"I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to visit Bosnia and for all I heard, saw and learned. I hope we can make the purpose of all our efforts for peace and reconciliation in the UK and across the world that of the Mothers of Srebrenica and others we met in Bosnia who are doing everything to liberate the future from the horrific debt of the past and so make the world a better place."
Silence, they say is the voice of complicity
But silence is impossible
Silence is a message,
Just as doing nothing is an act
The group study visit to Bosnia in 2018 was for me a steep learning journey of increased understanding of the Balkan war (1992-1995) and the tragedy for Bosnia that followed the break-up of Yugoslavia.
It was also an intense emotional experience and I’m mindful of the need avoid the vanity of making too much of my limited engagement over 5 days with the complexities of the war or the scale of the war crimes against humanity faced by the Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims). I, nonetheless, welcome this opportunity, to bear witness to what I learned, saw, and heard especially from the heartrending testimonies of survivors so it is not forgotten or denied.
I can’t overstate the importance of being part of the small supportive group of people (of all faiths and none) as I was confronted by the horrifying reality of the suffering of the Bosniaks. I also appreciated the knowledge, patience and efficiency of Smajo Bešo who organized the visit and led us as group. We were fortunate also to be joined by Selma Fisekovic the Assistant Producer of the film “The Forgotten Genocide’.
Following the trip, some of us took a motion to Newcastle upon Tyne City Council to highlight the suffering of the Bosnian people. We were also very privileged in 2019 to join the local Bosnian Community in Newcastle in a Commemoration of the 25-year Anniversary of the Bosnian war. This year I took part in the raising of the Bosnian flag ceremony at Newcastle Civic Centre hosted by the Lord Mayor of the City to mark the annual commemoration of the Bosnian war.
The destruction of Bosnia
Over the five days, we benefitted from many conversations with experts, professionals and survivors. These gave us opportunities to reflect on the ongoing importance of the attempted destruction of Bosnia between 1992-1995 by Serbia, under its president, Slobodan Milosevic, and his military forces. It is considered the largest act of mass murder in Europe since the end of World War Two and a crime of genocide.
What we saw and heard was a forcible reminder that this happened in Europe in the 20C following a commitment by the signatories to the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights that the evils of the WW2 holocaust “should never happen again”.
Tea and coffee with the Mothers in Srebrenica.
On the question of whether there could have been a different outcome from the war for Bosnia, we heard of the critical inaction of Western politicians at the outset of the war and the failure during it of the Dutch Peace Keeping troops in the UN protected zone of Srebrenica to safeguard people from slaughter and rape. Many Bosniaks feel betrayed that so little was done to prevent the systematic atrocities against them and angry that at times Western politicians and military commanders appeared hapless against the aggression of Serb soldiers. Those we spoke to, however, recognized that the international community has, in part because of unresolved guilt, actively sought justice against the Serbians who committed war crimes and crimes against humanity in Bosnia.
Most importantly, we learned of the human toll of the mass atrocities by Serbian soldiers largely against the Bosniaks in the name of ethnic cleansing with the aim of creating an ethnically homogeneous Serbian state. We heard many examples of the way the Bosniaks lost the fabric and interconnections of their everyday life, family, friends, community, and their self-identity formed and sustained in relation to others. Over 1.2 million Bosniaks were forcible removed from their homes and they were also subject on a massive scale to murder, systematic rape and sexual violence. The 2013 Report ‘The Bosnian Book of the Dead’ by the Sarajevo based Research and Documentation Centre, which we visited listed the names of 97,207 people killed or missing; of those 66% were Bosniaks.
We met with national politicians in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia that had once been a beautiful cosmopolitan multi-ethnic city of beautiful buildings and popular with tourists (I visited it as part of a trip in the former Yugoslavia in 1968). We learned from them and were shown the documentary evidence how Sarajevo in 1992, on the declaration of Bosnian independence. was placed under a brutal siege by Serbian troops stationed in the surrounding hills.
The siege, which lasted four years (the longest of a capital in modern warfare) during which over 6000 civilians including children were killed, began, we learned, with the early killing and mass expulsion of the intelligentsia, prominent public leaders and professionals. Significant Bosnian buildings such as the National Library (the central repository of Bosnian culture) and Post Office in the City were also quickly destroyed. This, was all undertaken, we were told, as part of a systematic intent to destroy Bosnian national identity, stop resistance and reduce the ability of Bosnians to tell the world what was happening in their country. The siege was finally lifted by NATO forces following the massacre of civilians in the Markale Market in 1995.
