Graffiti by Zenica fans says "Don't forget - Srebrenica" (Photo: Klix.ba).
Graffiti by Zenica fans says "Don't forget - Srebrenica" (Photo: Klix.ba).

Echoes of Genocide

Divided societies on and off the pitch

Three decades after the war, Bosnia and Herzegovina is still in a transitional and post-conflict society, whose political past is still a focus among the population. One of the topics that creates a division on the principle of “us” and “them” is the genocide in Srebrenica, which we can also observe on football fields throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Sports in Bosnia and Herzegovina, especially football, are connected with political and national issues. The political arrangement of the country as a Federation with representation of all nations puts political representatives, not sports results, in the foreground. The national symbols on the emblems of football clubs depict the division within the country very well. Sport is an important segment of modern society. The mobilization of the masses during national selection matches is an interesting phenomenon.

Stadiums as memory sites

What is the place, use and abuse of the genocide in Srebrenica in football stadiums in Bosnia and Herzegovina? How does football mirror society? Conflicts between fans within national groups are frequent, but  the rivalry between clubs of other nations seems synched with general nationalistic political ideas. This is also why the affirmation and negation of the genocide in Srebrenica, as well as the glorification of convicted war criminals, entered the national rivalries in football. Understanding that stadiums represent a place for expressing the opinions of the masses, it could be understood that stadiums and the behavioural culture within them have significant repercussions in society, especially among the youth. Behaviour from fans often expresses political views, highlighting the importance of analysing the Srebrenica genocide’s place on football fields.

Football in Srebrenica before the war (1992 – 1995)

With the end of the First World War and the establishment of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, sports life in Bosnia and Herzegovina intensified. The local population from the area of Srebrenica decided to form a football team, the goal of which was to bring together children and youth to play and learn. This is how this small town got its first football team in 1923, played for by local boys. Enthusiasm grew to such an extent that the Selmanagić and Vujadinović families donated their land for the construction of a football field in 1924. After the Second World War, the club changed its names on several occasions, which reflected the ideological character of that time, such as “Polet”, “Proleter” and “Rudar”. Finally, in 1973, the club was renamed “Guber”, by the spa located in this area. 

“Guber” played in the lower republic leagues. The greatest success was achieved in the 1989/1990 season after placing in the round of 16 finals of the Marshal Tito Cup, the largest football competition in Yugoslavia, which was a great success for a local team. Further progress of “Guber” and promotion to the republic rank was expected, but the progress of the club was interrupted by the beginning of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1992, when the club was disbanded.

When the pitch became a mass grave

With the fall of Srebrenica on July 11, 1995, soldiers of the Army of Republika Srpska began systematic mass torture and shooting of Bosniaks from eastern Bosnia. The soccer field in Nova Kasaba, a place of joy, laughter, soccer skills, dribbling and goals, became a place of death, pain, blood and tears. Criminals misused the football field and changed its purpose for killing, abusing and shipping Bosniaks to other locations where they were shot. The public learned about the crime in Nova Kasaba after the publication of satellite photos showing people on the soccer field. A few days later, an aerial photo captured an empty stadium with truck tracks and freshly dug dirt. The first journalist to visit this place was the American David Rohde. Walking around the football field, he discovered human bones. It turned out that these were the remains of the bodies of Bosniaks killed in July 1995, and that the football field was actually a mass grave.

Among the thousands of white niches within the Memorial Centre, there stands one cross. Rudolf Hren, a Bosnian Catholic murdered together with his Muslim friends in the Srebrenica genocide, rests there. Rudolf was a football player. He played for “Guber”, whilst also passing through the team’s youth selections. Those who knew him describe him as a very talented football player who loved football more than anything else. His sports career was tragically cut short. The remains of Rudolf Hren were found in a secondary mass grave in Kamenica, and were later buried in 2010 in the Srebrenica Memorial Center.

10 Years on, Serbia and Montenegro Vs Bosnia and Herzegovina

The establishment of peace in 1995 formally ended the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. However, tension and intolerance between nations continued to exist. The intolerance above was particularly expressed at sports events, where teams from both entities of Bosnia and Herzegovina competed. Many insults on religious and national grounds were also recorded at the matches of the national team, and Srebrenica was not spared from such insults either. As an example, we single out the football match between Serbia and Montenegro against Bosnia and Herzegovina, which took place on the tenth anniversary of the genocide in Srebrenica.

