‘Peace isn’t just the absence of war’: Smajo Bešo OBE, Bosnian Genocide Educational Trust Founder and Chair
Content Warning: mention of war, rape, islamophobia
Smajo Bešo OBE, academic and the founder and chair of the Bosnian Genocide Education Trust was in Oxford on Holocaust Memorial Day to share his experiences of persecution in the Bosnian war and rebuilding as a refugee. Born in Bosnia a few years before the outbreak, his testimony reveals a sharp shift from the religious tolerance of his early childhood, to living in a warzone, facing starvation and seeing atrocities committed against family and friends. Smajo and his family were brought to the UK in 1994 and built a life in Newcastle, where he now works, as part of the ‘Bosnia Project’. He established the Trust in 2020, after 7 years of campaigning and educational work, with the aim of humanising history, giving a voice to those who lived through the genocide, and promoting awareness and peace.
We start by talking about Bosnia, and I ask Smajo about his experience growing up Bosnian and Muslim. He beginsby showing me an image of his beautiful home town, Stolac, in southern Bosnia, around two hours from the Croation city of Dubrovnic. He describes how Stolac “was always known as the ‘Bosnian Museum in the Open’ for having the highest concentration of cultural heritage in the region, and having this beautiful historic core. The town grew around the central mosque, you had the mosque, and then Ottoman architecture, and all these beautiful stone buildings. For a town that has a population of about 18,000, it has museums, archives, libraries – several famous poets came from here.” He explains that the town is predominantly Muslim but also religiously diverse and highly tolerant, gesturing to the minaret of the mosque as well as the Orthodox Christian Church. “The Catholic church was actually gifted to the Catholic Church by a Muslim family, about a hundred years ago, which is on the other side of town. Religions co-existed perfectly. In this region, there was a system called the ‘kum’ system. It’s kind of similar to the ‘godparent’ system we have here. It wasn’t individuals that were kums, it was families, so it was an informal system, but it had one very important informal rule; that your kum family had to be of a different religion, or a different faith. Our kums were Orthodox Christians. This dates back to my grandad and great-grandad. It’s not just that we in Bosnia recognise these differences, and it’s not that we said we are all the same. We weren’t the same. But we said ‘we recognise these differences and we value these differences’. These were the beautiful things that made us Bosnians.”
For Smajo growing up, the first signs of brewing anti-Muslim hate were confusing in a modern place with such a rich history of tolerance and resistance. He recalls, upon being pushed to the ground by a Serbian friend ranting about Muslims, “at the time thinking ‘what has this got to do with me?’ I don’t think I even realised I was Muslim, because religion was such a private thing for people in Bosnia.” Indeed, he emphasizes the tolerance surrounding him, where “people existed with no differences, especially for us kids – I didn’t know what someone ‘was’, I just knew that they celebrated Christmas in their house, and they came to our house when we celebrated Eid.” Bosnia, as a country, and particularly the region Smajo describes, additionally “has a very rich anti-fascist history, Bosnians were in the partisans, and partisans were the multi-ethnic anti-fascists that fought against the Nazis, so there are many anti-fascist monuments throughout this region.”
People existed with no differences, especially for us kids – I didn’t know what someone ‘was’, I just knew that they celebrated Christmas in their house, and they came to our house when we celebrated Eid
His pride in his country and cultural heritage obvious, I ask whether he has returned many times since leaving and whether he feels the country has changed. He tells me his family’s story – his father first came to the UK in January 1994 after being released from a Croatian concentration camp, on the condition that he could not return to Bosnia. Smajo and the rest of his family arrived in July of that year as part of the Bosnia Project, an initiative set up by the British government and various humanitarian agencies, and planned to stay for a short time before returning. In 1997, his father and sister were prevented from returning to their hometown, which was in controlled territory. Him, his mother and brother finally managed to get back, escorted by international peacekeepers, in 1998. On their first visit back, they found “our house was torched by our neighbours, literally everything that we had was taken from us, looted, destroyed. There was basically nowhere for us to return.” They returned to the UK, Smajo and his brother attending school and university, and struggled with six or three month visa extensions before eventually getting settled status to remain.
He still goes back to Bosnia regularly, but is aware of lingering divisions existing in the country; “I go back every single year, because Bosnia is a beautiful country, my friends love visiting with me. But sadly, Bosnia is a divided country. The Peace Agreement, it was forced onto the Bosnian Government, and the Bosnian Serbs that committed the genocide were rewarded with 49% of the country.” In this 49%, he says, you see the celebration of war criminals, as on the 9th of July every year many Serbs in that part celebrate the creation of that state, which is also the start of the Bosnian genocide; “That happened only a couple of weeks ago. Thousands of people are there.” Smajo is aware of the cutting contrast between two communities, one which actively celebrates committing atrocities against the other. “It’s wonderful having events and saying ‘never again’,” he says, “but actually what does that mean because literally two weeks ago someone was celebrating a genocide, murder, rape. In that 49% of the country, Muslims and Catholics and Jews and Roma were either systematically killed, executed, or if they stayed alive, they were put into concentration camps or expelled. 60,000 young girls and women were raped in Bosnia. Rape was used as a genocidal tool.”
