Book List: The Bosnian Genocide

Note: This article and the books mentioned contain graphic references to acts of violence.

عَنْ ابْنِ عُمَرَ قَالَ قَالَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ إِنَّ الظُّلْمَ ظُلُمَاتٌ يَوْمَ الْقِيَامَةِ

Ibn Umar reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “Verily, oppression will be darkness on the Day of Resurrection.” [1]

Despite popular sloganeering of the phrase ‘Never Again’, genocide has not remained a distant relic. From the Rohingyas to the Uyghurs, injustice persists on a massive scale.

In 2021, survivors of the Bosnian Genocide continue to share their stories and seek justice. Only weeks ago, we witnessed the unsuccessful appeal attempt by Ratko Mladic for charges of genocide, torture and war crimes. Yet another mass grave was discovered with the remains of 3 victims who were killed almost three decades ago.

The killing of men, rape of women, and ethnic cleansing of a people — these are the details of genocide that have not made it into our history lessons, and many remain ignorant of them.

We remember the jihad of brave Muslims who resisted against the oppressors and pray that Allah accept their martyrdom. We also call upon Muslim academics, scholars and leaders to speak on the jihad in Bosnia, in order to preserve the memory of those brave souls.

Below is a list of books on Bosnian history and the genocide of the 1990s. These titles can help introduce English speakers to the Bosnian War and understand it from various angles.

Have a title you think we should read? Comment down below or let us know on Twitter.

Read our previous recommendations here

1. The Bridge Betrayed

By Michael Sells

The Bridge Betrayed is a foundational text in understanding the who, the what and the why of the Bosnian Genocide, from the Serbian ultranationalist revival to the failures of the United Nations. Michael Sells takes a multidimensional approach when summarising key events; he touches on the political, historical and religious background of the region to weave together a narrative of how politicians, intellectuals and even the clergy succeeded in promoting Serbian ultranationalist sentiments, which led to the brutalisation of Bosnians. As he documents the atrocities, he also unpacks the symbolism in art and culture, and provides excerpts from the media to highlight the international response and characterisation of the genocide in real time. The final few chapters are very critical of western policy, which he believes failed the Bosnian people and essentially dug their graves. 

The most appreciable aspect of Sells’ writing is his focus on religious mythology as one of the ideological motives behind the genocide, where the death of Christ is exploited to mythologise Serbian heroes, consequently labeling Muslims as ‘christ-killers’ who must atone for their sins. This is great read for those trying to understand the facts and figures, as well as the psychology of the perpetrators.

A related title on the mythologising of history is Heavenly Serbia: From Myth to Genocide by Branimir Anzulovic. He shows how historical events were weaponised and, when intertwined with religion, myth and folklore, used politically by nationalists to rally the support of the masses and carry out genocide. 

Length: 260 pages

Christoslavism – the premise that Slavs are by essence Christian and that conversion to another religion is a betrayal of the people or race – was critical to the genocidal ideology being developed in 1989. Christoslavism places Slavic Muslims and any Christian who would tolerate them in the position of the Judas figure of Kosovo, Vuk Brankovic. It sets the Slavic Muslims outside the boundaries of nation, race, and people. As portrayed in The Mountain Wreath, it demonstrates what can be done to those defined as nonpeople and what is, under certain circumstances, a religious duty and a sacred, cleansing act.

2. A Witness to Genocide

By Roy Gutman

Roy Gutman and Andree Kaiser were two of the first Western journalists to visit the death camps in Bosnia, and participated in blowing the whistle on the crimes against Bosnian Muslims. As the title suggests, this is a heavy read. It recounts the systematic violence designed to ethnically cleanse the Bosniaks, but also the pure depravation and savagery of acts that bore little impact with regards to strategy and were motivated by pure callousness. This book details a long list of war crimes, from physical and sexual torture to starvation and coldblooded killings. Having won the 1993 Pulitzer, this is an essential read if you are aware that were was a ‘war’ but are unfamiliar with the horrific details.

Length: 180 pages

We won’t waste our bullets on them. They have no roof. There is sun and rain, cold nights, and beatings two times a day. We give them no food and no water. They will starve like animals.

