A cold coming

Another train arrives. About a thousand people disembark. Many families with small children, babies wrapped in blankets, lads with worn backpacks. The elderly and disabled are helped into wheelchairs. From grim carriages they make their way out onto the platform. Floodlit in the darkness, a thick layer of snow covers the ground around the tents and prefabs. It’s been snowing for several days. Temperatures have dropped to minus fifteen degrees. Then there’s a slight thaw. Gravel paths become a mess of mud and slush. Freezing rain starts to fall. A shadowy police cordon guides the emerging passengers towards registration.

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Train in which refugees travelled – taking photos in the camp was very much restricted

Welcome to Croatia. The Slavonski Brod transit centre is a brief stop-over on a route that begins in the throes of war. This trail of displacement involves risky voyages across land and sea, led only by the hope of a better future. Papers are processed. People enter the distribution area. It’s like a makeshift bazaar. At the doorway, sweetened tea is served in plastic cups. On one side of the railed passage through the tent, NGOs hand out health and sanitary supplies. On the other, volunteers distribute clothes. An array of donations is stacked on metal shelves and spread on trestle tables. Further items are sorted into labelled boxes – shoes and boots that quickly disappear, underwear, gloves, hats and scarves.

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Our work as volunteers in the distribution tent

Footwear is a high priority. Some people are wearing soaking trainers, wellingtons, even flip-flops. Socks are saturated, stuck to raw, chapped toes. One woman tries to squeeze into warmer boots. She winces with pain but doesn’t want to linger to get treatment for her chilblained feet. It’s all about moving, keeping going on adrenaline. The travellers are exhausted but they’re anxious to complete what is almost the last leg of their journey. Before borders close. Tense officers hurry people on.

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Some of the very necessary boots which I bought with donations from Ireland

They pause to gather essentials. We never have enough of what’s most needed – strong shoes for men and women, jackets, kids’ tracksuit bottoms. Generally, the people are thinner and of shorter stature than European sizes anticipate. As volunteers, we soon learn the Arabic word ‘asr’ar’, which is used to ask for something smaller. It’s a relief to hear ‘akbar’, meaning larger, as finding a bigger garment is easier. With gestures, guessing and a bit of humour, we try to meet requests as best we can. Strange linguistic combinations are coined: ‘geansaí’ sounds quite similar to the Arabic equivalent for jumper while ‘đrabat’, as it’s transliterated onto a piece of cardboard, and the Croatian ‘čarape’ are interchangeable terms for socks. ‘Shalwar’ – trousers – is our keyword in Farsi.

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Jackets and tracksuits for children from the Irish donation

New Year 2016… This is travelling through Europe if you’re sufficiently ‘lucky’ to be from Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan. Only these nationalities are allowed to cross the Greek-Macedonian border and continue into Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, and beyond. The right to seek asylum gets reduced to racial profiling. For those who are permitted to proceed, the mass movement is akin to the aftermath of World War II. People weary from conflict and near-drowning, trekking through ever-colder countries.

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Ready to give out New Year gifts to kids

A Syrian man describes the waves that almost claimed his family not far from the Turkish coast. A young woman from Afghanistan loses her phone with all her relatives’ contacts while she’s taking care of her siblings. Pregnant women look for stretchy clothes because ‘baby coming’. Mothers change and breast-feed infants in the UNICEF tent before they board the train again. Girls must cope with periods in unhygienic portaloos. Children have no chance of a hot meal or a bath. Yet their excitement at receiving a banana or a snack sends ripples of joy through the crowd. Moments of gladness… A mum’s delight when a pair of scruffy runners fits her little son. The charming guy who demands a ‘stylish’ jacket makes everybody laugh.

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The snowy road to the camp

‘Sister, sister!’ All we can offer are second-hand scraps of clothes, through smiles and elemental forms of communication that transcend our different languages, cultures and experiences. Humanity is expressed in these fleeting interactions between brothers and sisters. But now it’s time to go. People pick up the remains of their belongings. The rain has turned to snow. Feathery flakes drift down as the last groups are directed back to the platform. Three or four trains per day, with wagons often unlit and unheated. Volunteers from Croatia and across Europe wave goodbye. ‘Thank you!’ voices shout from open windows. Heading towards Germany or wherever their ultimate destination may lie. Those who pass through the surreal station that is the camp in Slavonski Brod are nearly there. Although who knows what reception awaits them when they reach their new home.

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Slavonski Brod, Croatia

Written after two weeks working as a volunteer in the Slavonski Brod refugee camp, Croatia, with the ‘Dobrodošli’/‘Welcome’ Refugee Support Initiative of the Centre for Peace Studies, Zagreb. For further details see: http://welcome.cms.hr/index.php/en/

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Bless all the dear children…

Speed-writing amid the madness of Christmas Eve – so this may be a stream of semi-consciousness! December has been hectic and the last few days were simply too short. Meeting deadlines and getting things sorted for the festive season… This year, though, it’s a different type of Christmas. Perhaps 2015 has forced us, across Europe, to wake up to the reality of our unjust world. To make us respond to those seeking safety and shelter. How have we reacted? Have we said ‘welcome’ or ‘there’s no room’? It’s a Christmassy kind of question.

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At a lovely ‘Santa Lucia’ feast-day event organised by a dear friend in aid of my appeal.

Anyhow, to answer it in a personal way, I’m heading to Croatia on Monday (28th December) to volunteer for two weeks with the ‘Dobrodošli’/‘Welcome’ Initiative, which has been offering tremendous support to refugees there. And, thanks to incredible help from many people in Ireland and beyond, I’m delighted to say that I’ve far surpassed my fundraising target of €2,000! This money will go to Croatia ADRA, which is bringing essential aid to refugees in the main camp in Slavonski Brod. Please check out this link for details of my appeal: https://www.gofundme.com/BalkansRefugees

Yesterday, I read about a Syrian woman who had just given birth to a baby in Slavonski Brod, shortly after she and her family arrived in the camp. Whether or not you celebrate Christmas, her story has huge human resonance. But she’s not the only mother to have made this trek, not the only pregnant woman to have braved this difficult journey. Her children are lucky to have survived the merciless seas which claimed more young lives this week. The least I can do is spend a little time lending a hand of solidarity with people like her.

