So how does a relatively peaceful country descend into an orgy of violence so quickly? To understand, we'll have to run through a couple of paragraphs of history:
Yugoslavia was a Communist country in Southeastern Europe until communism imploded in 1991. It was located in the Balkans, which is historically Europe's "bad neighborhood," filled with ethnic groups who've been killing each other since the days of Rome. The iron-fisted dictator who'd been keeping the peace in Yugoslavia died in 1980, and all of the different factions (Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks) started turning on each other. Lifelong neighbors were splitting along racial lines.
Free elections and relative safety should never end up being an "either/or" kind of thing.
Our source, Sudbin, lived in a city (Prijedor) that had a slim majority of Bosniak Muslims, like him. But the surrounding area was Serbian, and although his group was the majority, the Serbs were almost as numerous and tended to dominate the ranks of the police. The local government was overthrown in a, and within a matter of months, all the Muslims and Croats in the area -- including Sudbin and his family -- were rounded up and sent to death camps.
A similar story repeated all around Bosnia, with Serbs suddenly butchering everyone who wasn't Serbian. The two camps they established -- one at Prijedor and another in Srebrenica -- would go on to massacre well over 10,000 men, women, and children. The next time you start to feel too optimistic about the future of our species, remember this: Our fanciest continent couldn't even go 50 freaking years without death camps cropping up again.
Meaning there were Serbs who grew up during the Holocaust and still thought concentration camps would be a good idea.
But while most of the killing in the Holocaust was done byto strangers from different countries, the genocide in Bosnia was committed by the neighbors and co-workers of the victims. In Prijedor, the massacres were carried out at a mine where mere days before the killers and victims had worked alongside one another. "... Serbs, Bosniaks, Croats. They were workers for this company," says Sudbin. "And now you have a place where those living together were killed. You don't have to work together anymore, you have to kill each other ..."
It's weird how quickly it happened. The Nazi "Final Solution" wasn't the state policy for years; the organized plan for the Holocaust was only laid down, and until 1941, the vast majority of people murdered in their camps were , not Jews or other targeted groups. The Bosniak Serbs, on the other hand, started genociding within days of taking over. Sudbin pointed out a local church at one point during our interview ...
"... At the end of the 1980s, that church was renovated, and many Muslims donated money to help. A Muslim named Asaf Kapetanovic was sponsor number one. And as a thank you, he was beaten to death in Omarska camp." Did we mention that Sudbin was a teenager at the time?
Yeah, Sudbin was roughly equivalent to a high school senior when the shit hit the fan. Even kids who'd gone to school together their entire lives started splitting on racial lines. "I was in my second class in technical school, and they started to make maps -- something like 'This will belong to Muslims. This will belong to Serbs.' These are kids, teenagers."
And then, in April of 1992, Sudbin watched as his town's police couped the shit out of Prijedor's government, then started a new one with the express goal of seceding to a new Serbian state. "We stop to go to the school, and Prijedor was full of Serbian military."
School kind of changed at that point.
Sudbin remembers listening to the radio that day to see if his school had been canceled on account of coup. And if you're hoping for an emotionally satisfying story of how some idealistic teachers tried to teach the kids to trust one another and work together even while their country fractured around them, well ... this isn't that story. Sudbin recalls how his Serbian teachers suddenly showed up to school in "military uniform."
And the non-Serb teachers? They got straight-up fired. The Serbs seized power on April 29th, and Sudbin recalled how they "immediately" fired all non-Serbs from government jobs and made it illegal for them to own businesses. Almost every Muslim in the city found themselves unemployed. Within classes themselves, the racism of some Serb teachers ratcheted up to 11 immediately. Muslims like Sudbin suddenly found themselves singled out, even though they looked like everyone else.
This is Sudbin. Typical blonde Muslim, right?
"And in the last hour, a Serbian professor, at the end he closed the class book and said, 'OK guys, see you next year -- but only those who survive.'"
The genocide started in May.