Visiting Srebrenica filled me with anger and shame

Written by Mandy Rhodes on 17 June 2018 in Comment

For too long the story of Srebrenica and the wider atrocities committed during the Bosnia war have been muffled, if not outright denied

The concept of nationalism and specifically, how it is used to undermine a political argument or indeed inflame one, has been on my mind of late.

Last week, I returned from Bosnia, a country ripped to the core just over 20 years ago by a pernicious and bloody campaign of prejudice that saw neighbours turn on neighbours, women raped by so-called friends, and thousands of sons and fathers brutally slaughtered in a genocide that even now, some choose to deny.

Scotland’s links to Bosnia since that war in the early 1990s are deep and they are strong: from volunteers who gave up their day jobs to deliver aid to those left starving and abandoned by a siege on Sarajevo, to the forensic scientists who have meticulously sieved through the scattered remains of men, women and children and pieced together a gruesome jigsaw that irrefutably proves a massacre, there has been a constant trail of Scots, including those on my delegation, who have forged a deep commitment to finding answers to what on earth happened in a country so like our own.

This matters, because what happened in Bosnia in such recent times was fuelled by hate, ignited by an ideological nationalism that encouraged one kind of Bosnian to believe he was better than another, an angry nationalism that had lain dormant for so long but was so easy to rekindle.

And it is anger that has engulfed me since I returned. Anger, in terms of what the rest of Europe did, or more specifically, did not do, to stop the war in Bosnia. Anger at the mistakes made, the wrong questions asked, the disastrous actions taken and more poignantly, the things that went ignored.

Anger at the Dutch UN officer who appeared so complicit with the Serbian warlords even as they planned the mass extermination of more than 8,000 men and boys in Srebrenica and who said in his defence, it was too hard to separate the “good guys from the bad guys”.

Anger at the fact that the callous slaughter of Bosnians was allowed to happen when it could have been stopped, and that an ongoing seam of division and distrust in a country that was once so inclusive, so united, continues to be mined.

Anger that this has been the European legacy – our legacy – of the Bosnian war.

I returned from Bosnia and made straight to Aberdeen for the SNP conference where I was stung by a ridiculous row prompted by a journalist’s tweet in which he said he had witnessed a delegate being booed for having lived in England.

A storm in a teacup, maybe? But even when the delegate himself corrected the story to say that people were not booing the idea of England per se, but instead, the concept of the discrimination that he, as an immigrant, had faced while living there, there was an uncomfortable kernel of truth about ‘them’ and ‘us’ – the Scots and the English. And it hit a nerve that runs through the casual jokes about who to support in a football match.

Prejudice, discrimination, stereotyping, they all contribute to the escalation of division and it is why, when even said in jest, it should be challenged.

Bosnians today described to me a country before the war where people of all nationalities, of all faiths and none, lived together in a united country, a beautiful country. In a country much like our own where people couldn’t be divided by how they looked, talked or behaved.

And so, it started – with their name.

Families with Muslim-sounding names were picked off and told to wear white armbands. To hang sheets at their windows. They were ‘othered’, set apart and then they were killed. And their fellow countrymen complied.

This angers me because what is it that stops someone who is not the victim of it, not calling out discrimination? When does banter become truth? What stops men acting like a pack and what turns a friend into a foe?

I met a woman in Sarajevo who had been raped repeatedly by Serbian troops, her daughter was raped in front of her and her sister had been raped and killed before her house was commandeered and turned into what soldiers called a ‘whore factory’, and where rape happened on an industrial scale.

She looked like my mother. Her daughter looked like me. And her sister’s home, set in the lush countryside outside Sarajevo, looked for all the world like a suburban semi set in rural Perthshire.

Before the war, she was an ordinary office worker. Now she channels her hurt into hunting down war criminals – some of whom she once knew as neighbours, friends, colleagues – determined to extract justice for the atrocities wreaked on her and thousands of Bosnian women.

Like everyone on this recent delegation to Bosnia, and those who have been before, I found the experience life-changing. But I also felt shame. Shame that all this happened in our recent past. And we did what?

Shame that for too long the story of Srebrenica, and the wider atrocities committed during the Bosnia war have been muffled, if not outright denied. Even today, the newly elected mayor of Srebrenica is a genocide denier.

Before the war, Bosnia was a country where everyone was a Bosnian but now after three years of war, with over 100,000 killed, two million displaced, 8,000 exterminated in Srebrenica alone and up to 20,000 women raped, it is a country more divided than ever before.

Everyone has a responsibility to fight hate, to stand up to discrimination and to challenge stereotypes. After the Holocaust of World War II, we said it should never happen again and it has.

And having seen and having heard, if nothing else, I now have a responsibility to tell the story and to address the question that one mother, who had just two shin bones left of her son to bury, who asked: “Why do peace talks happen only after a war?”

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