In the meantime, I want to make tomorrow special for my kids. I’d also like to wish you all ‘Sretan Božić i Sretna Nova Godina!’ with an image that my eldest daughter created…

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Together to live as one

Solidarity, solidarité, solidarnost… Perhaps it’s an instinctive human reaction to inexplicable horror. Shock at the appalling events in Paris on 13th November turns to grief, confusion. What vile brand of evil could target people enjoying a Friday night? In the city of love and light? At a rock gig, in restaurants and bars, at a football match?

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All across Europe, we were doing similar things. In our house, the whole family was watching the first leg of the Euro 2016 playoffs. Insofar as it could be seen through the fog in Zenica. The Ireland versus Bosnia game was heading towards a draw. We were joking that the result wouldn’t serve as grounds for a Bosnian-Irish divorce. Until, just before the final whistle, our screens began to fill with scenes of chaos. Paris… Sirens screeching, carnage unfolding in real-time. Unreal. Young fans at a concert, taken hostage, brutally slain.

We mourn for the victims. But our tears are crocodilian if they don’t flow for the quarter of a million Syrians slaughtered in almost five years of conflict. Those murdered by ‘Islamic State’ extremists, who’ve now added the attacks in Paris to their catalogue of terror. And the tens of thousands more who’ve been killed by the forces of President Assad and his allies. It’s no wonder that families trek to Europe to escape this. From Syria and elsewhere – fleeing bloodthirsty fanatics and oppressive regimes. What would you do if a hazardous journey was the only hope of a future for your children? If the other options were either the daily fear of death or indefinite displacement and destitution. When all you want, as a parent, is to give your kids a safe home. To ensure that they have health, education, peace.

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Photo: UNHCR

The chance of a new life. It’s the destination sought by the adults and children crossing the Mediterranean, the families and individuals making their arduous way through the Balkans. Up to 800,000 so far this year. And over 3,400 lost at sea. Like at least two Titanic-scale disasters in less than twelve months. Though drowned infants are no longer headline news. Numbers become numbing. Words seem, at best, useless and, at worst, sinister tools to redefine the innocent as threats. From refugees, back to migrants, now potential terrorists – the terms bandied about by journalists and politicians seep into public opinion.

But the people keep on coming. Although the waves are rougher and temperatures are falling. Despite an atmosphere that’s growing colder. After Paris, the challenges they face may be greater. Yet, if Europe is to boast of any ethical values, these must hinge on cherishing our brothers and our sisters. Treating them equally. Sharing with them the liberty that we take for granted. Not closing our doors and turning them away. As European citizens, we should play a part in shaping these critical moments in our history.

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Photo: UNHCR

On a personal level, I find it’s not enough merely to talk or write about this issue. I need to act. That’s why I’ve decided to go back to Croatia and do some voluntary work with refugees there. I’m travelling to Slavonski Brod at the end of December. It’s a town that I last visited in 1994 when I was volunteering with Bosnian refugees who’d fled to Croatia during the wars in the Balkans. Now, it’s the location of a new camp to accommodate people en route to countries, such as Germany, in which they hope to stay.

This tragic cycle of world conflict has prompted my plans to return. I might be twice as old but I’ve acquired significant experience since the nineties. In fact, the course of my life owes much to those turbulent times. I’ve spent the intervening years with someone from Sarajevo. He came to Ireland, for urgent medical treatment, through a resettlement programme established for people who were affected by the Bosnian war. My three daughters are the children of a former refugee. Thus, the present crisis hits straight home. I’ve got to put my energy into practical action.

So I’ll be joining volunteers with the ‘Dobrodošli’/’Welcome’ initiative which has been supporting refugees since their arrival in Croatia this autumn. Over the next few weeks, I’ll also be fundraising for donations to aid refugees in the Slavonski Brod camp. More on this to follow very soon!

Meanwhile, I’ll leave you with a small example of solidarity. On Saturday (14th November) I went to an event at the Islamic Cultural Centre of Ireland. It was a festival of food hosted by the Syrian community and Human Appeal Ireland, an organisation which has done remarkable work in bringing essential supplies into Syria. From speaking to Syrians, Irish people and attendees from other countries, it was clear we were united in revulsion at the atrocities in Paris. We were also linked by concern for those still suffering in Syria and an awareness of the ongoing plight of refugees. Above all, though, we were simply fellow humans engaging in conversation. We talked about common interests over sweet Middle Eastern cakes on a wet afternoon in Dublin. Together – irrespective of our origins or beliefs. And this was welcome.

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Fáilte, refugees, welcome!

Déjà vu. Hundreds of thousands of people fleeing conflict and persecution. Like refugees from the wars in the Balkans in the 1990s. But the scale of this movement is far greater. This is Europe, 2015.

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Most EU states have been reluctant to deal with this crisis. Countries of arrival and transit have been struggling to cope. Some leaders have used language tantamount to hate-speech. At the same time, across Europe, people are showing solidarity with our sisters and brothers who’ve made perilous journeys from even more dangerous places. Offering hands-on assistance and appealing to our governments to accept refugees.