The qualification draw for the 2006 German World Cup presented this opportunity. Group 7 consisted of both Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia and Montenegro. Fueling a fire for political, religious, and social abuse. The match played in Belgrade at the “Marakana” stadium on October 12, 2005, will be remembered by the folklore of local fans, which aimed at insulting the victims of genocide. During the match, insulting chants of “Knife, wire, Srebrenica” (Nož, žica, Srebrenica) could be heard. A banner featured the same message but included images of scorpions. Scorpions being the symbol of the Scorpion (Шкорпиони) paramilitary unit, who participated in the mass killings of Bosniaks. Another provocative banner glorified the convicted war criminal General of the Army of Republika Srpska Ratko Mladić. On the banner was written, “Thank you Ratko” (Hvala Ratko)! The media from Bosnia and Herzegovina ironically commented that Mladić was also present at the stadium, even though at that moment, he was on the run from the International Court of Justice in The Hague.

Representations of Srebrenica within Bosnia and Herzegovina football stands

The Football Premier League of Bosnia and Herzegovina ends at the end of May or the beginning of June. However, there is not much rest for clubs and fans. Preparations for the new season are starting quickly, and there are also European matches of teams that have qualified for European club competitions through the league or cup. These matches are usually held on the days of commemoration of the genocide in Srebrenica, which pro-Bosnian fan teams (clubs from parts of the country with a Bosniak national majority) use to memorialize the genocide and honour the victims. The stands are full of messages in English such as “Don’t forget Srebrenica”, and “Never forget, never forgive”… Fan groups from Bosnia and Herzegovina, where Serbs are the majority, use these opportunities to provoke and deny the genocide in Srebrenica, which is dominated by the fans of “Borac” from Banja Luka, the popular “Lešinari”. Supporters use banners and chants to send messages and “communicate” with the public. This phenomenon in the past was a frequent occurrence. Examples of commemorative practices of the genocide of Srebrenica have been present since 2012.

Examples and their controversy

In July 2012, the Football Club “Sarajevo” played its qualifying matches against the Bulgarian club “Levski” from Sofia. “Levski” fans surprised the public by chanting the names of criminals Željko Ražnatović Arkan and Ratko Mladić. The same fan group also published a poster inviting fans to come and support their club in Sarajevo. The motif of a dead man’s head and the message “Knife, wire, Srebrenica” dominate the poster. UEFA did not react, antagonising the Bosnian public. It is important to note that UEFA fined clubs for banners that paid tribute to the Srebrenica victims because they considered it a political message. This fact angered the fans of “Željezničar” popular “The Maniacs”, who at the championship match raised a slogan with a message to UEFA: “Remembrance of genocide is a forbidden topic, and there is no punishment for glorifying war criminals. While others do whatever they want, the criminals from Nyon give us justice. Let the punishments become greater – The Maniacs will not forget Srebrenica” (Spomen na genocid zabranjena je tema, a za veličanje ratnih zločinaca kazne nema. Dok drugi rade sve što žele, kriminalci iz Nyon-a nama pravdu dijele. Neka kazne postanu veće – Manijaci Srebrenicu zaboraviti neće). The fans of “Željezničar” tried to draw attention to the problem of impunity for genocide denial. The slogan was accompanied by chants of “UEFA – Mafia”. Three years later, a similar scenario happened. In 2015, the football club “Sarajevo” played its qualifying matches against the Polish football club “Lech” from Poznań. At the match in Poland, it was recorded that local fans were chanting “Knife, wire, Srebrenica”. The said incident was again not considered or acted upon by the authorities of the umbrella house of European football. However, UEFA announced that the banner “Never forget Srebrenica genocide never forgive”, which was located on the north stand of the largest stadium in Bosnia and Herzegovina seven days before the incident in Poland, will be the subject of an investigation and that the Football Club “Sarajevo” could be fined because of that.

Contested Narratives of Nationalism and Srebrenica

An investigation into fan stands in Bosnia and Herzegovina speaks of the nationalist narratives that rule within one nation, the division of Bosnian society, national differences and a conflicted past. Fans from the region of the Republic of Srpska (RS) glorify the political leadership during the war and war criminals Ratko Mladić and Radovan Karadžić. Expressing their attitude towards the variousvictims of genocide by chanting “Knife, wire, Srebrenica”. The fans of the football club “Rudar” from Prijedor, also known as the “Alcohol boys”, are recognized as fans who deny genocide at matches and regularly chant the name Ratko Mladić. Due to the behaviour of its fans, the club regularly pays fines to the Football Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (NFSBiH). In 2015, several such incidents of this fan group were recorded, for which the Federation fined “Rudar” from Prijedor 7,000 KM alongside a two match stadium ban for fans. NFSBiH has distributed fines in response to such fan protests on several occasions.