3.  ‘Islamophobia and The Bosnian War’ – Chapter 4 of Travelling Home: Essays on Islam in Europe

By Abdal Hakim Murad

Heavily referencing Sells, the fourth chapter of Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad’s latest book focuses on the religious dimension of the Bosnian genocide: firstly, that Bosnians were targeted purely for being Muslim, and secondly, that — from rape to murder — Serbians saw themselves as committing ‘religious’ acts. Interestingly, the ‘religious extremism’ angle that has taken over post-9/11 discourse is severely undermined in the context of Serbian aggression. He highlights the role of the clergy, who not only permitted these acts of violence but promoted them, preaching about the destruction of the Bosnians in churches.

Shaykh Abdal Hakim includes a thoughtful reminder, emphasizing that it is naïve to believe this anti-Muslim sentiment is a thing of the past. Rather, it is on the rise throughout both the orthodox world and secular societies in Europe. Undoubtedly, if one were to quietly observe Balkan politics, this sentiment is still very much alive in Serbian nationalist groups, and in a more general sense, the ‘Muslim threat’ is a core focus of several European governments. 

This chapter is based on a lecture previously delivered by the Shaykh. Here is a transcript which closely follows the published version. 

Length: 31 pages

Anti-Muslim prejudice was no doubt at work here: one may assume that had the Serbs and Catholics been Muslims, and their victims Christians, then the Western mind would immediately have characterised the war as a case of violent Muslims murdering secular, integrated, democratic Christians. Since in Bosnia the favoured stereotypes were almost perfectly reversed, the memory has largely been dismissed, censored and forgotten as an annoying and scarcely possible anomaly.

4.  The Last Refuge: A True Story of War, Survival and Life Under Siege in Srebrenica 

By Hasan Nuhanovic

Hasan Nuhanovic is a survivor of the Srebrenica massacre, and here he tells his story of survival. A difficult yet gripping read, the book depicts Hasan and his family as they flee the merciless Serbian violence, experience extreme hunger and starvation, and live in constant fear of death. Both tragic and humbling, it also reminds us of the bravery of the Bosnians, telling a story of courage in the face of unadulterated cruelty.

Hasan’s story is one of many, and his words remind us that this was a not too distant reality. His book contains the first hand accounts of survivors, many of whom are alive today. These are the voices that we must amplify if we really want ‘Never Again’ to carry its weight.

Length: 256 pages

We went to the mountains of eastern Bosnia to hide from the war. As if a forest could shield you from a war. The war flies, reaches you in a second. It runs through the walls, over the mountains and rivers. It enters your mind, your heart and your soul and refuses to leave . . .

5. Religion and Justice in the War over Bosnia 

Edited by G. Scott Davis

This collection of essays published by Routledge takes an academic and philosophical approach to the atrocities in Bosnia. The authors aim to critically analyse the ethical position of, not just those directly involved in the conflict, but external actors from the UN, international political figures and even journalists. In the context of Bosnia, the concept of justice is explored through the critique of modernity, the just-war tradition and self-determination. It carries a focus on the injustice of the UN arms embargo, challenging our perception of what counts as ‘violence’. The essays also reflect on the European capability of protecting religious minorities, and the attitudes of religious authorities in relation to the crimes committed against the Muslims. This thoughtful work provides a unique and informative perspective on the Bosnian war.

Length: 141 pages

The interrelations of political, economic and social change make it impossible to envision and plan for the future without some attempt to coordinate our political and social goals, and in lieu of a major cataclysm such coordination will have to be international as well as domestic. The ways that we do this will themselves require moral scrutiny, not simply from some ‘the bell tolls for thee’ solidarity, but because of our complicity in events and their aftermath.

5. Bosnia: A Short History

By Noel Malcolm

Writing in narrative fashion, Noel Malcolm provides a comprehensive history of Bosnia. A land rich in culture and tradition, it has been host to various empires, from the Romans to the Ottomans, and to multiple religions, from Islam and Judaism to Eastern Orthodoxy and Catholicism. The focus on the formation of Yugoslavia and World War II helps makes sense of the proceeding events of the 1990s. Malcolm pushes aside the reductionist ‘age old antagonisms’ argument and sets the record straight with regards to historical revisionism in light of contemporary politics. A very accessible piece of work, this is a great place to start when countering the collective amnesia and strategic rewriting of Bosnia’s complex history. This book is a useful resource for understanding various groups and their origins and influence in this land, from the Ottomans to the Communists.  