Sadly, it took the death of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, almost two weeks ago, to finally awaken our collective conscience. The photograph of this Syrian boy, lying tiny and lifeless on a tourist beach in Turkey, has sparked a huge reaction. Yet, over recent months and years, many children have drowned in the Mediterranean as families – in the hope of escaping conflict – make risky crossings on routes run by traffickers. Just this weekend, another boat capsized near the Greek islands. Fifteen victims of this latest tragedy were babies or young girls or boys. Meanwhile, thousands of children have been killed in Syria and other war-ravaged regions. Without any public outcry.

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Now, prompted by both sympathy and shame, support for refugees among ordinary Europeans has galvanised. In Ireland, we’ve been signing petitions, pledging beds in our homes, getting involved in the aid effort, writing to the media and to politicians. We’ve attended protests in Dublin – at the Famine Memorial on 5th September and at the Spire last Saturday (12th). People have gathered demonstrations and events throughout the country, calling on the Irish government to do more. On Sunday, 13th September, hundreds of us stood on Sandymount Strand to form the message ‘refugees welcome’ for an aerial photo organised by a coalition of prominent NGOs.

Given its grim history of emigration, Ireland should have a particular affinity with those who are forced to flee. The country still has many recession-related problems, but these can’t be used as an excuse. Accepting refugees is a moral obligation for any state which claims to respect human rights. Indeed, a humane response to this issue could be a significant step in Ireland’s social recovery. It requires a shift in policy – to focus on people, not simply on figures. This approach could benefit the nation as a whole. Especially at a time when, though economic indicators appear positive, levels of disadvantage have grown.

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On 5th September, evidence of this need for overall change could be found not far away from the Famine Memorial. To conclude the protest, the crowd spread out around the bridge over the Liffey for a minute’s silence in memory of all who have lost their lives in desperate attempts to reach Europe. We followed the other participants to the opposite bank of the river. There, a group of homeless people were sitting on a bench. They were understandably upset about this sudden concern for refugees while they remain deprived of the right to shelter. Their objections were largely ignored. But, as chance would have it, we ended up in conversation. Together – Irish citizens who this country has badly failed, Bosnians who’d come here as refugees in nineties and their families – we agreed that we were ‘on the same side’. Because everyone deserves a safe place they can call home. Whether they’ve been displaced by war or dictatorial regimes, or whether they’ve been dispossessed by inequality in Western ‘democracies’.

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Public pressure can influence political proposals, so we hope the current momentum can be sustained. On 10th September, the Minister for Justice, Frances Fitzgerald, announced that Ireland will accept ‘up to 4000 persons’ over the next two years. This is an improvement on the government’s previous commitment to admit a mere 600 of those presently seeking refuge in Europe and a further 520 Syrians from outside the EU. However, it’s vital to ensure that all of these people are accommodated in hospitable environments. They will also require access to services, particularly in relation to health and education. Appropriate English language support must be provided and counselling should be made available. Communities must unite to welcome these new arrivals who have come from such appalling situations.

The implementation of these programmes cannot mirror the degrading system of ‘direct provision’. This has left people who seek asylum in Ireland trapped in debilitating and restrictive conditions – often for years on end – while they await decisions on their status. As numerous human rights organisations demand, this system must be immediately abolished. Survivors of trauma should be treated with dignity, not subjected to institutional abuse.

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Ultimately, the causes of Europe’s refugee crisis have to be addressed. Stopping the war in Syria, which has now uprooted over half the country’s population and claimed at least a quarter of a million lives, must be a priority. To date, there has been very little political or public engagement in Ireland in this regard. The Irish Syria Solidarity Movement will hold a protest outside the Dáil on Wednesday 23rd September to raise awareness as to why Syrians are refugees. It’s important that, although their plight seems almost forgotten, we think of those who are still under attack inside Syria.

All of these issues – tackling homelessness, welcoming refugees, respecting everybody who seeks asylum here, considering Ireland’s role as an ally of people affected by conflict – could be part of a new agenda for this country. They call on us, as individuals, to take whatever action we possibly can. For history will judge us on our humanity. In July, along with other members and friends of the Bosnian community in Ireland, we commemorated the twentieth anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide. As well as remembering this atrocity, we pointed out that we’re witnessing similar horrors in Syria today. We can’t just turn away – we must do something (please see links below). And forgive me if I sound shrill, but this stuff is personal. Because, reader, I married a refugee.

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Some useful links:

What you can do – via Migrant Rights Centre Ireland – including links to organisations bringing to humanitarian aid to refugees across Europe:

http://www.mrci.ie/our-work/international-work/news-international-work/refugeeswelcome-what-you-can-do/

‘Refugees welcome’ aerial photo – via Irish Refugee Council:

http://www.irishrefugeecouncil.ie/news/irish-people-spell-out-their-welcome-to-refugees-ahead-of-crucial-eu-meeting/4143

Reflections of a medical evacuee from Bosnia who came to Ireland in 1994 on the experience of Bosnian refugees – RTE Drivetime 7/9/15:

https://vodhls.rasset.ie/manifest/audio/2015/0907/20150907_rteradio1-drivetime-irelandspl_c20842389_20842392_261_.m3u8

Also see RTE Player – Six-One News 7/9/15 and The Week in Politics 13/9/15:

http://www.rte.ie/player/ie/

Letter to the Irish Times published on 1/9/11: 

http://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/letters/seeking-refuge-in-europe-1.2335262

Reflections – Sarajevo to Cavtat

I’m not much of a photographer. I lack the skill and patience to capture telling moments in an artful way. Phone-snapping is no substitute. I simply prefer to remember and, if time permits, scribble some notes afterwards. Most of the detail is lost. But the feelings sparked by these memories – whether written or unrecorded – retain their colour. And Bosnia and Croatia are very vivid places. A few fragments from the summer…

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Bajram
We arrived at the end of Ramadan. Despite the heatwave and the fasting, Sarajevo throbbed with joyous energy. After sundown, fairy lights twinkled across the main street. Folk dancers performed their kolo in Baščaršija. The bakeries sold fresh somun and the char-grilled air was balmy.

