GREC supported a partnership event to mark White Armband Day on May 31st. Below is a written version of a speech given at the event, by Alison Evison, a member of Remembering Srebrenica Scotland.
In 2018 I was part of a delegation to Bosnia organised by Remembering Srebrenica Scotland.
We noted with respect the neat rows and rows of white gravestones in the Srebrenica Potocari Memorial Cemetery, set up to honour the many people who had died near to this place in a very short a time.
8,372 people – mainly male and mostly Muslim.
And we heard the constant fear there was that these stones would themselves be broken down by people who denied what had happened in that place.
We visited the International Commission of Missing Persons and learned of the painstaking forensic work to try to find the identity of much loved and missed family members, despite the systematic efforts by some people to prevent the location of bodies.
We saw clearly that genocide had taken place.
We recognised that not everyone was prepared to acknowledge that.
Our duty and our commitment was to share our learning from this visit, in order to raise awareness of that genocide which had taken place in Bosnia in 1995.
And to show that the atrocities then were committed against ordinary people, people who had simply been living their lives.
One memory that stays with me is one of the centre of Sarajevo, where for generations a Synagogue, Church and Mosque had stood virtually next to each other, with people coming and going freely and peacefully, living their lives according to their religion, but together. Children from across the religions had called for each other to walk to school, sharing play time and learning.
Something had happened very suddenly in the early 1990s to shake that. Some influences perhaps from outside, the result maybe of manoeuvres around power elsewhere.
We learned of one boy who had always called for the Muslim boy from the flat below before school. But then one day he was just not there any more.
At that time, I was living an ordinary life with my young family near Frankfurt in Germany, only 800 miles from Sarajevo. I was only two days drive away, but I had no idea then of how ordinary lives were being ripped apart so close to me
In 1992, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, that close to where I was, the campaign of ethnic cleansing had begun. This means that people were being removed because of their identity. That existing way of life in Sarajevo had changed.
By July 1995, over 35,000 Bosnian Muslim refugees had tried to find refuge by moving to the town of Srebrenica, escaping concentration camps, the destruction of their homes and mass killings.
But in July 1995, Bosnian Serb forces attacked Srebrenica itself.
Over 10,000 men, fearing for their lives, tried to escape through the woods on a treacherous 63 mile journey – the death march. Only 3,000 survived.
Over 23,000 women and children were forcibly removed from the region.
I want to introduce you to three people I met on my visit to Srebrenica in 2018. Three ordinary people who lived through that unimaginable terror of genocide.
Hatidza spoke through tears about her family. She lost her two sons Azmir, who was 21, and Almir , who was only 18, and her husband to the genocide.
When they were forced to separate from her, the youngest put his arms around her and asked her to go to the United Nations base for her own safety. The men were going to try to walk through the woods, but she would not make it.
Her youngest son pushed her gently away from him and said “Go, so I don’t see you leave.”
She says “They weren’t guilty of anything except their Islamic Faith. And their names. Their names killed them. “
Her sons and her husband were killed alongside at least 8000 other innocent men and boys.
Secondly, I want to introduce you to a man we met, Hasan
During the war years, Hasan lived for 4 years in Srebrenica without food, without electricity. He described it as like being in a concentration camp.
He was an ordinary young man who wanted to live.
And so he went on that dangerous march through the woods with the other men – to try to get to safety.
He survived. His twin brother who was with him did not.
When we spoke to Hasan, we could hear in his voice the trauma he faces everyday, the struggles he has with the memories and with the responsibility of having survived.
He told us “I don’t think any of us can fully appreciate that – that sense of why did I survive when those I loved did not”.
Finally, I want to introduce another of the ordinary people whose lives were devastated by the genocide in Bosna.
Her name is Bakira
One day, her neighbour Veljko, a police officer, knocked on her door with Serb soldiers. They were heavily armed and demanding money. Bakira and her 16 and 19 year old daughters who were at home were all terrified.
The men raped her eldest daughter right in front of her, then they slashed her head open.
Bakira thought her daughter would die, but she and her 16 year daughter carried her to the hospital and medics managed to stitch her up.
Bakira sent her daughters to stay with her mother in Kosovo, but with her husband, she tried to stay in their home. Several times she was taken by police or soldiers to be interrogated, and they raped her. She lived near the Drina River, and at night time she could hear the screams of people as they were being killed, and the splash as the soldiers dumped their bodies in the water.
Many thousands of women suffered rape and sexual violence like Bakira and her daughter.
Bakira is now President of the Women Victims of War Association in Bosnia Herzegovina. She devotes her time to bringing many perpetrators of wartime sexual violence to justice and I met her doing that work.
But many of these perpetrators are still living and working in the same local communities as the women they attacked. And many of the men hold positions of responsibility.
What does that say to the women victims – how can they cope? We can only just begin to understand the torment.
But genocide does not begin with mass killing and rape.
It begins when people start to think of themselves in terms of us and them; when prejudice, discrimination and dehumanisation occur against a group of people.
That is why we must take such a stand when we see even a grain of prejudice occurring.
Ordinary people like us can make a difference – we have to work actively to ensure that our communities are not suddenly shattered by division and then distrust and hatred.
In Bijeljina, head teacher Lazar Manojlović refused to expel Bosnian Muslim students and teachers, stating that he only recognised two groups in his school – students and teachers
Let us follow the example that brave headteacher set and build and sustain communities where everyone is included.
You can read more about the work of Remembering Srebrenica Scotland at: https://srebrenica.scot/