It was an unusual scene in front of Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate on July 11th 2010- a massive heap of shoes were piled tightly together with the letters “UN” perched on top.
16,744 shoes were collected, representing the 8,732 victims killed on July 11, 1995 in Srebrenica. This commemorative display in Berlin is just the beginning stage for the Pillar of Shame project, which aims to serve as a metaphor for the betrayal of the United Nations in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
It’s been almost two years since the display in Berlin and the project’s creator, German native Philipp Ruch fills us in on how the project has been doing so far, explains the importance of UN’s reputation and points out hidden decision makers of the genocide, which remain unknown to the mass public.
How are the plans coming along for displaying the Pillar of Shame in front of The Hague?
The current project status is: pending. We were overwhelmed by the reaction to our idea in Bosnia. But since, we are deeply seeking funds and crowdfunding to really build the Pillar of Shame. We postponed The Hague because of financial problems. Everybody acclaims the idea, but to realize it, we need more than enthusiasm.
How well do you think the Pillar of Shame was received in Berlin back in July 2010?
The world media was there. But you have to know, compared to our strong intervention back in 2009, where we enacted the decisive meeting of the generals of the United Nations, we learned a lot about media coverage. We released the 2009 intervention two days ago on DVD. It has grown and become a full movie (101 minutes) centering around the “Sky above Srebrenica”. We were delighted of the presence of live TV cameras from CNN, Al Jazeera, Euronews, Turkish TRT and others. But observers could judge in 2009, when we performed the much more ‘acribic’ and ‘in detail’ Srebrenica intervention, nobody wanted to cover the story of United Nations generals who decided upon the lives of more than 40.000 civilians.
Was there a specific reason as to why your team chose to display it in Berlin?
Yes, actually we really wondered if it was possible at all to cover Srebrenica in the heart of Europe. Because the Bosnian genocide is a very European theme, we were interested in raising awareness in Western Europe.
Have you received any opposition regarding the Pillar of Shame?
You bet. We had major difficulties with German politicians who thought they knew better than the survivors of a genocide what ought to be done – and what not. I am glad we were stronger than their judgments.
What was it that inspired you to create the Pillar of Shame?
I heard about the wish of the victims to create a Pillar of Shame. I began to wonder what it might look like in the 21st century. We are not in ancient Rome anymore. So what could we build with modern means besides a real “Pillar”? At first glance, I wanted to gather more than 250.000 shoes for all the victims of the whole Bosnian genocide. We wanted to build the UN memorial on one of the hills around Sarajevo. But people told me: “Nobody wants to look at a UN-sign permanently.” I completely agreed.
What do you have to say to the UN troops that were in Srebrenica in 1995 who failed to protect the civilians?
This is a very important aspect in the history of the genocide. And it seems to be untold. In our view, it is not about the Dutch UN troops in Potocari. It is about the decision-makers in the UN, that where hidden from the Bosnian civilians who attack the Dutch troops today. It is about one General in particular: Bernard Janvier. And he is from France. France is much more responsible for the decisions than the Netherlands that lead to what we call ‘Srebrenica’ today. This is the ‘hidden’ story, which “Sky above Srebrenica” tries to tell. We researched a lot of facts and edited the decision-level right next to the actual consequences ‘on the ground’.
Why do you think the West refused to help Bosnian victims during the war?
This is a question I am still trying to understand. I think decency will always hinder my understanding of this fundamental and horrific lack of protection. I hope I will never understand it. But I focus on one point in a scientific research project I am currently doing: it was not a problem of information – since the pictures, movies, books, reports, witness-accounts were all there. The new genocides since the 1990s are a problem of perception. We need a political epistemology on the perception of genocides. The pictures of a genocide were delivered on a daily basis to Western television. So if this is true, the question becomes: what did the West actually see in these pictures? The answer to this question may partially form the key to why nothing happened.
You said that the UN stands above the law and that it’s legally untouchable. So, why should the 6,000 survivors bother trying to sue the UN?
This is what the UN says and what lawyers and judges decide upon charges from the survivors. In my perspective, if you cannot catch a juristic person in international law, you should catch the only thing you can always attack: their ‘reputation’. In Germany, you would not believe of how highly people think and speak of the UN – as if it were a honorable political body. They obviously never had to deal with the DPKO. [Depart of Peacekeeping Operations]
What do you hope to achieve with this project?
We want to create pressure on the UN to become better. What we have seen since – let’s say the role of UN in Libya – seems very promising. They obviously thought: ‘Srebrenica is over’. They could not imagine someone coming back on the topic some fifteen years later and want to visually punish the ‘honour’ of the UN. Well, if we can contribute to a correction of the UN’s image, this would be a great achievement.
Photos from Stubsrama.com