Mostar, a neighbouring town, is similarly ‘beautiful but divided’. He says, “on one side, the predominantly Bozniak, predominantly Muslim side” – he clarifies, to avoid simplification, that Bosniaks are predominantly Muslim but not entirely – and “on the other side you’ve got the Croatian ultra-nationalist fascist party. There are street names named after Nazis from the second world war because Croatia was a puppet state for the Nazis and they occupied Bosnia in the second world war.” He feels concerned that such divisions are being continually entrenched, “In other parts of the country, there’s something called the ‘two schools under one roof’ system, where you have one school, on one side you have the Croat kids, and on the other side you have the Bosnian kids. And if they’re not mixing – what kind of future do they have if they’re not getting to know each other? In the 1990s, everyone knew each other, and awful things happened. Now, if people don’t know each other, imagine there was another war, what would actually happen? I think it would be a million times worse.” Though Smajo says a multi-ethnic character still persists in some areas, modern-day ties to fascism and nationalism are palpable, and the future uneasy because of it. “Just before I went home this summer, the Croatian president was in Mostar to celebrate the formation of the paramilitary units that committed these atrocities. This is an EU president! How is this allowed to happen? How does the EU, how does Europe, allow this to happen? If you celebrate war criminals, people that kill, rape, how can you have a better future? If Bosnians have done something, I’m the first one to call it out, we have to, because there shouldn’t be this hierarchy of suffering. But when you celebrate people that committed the most awful atrocities on European soil since the holocaust, what kind of future can you have?”
And if they’re not mixing – what kind of future do they have if they’re not getting to know each other? In the 1990s, everyone knew each other, and awful things happened. Now, if people don’t know each other, imagine there was another war, what would actually happen? I think it would be a million times worse.
Interested by what Smajo is saying about the entwining of past and present fascism, I ask if he notes many parallels between his testimony and that of the holocaust survivors he works with. He notes similarities in the process of dehumanisation, and says that in preventing genocide, we must pick up on dehumanising language and narratives. Whenever he is asked what we in the UK can do to safeguard against this, he tells people we have to realise that what happened in the forties in Europe, and the nineties in Bosnia, and currently in Ukraine, might also happen here. “It’s the same dehumanising language, narratives. When you dehumanise another human being, when you dehumanise someone to that extent, when you reduce them to a disease, vermin, an illness, what are you doing?…It’s these patterns, it’s not just in Bosnia, it’s happening now in various parts across the world, literally as we speak.” He shows me the example of Biljana Plavšić, the first president of Republika Srpska, who suggested it was “genetically deformed material that embraced Islam”. “Again,” Smajo stresses, “it’s reducing Muslims and people to disease, and illness, and it became completely normal to kill and rape, it’s the same pattern of dehumanisation. For me, that’s the danger when we see language being used – you’ll have seen how refugees are being described as ‘invaders’, for me, that’s a call to action, because if someone’s invading your home you want good people to stand up and defend themselves, so that’s the danger of that language.” Smajo notes that Nazism in Germany saw a similar process of gradual dehumanisation, which normalised atrocities against Jewish people. “Only a third of Germans supported the Nazis when they came to power…And somehow they accepted this ideology. In Bosnia, there were incidents where family killed family, I read a story about two boys being killed by their uncle. How does that happen? Again, the holocaust, Cambodia, all these other places where genocide has happened, it just shows that under the right circumstances we’re all persuadable.” That’s why, he says “the theme of ‘Ordinary People’ is incredible, because it was ordinary people that were being killed, it was ordinary people that were committing atrocities. They weren’t monsters, it’s so easy to describe these people as monsters – they became monsters, certainly – but they were just normal ordinary people. That’s the danger. It’s worrying seeing so many similarities now. We are going through such turmoil. When I walk through Mostar, you see Nazi flags, you see swastikas sprayed on places, you see murals of war criminals.”
I ask whether we over-historicize these things we are discussing, and should be more conscious of the current dangers of the language we use, for example when talking about refugees and immigration. Smajo says that though he doesn’t want to go into politics, “The politician who said we had ‘invaders off our southern coast’, I think she was in parliament this morning signing the Holocaust memorial, which she put in a tweet. I think sometimes that’s the danger of genocide commemoration, that it can become almost tokenistic. That’s why, for me, I always talk about how peace isn’t a given, it’s the actions taken to maintain it. That politician, she was called out by a Holocaust survivor, and she chose not to apologise. Sometimes we can be so insular and so inward-looking that we don’t see the dangers of language like that, we don’t see where that can lead to. There’s something called the ‘ten stages of genocide’, and I’m not saying we’re close to that at all in the UK, but we can’t be complacent and think it can’t lead to that. Because it happens overnight, it changes. I remember my dad saying 6 months before the war he was sitting in a cafe with these Catholic friends, Serbian friends, Croatian friends, Roma friends, Jewish friends, and they were saying there can’t be a war here, how can there be a war here? Who’s going to fight each other? If it can happen in Bosnia, it can happen anywhere.”
