muslims, or Islamicized Serbs – depending on who was doing the thinking, and what his particular objectives were. For example, Serbian and Croatian nationalists both claimed Muslims belonged to the other ethnic group.

    Beginning the 1930s, Bosnian nationalism began to resurface. During the years following WWI, the Christian population of Bosnia had more than tripled. Bosnia always had Catholics in the southwest, and Orthodox Christians in the southeast, but never so many. Cities like Sarajevo and Mostar were almost completely Muslim for centuries. Because of this diversity, a new term was chosen to describe the Bosnian Muslim identity specifically – Bosniak. This was done so that ‘Bosnian’ could still be used to describe Bosnian Christians as well, most of whom had no historical connection to Croatia or Serbia and had far more in common with Bosnian Muslims than with Christians in either country.

    Bosniak, it turned out, was actually a very old term. It was first used by King Tvrtko Kotromanic in the 1300s to descibe the members of the Bosnian Church.

    This embolden Serbian and Croatian nationalists, who began to insist even more that Bosnian Muslims were simply converts from the other ethnic group.

    In the end, though, Bosnian history is clear. Just because we converted to Islam doesn’t mean we’re Turks, and we emmigrated here. We are Slavs. It also doesn’t mean we didn’t have a pre-Ottoman history of our own. We did.