Safet Vukalić saw war break out in Bosnia in 1992, saw his father and brother hauled off to concentration camps, and saw people who rubbed along happily with one another turn on friends and neighbours overnight.
As a Bosnian Muslim, he was one of those they turned on, as Serbian nationalists stoked ethnic tensions in the remnants of former Yugoslavia, pitting Serbs, Croats, Muslims and Orthodox Christians against each other to deadly effect.
Speaking to Jewish News before the 25-year anniversary of the Srebrenica Massacre this Saturday, Vukalić says he sees similarities between the Holocaust and the genocide he witnessed first-hand, despite both being hugely different. Those similarities included camps, forced labour, propaganda, and visual mandatory markers of difference, he says.
“Just as Jews had to wear the yellow Star of David, non-Serbs in Bosnia had to wear white armbands and put a white flag on their homes, to identify them. I remember it. I couldn’t believe it. That was 31 May 1992. Listening to it on the radio, they were saying ‘for your own safety.’ Just like with Jews in the 1930s, they tried to sell it as something else. Obviously, we knew what it was.
“The two genocides were very different, but had connections. As with Germany, we had nationalists take power, talking about how ‘this race is better than that.’ It was sold that Serbs, Orthodox Christians, were better than anyone else, Muslims were not worth having around, and [Serb president Slobodan] Milošević had a solution.
“He tried to sell it to the West that he was going to solve the issue of Muslims in Europe. That was the politics of it. You can see the similarities if you look at what was happening before the Second World War broke out. Jews were not going to exist, and Muslims were not going to exist in Bosnia.”
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Today he is safe in London, where he lives with his wife and two girls, aged two and ten, and regularly shares his story with audiences arranged by the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust, telling future generations to learn from the past and be alert to signs of trouble.
Before the Bosnian War, Bosnians lived side-by-side with one another, but that soon changed once nationalists told Bosnian Serbs that they were in danger. Safet’s primary school teacher was among those to sign up, later running a large concentration camp.
“The propaganda was designed to frighten Serbs,” he recalls. “They said Muslim doctors were injecting Serbian women with something so they couldn’t have children, and that all Muslim families had lists of which Serbs to kill.”
“The neighbours, I believe, wouldn’t have done it, but once you create that environment… People who perhaps wanted to ‘pay back’ for something, they joined in, and once they did one thing, they did another. It is hard to commit your first crime, but after the second or third it gets easier. That’s what happened here.”
Some took a stand, he said, but not enough. “There wasn’t many. Some did it willingly, some reluctantly. One Serbian soldier saved my father from getting badly beaten, maybe even killed, but my neighbours all watched from their windows as my dad and brother got taken away. They didn’t get involved or try to stop it. A friend of mine was taken to a camp and found his teacher was one of the guards!
“People say to me, ‘I want to understand it.’ I say, ‘good luck, because I still don’t.’ It’s the same with antisemitism. Is there a reason to hate all Jewish people? Is there a reason to hate all Muslims?
“People can be scared into doing things they’d never normally do. In Bosnia, they used the suffering of the past, under the Ottomans, and started calling us Turks. Turks? Hang on, we’re Bosnians! Turkey is way over there! They said we wanted to get rid of Bosnia.”
Safet and his family survived, helped to leave by the Red Cross, and took refuge in the UK in 1993. Their Bosnian home was taken by a Bosnian Serb family, but after a decade of legal wrangling, they finally managed to prove that it was theirs.
Today, talking to schoolchildren “whose minds are not yet made up”, he tells how his friends suddenly “turned away” from him one day.
“Maybe they were scared, maybe they didn’t see what was going on,” he says. “I try to look for excuses. I don’t know. The point is, we need to learn about it, call it what it was – genocide – and know what to look out for again, because what’s going on today, I’m worried.”