"It confirmed my belief that one of the most despicable things anyone can do is to try and foster division between communities for their own ends."
Cllr Sue Anderson
Three weeks ago I was standing in Heathrow airport waiting to meet the other participants on a trip to Bosnia as the guest of Remembering Srebrenica, the UK charity set up to ensure that the genocide inflicted on Bosnian Muslims during the civil war in the early 1990s, is not forgotten. As we were introduced to each other I realised that this was a very mixed group, local politicians, members of the police, someone from the British Army, council officers and a lecturer in Islamic Studies.
Two plane journeys later we arrived in Sarajevo on a lovely sunny afternoon. Once we had booked into the hotel we went to the centre of Sarajevo, which was really beautiful although scarred by bullet holes and other relics of the conflict, had a look round, a coffee and a discussion of the plans for the next couple of days, which was to spend the first day learning about Sarajevo and the background to the massacre at Srebrenica and on the second day to visit Srebrenica itself.
The next day we woke up to rain, got out our umbrellas and set off to find out more about the city, the infamous siege and life after the civil war. Our first port of call was the Tunnel of Hope which had been the only way of getting in and out of the city during the siege and was built below the airport, under the very noses of the UN forces stationed there. While we were there we met a survivor of the siege who described to us his experiences as a child, particularly sad was when he said that the two months he spent in hospital recovering from food poisoning were the happiest as there was warmth, light, food, water and other children to play with.
Walking around the streets we were struck by frequent bright red patterns on the ground, “Oh”, we were told, “These are the Sarajevo roses. Each marks where a shell fell during the siege”
Though part of the object of the day was to learn about the siege of Sarajevo we were also being prepared for our visit to Srebrenica the following day. We visited the International Commission for Missing Persons (ICMP) where we learnt about the DNA procedures which help identify the bodies. Mass graves or individual remains are still being identified twenty years after the war ended. As part of attempts to cover up the massacres mass graves were dug up and bodies hidden elsewhere. Because of the way this was done one person’s body parts may have been callously discarded over two, three, four or even five sites.
The following day on our way to Srebrenica we visited another ICMP building, where newly discovered bodies are taken and bones prepared for analysis. It was an eerie feeling to stand in the dimly lit mortuary and see large bar coded plastic bags on warehouse style racking, with the smell of a church crypt around you, and realise that these were all that was left of men who had been fathers, brothers, sons. I wondered what they had been like when they were alive, before civil war had engulfed them. Had they been funny, what music did they like, were they farmers, teachers, doting grandfathers? Who had they been before this unimaginable end?
One thing we do know is their families have never stopped missing them, one of the hardest jobs at ICMP is that of the case managers, whose job is to tell families when remains are identified. Some people are relieved that they finally know what happened and can grieve, others are angry, some refuse to believe it, choosing to hold on to hope of seeing their loved ones again despite the evidence. Sadly in many cases remains can’t be identified either because the whole family was slaughtered or those who survived have since passed away, never knowing for certain what became of their loved one.
There is an annual ceremony on 11th July at Potacari ceremony which survivors are invited to attend and where they can bury the remains of their loved ones with the other victims. Many take part although some prefer to bury the remains elsewhere.
Potocari cemetery is opposite the disused battery factory that served as a UN base during the war, and this was our next stop. Thousands of Bosnian Muslims fled to the base when the massacre in Srebrenica began, believing the promises of protection given by the UN. Some were turned away; others were temporarily given sanctuary there before being turned over to the Bosnian Serb Army. The women and children were spared; the men and teenage boys were taken away and massacred.
The battery factory is now a memorial and among heart rending videos of men and teenage boys being herded onto coaches, women pleading to have their sons stay with them, young men being shot, the one that sticks most in my mind is an older man calling his son and his friends down from the mountains, assuring them the Serbs weren’t going to hurt them. This was one of the saddest things I have ever seen. He called them in good faith, the Serbs thanked him very politely for his help, many of the young men came down, they were taken away and executed. I will never forget him calling “Nermen, come down, they are not going to hurt you”.
We also heard from two survivors. Hasan Hasanovic had been one of those who had fled from Srebrenica with his father and twin brother and joined a column of 15, 000 men making for the nearest safe area. They had hardly any water or weapons, no food, and were in constant fear of being attacked by the Bosnian Serb Army. Hasan described days of walking, hiding, running, ambushes by the army, death all around, until he himself was more dead than alive. Finally they reached the free territory of Zvornik where they were welcomed and sent on to the town of Tuzla. There they met the women and children from Srebrenica who had been sent there by the Bosnian Serbs. Hasan said “They began asking me about their loved ones, describing what their fathers, brothers, husbands were wearing and telling me their names, asking if I had seen them. I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t want to upset them but the truth was that they were probably all dead.”
The other survivor had only recently come back to Bosnia after living elsewhere as a protected witness. He had been taken to a stadium with many other men and boys and then a mass shooting began. He was shot seven times but survived. When the executioners left to collect their next victims he heard a man in front of him calling “Untie me”. At first he felt too near death to respond but eventually he dragged himself over to help this man and they were able to escape together before the executioners returned. After days and nights in the forests they came across people who helped them reach a safe area.
Taken all in all I was glad that I had taken part in this visit and would thank Remembering Srebrenica for giving me this opportunity. It confirmed my belief that one of the most despicable things anyone can do is to try and foster division between communities for their own ends. Even in states where people have got on perfectly well for centuries, these relationships can be undone quite easily if the will is there. I was very impressed by the willingness of the Bosnian people we met to share their experiences but concerned that some politicians in Bosnia are trying to deny what happened. I was extremely depressed to find that a student dormitory in the Serbian part of Bosnia, Republika Srpska, had been named after Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader during the conflict, the week before he was due to be sentenced on charges of genocide. So I will be remembering the events at Srebrenica on 11th July this year and every year, and encouraging others to do the same.
Radovan Karadzic was sentenced to 40 years imprisonment for genocide and other crimes the day after we returned from Bosnia.
Cllr Sue Anderson, Community, Culture & Resident Engagement Portfolio Holder, is one of three Labour councillors in Greenhill ward.