The sky was grey and overcast. Several hundred people had gathered close to the mosque in the old part of Vitez in central Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH). It was on this day, in 1993, that a unit of the Croatian Defence Forces (HVO) attacked the nearby village of Ahmići. Slowly, the crowd made its way up to the “martyrs’ graveyard” where the victims of Ahmići are buried. One hundred and sixteen people were killed in the attack, including 32 women and 11 children. Fourteen of the victims are still missing.
I made my first visit to Ahmići in 2008 and I have been back several time. This year, I went to attend the 30th anniversary commemorations in memory of the victims. I wanted to personally pay my respects to those whose lives were tragically cut short, but also to show solidarity with the families of the dead and missing, some of whom have supported my research by generously sharing with me their stories and experiences.
From the graveyard in old Vitez, the crowd weaved its way through the town’s streets and up towards Ahmići on a “journey of truth and memory”. In the words of Bob Stewart MP, the former commander of a United Nations peacekeeping force who witnessed the immediate aftermath of the massacre, “We must ensure that future generations do not lose the fact that man can be really inhuman to man”.
One of the iconic war images of Ahmići was of the lower mosque, shattered and destroyed, its minaret lying on its side. Now, as every year on 16 April, the area around the mosque was full of people, including Bosnian politicians, members of the Islamic Community, war veterans and Judge Graciela Gatti Santana, the President of the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals. She underlined that “although it is painful to acknowledge and confront the past, doing so is necessary in order to move forward and build a better future, together”.
One of the main challenges to moving forward – and doing so together – is the fact that significant denial still exists. Notwithstanding several important international convictions of former members of the HVO (including Tihomir Blaškić and Dario Kordić) for war crimes committed in Ahmići, many Bosnian Croats continue to adhere to their own version of events and to emphasise their own war victims. On the same day that Bosniaks gather in Ahmići, for example, Croats in the village of Trusina – in a different part of BiH – hold an annual memorial event to remember the 15 Croat civilians and seven members of the HVO who were killed by Bosniak forces.
It is difficult to imagine that fundamentally competing ethnic versions of “truth” about these war events will ever be reconciled, and court judgements can only have a limited impact in this regard. Can memorial events themselves, however, play a role in helping to build the “better future” to which Judge Gatti Santana referred? I increasingly reflected on this as I took part in commemorative events in Ahmići, Donja Večeriska and Vitez. At the final event, in memory of six Bosniaks killed by a truck bomb explosion on 18 April 1993, a man came up and hugged me. He was a survivor of the explosion and, with tears in his eyes, he thanked me for being there. I wondered how he might have felt if some local Croats had attended to pay their respects to the victims. Had they ever been invited? Could this be a step forward?
There is unexplored scope for diversifying these commemorative practices – and not just in central BiH – by making them more inclusive of people (and especially young people) from other ethnic groups. One way of doing this would be to give greater attention to what I have elsewhere referred to as meta normative truths. This concept is not about downplaying the critical importance of factual truths. It is about focusing – in the context of a society that remains polarised along ethnic lines – on what unites people rather than on what divides then. Surely few would disagree that, ultimately, the greatest way of honouring BiH’s war victims – on all sides – is to ensure that these heinous crimes are never repeated.
To find out more, visit The Association 16 April Ahmići’s facebook page -16 APRIL Ahmići | Vitez | Facebook