Is it realistic to include a war that happened less than 20 years ago in a history curriculum? Are the Yugoslav Wars already a part of history or are their consequences still too present in today’s society for us to even start speaking about “history”? Both of these are important questions to ask, not only in Bosnia and Herzegovina but also in the Netherlands, considering the Dutch government and Dutch peacekeepers’ central role within the conflict.
As two Dutch students [the authors of this publication] born in the early 90s, we were never taught about the Yugoslav Wars in high school, let alone the fall of Srebrenica or the role of the Dutch peacekeepers in this travesty. Nor did our parents or society teach us about Yugoslav history. It was only at university that we learned about the war and its consequences. Even then, most of the information we received came only as a result of our own pro-active interest in the subject.
At present, however, the fall of Srebrenica is a widely discussed subject in the Dutch media. Most notably the trial of the Mothers of Srebrenica vs. the Netherlands, the acquittal of Lieutenant-Colonel Karremans, and the new information concerning the alleged blocking of air support in the final days. However, despite all this media attention, there are still teenagers who have no clue when it comes to the Yugoslav Wars.
To explore this issue further, we conducted a survey with 222 students aged 14-17 at a high school in the northern region of the Netherlands to find our exactly what young people do know about Srebrenica. We asked them three simple questions: “Where is Srebrenica?”; “What happened in Srebrenica?”; and “When did this event occur?”
Just less than half of the students surveyed knew where Srebrenica is located. A large number of those who did not know its location thought it was in Russia. Strikingly, only 26 students knew when the fall of Srebrenica occurred (which included students who answered that “it happened in the 90s”). Indeed, almost all of the students thought that these events occurred much earlier. An answer such as “at the start of the Second World War” was not uncommon, while some even answered “during the seventeenth or eighteenth century” or “100AD.”
When we asked exactly what had happened in Srebrenica, around 60 students provided an acceptable account of events (i.e. we accepted answers such as: “genocide”; “civil war”; “Muslims were murdered”; and “execution”). Interestingly, only 30 of these students mentioned the involvement of the Dutch UN-soldiers. For the most part, their involvement was also portrayed negatively. Striking answers included: “women and children were murdered, and men were put into work camps under the watchful eye of the Dutch soldiers”; “Dutch soldiers could not do anything, so now everybody hates them”; “there was a civil war where Dutch soldiers murdered innocent civilians”; “there was a war between Christians and Muslims, Dutch soldiers needed to supervise, but then they became scared and just went home”; and “war between Srebrenica and the Netherlands.”
We also briefly interviewed the students’ history teachers, finding that none of them were teaching their students about the fall of Srebrenica or the Yugoslav Wars. According to them, it’s not possible to historically analyze such recent events, citing a lack of available information and the influence of too many people still trying to impose a certain vision. For this reason they deemed it impossible to approach or teach the subject objectively.
Notably, the history teachers at the school thought it important for the subject to be discussed elsewhere in the curriculum. One example given was the subject of sociology. While neither the Yugoslav Wars nor the fall of Srebrenica are included as compulsory topics in the Netherlands’ sociology curriculum, teachers can include such topics within their teaching under the guise of discussing “world news”. The school’s sociology and religion teach also explained that, when Islam is discussed during religion class, the religious diversity of the former Yugoslavia is often highlighted. Concepts such as ethnicity and genocide are all touched on within these discussions.
For younger children, several sources of information are also freely available. One of them is a series of short online documentaries about Srebrenica. The first episode gives a short overview of what happened in Srebrenica (suitable for children aged 9-15). The second follows Dutchbat veteran Boudewijn Kok in his search to Samira, a girl who he saved during the Srebrenica massacre (suitable for children aged 9-12). There are also teaching materials available online that can be used with children up until the age of 15.
It is also possible for schools to invite Dutchbat personnel to give speeches to students about their time in Srebrenica. Dutchbat veteran Derk Zwaan spoke of his experiences:
“I have three types of presentations: a censored version, a version that tells a little bit more about what really happened, and, with the third version, I just tell them everything. But it is really heavy stuff. I took classes to learn how to teach because I believe it is very important that we talk to children and youth about what war really is. We are only taught about the Second World War, but the distance is so big. Srebrenica is very recent, and now a young man stands in front of the class and explains what war is, and how he was damaged because of it. War is fear and people killing each other for a piece of land, power or a flag.”
The next generation is responsible for the almost impossible task of preventing tragedies such as Srebrenica from ever happening again. Therefore, it is a shame that such a challenge is made all the more difficult by young people’s lack of knowledge about what happened in the former Yugoslavia during these dark years. As education plays a large role in conflict prevention, the Yugoslav wars will hopefully become part of history lessons in the near future. For now, we should put our hopes in people such as Derk Zwaan, who voluntarily educates youth about the horrors that took place in Srebrenica and the rest of the former Yugoslavia.