This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Srebrenica Genocide, recognized as such by the ICC and UN. Over a period of 10 days in July 1995, Bosnian Serbs slaughtered approximately 8,000 Bosnian Muslims because of their religion.
There are a few words in the above two-sentences that put distance between those who experienced that massacre, and those reading about it today:
25 years may seem like a long time ago. In fact, many reading this may not have been born in 1995.
Srebrenica is a strange name in a foreign country, Bosnia and Herzegovina, also difficult to pronounce, which most people, I imagine, would have a hard time finding on a map.
To some, it may be incomprehensible to fathom the murder of 8,000 people in a period of just 10 days. To some, that is how long you may be forced to wait for an Amazon order to arrive, or for your next pay cheque to appear in your bank account. To consider 8,000 souls being cut down in such a short period of time deliberately - in houses and fields, by guns and artillery - may just be impossible to imagine to those who have never known bloodshed.
Most will not understand the nuance of an ethnic conflict or be able to grasp the history of why Bosnian Serbs disliked their Muslim neighbours, how they gained the upper hand, and what drove them to kill with such speed, precision, and drive. I certainly don’t, and even with a lifetime of learning, I will likely never understand how people could be driven to commit such crimes.
Others may wonder why someone else’s personal religious beliefs mean they should die.
With all that, though the two sentences at the start of this article may be difficult for some to understand, and hard for some to identify with, it is nevertheless important that we try.
25 years was not that long ago. Many people have scarves in their closet that are older.
Srebrenica is not that far away. It is a European town that you can reach in a few hours’ flight from anywhere in North America.
Similarly, and indeed tragically, it is today not unfathomable to wrap one’s head around the death of many thousands of people in a short period of time. The 20th and 21st centuries have been marked with unspeakable tragedies, some better known than others.
And finally, though an ethnic conflict in Europe may be difficult to wrap one’s head around, today we are regularly being called on to speak up for those who may be murdered because of the colour of their skin, the way they pray to their God, or who they decide to love.
Why not broaden our horizons and seek to understand and empathize with not only those with painful presents, but with painful pasts?
Today, we mark the anniversary of a tragic massacre that impacted the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. You may not have heard about it before, and you may not know anyone directly impacted, and that is OK.
However, we are blessed to live in a world today with direct access to both people and information. In a moment, a Google Maps search can help erase the distance between you and Srebrenica. A Facebook search can put you in touch with a survivor, and with a little effort, we can learn something new that we did not know before.
Everyone in the world faces their own struggles. Empathy however is the art of putting oneself in another’s shoes. On this anniversary, commemorating a tragic massacre, learning a little about something unfamiliar helps enhance one’s own empathy towards others, and goes a small way in ensuring that such tragedy never happens again.
Adam Hummel is a member of the flagship program of the World Jewish Congress, the WJC Jewish Diplomatic Corps, a worldwide network of 300 Jewish young professionals acting in the fields of diplomacy and public policy.