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Bajram, as Eid is known here, fell on a Friday. For the kids, in particular, it was a memorable experience. Apart from our eldest, who’d lived in Sarajevo when she was a baby, this was the first time they’d been in Bosnia for the festival. They were happy to get involved in the family celebrations. As far as they were concerned, the occasion meant dressing nicely, eating plenty and receiving gifts. Across the world, irrespective of cultural background, the protocol for feast-days seems pretty similar. Although, I have to admit, the gathering of clans they often entail freaks me out a bit. Even in Ireland I’ve always recoiled from what’s considered a ‘traditional Christmas’. Bajram with my in-laws is along those, rather hierarchical, lines.

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Or perhaps it’s just me – the vegetarian foreign feminist who’s been bringing strange ideas to Sarajevo since 1996. An outsider, she makes weird observations. Like noticing how the men do all the sitting while the women serve the food. Or questioning, albeit furtively, who ‘entertains’ the children. Listening to the differences between ‘male’ and ‘female’ topics of conversation… lamenting, under her breath, those poor calves whose destiny is teletina.

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Maybe she’s hyper-sensitive, maybe she over-interprets. This is purely a personal, filtered snapshot. Still, from talking to Bosnian women, it’s clear they face many challenges relating to gendered expectations. These issues are by no means exclusive to Bosnia. They’re globally relevant. Rigid concepts of culture and strict social institutions breed injustice. Women and men must, together, create fairer alternatives.

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Above the city
Temperatures are in the high thirties. The tinderbox motif is more than mere historical cliché. Wildfires have broken out in Herzegovina. Sarajevo is a hothouse. We hit the hills. Jahorina. Walking along the mountain track, there’s no shelter from the sun. Shadowy valleys simmer under a diaphanous veil of haze. Insect-buzz – bumble bees, wasps, hoverflies, green bottles. Flitting among a riot of flowers, butterflies… speckled, white, brimstone and meadow brown. Nervous grasshoppers spring from our tread as we step off the path. A stunted fir tree offers minimal shade. Beside it, a lonely rose.

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The woodland way is cooler. We go as far as the wishing well. Under the creaking cables of the ski-lift which – to the kids’ delight and my dismay – seems to be functioning.

‘Can we? Please!’

Overhead, pulleys strain.

‘Are you totally insane?’

The children don’t give up. Soon I’m outnumbered, four to one. Even their father, who usually claims he suffers from vertigo, joins their campaign. He wants to relive his youth.

‘There was loads of snow when you went on it. At least that’d break your fall…’

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The scree slope looks merciless. But no-one heeds my muttering. The ‘safety bar’ descends. The gondola rises. Swaying… The distribution of our weight is skewed. What genius came up with these seating arrangements? The younger two are screaming with excitement. The little one is skinny enough to slide out underneath the transparent hood. Cold feet swing in the breeze. Each time we pass the supporting poles the whole contraption rumbles.

‘This is a horror movie!’

Ovo je super!

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At the top, the scenery is phenomenal. But there’s only one thing scarier than going up. It’s the downward lurch. This where the allegedly ‘responsible’ parent resorts to expletives and prayer… So much for Zdravo Marijo – the last line is too ominous, ‘at hour of our death’ etc.. Not appropriate. Better to stick to daily bread and temptation – hoping that we might survive to get some.

‘OH SHIT!’

My offspring snigger at maternal meltdown as the gradient steepens. And this is the radio edit of our tale. To be honest, I’d enjoy the ride if I didn’t have to hang on to the youngest. By sheer miracle, we make it back alive.

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Mount Igman a few days later. Malo Polje – the venue for the ski jump competition in the Winter Olympics of 1984. The commentary box now looks upon an overgrown piste, rusting equipment, a small playground. The sports reporters have long gone. Sadly, they missed my gymnastic debut on a trampoline for kids. A picnic on the fringes of newly cut pasture. The fragrance of haystacks wafts into the forest. Birdsong blends with the rasping of grey-backed crows. The clearing echoes, it prompts reminiscences. The middle child decides that having two parents from troubled places is ‘so awesome’. Or so messed up. These are mountains of dry thunder and grim memories – warring peaks. Still beautiful… still scarred. The mind wanders through the uplands.

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Cavtat
I first swam in the Adriatic with kids displaced by the conflict in the Balkans. Coming from Ireland, it was a thrill to be submerged without the risk of hypothermia. Returning over the years to the Dalmatian coast, I mastered a frog-like version of the breaststroke. Neither athletic nor elegant, but it lets me glide with my head above the surface. A retired couple chat in deeper water, talking about how glorious it is here. How peaceful… ‘nema galame’. The sea absorbs thoughts. Its warmth soothes.

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The children become amphibious. The older two plunge to the seabed. The youngest learns to swim without armbands. Ecstatic, she splashes unaided, stays afloat. Swimming into the sunset until the burnished swell slowly turns to twilight. Climbing rocks into the stars, the trail of a blue moon tapers, shimmering, towards the shore. On the last day, the seascape is four-dimensional. The glittering panorama of the bay gives perspective. Cloudless heights flow into fluid depths. Two decades of hopes and promises are refracted. Tears drown in salty slap-kisses of waves.

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Ireland commemorates Srebrenica

Our call on Ireland to officially mark the Srebrenica genocide was answered on Tuesday 7 July. That day, members and friends of the Bosnian community arranged to hold a small commemoration of the twentieth anniversary of this atrocity. We gathered at 1pm on Molesworth Street, just across the road from Leinster House (the Irish parliament building). Many of the Bosnians who attended had suffered greatly during the conflict in their country and had come to Ireland as refugees. Some of them brought their children – the new generation of the post-war diaspora – to this memorial event. I was glad our three daughters were there. It’s essential that young people learn about their history. It’s even more important that they learn from the past. Among us were Irish activists who’ve campaigned for Bosnia since the early nineties. Other friends, from Ireland and beyond, added to our number.