Length:  374 pages

Racial history is the bane of the Balkans. As anyone who has lived or travelled in that part of Europe will know, there is no such thing as a racially homogenous province there, let alone a racially homogenous state. Few individuals in the entire Balkan peninsula could honestly claim a racially pure ancestry for themselves. And yet, at many times during the last two centuries, bogus theories of racial-ethnic identity had dominated the national politics of the Balkan lands. One reason for studying the early history of the region is that it enables us to see that even if it were right to conduct modern politics in terms of ancient racial origins, it would simply not be possible.

6. The Death of Yugoslavia

By Allan Little & Laura Silber

The Death of Yugoslavia covers the fall of Yugoslavia and the accompanying wars that set the landscape of the region in the twentieth century. Whilst the writer provide the facts and their own analysis, they compound it with personal and intimate interviews with the actors involved in the War, from those who spearheaded the genocide — Slobodan Milošević and Radovan Karadžić — to the soul of the Bosnian resistance, Alija Izetbegović, allowing us to piece together facts and feelings. A comprehensive read, it focuses primarily on the history and politics that gave way to the Bosnian Genocide.

The book is accompanied by a 6-part BBC award winning series by the same name, which has been uploaded onto YouTube and DailyMotion. It contains distressing scenes.

Length: 400 pages

The international community took no action. There were no air-strikes. Less than a month later, an announcement was made that the three sides had agreed on the future borders of their ethnic statelets. In its final version reached on HMS Invincible, at sea in the Adriatic, the plan gave fifty-three percent of Bosnian (contiguous) territory to the Serbs, seventeen percent to the Croats, divided into two parts, and left the Muslims with the remaining 30 percent.

7. The Universal Enemy: Jihad, Empire, and the Challenge of Solidarity 

By Darryl Li

Darryl Li’s work is one of the first in English that affords the Bosnian War the nuance it deserves with regards to jihad. Where many have superimposed the overarching narrative of jihad dominating our contemporary discourse onto the Bosnian War, he takes an empathetic approach in understanding the intricacies. By working outside of the War on Terror framework and exploring the jihad in Bosnia in its own vernacular, he attempts to navigate it the way the Mujahideen sought it to be perceived. In doing so, he examines the relationship between jihad and US empire, whilst also shedding light on an undermined sincerity in their struggle for their own notion of universalism, which transcended nationalist and sectarian lines, and was unified through the conception of one ummah.

Rather than simplify a complex issue to neatly fit it into irresponsible binaries and pinpoint a singular motive, he complicates it further by affording the various actors their own personalities and stories, challenging the notion that the Muslims were a monolith. While Li predominantly focuses on ‘foreign fighters’, the Bosniak jihad was not imported to the region as many claim, as the natives were very much active participants utilising their own cultural and religious background in the struggle. The depth of research in this book is incredible, and most appreciable is that by navigating jihad in this manner, he does not succumb to the romanticisation of jihad and makes clear the numerous issues that were present within the cause, but also affords us the opportunity to see the nobility and honour in the jihad in Bosnia, of those who sacrificed their lives for their land, and of those who travelled far and wide to defend their fellow believers — a perspective that is deliberately misconstrued in the context of the War on Terror. 

Length: 384 pages

And if nationalism can realize the universal in any number of ways, it can also connect the particular to different kinds of universalism. In the case of Muslims in Bosnia, all of the things that made them deficient in terms of national categories — the overlap of apparently incongruous identities such as Muslimness and Europeanness — also multiplied potential points of connection with the outside world. They could speak in multiple universalist idioms: not simply Western versus Islamic, but within and across those categories as well. Bosnia, with the messiness of its categories and names, should be understood as an exemplar, and not an exception, of the ambiguities of nationalism and universalism.

In this brilliant conversation with CAGE UK, Darryl Li shares his research alongside Babar Ahmad and Moazzam Begg, who were witnesses and participants of the Bosniak jihad. The conversation is chaired by Asim Qureshi.

Follow Aaminah Y. on Instagram @yucireads for occasional thoughts on her current reads.

References:

[1] Hadith on Oppression: Injustice will be darkness on Judgment Day (abuaminaelias.com)

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