During our visit to Mostar we were presented with the detailed documentary and film evidence of the massacre that took place in Srebrenica, a small town in Eastern Bosnia over 6 days in 1995. As part of its self-proclaimed plan of ethnic cleansing and annexation of the territory to the adjacent republic of Serbia, the Serbian forces targeted Bosniaks living in Srebrenica., Radovan Karadžić, the local leader ad military commander, directed his forces to “create an unbearable situation of total insecurity with no hope of further survival of life for the Bosniaks in Srebrenica. Around 30,000 Bosniaks from in and around Srebrenica were expelled and women, children and the elderly were taken out of the town in buses to an uncertain future that for many meant death. They rounded up the Muslim men, military and civilian, young and old, and stripped of their personal belongings and identification and deliberately and methodically forcible expelled them. Over 6 days they executed at least 8,372 of the men and boys solely on the basis of their identity as they tried to escape to freedom along what is known as “death road”.
Collective memory and a warning from history
We visited the Museum ‘the Tunnel of Hope’ completed in 1993. This is a monument to the acts of courage and determination of ordinary people and ill-equipped Bosnian soldiers to transport food and weapons into Sarajevo to ensure people survived. Its role is to keep alive the collective memory and history of the siege and determination of the Bosnian people to survive. It is also a call to the international community to recognize their suffering which is movingly expressed in the sign at the entrance: “Take our wounds and turn them into Roses”.
Even though I had read about the massacre and seen the harrowing images of the men on the television, I was not prepared for the shock and distress I felt during our visit to the Potočari Memorial Cemetery, established in 2003 to honour the victims of the 1995 Srebrenica Genocide. The visual impact of over 6000 graves and over 8,000 carved names of victims was almost unbearable. We met women at the Cemetery, some still searching for missing relatives; each had a story of devastating loss of husbands, sons, brothers, nephews - sometimes all the men and boys in one family.
The Memorial Cemetery spoke more tellingly of the atrocities faced by the Bosnians than any official report. It also stands as a permanent and sombre warning from history to the international community. Every year on 11th July the Srebrenica-Potočari act of genocide is marked by Bosnians as the official Srebrenica day of Commemoration of the massacre ‘and for all those who champion against hate’. As the American President, Bill Clinton (who presided over the Dayton Peace Agreement) said at the opening of the Memorial Cemetery: “We remember this terrible crime because we dare not forget”.
Tunnel of Hope, Sarajevo.
Sarajevo Vijećnica (City Hall)
A Crime without a name
The Serbian policy of ethnic cleansing in Srebrenica was judged by the International Criminal Court to meet the definition of ‘genocide’. Despite, its efforts and the trials and official international Inquiries over twenty-five years, the question of how far the crime of genocide extended beyond Srebrenica in Bosnia, as we were informed, still remains unresolved.
According to those we spoke to, the claim of ‘Genocide’, the ‘intent’ of the Serb solders to destroy the ‘essential foundations of Bosniak life is a critical discussion for survivors and their inalienable right to the truth about the systematic and gross violations of their human rights. They also saw it as necessary for a full and accurate historical record available beyond Bosnia of the scale of the atrocities by the Serbs even though genocide has been notoriously difficult to prove.
The film evidence, particularly ‘Forgotten Genocide’, together with the accounts from survivor and the mass graves of over 6000 men and boys to date (many still to be discovered) all show beyond reasonable doubt the murders and rapes took place on a huge scale across Bosnia. This all confirms the view of many we met, and that of internationally renowned speakers at ‘the International Conference on the documentation and Prosecution of Genocide in Bosnia and Herzegovinia’ in Sarajevo 2015, that the intent of the aggression against Bosniaks throughout Bosnia was genocidal in intent and purpose as in Srebrenica and must be defined as such.
Sexual violence and rape as a weapon of war
I had read about the abhorrent large-scale rape in Bosnia during the war. I had not, however, appreciated fully that the mass rape by Serb soldiers that took place was a planned and targeted policy of using sexual violence, including rape, as a weapon of the war. The aim of the Serbs being, we learned, was to destroy a substantial part of the Bosniaks as thoroughly as the killing and forced displacement.