In terms of the narratives we have about refugees in the UK, he says, people need to understand and contextualise. The UK government was part of the sanctions placed on Bosnia which prevented Bosnians from defending themselves against Serbian and Croatian forces. Smajo notes the ridiculousness of people telling him to ‘go back to Bosnia’ in such a context, given that these sanctions made it impossible for people to defend themselves, their homes and livelihoods: “If it wasn’t for those sanctions maybe my dad could have defended himself and not gone into a prison camp, maybe my auntie wouldn’t have died, maybe she wouldn’t have suffered the last six, seven hours of her life because she could have had medicine, because they had nothing to give her.” He was brought to Britain as part of a UK government scheme, and says “The reason I didn’t go to the next safe country was because me – and my dad – were brought here as part of a UK government programme, I had no say in this. I think it helps for people to understand that context, but also to understand that behind the statistics, behind the documents, behind the ‘invaders’ there’s a human being, there’s a human experience. These are people, these are mothers, daughters, husbands, sons, and sometimes we’re so quick to forget that.”
Behind the statistics, behind the documents, behind the ‘invaders’ there’s a human being, there’s a human experience. These are people, these are mothers, daughters, husbands, sons, and sometimes we’re so quick to forget that
Smajo also stresses the need to separate politicians and campaigns from people and the public, who have often been very supportive. In the UK, “John Major and Douglas Hurd were against welcoming Bosnian refugees as a way of putting the Bosnian government under pressure but the UK public was always overwhelmingly in support of welcoming Bosnian refugees – all the polls that were done at the time, if you look, they were like 65%, 70%, 75% in support of welcoming Bosnian refugees – which I think is absolutely incredible and that’s how we were brought here.” Smajo, indeed, describes himself as feeling ““100% Geordie and 100% Bosnian. I genuinely feel that, because when you have the support that we had, it’s very difficult not to feel like you belong. It’s difficult then not to feel British, and that you belong here…We as the Bosnian community are proof of what can be achieved when we support people in the right way. When we humanise people.” He advises that we should not make generalisations about people, based on regimes, religion, ethnicity or otherwise. “I always try to separate the government from people, I always try to separate ISIS from Muslims, I always try to separate Croatian fascists and nationalists from Croatians, because there are a lot of incredible, amazing Croatian people, a lot of incredible, amazing Serb people. Not everyone is the same. That’s what I’ve learnt from my mam and my auntie, we can’t generalise, we can’t think everyone’s the same.” And it’s the “same as with these people coming here. It’s the same as everyone else, there’s going to be good people there, there’s going to be bad people there, there’s going to be people that are there for genuine reasons and I’m sure there’s people that take advantage but we can’t generalise and we can’t dehumanise people to that extent.”
As we near the end of our interview, I ask Smajo about his experience of giving his testimony – whether he often finds what he says is misconstrued, and how he wishes people would take what he has to say. In terms of misconstruing, he says that there have been times in which some people have struggled to reconcile themselves to the idea of Bosnian Muslims as ‘good guys’. He emphasizes that he does not want to generalise about religion – “I know what Christians believe in, I know what Christians stand for. I don’t blame all Serbs either, or Croatians for that matter, because I know we had incredible Serbian friends who risked their lives to bring us food and water.” – however where ‘religious extremism’ does appear in Bosnian war, it is not by Muslims. Some political leaders during this period, like Radovan Karadžić, who is currently serving his sentence in the UK for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, used the Bible to justify atrocities during this time. “He said the Serbs were ‘defending Christian Europe’, the Serbs have ‘God on their side’, and the war in Bosnia was ‘just and holy’.” Smajo says some people struggle not to see Muslims as perpetrators – I’ve had people struggle with just accepting that it was Muslims that were ‘good guys’, that they weren’t killing, the only mosques and synagogues and churches that survived were the ones of the Muslim side. The only side that didn’t have systematic strategies of eradicating people, cleansing territories, doing these awful things, was the Muslim side. And for some people they struggle with that.”
That’s what I’ve learnt from Bosnia, that peace isn’t just the absence of war, it’s actions taken to prevent it from happening in the first place.
The general experience of giving his testimony is, however, extremely positive. “I think people see the power of it. I don’t hate, I don’t generalise. I love being in the UK, the UK is my home, this is where my nieces and nephews were born, my brother’s wife is from here. The reason I do this – yes this is about what happened in Bosnia, but it’s also about using Bosnia to build peace here in the UK. What I would like people to realise is that peace isn’t just the absence of war, peace is maintained and created through strong actions. We can’t be complacent, thinking that what happened in Bosnia, what happened during the Holocaust can’t happen here. We need to be active. When I do my school talks asking ‘what is war?’, every child puts up their hand. When I ask ‘what is peace?’ sometimes we get a hand, or two, but not many people put their hand up. That’s what I’ve learnt from Bosnia, that peace isn’t just the absence of war, it’s actions taken to prevent it from happening in the first place. It’s about taking action. It’s one thing listening but do you then do with that. When you’ve heard these stories, what do you do with them?”