It’s the 22nd annual Memorial day for the genocide in Srebrenica this year on July 11.
What were your first impressions of Bosnia?
Bosnia is a striking country. It is so full of green and I was struck by how beautiful it was. Their villages are spacious and look like people have taken houses and dropped them on top of a valley. Wherever you go there are these little picturesque houses. You would never know that this beautiful place was the backdrop of such an horrific, bloody history.
For those who aren’t aware, can you say a bit about what happened?
It’s better for people to go and read about the war as it is hard to summarise in a few sentences, but in 1995 the Serbian armed forces killed more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslims from Srebrenica in just 10 days. The dead, mostly men and boys, were buried in mass graves.
Alongside the mass murder, Bosnian women and girls were systematically raped and moved to rape camps, including the Vilinas Vlas hotel where an estimated 200 women were held as sex slaves.
What stands out the most, for you, about this experience?
For me, it was the women. These women witnessed the men in their lives get murdered then were raped themselves by their own neighbours, work colleagues, teachers, and even friends.
Personally, as an outsider, I could not tell the difference between a Serb and a Bosnian. It is hard to see how people changed overnight from being members of a society so seemingly well-assimilated to the target of such hatred.
Alongside the mass murder, Bosnian women and girls were systematically raped and moved to rape camps, including the Vilinas Vlas hotel, where an estimated 200 women were held as sex slaves.
We were taken to meet some of the survivors and I had to mentally brace myself. I felt like I didn’t deserve to look them in the eye because their strength takes you aback. These women have witnessed unspeakable horror and yet do not carry hatred in their hearts. But there is a darkness in their eyes when they recount their stories.
Hadijah Mehmedovic, from the Mothers of Srebrenica organisation, told us how her husband and two sons were killed. (A lot of those who were murdered were buried in mass graves. Serbian soldiers were later made to dig up the deceased men and the women re-buried them with dignity.) Hadijah told me she was only able to find parts of her sons to re-bury.
I am a mother myself. As I listened, I wanted to vomit imagining the pain of losing two children like this. It made sense when she said that when she goes home she closes all the shutters because the sun doesn’t seem the same any more.
Another woman I spoke to, Bakira Hasecic, explained how sexual violence was used as a weapon against Bosnian women in the war. Serbian soldiers, aware of the stigma of touching a Muslim woman, purposely made rape a part of their strategy in order to humiliate, break, and ethnically cleanse the Bosnian population. Studies suggest that an estimated 20-50,000 women were raped during this period.
These women have witnessed unspeakable horror and yet do not carry hatred in their hearts. But there is a darkness in their eyes when they recount their stories.
Bakira herself, and her 18-year-old daughter, were repeatedly raped by their neighbour Milan Lukic, who is now serving a life sentence at the Hague. But his charge sheet only includes two counts of mass murder — not rape. In 2003 Bakira established the Association of Women Victims of War to unite the women who were raped and sexually abused during the war. Through raising the profile of rape cases she has helped bring about 70 prosecutions.
After hearing these stories, when I looked at the Bosnian landscape I saw red not green.
What can we do to help?
People like Bakira are working tirelessly to raise awareness of what happened and charities like Remembering Srebrenica organise trips to Bosnia and commemorative events across the U.K. in order to help more people learn about this atrocity. I returned to the U.K. to hear the news of Brexit. After hearing of tales that turned friendly neighbours into rapists and murderers, almost overnight, I was shaken and perhaps a little paranoid.
I think now more than ever, dialogue and keeping the lines of communication open is so important. The Bosnian people lived side by side with the Serbs: worked with them, made friends with them, and yet the genocide still happened. Assimilation is not the answer. We need to do more than that. It needs to be more about creating and teaching empathy because we will never make everyone agree with everyone else! It needs to be about agreeing to respect other’s ideas and beliefs and stand up when we see another group of people being discriminated against.
The women I met on my journey have inspired me to use my voice to raise awareness and help them to tell their story.
As Martin Luther King said: “In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”
To find out more about commemorative events, look at the Remembering Srebrenica website.