Sexual violence used a as a weapon of war in Bosnia was not limited to rape; it included sexual mutilation and humiliation; forced prostitution, sterilization and pregnancy. It was intentional assault on the individual innermost privacy of thousands of Bosniaks and grounded in total contempt for and dehumanizing of them.
Although the rape was usually against women and girls, the stories of sexual violence by Serb soldiers we heard against Bosniak men and boys was systematic and brutal and rightly evoked our outrage. We heard many stories of the unspeakable brutalisation and long-term suffering and devastating mental health problems of women and men subjected to it. They were subjected to violence in their homes, offices and official buildings. Many were sent to concentration camps characterised by a consistent pattern of gross and systematic sexual violations of their human dignity.
The War against Women
Rape, whether in a war zone or in civil society, is acknowledged to be a crime unlike many others in that it stigmatizes the victim as well as the perpetrator. In war and conflict zones, such as Bosnia, however, there is a particular dynamic that intensifies the brutality because of the way gender intersects with ethnicity and religion. This determines which woman is raped - not her identity as a woman as such. Bosniak women were defined as the enemy to be terrorised into submission and their future as part of a people through the possible birth of children destroyed.
It is widely documented that over 50,000 women were systematically raped by Serb soldiers in their homes, official buildings and in concentration camps, some set up specifically for the purpose of systematic rape. From the harrowing stories we heard from survivors (and from what is written elsewhere) showed the violence was brutal and systematic; the victim’s status, age, chastity or their relations with the rapists, often known to them as neighbours and former colleagues at work, were all irrelevant. The aim was to obliterate the women’s personal, cultural and religious identity, weaken the ties of community cohesion and take away the possibility of a future. As we heard, it left physical, emotional, and psychological scars on all those who survived that can never be cured.
What counts as genocidal rape and why it matters.
Rape is a special kind of war crime or crime against humanity associated with Genocide and ethnic cleansing. In Bosnia, they did not kill women (although some were raped to death) as they had men which they could have done, they used rape as a weapon of war executed in the service of larger strategic military and political objectives of ethnic cleansing of the Bosniak people. It was also a tool of intimidation to spread fear and humiliation and so weaken resistance of Bosnians and devastate their community and religion.
We are speaking of rape as an official policy of the Serbian war aim. It was part of a campaign for their political control or domination of Bosniaks. The essential point is that it was sexual in nature but not in intent.
It was specifically:
rape under orders: the women were mere objects like guns and tanks in the Serbian military weaponry;
Rape as massacre: the woman’s identity as a woman killed;
Rape as an instrument of forced exile: women driven from their homes;
Rape as spectacle: the rapes were filmed to be seen and heard, watched and told to others;
Rape to drive a wedge through the Bosniaks as a community and as a religious group and to destroy them as a people.
As we were told, it matters to have the systematic rape and other forms of sexual violence upon thousands of women and men used in such ways as a weapon of war defined as genocide even though the intent of the Serbs (as of all aggressors in war) to destroy the Bosniaks through rape as a people is notoriously difficult to prove.
To bring a small measure of justice and peace for the victims, it was said to us, this means showing the criminal intent in the use of the sophisticated strategy combining large scale assaults and the use of rape camps to destroy a substantial part of the Bosniak people. The stories of survivors we heard also indicated, however, that as many armed Serbian men took part as there were victims the alibi of ‘acting under orders’ could not mask that misogyny and the desire to sadistically dominate the women was also a factor.
Since WW2, human rights conventions, legislation and movements that emerged from the evils of the Holocaust to protect the life, dignity and freedom of every person as a human being. As was put to us, if genocidal rape, such as that in Bosnia, continues to be viewed as an inevitable “side show in the theatre of war”, the systematic sexual violence as a weapon of war will continue unabated.
At the Gates of Hell: stories of survival
We were very privileged, humbled and distressed to hear stories of survivors of imprisonment in different places; some in makeshift prisons others in organized concentration camps. The following two people we met were among survivors of imprisonment and torture to whom we spoke. They both believed it important to put their put their horrific experiences into writing with the clear message it should never be repeated again.