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The skies were ominous. The forecast of ‘scattered showers’ soon translated into a torrential downpour. We took refuge on the porch of Buswells Hotel. Trying to sort out posters in a stiffening breeze, I asked the doorman if we could leave our bags at the side of the steps. Assuring him that we wouldn’t cause an obstruction, I told him the purpose of our event. He said that he remembered Srebrenica… that it was terrible. His comment struck me. Twenty years on, the name of that tortured Bosnian town still lingers in the memory of all of us who watched it fall. It was time to honour the 8,372 victims – the sons, brothers, husbands, fathers, uncles, grandfathers – of the genocide at Srebrenica.

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We waited, rather nervously, hoping some politicians might drop by over lunchtime. We’d been to Belfast on Sunday 5 July, and joined with the Lord Mayor, Arder Carson, the Northern Ireland Inter-Faith Forum and representatives of other cross-community groups in commemorating Srebrenica. One of the survivors of Srebrenica, who now lives in Dublin, had spoken powerfully about the trauma he’d experienced. On Tuesday he was with us, before going back to bury a close relative who was killed in the massacre. This year, 136 recently identified victims will be laid to rest at the annual ceremony of commemoration at the Potočari cemetery on 11 July. The youngest of them aged just sixteen.

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Teenagers, in Europe, at the end of the twentieth century… We owed it to them. We owed it to all of them – to call on the Irish government, to call on every member of the Oireachtas to hear the cries of the mothers of Srebrenica who, for twenty years, have begged the world not to forget. And, this time, Ireland listened. On 7 July the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Charles Flanagan, issued this ‘Statement on 20th Anniversary of the Genocide at Srebrenica’:

In July 1995, one of the most appalling atrocities ever to take place in Europe happened in Srebrenica. As we approach the 20th anniversary of that dark time, we remember the 8,000 men and boys who died in that terrible massacre, and their families and wider community, whose lives were irrevocably changed by those days in July 1995.

It is important that we challenge and condemn any attempts to minimise or deny the genocide that took place at Srebrenica.

This genocide took place within living memory. The tragic impact of the conflict on its many victims should serve as a stark reminder of the need to learn the lessons of the past. We must redouble our efforts to promote tolerance and respect as fundamental values.

Ireland continues to support the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the wider region in their efforts to build a sustainable peace and achieve economic and social progress. We encourage them on their path to accession to the European Union, a community which is founded on the principles of justice and peace.”

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We read the statement just minutes before our event was about to start. By remembering the victims of Srebrenica and recognising the genocide that occurred there, it sends out a strong message from Ireland to the world. This expression of solidarity with those still affected by the war in Bosnia was also reflected at our memorial on Tuesday. Despite the inclement weather, many TDs and Senators (26 at the last head-count) came in person to remember Srebrenica. All the major political parties – both government (Fine Gael and Labour) and opposition (Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin) – were represented, as were Independent members of the Oireachtas. The Minister for Education and the Minister for Employment, Community and Social Support attended. So did officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs. At the end of our short ceremony we met with Ireland’s Deputy Prime Minister, Tánaiste Joan Burton. She too lent her support to the Bosnian community in its efforts to commemorate Srebrenica.

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The event was quite impromptu, but very poignant. It began with a minute’s silence in honour of the thousands who were murdered in Srebrenica. This was followed by a poem in their memory, which was read by a Bosnian teenage boy. Then a speech recalling the horror of July 1995, but also appreciating Ireland’s role in ensuring that Ratko Mladić – one of the main indictees on charges of genocide at Srebrenica – is brought to justice. Links were made to the current focus on commemoration in Ireland, as the centenary of the 1916 Rising approaches, and verse by W.B. Yeats was recited in this, the year of the 150th anniversary of his birth. The rain lashed down relentlessly. We concluded with a prayer which was delivered by the Grand Mufti of Bosnia and Herzegovina at the burial ceremony in Srebrenica. Its lines transcend all religions and beliefs. It ends with words now inscribed in marble among the long rows of headstones in the Potočari cemetery…

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‘That Srebrenica never happens again’. Throughout we emphasised that the world must strive to prevent such acts of violence. We paid our respects, on the tenth anniversary of the 7/7 bombings in London, to all victims of terror including the three Irish people who died in the recent attack in Tunisia. We remembered Syria – a place which has become more forsaken today than Bosnia was in the nineties.

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No words can ease the pain of those whose dear ones were slaughtered when the promise of international protection was broken. Nevertheless, we can’t forget their loss. In 1995, the screams of Srebrenica were ignored. It may be two decades too late, but at least now, by officially marking the anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide, Ireland is atoning in some way for its past silence. After our event, one of the Bosnian women told me, ‘we’ve waited twenty years for this’. She was right.

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In addition to the Irish government’s announcement on 7 July, the cross-party Joint Foreign Affairs Committee which, as a result of our call, had raised and discussed the commemoration of Srebrenica, issued this further statement on 8 July:

The Oireachtas Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade this morning marked the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide. The killing of 8,000 Bosnian men and boys in July 1995 was one of the darkest days of the terrible conflict that engulfed the former Yugoslavia.

Noting that this was one of the worst atrocities to take place in Europe since the Second World War, and the failure of the international community to prevent the genocide, the Committee reaffirmed support for the international efforts to bring to justice those responsible. The Committee stands with members of the Bosnian community in Ireland in remembering those killed, and acknowledges the loss of their families and loved ones.

