What can the war in Bosnia teach us about the current migrant crisis?

By Lara Ferruzzi

On the 6th of August 1992, the concentration camps of Trnopolje and Omarska in northwestern Bosnia were made known to the world. It is estimated that around 30,000 people passed through the Trnopolje camp and around 800 people lost their lives in the two camps. What makes these numbers even more shocking is that if today you were passing near these places without knowing what they were, you would never guess that these were places of torture and death. Both Omarska (which was a mine before the war and still is today) and Trnopolje (which consists of a former cultural center and a school that is still used today) lack any form of memorial or commemorative plaque telling about the atrocities that happened there. That’s why every year on the 5th of August (the day foreign journalists first were in Trnopolje and Omarska in 1992) local association KVART symbolically occupies Trnopolje holding panels, debates, showing pictures, and sharing testimonies.

This year I had the honor to attend this event together with the Project on Peacebuilding. What I found profoundly revealing is that the organizers chose to open the event with a panel about migrants, focusing not only on the experience of Trnopolje’s survivors but also inviting three Afghan brothers that fled war in their country – eventually arriving in Sarajevo – to share their experience. I think this shows great empathy: as people who have suffered war, torture, deaths of dear ones, and displacement from their home country, Bosnians understand what people who flee their country today are going through. However, this also shows a great amount of awareness about the everyday conditions migrants are currently facing, which are getting worse and worse. The organizers mainly focused on the conditions of refugees who are currently living in camps in the towns of Velika Kladusa and Bihac, located near the Bosnian-Croatian border.

A comparison between pictures taken in the camps of Velika Kladusa in 2018 and Trnopolje in 1992

As I watched the panel, I really understood that no one ever wants to leave their home. Bosnian people were forced to leave in order to survive and many of them still today, more than 20 years after the war, still talk about themselves as migrants or refugees. And this is also what is happening today. People—like the Afghan refugees—are leaving their homes trying to find peace and a normal life. They are not trying to steal our jobs or invade us as many politicians would like us to think.

But I also saw this parallel between the Bosnian war refugees and refugees today as a warning, a wish to make people understand that the horrors that happened in Bosnia during the war don’t have to be repeated. People detained in Omarska and Trnopolje were considered “illegal” by their guards and by the politicians who started the ethnic cleansing process. Migrants trying to escape their countries today to find a normal life are considered “illegal” by current politicians. But how can a human being be “illegal”? I think considering another human being “illegal” is just the first step of the “creation of the other.” We try to exacerbate what divides us, rather than thinking about what we have in common. Once we start to consider human beings who are like us as the “others,” it becomes easy to forget they actually are human beings. This process of dehumanization is at the roots of what happened in Omarska and Trnopolje.

If we are not alert and careful, atrocities like the ones that happened during the war in Bosnia could happen again. Maybe to some extent they are already happening, thanks to our compliance and to the poisonous xenophobic rhetoric of many politicians worldwide. So next time you hear someone on tv say that a human being is “illegal” just because they entered a foreign countries without papers, stop for a minute and think about what happened in Bosnia during the nineties, think about all of those who died just because someone decided to label them as the “others” and ask yourself “Do I want this to happen again?”.

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