Amer Dulic was a prisoner and was tortured in what had been a nationally famous (bone) hospital. He was 17 when taken there – a child with a Muslim name. He told how he was tortured by people he knew as neighbours brutally to the point of near death. He is bringing together the stories of all those who went through this place of torture – determined what happened should never be forgotten.
Professor Ramiz Tiro talked to us about the use of concentration camps set up like those in the second world war “but only with more cruel conditions and brutality towards Bosniaks”. He told us over 10 thousand Bosniaks aged from 16-80 from all parts of Bosnia were taken to concentration camps where there was unspeakable torture and “criminal orgies of pure hate” towards the Bosniak people. They were set up in schools, sports stadiums, hotels or purpose built; it is known that not all have been discovered.
He described his 262 days in the concentration camp in the Heliodrom, south of Mostar set up as part of the aim “to ethnically cleanse Mostar of Muslims”. Professor Tiro has written of his experiences which are heart wrenching in their dreadfulness . But it is also a touching story of courage and determination and kindness. He called his book ‘At the Gates of Hell’ (available) because as he lay on the concrete during a cruel torture, he thought: “no this is not hell; it is the evil actions of human beings”.
In Mostar with Professor Ramiz Tiro.
It must be remembered
As we were told from many different perspectives, peace and reconciliation has its own costs because it is based on the need for forgiveness; but it is not possible to forgive if what happened isn’t known or is denied. The terrible crimes must be remembered and called what they were: genocide, crimes against humanity, ethnic cleansing.
After everything we heard and saw, an obvious question was whether a just peace, reparation, and reconciliation with those who committed the atrocities in attempts to prevent those crimes from happening again is possible. All the survivors we met said for this to be possible they needed to know the truth about what happened and for the harm they suffered to be recognized so they can rebuild their lives in peace. This includes international cooperation in the prosecution of the war crimes and naming the perpetrators (who are still living among the victims and are known to them) and reparation to help them rebuild their lives.
We learned through various discussions, that the impact of the aggression by the Serbs against the Bosniaks between 1992-1995 has been central to the development of international law and the prosecution of genocide. It has been important to the global endeavour to ensure accountability for the crimes committed. This has involved the the removal of impunity for individuals, particularly those in positions of high command not directly involved in the violations from arrest and imprisonment as part of bringing the perpetrators of human rights violations to account.
After the war a number of the Serbian Military commanders were prosecuted by the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia (CTFY) in the Hague for serious violations of international humanitarian law and crimes against humanity in Bosnia. The Tribunal (ICTFY) also convicted a number of Serbian commanders of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the siege of Sarajevo and the massacres in Srebrenica.
We learned that Many serious attempts have been made internationally and within Bosnia to change the narrow definitions used that make of systematic rape open to the charge of genocide. The ICTFY, for example, produced landmark rulings regarding rape and they convicted a number of perpetrators. It has conducted two major trials that have set important precedents for the prosecution of rape as a war crime in the former Yugoslavia. The first established that aiding and abetting the crime of rape was sufficient to be found guilty of rape. The second (against previous judgments) established that the mental distress suffered by a victim of rape does not automatically disqualify her from being a competent witness against her rapist.
We heard, however, that despite the importance of the Tribunal establishing precedents for prosecuting rape as a weapon of war, it is viewed by many to have failed to in obtain justice in the form of convictions of the perpetrators for the thousands of women and men brutally assaulted. This is because while it recognized the use of sexual violence as a tool of the Serbian war, it has not given it the primacy it deserves in prosecutions. Moreover, the voices of survivors, that should be central to these questions are still not being heard in the legal endeavours to reach a conclusion on whether the Serbian aim was genocide. Therefore, the answer to the question whether acts of rape and sexual violence can be defined not just as a war crime, a crime against humanity, or ethnic cleansing but also as genocidal still remains inconclusive.
The UN Security Council Resolution 1325 which was unanimously adopted in 2000 with the aim to change the history of silence on women in conflict zones such as that in Bosnia was recognized by those to whom we spoke to be an important step forward; although its implementation regrettably slow. This acknowledged the disproportionate and unique impact of war and conflict on women and girls and called on all parties to conflict to take special measures to protect women and girls from gender-based violence, particularly rape and other forms of sexual abuse as a tool of war.
It also called for women to be given a significant role in defining the problem and prescribing the solution through their participation in negotiations preventing conflict, peace keeping, peace building and a humanitarian response to post conflict reconstruction.