The Committee supports Ireland’s commitment to a European perspective for Bosnia and Herzegovina, along with the other countries of the Western Balkans. The Committee encourages those countries to continue implementing the democratic, political and economic reforms that will advance them on their respective European paths.

The official ceremony of commemoration takes place in Srebrenica on 11 July, and Ireland will be represented by Ireland’s Ambassador to Bosnia and Herzegovina Mr. Patrick Kelly.”

The Committee’s tribute to the Bosnian community in Ireland – whose members have survived Srebrenica, the siege of Sarajevo, death-camps and other horrific forms of torture – is indeed appropriate. We hope that these statements will strengthen our efforts to keep the memory of Srebrenica alive in Ireland.

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ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
Thank you to:

  • The many politicians who read and responded to our postcard appeal, who corresponded with us and asked parliamentary questions to the Minister of Foreign Affairs
  • The members of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs who were particularly active in relation to Srebrenica
  • The Senators who spoke on this issue in the Seanad
  • All at the Department of Foreign Affairs who took an interest in Srebrenica
  • The members of the Oireachtas who attended our gathering of remembrance
  • The Tánaiste for taking the time to meet us
  • The journalists who covered this story (please see media links below)
  • The Northern Ireland Inter-Faith Forum and everyone involved in the commemoration of Srebrenica in Belfast
  • Remembering Srebrenica UK for their support

Above all, hvala puno to:

  • The members of the Bosnian community in Ireland who came to the memorial event and spread word about it
  • The three speakers from the Bosnian community who made such an impact at our gathering
  • The wonderful poster designer (and one of the three speakers above) who also contributed so much to organising this event
  • The one-woman powerhouse and human rights activist extraordinaire who founded Ireland Action for Bosnia in the 1990s and is a tireless supporter of the Bosnian community
  • All our friends who braved the stormy conditions to commemorate Srebrenica
  • Anyone else I’ve inadvertently forgotten while writing this at 4am (the norm in recent weeks)
  • My Bosnian-Irish offspring who now accept that mealtimes are very movable feasts (i.e. in between emails)
  • The Bosnian I live with

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And huge thanks to all of YOU who contacted your TDs/Senators or shared information about our appeal. Or even just read a little about Srebrenica… And remembered.

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Media links:

“We owe these victims, we are their voices now”. TodayFM News, 7/7/15:
Irish Bosnian community commemorates Srebrenica genocide. Newstalk, 7/7/15:
Srebrenica genocide remembered 20 years on. The Irish Examiner, 7/7/15:

Srebrenica 2015 – events in Ireland

11 July 2015 is the twentieth anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide. Please join in efforts across Ireland to remember the victims of this atrocity which still haunts Bosnia and Herzegovina, Europe and the world.

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 5 JULY – BELFAST

A memorial ceremony for Srebrenica will be held on Sunday 5 July at 6.00pm in the Belfast City Hall. This event is organised by the Northern Ireland Inter-Faith Forum, with the support of the Lord Mayor of Belfast and the charity Remembering Srebrenica. We’re hoping to attend along with other Bosnian guests. This is the first official commemoration of Srebrenica to take place on the island of Ireland.

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The First Minister and Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland have also made a joint statement on this issue:

“As we mark the 20th anniversary, we mourn those who were lost and share our thoughts and prayers with those who were left behind and most importantly, respect their ongoing pain and share their hopes for a better future.

We must keep the memory of the victims of Srebrenica alive and work to eliminate prejudice and discrimination. It is important we all learn from the past so we can create a safer, better and more hopeful future for everyone.”

Kudos to Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness! The leaders of Northern Ireland don’t always agree, so their harmony in relation to Srebrenica is all the more welcome. Anything Belfast can do, (we hope) Dublin can do equally well. Which brings us to the next event, south of the border…

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7 JULY – DUBLIN

On Tuesday 7 July, from 1.00 to 2.00pm, members of the Bosnian community in Ireland and Irish friends are organising a solemn gathering for Srebrenica in front of Leinster House. Twenty years ago, we stood outside government buildings, calling on Ireland to urge powerful international institutions to save the people under attack in Srebrenica. Two decades later, history compels us to remember the terrible fate that awaited those who’d taken refuge in this UN ‘safe area’.

The least we can do in Ireland is to honour the victims of the Srebrenica genocide. We’ve gathered in a similar way in previous years but this twentieth anniversary is particularly significant. Please stop by and express your solidarity with survivors of the Bosnian war. We’re inviting both members of the public and members of the Oireachtas to spend a few minutes with us.

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We deeply appreciate the efforts that many Irish politicians have made in response to our call for Ireland to officially commemorate Srebrenica. The cross-party support this appeal has received has been truly heartening. Hopefully, it’ll lead to a positive outcome. But keep asking your T.D.s and Senators to raise this issue!

If you’ve ever been to Bosnia and Herzegovina or you’ve got an interest in the country, you’ll be aware of its difficult recent past. Irish history further informs us that remembering in a respectful way is a vital part of any reconciliation process. Commemorating Srebrenica is thus essential in dealing with the painful legacy of the 1990s in the Balkans. Bosnia’s living memory is also a reminder of atrocities perpetrated in current conflicts – contemporary war-crimes that, in a decade or so, will no doubt be recognised as acts of genocide. We can never forget what happened in Srebrenica in 1995. To our shame, it’s still too relevant now.

Looking forward to seeing you at these Srebrenica memorial events in Belfast and Dublin!

