Reflections on the nature of evil

 “The evil that men do lives after them the good is of interred wit their bones” –
William Shakespeare

Remembering Srebrenica, honouring the victims and survivors of the genocide.

 “My son’s name was Nermin and he was just one of over 8,000 men and boys who were massacred at Srebrenica. In the 22 years since he was murdered, all the authorities have been able to find of him are two of his bones, these bones were found in two separate mass graves, over 25 km apart.”

 A hushed audience listens to the testimony of Munira Subašić.[1] An indomitable woman driven by pain and desire for justice, she was one of several speakers marking Srebrenica Memorial Day on 11th July at London’s historic Guildhall.

Twenty-two years have passed since that shameful chapter in European history but Munira’s passion cuts through the decades like a blade. Everyone in the vast room is transported in time to the event of which Kofi Anan said, “Through error, misjudgement and an inability to recognise the scope of the evil confronting us, we failed to do our part to help save the people of Srebrenica from the Serb campaign of mass murder.”

In 1995 more than 8,000 Bosniaks – mainly Muslim men and boys – were massacred in the now infamous Balkan town. What is less well known is that as part of the same orchestrated genocide as many as 50,000 women in the region were raped or subjected to sexual violence.

As it had done after the Holocaust, the world hung its metaphorical head in shame and said ‘never again’.

Twenty years later, a mob of hate-crazed men stoned to death a 27-year-old woman in Kabul; a student with an impressive educational background in Sharia law. After refusing to purchase a taweez (a religious amulet with inscriptions from the Quran) from a male street vendor, she was accused of blasphemy. That lie provoked a storm of hatred that shocked the world. Farkhunda wasn’t just killed, she was obliterated; repeatedly stamped on, beaten, dragged through the streets and run over by a car. The clothes were torn from her body, which was hurled from a wall before being set alight. The video captured on camera phones is stomach churning.

Time, numbers and distance aside, the two events have something sinister in common. They were fuelled by such a chilling disregard for human life that descriptions of how they happened prompt disbelief.

Events in Srebrenica were being played out against the background of a conflict that featured nightly on national TV – the attack on Farkhunda Malekzada occurred in a public place and was witnessed by members of the public and police.

Reactions to this kind of violence are diverse: discomfort, shame, anger, pity – and in some cases denial. Farkhunda’s murder can perhaps be attributed to the ‘red mist’ that inspires mobs to act as a single beast, bereft of reason and intent on destruction. But the Srebrenica genocide was planned, calculated and deliberate. Both events were driven by a malevolence so strong that only annihilation would satisfy its perpetrators.

In the Middle Ages evil could be displaced. It was an entity. It had a face. Today religion, superstition and belief in the supernatural have been replaced by a conviction that we are not puppets of higher powers, but individuals with free will, in control of our own destinies.

The downside of this is that mankind then has to ‘own’ evil and take collective responsibility for its exercise. We become guilty by omission, inertia and inactivity.

Munira Subašić, President of the Mothers of Srebrenica, says: “Justice is not a privilege, it is a human right, and the 8,372 people who died at Srebrenica were human beings. Every year in July, people across the world remember them and they remember our loss, and we are truly grateful for that. But what I want to make clear is that for us, telling our stories and fighting for justice doesn’t end after July commemorations, this is the fight of our lives, and we will never stop fighting. As we women grow older, we feel the weight of responsibility on our shoulders to ensure that our stories, and the stories of our loved ones are heard and remembered, and that when we are gone, others will continue to fight for justice.”

‘Justice’ is a word used often by the rape victims of Srebrenica. “We don’t want vengeance,” they say, “we want justice.”

Some would argue that there is a fine line between the two but it’s a noble sentiment. The men who violated Bakira Hasečić and her daughter still walk freely but she meets their eyes with defiance these days. “When us survivors first started returning to Višegrad, we felt that we had to hide from these war criminals who had tried to destroy our lives, but now when I go to Višegrad, these war criminals hide from me. Now when I return to my Višegrad, I hold my head high, and I hope that one day all survivors will find their strength to do the same.”

The men who murdered and abused Farkhunda for having the temerity to express an opinion about Islam, their shared faith, melted into the crowds after their frenzied orgy of destruction. Most of those who were arrested were later released. Her family’s pain is enduring; still gripped by grief they are paralysed by fear of reprisals if they protest.

It’s hard to imagine how anything good can come of such evil deeds, but one London-based Afghan woman and her friends are ensuring that it does. Rahela Siddiqi still recalls the day she heard what had happened to Farkhunda and the physical impact it had. “I felt evil like a bang that hit me, like my body was burning!”

She and her 11-year-old daughter Rasheel Barikzai were preparing for Nowruz, the period of preparation for Afghan New Year and traditionally a time of happiness. They were stunned. “We just asked ‘Why? Why? Why?’; I felt every stone as though it were dropped on my own head and body.”

Initially paralysed with horror they vowed to turn the senseless murder of a brave young woman into something positive and, with help from like-minded supporters, set up The Farkhunda Trust for Afghan women’s education.

Rahela says, “I did it because in my heart I wanted to keep Farkhunda alive in name and aim. I thought she should be remembered by generations as symbol of bravery and a defender of women’s rights in the worst possible environment for women. I wanted the world to be aware of this horror, of the devastating actions of this mob.”

Like Munira Subašić and Bakira Hasečić, Rahela and her friends determined to use their strength as women to do two things: to ensure that a great evil was never forgotten and to make something positive came from it.

Munira Subašić speaking at a “Remembering Srebrenica” event at the Guildhall this July. 

Munira said to her captive audience at the Guildhall, “I did not come here today just to speak about what happened at Srebrenica, I came here today because I want to make a call to action. To everyone who sees our injustice and feels our pain, I hope you will join us in fighting for truth, justice and a better future.”

A ‘better future’ for an Afghan girl denied access to education is something Rahela is already delivering. The sum of £1,530 (including feed of £700) buys one year’s university education, and with education comes power.

“I felt that preventing violence against women should become our top responsibility” said Rahela. “I hoped that through our joint efforts we could make a difference; we could increase the number of brave women like Farkhunda and ensure that such evil acts would not be allowed again.”

Its seems that throughout history events occur that make us examine our collective humanity and shiver with shame at their enormity. Does evil exist? Rahela thinks so. “I think evil is everywhere where there are people of malevolent and immoral nature, harming God’s creatures and humanity in particular. Good human beings have a duty to stay their hands.”