Our Voices

At STTP event, genocide survivor Suljagić says the world must prevent a repeat of Srebrenica in Ukraine

Emir Suljagić was 17 years old when the Bosnian war erupted on April 6, 1992. The director of the Srebrenica Genocide Memorial Center shared his experiences on Tuesday Sept. 20 at the Speak Truth to Power Speaker’s Series, a live virtual event organized by Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights and moderated by George School student Sevde Güleryüz. As a teenager, Suljagić and his family witnessed Europe’s deadliest massacre since World War II in the small town of Srebrenica, where in July 1995, Bosnian Serb forces executed more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys in a cold-blooded act of genocide. “It looked like it was straight out of some post-apocalyptic movie,” he said at the event streamed Sept. 20 on social platforms.

At the end of the war, Suljagić had lost his father and uncle. “Essentially, more male members of my family have died and been killed or died than have survived,” he said. He denounced the combined physical annihilation of men and systematic rape of women, which he noted, were weaponized against the Bosnian Muslim population.

But despite the brutal killings of their men and boys, the women of Srebrenica took up the fight. In 2002, Mothers of Srebrenica, a women-led activist and lobbying group, was founded to demand justice for victims and survivors of the genocide. A journalist, Suljagić said he was very young in the early days of the group’s activism. He described them as non-educated and rural Muslim women who were relentless in the fight for justice even when no one gave them a chance. “If there is a group of women that embodies your motto about speaking truth to power, then it’s the Mothers (and daughters) of Srebrenica,” he said.

The question was raised, with Russian troops currently wreaking havoc in Ukraine, has the world learned any lessons from Srebrenica? Suljagić said he believes that the support Ukraine has received from the West is an indication that lessons were learned. However, since the invasion of Ukraine in February, Russian authorities have interrogated, detained, or deported more than 1.5 million Ukrainian citizens, including children, from their homes to Russia, according to a statement by U.S. Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken. In July alone, more than 1,800 children were transferred from Russian-controlled areas of Ukraine to Russia, Blinken noted in the statement.

While he admitted there hasn’t yet been evidence of a genocide in Ukraine, Suljagić condemned Russia’s attempt to erase the Ukrainian nation. “We are seeing some actions by the Russian military, we’re seeing measures taken with the intent to destroy any traces of Ukrainian identity,” he said. He noted that incidents of mass murders, mass graves and destruction of Ukrainian cities by Russia are similar to the markers of the Srebrenica genocide. He called on Western leaders to refrain from the notion that Russian President Vladimir Putin will work with them, stating that the existence of two warring parties does not mean that one of the factions does not have genocidal intent. “I believe that that lesson has also been learned, and that it’s been taken into account,” he said.

But the global challenge to human rights remains. Around the world, the resurgence and resurrection of authoritarian leaders like Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko and Putin, Suljagić said, constitute a threat to democracy and peace. “A threat to peace is a threat to us all,” he said. “Right now, you know, in Ukraine, we’re dealing with a government and a state that’s completely not accountable to anybody, and has a huge nuclear arsenal and that I find a horrific prospect.”