Leicester NUT Section of the NEU

Polly Henderson, retired NUT member, 1st September 2017

Leicestershire NUT's proud record of opposing ethnic cleansing in former Yugoslavia

Having read Remembering Srebrenica in the July edition of City Teacher, I feel moved to write about my own experiences in Bosnia just two weeks after the invasion of Srebrenica in 1995. The harrowing description of what Anne, Melisa and Kuldip experienced vividly brought back our memories of that time. My husband, Paul, a member of the AUT (Association of University Teachers, which later became part of UCU) at Leicester University and I, from Leicestershire National Union of Teachers, were involved in a trade union convoy taking aid as an expression of solidarity to Tuzla in northern Bosnia.

Whilst many sections of the trade union movement in Britain refused to take sides in the war, Workers' Aid for Bosnia had organised a number of convoys in opposition to the ethnic cleansing being systematically carried out by the Serb nationalists. A trade union convoy was organised for July, which would be in the summer holidays. Paul and I joined.

We went as representatives of our unions. Paul was delegated from National AUT Conference and carried a letter from the National President of the Union to the Tuzla teaching unions, expressing solidarity. I represented Leicestershire NUT and my own school, Mellor Primary in Belgrave, Leicester. As well as the two of us, a third member of our lorry was Peter Morrissey, a Further Education lecturer in Hinckley, a member of the then NATFHE union (later also UCU).

We bought a £2000 7½ tonne lorry (with one missing gear) which ended up being used as the cook van. Not only did we carry food and portable cooking stoves, but also aid which consisted of food, clothing, toiletries and educational supplies. We had many donations from trade unions, including a large consignment donated by the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM) in Leicestershire.

We had spent months before we were due to go collecting aid. As well as the many union contributions, we had also accrued large boxes of personal effects from Bosnian families seeking asylum in Leicester, destined for their loved ones back home. Workers' Aid already had strong links with people in Tuzla and we were assured that we would be able to get the personal gifts delivered. The journey was long and unpredictable. Once we reached the Croatian coast we became accustomed to seeing villages peppered with bullet holes and abandoned houses. Along the way we were held up at the Croatian/Bosnian border for two days and two nights. During this time, one of our convoy went off into the woods where he found the body of a partially decomposed baby. As we neared Tuzla there was a stretch of road known amongst Workers' Aid people as snipers' alley. We were told to turn our lights off, disconnect our brake lights and make the crossing as quickly as possible in the pitch dark. The roads were perilous and full of potholes at the best of times. We got to Tuzla the following morning where our combined aid was moved to a disused cinema, while we met up with the family with whom we would be staying. The atmosphere had a sense of unreality to it. The city was still reeling from a massacre of a large number of youths, Serbs, Croatians and Bosnians, who'd been bombed on National Youth Day whilst celebrating a basketball victory in some of the town's cafes in a public square. Everywhere there were paper memorials pinned to buildings and trees to mark the places where people had been killed.

Of course we were invited to visit the families for whom we had brought items from their relations in Leicester. The 9 o'clock curfew made it hairy to be out and about with patrols round every corner but this was no problem for our hosts! I went to visit an elementary school along with the other NUT members on the convoy, personally delivering the supplies we'd brought. I had brought with me a large number of letters from children at my school to their counterparts in Tuzla, and I was able to deliver these. Paul was able to deliver his letter of solidarity at a joint meeting with the Tuzla teaching unions, and brought a letter back from them. I still have an envelope full of letters from Tuzla children which were shared with children at Mellor.

Tuzla was a multicultural city where all the dead were buried in a common graveyard. It is good to hear that delegations such as the one Anne, Melisa and Kuldip went on are still going on. Genocide has still not been admitted to this day. We all need to know what went on - no amount of time will cover up these crimes.


Related articles

Building a new life (16th November 2017)
A town still in denial (7th July 2017)
Remembering Srebrenica (29th June 2017)