We also learned of the non-judicial ‘Women’s Court for the former Yugoslavia’ that took place in Bosnia over four days, organized by a coalition of civil society activists and women’s organizations. It represented a significant attempt to deliver and alternative model of justice for women who were victims of Serbian sexual violence and injustice inflicted on them to that used in the ICTFY and later legal proceedings.
This ‘symbolic’ court provided a platform for women survivors to narrate their experiences of the war and post-war transition, to be listened to and be believed. The event not only gave public recognition to their diverse terrible experiences of violence, trauma and loss, it also highlighted the capacity of women to demonstrate their agency and resistance to be defined by the violence.
Tea and coffee with the Mothers in Srebrenica.
Mass grief becomes hope
As well as learning about these legal changes and proceedings, we met with a range of organizations and voluntary agencies. All of them were obviously critical to the possibility of people rebuilding their lives and re-integrating into society and also for the possibility of peace and reconciliation. This included ‘The Centre for Peace’ in Mostar, The youth project in the ‘Archdiocese Centre’ in Sarajevo; ‘NAHLA Centre for women’s education and research’; and the ‘Project V Architecture’ in Sarajevo.
There contributions were very important to the future of Bosnia and need to be recognized. I would like to conclude with a summary of visit to the’ Mothers of the Enclaves of Srebrenica and Žepa’ known worldwide as ‘The Mothers of Srebrenica’. This visit had a special meaning for me as I had met two of them on the ‘Women’s Convoy of Conscience’ in 2018 in support of our sisters who were the subjects of sexual violence and rape in the Syrian civil war.
The ‘Mothers of Srebrenica’ Association was established in 2002 by Hatidža Mehmedović whose husband and sons were murdered in the genocidal massacre in Srebrenica. Her aim was to ensure their killers were brought to justice and to advocate for justice and collect funds for all the survivors of the massacre. She believed: “no story can bring back our dearest ones but by telling a story, we can prevent new genocides, new crimes and future wars”.
She was notable for not insisting on the ‘collective guilt’ of Serbian people for what happened in Bosnia. In line with that belief, she travelled a great deal to expose the horrors of the crime of genocide and to name individual perpetrators. She was present in the international courtroom of the Hague for the sentencing of Ratko Mladić for his role in the massacre. She is perhaps best known for bringing civil action against UN (she called it “United Nothing”) for breach of duty of care for failure to prevent the genocide of Srebrenica; although it failed because of the UN privileges and immunity in the exercise of its functions.
She is now for many in Bosnia a symbol of resistance in that she publicly condemned politicians who denied the existence of the Srebrenica massacre or supported ethnic or sectarian division in the region. Htidža died in July 2018 just before our visit and although it was clear that she is greatly missed, her legacy was clear in the determination of the women we met who are running the association now and whose male loved ones were killed or disappeared to continue this work. This included hosting the International Conference on Genocide in June led by their current president Mrs Munira Subašić whom we had the privilege to meet during our visit.
‘The Mothers of Srebrinica’ have represented over 6000 survivors of the Massacre of Srebrenica and they are inspiring in their advocacy and determination for justice and non-violence in the face of horrific experiences. They support victims still alive and waiting for justice, mainly women, in their quest to find their loved ones and then through the trauma of burial especially where there only being body parts available for identification. They also travel across the world to share the suffering of the victims of similar conflicts and speak out for them.
They have adopted a white flower as a sign of remembrance. The eleven white petals stand for the Commemoration of the massacre on July 11th and each represents women in mourning. The green centre is for the Potočari Memorial Cemetery. The white also signifies innocence and the green means hope.
The flower is a powerful symbol of their view that peace and reconciliation will not bring back loved ones, nor end the pain in the hearts of surviving loved ones. But they are determined to break the chain of the past while not forgetting it for future generations that do not deserve to bear the burden of their horrific experiences and failures. Young people, they say, deserve their own beginning.
In conclusion, I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to visit Bosnia and for all I heard, saw and learned. I hope we can make the purpose of all our efforts for peace and reconciliation in the UK and across the world that of the Mothers of Srebrenica and others we met in Bosnia who are doing everything to liberate the future from the horrific debt of the past and so make the world a better place.
Ann Schofield 18 November 2020