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Long-Distance Hatred: How the NZ Massacre Echoed Balkan War Crimes

It was no mere coincidence that the terrorist behind last week's attack on two mosques in New Zealand made explicit references to the Bosnian Serb leaders and the Bosnian War. by Hariz Halilovich 19 March 2019

Visual and spoken references to the Bosnian Serb leaders and the 1992-1995 Bosnian War, made by Australian-born Brenton Tarrant in the New Zealand mosque attacks, reveal a branching, international narrative of cultural and religious conflict. This is not limited to ideology, but also includes a shared methodology, in a clear effort to create a desired context for the murders.


The echoes are strengthened by the coincidental (or deliberate?) timing of the attacks in Christchurch, five days before former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic is due to hear the result of his appeal against his 2016 sentence by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY).


Evidence from Tarrant himself provides several references to Karadzic and Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic, in terms of shared ideology, methodology, and context.



First, there is a shared ideology of hatred, conflating mythological, historical, and contemporary events and characters. Even the title of Tarrant’s manifesto, “The Great Replacement,” recalls the terminology and policy of ethnic cleansing, coined and practiced by the Serb nationalists during the war in Bosnia.


The eastern Bosnian town of Srebrenica has become infamous as the location of the largest massacre and the first act of genocide in Europe since the Holocaust. On 11 July 1995, forces led by General Mladic attacked the UN Safe Area of Srebrenica and over the following five days, killed more than 8,000 people in summary executions.


The carefully planned Operation Krivaja ’95 required manpower, machinery, and logistics to both execute and hide the evidence of the crime – 8,372 bodies, in several unmarked mass graves spread across eastern Bosnia. Many of the victims are still missing.


Like the 1992 Six Strategic Serb Goals, outlining the ethnic cleansing and genocide in Bosnia, Tarrant also referred to “intimidating and physically removing the invaders.”


And just like Karadzic, Mladic, and their troops – portraying themselves as defenders of Christianity against the Turks, and receiving regular blessings from the Serb Orthodox Church – Tarrant stated on page nine of his manifesto that he “did contact the reborn Knights Templar for a blessing in support of the attack, which was given.”


A Turkish Obsession


Tarrant also expressed his hatred for Turks, the archetypal Muslim invaders, and promised to “destroy every mosque and minaret” – as Karadzic and Mladic’s troops did in the part of Bosnia they occupied during the 1992-95 war.


Tarrant’s obsession with Turks and the Ottoman Empire is revealed by the names he inscribed on the guns used in his terrorist acts – historical or mythical figures who fought against the Ottomans, whom Serb nationalists regard as role-model heroes and saints.


When taking over the UN Safe Area of Srebrenica in July 1995, Mladic was filmed in the deserted town square of Srebrenica issuing orders to advance on the UN base. Following a theatrical pause, he says to the camera that he is “presenting Srebrenica as a gift to the Serb people” and that what is to follow is “revenge upon the Turks.” This naming of his victims as “Turks” was a deliberate attempt at decontextualizing the crime he was about to commit, to move it back several centuries, to transfer in into the domain of mythical, medieval, irrational, even fictional.


Tarrant’s choice of music to accompany him on the killing spree was Remove Kebab, the wartime propaganda song dedicated to Karadzic, glorifying the war criminal and his Serb followers who would slaughter Muslims and Croats (balije and ustase). The song has since become a popular anti-Muslim anthem among white supremacists and associated groups and individuals across the world, all linked through social media.


The live streaming of the killings in New Zealand also very much resembles, in its cruelty and content, the executions of Muslim civilians seen in a notorious video by the Serb paramilitary unit Scorpions.


The Scorpions video, released by the ICTY in May 2005, was a video record of a war crime committed in July 1995, close-up footage of an execution of six civilians from Srebrenica. They were later identified – four teenagers as young as 16, and two men in their 20s. The faces of both the victims and the perpetrators could be clearly seen, as in a homemade video. In fact, for some 10 years, this was a home video, available for rental in the Serbian town of Sid, where the majority of the perpetrators settled after the war.


In addition to its forensic importance, that video represented what happened more generally at Srebrenica in July 1995: the planned, cold-blooded murder by Serbian forces of civilians, men and boys from Srebrenica.


The video also revealed the role of the church. It started with an official Serb Orthodox priest giving his blessing to the Scorpions unit and urging them to “defeat the Turkish vampires,” before they were sent off to commit the slaughter of civilians from Srebrenica. This blessing symbolically transformed the paramilitary soldiers into resurrected, medieval Christian warriors, fighting their enemies, the Turks, at the 1389 Kosovo battle – not war criminals killing unarmed civilians.


The Serb Orthodox Church blessed these and other killings of Muslims in Bosnia and later in Kosovo, and never expressed any remorse for what happened in its name and under its symbols.


The Scorpions video also showed the perpetrators playing the role assigned them by the symbolic narrative. While abusing the Muslim men before killing them, the Serb soldiers would yell at them in Arabic, “yalla, yalla,” as if in mockery of their Islamic faith.


In the New Zealand footage, the defenseless civilians were sprayed with bullets at close range, with no mercy, even for youngsters. As with the Scorpions’ executions, Mladic’s declaration of revenge on the Turks, and numerous other videos of Karadzic ordering attacks on the besieged city of Sarajevo, the Australian-born terrorist Tarrant wanted to leave a record of himself as a warrior and leader in the tradition of those who fought the Turks centuries ago.




The more recent contexts of these two atrocities – even over 20 years apart – are also similar.


Before 1992, Bosnia was the most culturally diverse country in the region. Being Bosnian meant not only respecting the spirit of inclusive multiculturalism, but in many ways also embodying a shared identity comprised of different religious and cultural traditions.


That identity was to be bloodily disentangled by Karadzic, Mladic, and their followers.


For people across the world, New Zealand appears to be a distant, multicultural haven. Unlike many other former British colonies, New Zealand’s indigenous Maori people and white settlers founded the modern New Zealand together, with a treaty between the British Crown and about 540 Maori chiefs, written in Maori and English, and the island nation went on to welcome many other people from across the world, including a diverse population of people of Islamic faith.


Like the Bosnians before 1992, they are all New Zealanders, and the country is widely regarded as having the most progressive social policies in the developed world, including those relating to acceptance and integration of migrants and refugees. This multicultural haven has been living proof that nations can successfully be culturally diverse, something neither Karadzic nor Tarrant could stomach.


Yet worldwide condemnation of the terrorist attack in New Zealand – and the fact that Karadzic and Mladic were jailed for their crimes – offer hope that cultural diversity, religious tolerance, and multiculturalism will prevail over the crusades of hatred, be they in Bosnia, Scandinavia, New Zealand, or anywhere else in the world.

Hariz Halilovich, Ph.D. is an Australian Research Council Future Fellow (research professor) at the Social and Global Studies Centre, RMIT University, Melbourne. His research has focused on place-based identity politics, politically motivated violence, forced migration, memory studies, and human rights. In addition to academic writing, he has also produced multimedia exhibitions, works of fiction and radio and TV programs.


Homepage image via CBS This Morning/Youtube. 

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