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Useful links:

Eventbrite link for event in Dublin: 20th anniversary of Srebrenica genocide

Press release for event in Dublin: Srebrenica 20th anniversary event in Ireland

To contact politicians in Ireland see: Commemorating Srebrenica

Remembering Srebrenica website – features Belfast event and N.I. statement: Remembering Srebrenica

Press Release: Srebrenica 20th anniversary event in Ireland

Bosnians in Ireland mark 20th anniversary of Srebrenica genocide

Date/time: Tuesday 7 July 2015, 1.00–2.00pm
Place: Leinster House, i.e. end of Molesworth Street (due to new regulations), Dublin 2

Bosnians in Ireland will mark the twentieth anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide with a solemn gathering in front of Leinster House from 1.00pm to 2.00pm on Tuesday 7 July 2015. This event will commemorate and honour over 8,000 Bosnian men and boys who were brutally killed when the UN ‘safe area’ of Srebrenica fell to Serbian forces, led by Ratko Mladić, in July 1995. This massacre has been recognised as genocide by the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. It is the worst single atrocity to have been perpetrated on European soil since the Second World War.

In its resolution of 15th January 2009, the European Parliament called on EU states and countries of the Western Balkans to ‘commemorate appropriately the anniversary of the Srebrenica-Potočari act of genocide by supporting Parliament’s recognition of 11 July as the day of commemoration of the Srebrenica genocide’. This resolution highlights the need for Europeans to remember the victims of Srebrenica and all who died in the wars across former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. It also acknowledges that recognising the Srebrenica genocide is an essential aspect of any effort towards reconciliation in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Given the failure of the international community to protect people who sought refuge in Srebrenica, it is important that countries around the world mark the anniversary of this genocide. Ireland will be represented at the main commemoration ceremony which will be held at the Srebrenica-Potočari Memorial Centre and Cemetery in Bosnia and Herzegovina on 11 July 2015. It is also hoped that the Irish government will follow the example of Britain and other states by officially commemorating the Srebrenica genocide in an appropriate way here. The Bosnian community in Ireland invite members of the Oireachtas and members of the public to join them in their gathering of remembrance for Srebrenica on Tuesday 7 July.

– Ends –

For further information please contact:
Bronagh Ćatibušić via this blog http://www.bronaghcatibusic.wordpress.com or via Twitter @BiHIrishcoffee

Commemorating Srebrenica

This is a post with a difference. Rather, it’s one in which YOU can make a difference! How? Simply add your voice to this appeal for Ireland to commemorate the genocide in Srebrenica. Almost twenty years ago, over 8000 men and boys were murdered in this now infamous Bosnian town during several days of slaughter that began on 11 July 1995. The atrocity unfolded under the gaze of the global media. It was perpetrated in a designated UN ‘safe haven’ – a place where people expected they would be protected. Instead, they became victims of the worst act of terror in Europe since the Second World War.

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The failure of the international community in Srebrenica shames us all. We who share a continent with the families bereaved by this crime against humanity bear a duty to remember. In a resolution passed in 2009, the European Parliament called on EU states and countries of the Western Balkans to mark the anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide. We urge Ireland to follow the example of Britain and other nations in this regard. An annual commemoration would be an appropriate gesture of solidarity with the survivors of the war in Bosnia. It would also be a reminder that the lessons of Srebrenica still need to be learned. That the human faces of conflict aren’t mere images to ignore… That refugees fleeing persecution can’t be abandoned. That, in the wake of horror, the pursuit of justice is the only route towards reconciliation.

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So let’s take action! Here are a few ideas based on what we’ve already done… As an ‘odd couple’ of regular correspondents to the Oireachtas (Irish parliament), we’ve previously received positive responses from politicians in relation to Srebrenica. These have indicated cross-party support for a memorial event in Ireland. This year, we’ve started our campaign a little earlier so that such an event can be organised by 11 July. Last week, we sent a postcard to all our parliamentary representatives, reminding them about the twentieth anniversary of Srebrenica and asking them to ensure that it’s officially commemorated. We’ve also written emails to the members of both the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Joint Committee on European Union Affairs, with further details of our proposal. It’s not a huge demand – a small ceremony, attended by figures from the across the political spectrum and Bosnians who live in Ireland, would suffice.

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Now we need your help! All you have to do is to write to Irish politicians – a short letter, email, or a message on social media – requesting that they do their utmost to persuade the government to agree to an official commemoration of the Srebrenica genocide. The postcard above can serve as a template. I’ve also provided the text in a reproducible format which you may like to copy and/or adapt. Plus you can use the photos included in this post, which we took at the Srebrenica memorial centre and cemetery in Potočari, for the purpose of this appeal.

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The Oireachtas website, with contact information for members of the Dáil and Seanad, can be accessed via the link below – please write to representatives from your own constituency and beyond. In addition, there are links to the relevant committees and ministers. You don’t have to be Irish or resident in this country to get involved. The more correspondence, the stronger the call! Your words can offer support to the survivors of Srebrenica and show awareness of the suffering caused by ongoing conflicts today. As together we say that Ireland must never again turn away.

Postcard text:

Dear Deputy/Senator …,

This July marks the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide. The European Parliament passed a resolution in 2009 calling on EU states to commemorate this atrocity in which over 8000 Bosnian men and boys were killed. We ask that Ireland join other countries in organising an official memorial event. As a small but symbolic annual gesture, this would show Irish support for those who lost loved ones in the Bosnian war (1992-1995) and for all who are affected by present conflicts. Please use your power, as a member of the Oireachtas, to ensure that Ireland commemorates Srebrenica from this year onwards.

