11 July 2019
11 July 2019 marks the 24th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide. In the coming months, Glasgow Museums will host exhibitions and events at St Mungo’s Museum and Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum to mark 25 years since the worst genocide on European soil since the Second World War.
Our Chair, Councillor David McDonald, visited Bosnia to see for himself the legacy of the atrocity and how the spirit of the people he met brings new hope and his account demonstrates why we must never forget.
“Sarajevo is a city that leaves a mark. The streets of the old town are full of memories; for more than 500 years the city has welcomed travelers and traders from East and West. The spires, domes and minarets of the city's rooted religions mark the shifting fortunes of empires. In bustling bazaars, artisan coppersmiths still hammer out their mark, making a living by selling to the increasing number of tourists choosing to visit Bosnia. The same tourists gather at the Latin Bridge on the banks of the Miljacka River, on the spot marking the assassination of Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand. However, it's the marks on many of the city's pavements that are the most striking. Known as Sarajevo Roses, the scars left by the mortar shells that rained down on the city during a four year siege have been filled in with a provoking red resin.
The marks of war are still widely visible despite major and impressive regeneration and rebuilding. Near the top of Logavina Street, one of the quiet residential city streets that became a target for wartime snipers, is the War Childhood Museum. It’s perhaps the most powerful museum I've ever visited. Museum founder Jasminko Halilovic asked young Bosnians to share their memories and stories of the war with him. Using everyday childhood objects and personal insights, the inexplicable acts of the war are told beautifully but painfully.
That becomes a common sentiment as I explore further. I had come to Bosnia with ‘Remembering Srebrenica Scotland’ a charity that commemorates the Srebrenica genocide through education and by promoting harmony, diversity and tolerance. Next year we will commemorate the 25th anniversary of the genocide with a special exhibition at the Kelvingrove. It’s so important that we give over space in our main civic museum to tell this story, to reflect and to remember, because the events of the Bosnian war seem much more distant than they actually are.
While the majority of the delegation are making their first visit to the country, there are two others who have left their own mark on Bosnia and the country on them. Marsaili Fraser had a role rebuilding truth and trust post-war. She worked alongside Paddy Ashdown [the former Liberal Democrat leader], when he was in post as the High Representative, a position created to ease sectarian tensions and oversee the implementation of the international peace accord. Robert McNeil is also on our delegation. He tells us about his time in Bosnia while our bus shudders its way through the Bosnian countryside from the capital to Srebrenica. He explains that he was part of a United Nations team of forensic technicians who had been tasked with the unimaginable job of investigating the numerous mass graves spread across the killing fields. Around Srebrenica alone, 91 mass gravesites have been uncovered. Thanks to experts like Robert and the work of the International Commission of Missing Persons, more than 6800 bodies, some with remains found across multi sites, have been identified and buried with dignity.
Despite all we’ve heard and the exposure to the images and stories, little can prepare you for arrival at Srebrenica–Potočari Memorial and Cemetery. This is where thousands of gravestones mark a life lost to the worst genocide on European soil since the Second World War.
It's a surreal experience; the sun is splitting the sky, illuminating the rolling green hills that surround a grouping of broken buildings. One of them, an old battery factory, was to become the UN base, part of a 30 square mile “Safe Area” area around the town. In July 1995 it became a makeshift refugee camp for the tens of thousands of Bosnian Muslims who had sought sanctuary there from the advancing Serbian forces.
The exhibition here is another brutal experience, laying forth the bare facts and exposing both the systemic cruelty of the Serbian leaders and the failures of the international community which led to the slaughter of men and boys and the degrading abuse of countless women and girls. Years later, the Dutch Government whose peacekeeping troops had failed to offer any serious protection to the Bosnian Muslims, resigned en-masse. But it’s not the Dutch alone who are to blame and Srebrenica also casts a shadow over other NATO and UN nations, including the UK.
The sense of devastation at Srebrenica is matched only by the inspirational bravery to be found in the humanity displayed by Hasan Hasanovic, a survivor of the genocide, and in the hope found in the unexpected smile from Fazila Efendic one of the mothers of Srebrenica.
Hasan tells us that he was 19 when the town of Srebrenica fell to the Serb force. He lost his father and twin brother, both of whom were murdered. He talks about how difficult it is to live in a town so full of emotions, where every street, every building and every house reminds you of what you have survived. He talks about the marks that the genocide and war had on him and how it’s created a duty for him to speak out and to share his story.
Later, our delegation sits quietly, in the solemn prayer space at the cemetery. We are waiting to meet Fazila. She is in all honesty the person that I am most apprehensive about meeting. How do you prepare to meet someone who has been both witness to and the subject of genocidal horrors? What do you say and how do you react? I’m afraid I might say the wrong thing or in some way offend someone who has experienced pain and loss like nothing I have ever experienced.
Within seconds of meeting Fazila, each of these concerns fade. She leaves the small roadside memorial shop she work in to spend some time with us. She tells us how she enjoys meeting young people, and while only one of our delegation really meets that description, we all take the compliment! Her warmth and resilience shines so brightly.
As she talks, she takes time to look each of us in the eye. It’s a familiar look, full of motherly insight. She of course talks about loss, but her words are measured with a level of compassion; she wants to focus on justice, not grievance. I’m left in awe at hearing this from Fazila and time and time again during our conversations with others. Despite everything, there is still a place for hope.
There is no accepted wisdom or easy lessons for us to take away about what happened in Srebrenica and to say so ignores all of histories subtleties and does a disservice to all those who lost their life and to all those who endured and who bear witness to this day. The repeated message we are given by those who survived is not to take our present for granted.
Fazlia is someone who lost nearly everything, yet she is making the most of her time, working in her shop, telling her story and caring for her daughter. Meeting Fazila, even for such a short period of time changed the memories that will mark this visit in my mind, it’s her story that I will cling to, in the days, weeks and years ahead. Hers is the spirit we all need, hers is the strength that Bosnia needs.”