A funeral for 775 people

Ellen J. Kennedy
Ellen J. Kennedy is executive director of World Without Genocide, based at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul.
Photo Courtesy of Ellen J. Kennedy

Last summer I went to a funeral for 775 people. It was a horrifying experience. I watched a sea of green-draped coffins being carried through a crowd of 60,000 mourners and witnesses. This was the legacy of genocide in Srebrenica, Bosnia.

In July 1995, with Dutch U.N. peacekeepers in sight, more than 8,000 Bosnian men and boys were exterminated by Serb militias and ordinary civilians in a tragedy we now label "genocide," as the former Yugoslavia collapsed into violence.

This happened in Europe, the same Europe that vowed "never again" after the Holocaust, the same part of the world where, 50 years earlier, a Nazi puppet regime in Croatia had exterminated thousands and thousands of innocent Serbs, Jews, and Roma (gypsies).

For the past six years, similar funerals have been held in Srebrenica as the remains of those who perished are exhumed, examined and identified through painstaking DNA analysis of bone fragments and teeth. Several thousand of the dead have not yet been found or identified.

We know that genocides happen for many complicated reasons -- economic instability, political turmoil, autocratic governments, marginalization of groups based on race, religion, ethnicity or national origin. But genocides also happen for a simple reason -- we let them happen. We know bad things are occurring, but we turn a blind eye.

We stay bystanders for several reasons. We hope that someone else will act so that we can remain indifferent. We hope that someone else will know what to do because we don't. We hope that someone else will care so that we won't have to.

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Being a bystander is hard, though. It requires that we shut ourselves off from our brothers and sisters and that we bury any guilt or obligation or responsibility. After a while, we rationalize our stance out loud -- we're too busy, it's too complicated, it's not our problem, we have our own issues in our own back yard.

But the problem IS in our back yard. Dead people in Srebrenica -- how does that connect to life in Minnesota?

Human trafficking. Sales of body parts. Mail-order brides and sexual exploitation. Vast criminal networks selling drugs, guns and people, a culture of criminality and modern-day slavery in the aftermath of genocide and a failed state.

This is the legacy of genocide: the inability to rebuild civil society, the rule of law, and an economic infrastructure to promote and protect human rights.

Minnesota has the 13th highest proportion of human trafficking in the United States, and many of those who are trafficked for sex and for labor are from places that have experienced the cataclysms of genocide and mass conflict -- Cambodia, Kosovo, Bosnia, Somalia. When people are desperate, they can be manipulated into inhuman conditions.

Tragedies like genocides aren't natural disasters to be solved with humanitarian aid, with tarps and tents and food and water. Genocides and mass atrocities need reconstruction of social will and of the human spirit to bring rights and equality for everyone.

For people in Bosnia, the funerals in Srebrenica are a step toward accepting the past and creating a bridge to the future.

For people in Minnesota, the recent tragedies affecting immigrants affect us all. We can reach out with care and compassion to immigrant communities in our schools, neighborhoods and communities. Tragedies anywhere affect us all.

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Ellen J. Kennedy is executive director of World Without Genocide, based at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul.