Kobani, a Lesson of History Repeating

The tragedy of Srebrenica will forever haunt the history of the United Nations

~ Kofi Annan

October 10, 2014

Kobani is a small town on the border between northern Syria and southern Turkey. In 2004, according to the Syrian census, it had a population of 44,821. Now, Kobani’s population is unknown. It has been estimated that approximately 700 elderly citizens are still trapped inside the town while the Kurds take on ISIS and another 12,000 civilians have fled but have not made it across the border into Turkey.

Kobani is going to fall.

In 1992, during the Bosnian War, thousands of refugees fled outlying villages and towns in eastern Bosnia. They fled to a city called Srebrenica, on the border between eastern Bosnia and western Serbia. Srebrenica was declared a UN “safe zone.” The population of the small city swelled to 50,000 or more. In early July, 1995, while UN peacekeepers looked on, Srebrenica fell.

Beginning on July 11, 1995 and the days that ensued, over 8,000 Bosnian men and boys were systematically slaughtered by Bosnian-Serb forces. Not because they had done anything wrong, but simply because they were Muslim. Thousands of women and girls were loaded onto buses and sent to neighboring Tuzla. The roads were filled with landmines. Some never made it.

I knew a survivor of this massacre. He and his four other brothers (one an infant at the time) made it. Their father, grandfather and uncle did not. Their mother died shortly after seeking asylum for herself and her children in the United States. He was not any different than you or me, except he had lived through this. He was handsome, charming, charismatic; he liked to dance and go to the beach. He had a penchant for odd home remedies, including gurgling vodka for a sore throat. He loved his family, and they were all he had left. His prized possession was his second-hand Mercedes Benz, and he used to tell me his father once drove a Mercedes for Tito, the old Yugoslavian dictator. He cooked amazing food and for a time, he loved me, and I him. He was a hard worker who put in massive amounts of overtime, lived in a small apartment with his brother and didn’t own a bed frame, because he thought they were a waste of money. He appreciated American life, especially fashion, but he missed Bosnia. He identified as Muslim, but he didn’t believe in God, not anymore, not after Srebrenica.

Now UN staff members are calling on this history, the history of genocide, to urge us all that Kobani must not fall. We must not allow another Srebrenica.

Do you remember Srebrenica? We do. We never forgot and probably we never forgave ourselves.

~ UN Envoy Staffan de Mistura

When I was at school at UNC, I had a friend who was studying international law in the US for a semester. She was from Holland, and she was Muslim. She was older than me, and she kindly snuck me into a bar one night with some of her other international law friends. After we closed down the bar, dancing all night, one of her other friends, a second generation Arab immigrant to Holland, escorted me home. While he tried to woo me, I explained to him that I had a boyfriend. I loved him. He was from Srebrenica.

The wooing immediately stopped and the man’s eyes sharpened. The melancholy seemed to darken his already dark eyes and the frown lines cast a shadow over his olive complexion, “Tell him we are sorry. We are so sorry for standing by and doing nothing.”

I smiled and pet his hand and said thank you, I would tell him. I later found out from my friend that the man who had been trying to win me over was actually won over by me, “That girl has the most integrity of any American I met while I was here, and she’s only 20 years old.”

That stays with me. It meant a lot to me, and still does. What also stayed with me was the guilt that the Dutch still feel over the events of Srebrenica, an occurrence most Americans don’t even know about. It has stayed with the Dutch people. Neither they, nor the Bosnians, have forgotten.

If the same results in Kobani, I fear the Turkish will be imposing the same guilt on their future generations.

Because ISIS is as brutal, if not more brutal, than the Bosnian Serbs. They will not stop at simply winning the city. They will execute anyone there who remains, a punishment for their rebellion. Hundreds, if not thousands, will die, and Turkey, with its tanks and its army sitting on the border, will stand by like the UN peacekeepers in Srebrenica, bearing silent testimony to the atrocities that will likely follow.

Turkey believes that we should intervene; they say that they will not go it alone. They want us to target Al-Assad as well as ISIS, but we are leery of another war in the Middle East. We could not stand by and watch the Yazidis murdered, so we began to strike. We are trying not to stand by and watch the Kurds in Kobani be murdered, but who better to defend Kobani than the Turkish? It is, after all, their doorstep that ISIS is creeping up on. Fighting for Kobani would be a good political move as well, it would help to solidify the tense relationship between Turkey and its own Kurdish minority, who feels that they have been subjected to rampant discrimination and have protested Turkey’s reticence to act. The Turkish Kurds feel an ethnic alignment with their Syrian brethren and the failure of the Turkish government to act makes the Kurdish feel abused, unwanted, mistreated. They feel like Turkey wants ISIS to execute them.

It’s hard to blame them.

For the United States, it’s a precarious balance. We cannot be expected to be the world’s peacekeeper. Turkey is a NATO member as well. It’s not reasonable for Turkey to say to us, “Don’t worry, ISIS is knocking on OUR door, but you got this, right?” We should all be in this together, to prevent another massacre.

At the end of the day, people are people. And those people trapped in Kobani could have been you or me, or your grandfather/grandmother/mother/father/sister/brother if only they had been born in a different part of the world. If Turkey does not act, however, it cannot be said that the blood of the citizens of Kobani is on our hands.

Turkish soldier on top of a tank, with the Syrian town of Kobani in the background, stands guard near the Mursitpinar border crossing on the Turkish-Syrian border in the southeastern town of Suruc

A Turkish soldier sits on top of a tank, with the Syrian town of Kobani in the background (c) 2014 Reuters/Umit Bektas

 

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