On August 10, 2019, the home team “Radnik” and “Borac” from Banja Luka played a match of the Premier League of Bosnia and Herzegovina at the city stadium in Bijeljina. The match was briefly interrupted due to the chanting of Ratko Mladić by visiting fans. 

On February 29, 2020, a match was played at the city stadium in Banja Luka between the home team “Borac” and the visiting team “Sarajevo”. At the end of the match, when the away fans were leaving the stadium, the home fans chanted “Kill the Turk” and “Knife, wire, Srebrenica”. The team was fined 5,000 KM, and the northern stand was closed for two matches.

Such incidents are related to fans from Bosnia and Herzegovina, entities of the RS, and  are most common when visiting teams with a Bosniak majority. However, it is not uncommon to see such scenes when clubs from areas with a Serb majority play against each other. The most common reaction of the football Federation is a fine for the clubs whose fans caused the incident, which is reflected in financial expenses and one or two games without an audience. We can conclude that this solution did not produce the expected results. Nor did it help suppress the glorification of criminals or prevent insults towards genocide victims. The clubs are financially damaged, but the culprits of such events in the stands remain unpunished, which ultimately motivates them to repeat provocations.

Srebrenica on the wall – graffiti messages from fans

Graffiti represents the tip of the iceberg of social activities related to power relations and social struggles. Graffiti dedicated to the memorialization of the genocide in Srebrenica can be found in cities with a majority Bosniak population. These are works of art that, in communication with the environment and passers-by, tell us never to forget July 11 and Srebrenica. The messages are mostly written in English, painted in club colours with a drawn golden lily (the national symbol) or with the name of the fan group that is the author of the graffiti. However, it happened that some of the graffiti was vandalised . Serbian national symbols were drawn over key parts of the graffiti. The artists of the graffiti very quickly collected money and restored the work to its original design. This phenomenon in the previous period also had media attention, which certainly led to the popularization of the fan group in society. As there is a division between fan groups into “us” and “them”, there is also a territorial division into “our part” and “their part”. An example of territory marking is located above the transit of the “Grbavica” stadium. Near the graffiti is the border between the entities, and the road used by residents of both the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the BiH entity of the RS.

Thinking points

  • The Army of Republika Srpska used the football field for the execution of Bosniaks during the fall of Srebrenica. How did a playground become the site of a mass grave? If you were in a position to decide what you would do with that football field today, would it remain for the same purpose or something else?
  • Can you explain the relationship to the genocide in Srebrenica among different national groups in the Balkans? How do the examples from football help? What kind of traditions prevail?
  • UEFA has threatened clubs from Bosnia and Herzegovina with fines for fan banners about Srebrenica. What do you think about such policies? Can you find other similar examples on football fields in Europe? How has UEFA responded to other wars and conflicts?

Find out more

For those who are interested in the attitude of Bosnian and Serbian fans towards the genocide in Srebrenica and the convicted war crimes, a longer article is published by Institute for Research on Crimes Against Humanity and International Law, University of Sarajevo.

Croatian newsportal NET also published an item on the attitude of UEFA towards Bosnian fans’ banners about Srebrenica. 

Video of fans of the soccer club “Sarajevo” paying tribute to the victims of the genocide in Srebrenica can be accessed on Klix.

Information about the incident of fans from Republika Srpska chanting war criminals (in local languages) is available on the news portals Klix, Depo and Danas.

About the struggle to preserve the graffiti dedicated to the genocide in Srebrenica and to “mark” the territory, see the following links https://www.klix.ba/vijesti/bih/isaran-grafit-srebrenica-u-sarajevo-ispisana-cetiri-s/120711046  and https://www.klix.ba/vijesti/bih/manijaci-1987-ocistili-grafite-posvecene-srebrenici-i-uklonili-cetiri-s/120711122 . You can watch the short Al Jazeera Balkan documentary about the Guber Football Club. Also Associated Press has a short video item about this (without subtitles in local languages). N1 explains the background of the story as well. The club’s story has also been described by the Institute for War & Peace Reporting. This film was produced as part of the Ordinary Heroes project, funded by the Norwegian Embassy in Sarajevo.

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Graffiti by Zenica fans says "Don't forget - Srebrenica" (Photo: Klix.ba).
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