Seeking Justice in Bosnia

Professor David PettigrewDavid Pettigrew has been thinking about Bosnia for a long time. For the past several years, the professor of philosophy has been researching and writing about the genocide that took place during the Bosnian War in the 1990s, and he now focuses particularly on the widespread and systematic efforts to exclude Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) from their former homes. Through his writing, lectures and a film on which he collaborated with his son, Pettigrew has expressed his deep involvement in efforts to gain recognition of the atrocities that took place in Bosnia. This past summer, he attended a wreath-laying ceremony in a cemetery in the Bosnian town of Višegrad, a ceremony that held great significance for the town's refugees. His trip to Bosnia also involved research related to his book manuscript, "Witnessing Genocide in Bosnia: Pathways to Justice," and lectures for the students of the Srebrenica Summer University.

Pettigrew explains that in January 1992, Republika Srpska (RS) declared its existence, but the territory RS claimed was within the borders of Bosnia and Herzegovina and that in many areas Bosniaks comprised 80 to 100 percent of the population.  When Bosnia (including the territory of RS) was recognized as an independent nation in April 1992, Yugoslav and Bosnian Serb forces began trying to remove all Bosniaks from the territory of RS through murder, terror and forcible displacement.

Pettigrew became particularly interested in Višegrad because of the nature of the atrocities there and because the town continues to maintain a culture of denial regarding these atrocities. Notorious incidents known as the Bikavac and Pionirska Street tragedies involved the herding of villagers – mostly women and children – into two houses, where they were locked in and burned alive, the houses set on fire.

burned house and coffins, Bosnia

In May 2012, their remains exhumed, 66 victims of the Višegrad genocide were buried in the town's Muslim cemetery, and local activists erected a monument that refers to the "victims of the Višegrad genocide." Pettigrew says the RS authorities ruled that the monument could not include the term "genocide," and it seemed that the memorial would be destroyed. Activists asked Pettigrew to intervene, and he wrote a letter to the Office of the High Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina, identifying the decision to destroy the monument as discriminatory, as apartheid, and as part of a widespread effort to prevent those who were expelled from their homes in 1992 from returning.  His letter received extensive coverage in the Sarajevo press. The monument remained.

On July 16, he went to Višegrad with about 10 faculty from Sarajevo to lay a wreath at the monument. The wreath bore a ribbon with a message suggested by Pettigrew: "To the memory of the victims of the Višegrad genocide: May truth lead to justice." He says the message on the wreath was designed to resist genocide denial and to support the local activists and survivors. The event received extensive press coverage on Bosnian television and in print. A statement Pettigrew made for the press was posted on the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia website as well as on a Bosnian diaspora blog from Sweden.

Budak church, BosniaPettigrew says that symbols placed around Višegrad are meant to be psychologically intimidating, such as a statue put up to honor and celebrate the perpetrators of the genocide. Other powerful symbols include Serbian Orthodox "spite churches," built in the areas where the genocide took place (see photo at right). Pettigrew says the churches are "meant to be insulting or intimidating for the Muslims (Bosniaks) who try to return to their former homes." He gives as an example a church in Budak that he researched this year: it is being constructed in an exclusively Muslim village, next to a former mass grave, on the route of a death march, and is sited so that the steeple and its flag of RS can be seen from the cemetery where the victims of the genocide are buried.

Pettigrew is giving two presentations on his research this fall: one as part of the Yale Genocide Studies Seminar Series and another in Paris in November. He is also teaching a new course this semester on the Holocaust and Genocide Studies.

More information about Pettigrew's work can be found on his website.

Photo credits: Markéta Slavková (top of this page); Osman Sušić (SCSU home page); David Pettigrew (center and bottom of this page)