During the summer of 1995, like so many others, I watched the news with horror as reports emerged that more than eight thousand Bosnian Muslims had been slaughtered at Srebrenica. They were meant to be under the protection of United Nations peacekeepers, but were ultimately abandoned to torture, rape and execution on a scale that our continent had not seen since the Second World War.
The genocide in Bosnia scars the conscience of an entire generation which failed to keep the promise of ‘never again’. Yet almost twenty-five years later memories are starting to fade and many young adults were not even born when those harrowing pictures appeared of soldiers marching terrified civilians to their deaths right here in Europe.
Allowing ourselves to forget what happened not only dishonours those who died and whose lives were torn apart. It also reinforces the dangerous myth that such atrocities could not ever be repeated in our society today. That is why the charity Remembering Srebrenica is working to remind us that nowhere is invulnerable to prejudice and intolerance.
Their theme for this year’s Srebrenica Memorial Day was Bridging the Divide: Confronting Hate. They asked people to reflect upon how the path to Srebrenica was paved with dangerous rhetoric, sowing division and promoting distrust between communities. Because far being confined to the past, this kind of language is familiar in the UK today, from social media to misleading news stories and inflammatory political speeches.
Every time someone is ridiculed, stigmatised, or scapegoated for their nationality, race, or beliefs, it feeds into a culture of intolerance and hate. Fake news about migrants damaging the economy, malicious jokes about religious attire, or crass generalisations about whole groups of people based on the actions of a tiny minority, are all part of a growing problem and the consequences are already visible.
Across England and Wales the number of hate crimes recorded by police has more than doubled in the last five years, with significant increases following the Brexit referendum and terror attacks. Our Muslim communities have been particularly affected, with thousands of people suffering assaults, harassment and intimidation. Shockingly the number of Islamophobic incidents here appeared to grow following the New Zealand mosque attacks, with perpetrators seemingly empowered by the atrocity. Similarly the Jewish community is facing an alarming rise in antisemitism both here and in other parts of Europe.
Many refugees seeking sanctuary here have also been targeted, such as the Syrian pupil brutally attacked on his school playing field towards the end of last year. Filippo Granda, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees recently expressed that in more than three and a half decades of working in international politics he has “never seen such toxicity or such poisonous language in politics, media and social media” directed towards refugees. Rhetoric in the UK about ‘swarms’, ‘floods’, and ‘invasions’ has undoubtedly contributed to this dreaful atmosphere.
This is the responsibility of us all. Whenever our sisters and bothers are characterised as the ‘other’ we have a duty to defend their human dignity. That duty is the same whether we are faced with a politician condemning asylum seekers trying to build a better life in this country, or a friend ridiculing other people for their faith.
The message from Remembering Srebrenica is that it has never been so important for us to stand against hatred, while building bridges between communities that will help create a better society. This summer I encourage Catholics to take up that call and make two personal commitments: to learn more about what happened at Srebrenica so that it may never be forgotten and to actively confront intolerance so that it may never be repeated.
For more information see srebrenica.org.uk