Friday, 18 June 2021

Families still suffering two decades after massacre

“ALL that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” Edmund Burke, philosopher and politician

“ALL that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” Edmund Burke, philosopher and politician (1729 - 1797)

Earlier this year I was invited to join a fact-finding delegation to Bosnia and Herzegovina as part of an initiative to raise awareness of the genocide in Srebrenica in 1995.

It was organised by a charity named Remembering Srebrenica, although I have to admit that for me it was as much about learning as remembering.

The organisation is part-funded by the Department for Communities and Local Government and my invitation came in my then capacity as deputy leader of South Oxfordshire District Council.

The Government supported the EU-mandated Srebrenica Memorial Day on Saturday and there have been events across the country in recent months, including a commemorative service at Westminster Abbey on Monday last week.

On my visit I travelled with nine others from across the UK. We were a mixed group of politicians, academics, lawyers and such like.

Our visit was spread over four intensive days during which time we learned much about the complex history of the region following the break-up of Yugoslavia and the conflict that grew from that.

One of the darkest periods of the conflict was the genocide that took place in and around the village of Srebrenica in the mountain region.

Within a short time 8,372 men and boys were killed by Serb forces just because of their name and origin.

Sarajevo had been under siege since 1992 and in 1993 the United Nations declared Srebrenica and a 30-square- mile area around it as a safe haven under the watch of the United Nations Protection Force.

Despite this, in July 1995 Bosnian Serb paramilitary units overran and captured the town.

United Nations forces left and in the days following Srebrenica’s fall, 8,372 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were systematically massacred and buried in mass graves.

Later the graves were bulldozed and remains scattered at secondary burial sites.

Thus, in the process of trying to identify victims and return bodies to relatives for burial, people are finding their loved ones scattered. During the visit we met people who had survived the genocide and the “Mothers of Srebrenica”, whose fathers, husbands and sons were massacred.

We heard their harrowing stories of the days of waiting to know if their loved ones had been shot and then the long wait trying to find bodies to bury.

One woman we met told how her father, husband and sons had all been taken and shot within a few days.

We also visited the facilities of the International Commission of Missing Persons in Sarajevo and Tuzla to learn about the difficult, painstaking but ultimately successful work that continues to be done in the identification of victims buried in mass graves.

Twenty years later people are still looking to find and bury their relatives.

The commission was created at the G7 Summit in 1996 to work with governments and others to help locate and account for missing persons from the war years of the former Yugoslavia. Today it works globally to respond to world events and natural disasters such as tsunami.

The rapid development of DNA techniques has greatly helped in identification. Whereas previously relatives searched through photos of recovered items, now simple blood samples have greatly increased the rate of identification.

The essential aim of the visit to Bosnia was twofold.

Firstly, our hosts want to raise awareness of this dreadful atrocity.

Secondly, they hope that in doing so we will learn from the events in Bosnia between 1992 and 1995 and draw upon this understanding to work towards tolerance and community cohesion here.

The world events, both historic and recent, that can arise through lack of tolerance and mutual respect is fearful. What one human being can do to another in the name of their own belief and world view is deeply shocking and distressing. With recent world news we are not strangers to these dreadful things. To have spent time with people who have lived through these experiences was a privilege.

To realise how quickly situations can escalate is worrying. The language of hate and discrimination is never acceptable but it can start small and be shrouded in acceptability.

On my visit I met people whose stories will forever be ingrained on my mind. The rawness of their pain 20 years on is a struggle to describe. I saw images that will never leave me.

I also heard stories of survival, mutual help among victims and determination not to be beaten into submission — of hope in the midst of despair.

One cannot meet people who have lived through these dreadful atrocities and be unchanged.

Our world today is too full of stories of human violence and destruction, of atrocities committed by one person against another.

My hope and prayer is that in remembering Srebrenica, paying tribute to the victims of genocide and remembering their relatives we will indeed send a clear message to this and future generations — never again.

Remembering Srebrenica

International Commission on Missing Persons

•Rev Angie Paterson is an honorary associate priest for the Benefice of Icknield, a voluntary role. She is a former deputy leader at South Oxfordshire District Council.

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