8,372 people were slaughtered in the three days following the invasion of Srebrenica on 11th July 1995. Genocide is still being denied.
During the half-term break we were privileged to join a NUT delegation to Bosnia-Herzegovina, organised by the charity Remembering Srebrenica. There were ten of us altogether from various parts of the country and we were accompanied by Rose Burke, who works for the charity at their office in Birmingham.
During our first morning in Bosnia, where we stayed in the capital Sarajevo, we were introduced to Resad Trbonja who also works for the charity. Resad became an invaluable 'factotum', being our guide, historian, interpreter and organiser. All the people we met in Bosnia had tragic and moving stories to tell and Resad was no exception. Until the break-up of the former Yugoslavia he was a 'normal teenager', living in an apartment block, enjoying music and activities with his friends, who included Serbs and Croats. There was a good quality of life: free health care, education, and peaceful co-existence between all citizens. There were no physical differences between Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks), Serbs (Orthodox) and Croats (Catholics); the only differences were their names. Resad told us how his life changed from being a teenager to being a soldier, about his Serbian friends moving away due to the war and about the ensuing siege of Sarajevo. If ethnic hatred can happen between people who are so similar, it could happen anywhere.
No-one is immune to such a thing, he said.
During the siege, his father along with others had to risk sniper fire in order to get to work and obtain food. The construction of a tunnel between the besieged city and the free Bosnian area on the outskirts of the city became a lifeline during the siege.
We visited the Tunnel Museum - only 25 metres of the original tunnel now exists - and we then visited a museum with exhibits from the siege. During the siege public transport in Sarajevo was paralysed due to the lack of electricity and petrol. The need for any means of transportation was great because it was necessary to get food, water and wood from different locations. The bike became the simplest and the most economical means of transport. Sarajevans often say that owning a bike was a 'fortune' during the siege. The kitchen was central. Usually it was the most hidden and the safest part of the apartment. It was a place for cooking, eating, heating, sitting, reading, playing cards, sleeping and for all kinds of activities.
Humanitarian aid was donated to the city, but the quality was usually poor. Other photographs showed devastated buildings, mothers with young children being shot by snipers, and a local community school which was hit by a shell, killing a teacher, Fatima, along with three students, and leaving 23 injured.
One of the most poignant exhibits was 'Nermin's sweater'. Nermin Divoric was a boy killed in 1994 by sniper fire in the street Zmaya od Bosne. The bullet first passed through the body of the boy's mother then hit him in the head. Nermin's sister, who was with them, escaped the bullet because she was just one step ahead of them. Nermin, a pupil at Edhem Mulabdic primary school, loved drawing, football and toy cars.
Sarajevo itself reflects its different historical eras, containing an Ottoman quarter, an Austro-Hungarian quarter and a Yugoslavia quarter. The city was a melting pot of cultures, with a mosque, a Catholic cathedral, a synagogue and an Orthodox church located a stone's throw from each other. It was heartbreaking to reflect on the pictures in each of the museums we visited. They showed a city torn apart by war and ethnic hatred.
From the castle, which affords splendid views of the city, we walked down through a large cemetery where victims of the siege are buried; so many died that the existing cemetery couldn't accommodate them and this new cemetery was built on the hill below the castle. All the gravestones of those who died during the Bosnian war are identical, and during our time there we saw many of these graves, from just a few by the roadside while we were travelling, to over 6,000 at the Potocari memoral.
After a short walking tour of the old city we visited the third museum that day, a project set up by an individual.
On our second full day we left Sarajevo for the most harrowing part of the visit - to Srebrenica, which is located in the Republika Srpska, the Serb Republic. This is a political entity with self-governing rights within Bosnia. It lies in the north east part, on the border with Serbia.
On our journey we were reminded of the underlying hostility that still exists. While driving through Republika Srpska three young boys, aged about 10, gave Nazi salutes to our minibus as it drove past.
Srebrenica itself is an attractive small town surrounded by mountains. The memorial to the genocide is located at what was the UN base, a former factory at Potocari, where Dutch soldiers from UN forces were put to protect the Bosniak refugees. These had fled to the 'safe haven' of Srebrenica to escape from Serb forces.
The museum is the personal project of Hasan Hasanović, a survivor of the genocide. He told us of his personal experiences while he took us around the exhibitions. Hasan was seventeen when Srebrenica was invaded by Serbian forces on 11th July 1995. Only pregnant women and infants were allowed sanctuary at the UN base; the rest were denied access. Hasan was one of the thousands of males who did not trust the Serbian promises of no retribution against Bosnian Muslims, and he joined those escaping from the town.
When you visit Srebrenica and see the high mountains surrounding it, you realise how difficult the escape was. Most of those who tried to escape were gunned down, with only a minority making it to free Bosnian territory. Hasan's father and brother were killed during the escape. In the days following the fall of Srebrenica, the Bosniaks were rounded up. Women and very young children were sent on lorries to Tuzla; all other males (some as young as 12) were separated from their families and on orders of the Serbian Commanders were taken off in lorries and systematically gunned down.
We had been warned in advance that we would be shown a film of this happening to six teenage boys, but nothing can prepare you. After the film we walked out into the bright sunlight and made the walk past the deserted former UN base to the cemetery across the road in absolute silence.
Like the six boys we had watched being massacred, 17 year-old Nedžad Avdić was separated from his family, loaded onto a lorry with hundreds of others, driven away, lined up, shot and left for dead. After his 'execution' his Serbian killers drove away. By some extraordinary miracle Nedžad and one other man were not mortally wounded and found themselves alive, lying among hundreds of dead bodies. The two helped each other to escape and avoid capture. Nedžad still finds it difficult being in Republika Srpska, the Serb entity which perpetrated the genocide where he still lives with his wife and children, but he carries on telling his story in the face of genocide denial. He actually had to walk away while we were listening to Dzogaz Mejra; he has not got over his experience.
Dzogaz Mejra then told her story. She lost her husband, three sons and grandson during the Srebrenica genocide. When she returned to her home she was bullied and harassed by her Serb neighbour and is now living with a friend.
Our final day was spent in Tuzla, where we visited two projects. One was set up by a small group of Bosnian women with the aim of finding what happened to those who disappeared and where their bodies are, so that their families can find peace. The project is now funded by an Italian woman, who lost her son, and the walls are covered with photographs of those who are still 'missing'. The project relies on donation, so we bought a signed copy of their book which can be seen at the Leicester NUT office in Pilot House. It has taken a long time to find the bodies of the genocide victims because their remains have been moved around to hide the atrocity which took place.
Our final visit was to the centre in Tusla, which is painstakingly trying to put together the human remains of the victims. DNA really helped this project and over 6000 bodies have been identified and buried at Potocari. Over 1500 victims, however, are still missing, and DNA testing is expensive and the anthropologist in charge of the centre is unsure about future funding. Each year the victims located are buried at a ceremony at Potocari on 11th July, which is Srebrenica Memorial Day.
Although the war ended following the Dayton Agreement, the Bosniak people cannot find peace until there is an acknowledgement of the genocide that happened.
It is not too late for your school to mark Srebrenica Memorial Day. Crown Hills Community College are playing St. Pauls in a commemorative football match. Activities can be simple and cost free: a minute's silence, raise a flag, light candles. It all counts towards raising awareness of Srebrenica and encouraging people to reflect on how we can learn from genocide.
Please contact Melisa through our secretary (josephleicesternut.org.uk) for more information.