Kind regards,

Your name
For further information, please contact: your email address

Web-links:

Oireachtas website – email addresses of all T.D.s and Senators: 

http://www.oireachtas.ie/members/

Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade – list of members: 

http://www.oireachtas.ie/parliament/oireachtasbusiness/committees_list/foreign-affairs-trade/members/

Joint Committee on European Affairs – list of members:

http://www.oireachtas.ie/parliament/oireachtasbusiness/committees_list/eu-affairs/members/

Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade – Charles Flanagan, T.D.: charles.flanagan@oireachtas.ie

https://www.dfa.ie/about-us/contact-us/contact-minister-flanagan/

Minister of State for European Affairs – Dara Murphy, T.D.: dara.murphy@oireachtas.ie

https://www.dfa.ie/about-us/contact-us/contact-minister-murphy/

See also – Remembering Srebrenica (UK): 

http://www.srebrenica.org.uk/

Sarajevo for academic purposes

Nineteen years of travelling to Sarajevo and the city never ceases to enchant me. My first solo trip was no exception. Not the typical expedition en famille – this time it was just me and a sample of my research. I was off to the fifth Foreign Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics Conference (FLTAL’15) held at International Burch University. I’d heard about this event, by chance, last May. Tweets from Bosnia posted by the renowned Harvard professor, Steven Pinker, had aroused my curiosity. I discovered he’d been one of the FLTAL guest speakers in 2014. Well that was sufficient impetus to submit an abstract for this year.

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What a joy to receive an invitation to FLTAL’15! Plus it meant another visit to Sarajevo. The conference ran from Thursday to Saturday, 7 to 9 May, but fortuitous scheduling of flights via Istanbul and accommodation with my in-laws allowed me to stay a little longer. On the Wednesday I had the freedom of Sarajevo – welcome headspace before my presentation. Though it took me a while to remember how to relax… to wander around and reminisce, appreciate.

It was warm for spring but the heat was lilac-scented. Neither tourist nor native, I enjoyed retracing the centuries of history embedded in the cobbles of Baščaršija. Coffee and rahat lokum refreshed my way to Vijećnica. I’d watched this city hall and former national library as it slowly rose from ruins to magnificence. It drew me in again and, empty for a few minutes on a quiet afternoon, I was treated to a private exhibition of its splendour. Perfect calm before a busy conference!

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FLTAL’15 indeed proved lively. Global experts from a spectrum of fields in linguistics and language education delivered excellent keynote speeches. Names I knew as citations from reading their work and recommending it to my students. I never imagined I’d have the opportunity to meet them and listen to their insights in Sarajevo. It was also wonderful to make new contacts among the conference participants. They were a diverse bunch – from Brazil to the USA, to China and Japan, to all over Europe, many nations were represented. I found it very interesting to hear presenters from across the Balkan region speaking about their studies on issues of relevance to this area. In particular, the involvement of institutions from various parts of Bosnia was important. From the outset, the focus was on language as a means of communication which can foster greater understanding between people(s).

It was a pleasure to present my research into second language acquisition by immigrant children in Ireland and to talk about the need for plurilingual and intercultural approaches to education. Strangely, I felt more nervous than usual, even though I’ve co-authored a book on this topic and spoken about it at a Council of Europe intergovernmental seminar and other events in Cambridge and Dublin. I think it was due to a certain emotional investment in bringing my work to Sarajevo. Having taught English in one of its language schools, being a regular visitor and eternal learner of Bosnian (which happens to be ‘father tongue’ of my kids), I’ve got a deep connection to this city. But, above all, I was excited. The thrill of being in Bosnia, exchanging ideas with colleagues from such a range of places and situations, made this prodigal’s return seem worthwhile.

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I also managed to become an unofficial tour guide. Many of the foreign participants had never been to Sarajevo before, so I offered tips on what to see during their short stay. An Irish vegetarian’s suggestion of Željo as the best ćevapi restaurant went down well! Back on campus, the staff and students of International Burch University did an impressive job not only organising in a stimulating conference but in promoting the potential of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The closing ceremony was followed by a concert in which young musicians provided a taste of the country’s cultural heritage, showing how this remains a source of mixing and innovation.

The next day, for those who didn’t have to leave immediately, a trip to Mostar was arranged. It included a brief stop at Počitelj – a town rich in both mediaeval and Ottoman influence – and lunch at the picturesque site of a dervish monastery on the River Buna. Visiting these places in new company was uplifting. Standing on Mostar’s famous bridge, I gazed below me into the emerald Neretva. Swollen with seasonal rain and snow-melt, it was flowing with fresh energy.

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Then the bus back to Sarajevo. By this stage, I was tired. Worried too. I’d heard, when I phoned home the previous night, that my eight-year-old daughter had lost a piece of her permanent front tooth in a minor accident. Throughout the journey to and from Mostar, I was trying to keep up with her search for emergency dental treatment – difficult to come by in Ireland on a Sunday. Verdant slopes turned to stone as they stretched towards reproachful peaks. I felt guilty that I wasn’t there to hug my unfortunate youngest. Illogically but inevitably, I blamed myself for being away. Asking ‘why?’ Realising the damage could’ve been more serious, yet it was lasting. I was caught between two worlds, amid the jagged mountains of Herzegovina aware of the fragility of my child.

A few days concentrating solely on work-related matters, rather than multitasking, had been delightful. But now I wished my that Bosnian-Irish darlings were with me. Hopefully, we’ll all be back in the summer. For the kids, it’s vital to maintain their sense of belonging. Also, from my own perspective, I’m eager to develop further professional liaisons with Bosnia.

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In the meantime, it’s lovely to feel familiar in Sarajevo. When the assistant in the Svjetlost bookstore recalls you as a loyal customer, when you know exactly where to find a special present for a brave little girl… This is a city whose streets forever hold significance – troves of idiosyncrasy which can frustrate but make you smile, often at yourself. It’s somewhere of stories galore. And of unfinished chapters.

Congratulations to the organisers of FLTAL’15 – for information about the conference see: http://fltal.ibu.edu.ba/

Link to my research, published as Volume 3 of the Cambridge English Profile Studies series: http://www.cambridge.org/gb/cambridgeenglish/professional-development/immigrant-pupils-learn-english/immigrant-pupils-learn-english-a-cefr-related-empirical-study-l2-development-paperback