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:
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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

A gallery to remember… Srebrenica

This post hasn’t been easy to write. Maybe I’ve no right to write it. As a foreigner, this dilemma is one I constantly face when engaging with Bosnia. Outside interpretations tend to over-simplify. While expert reports, through their lens of objectivity, sometimes eclipse the raw accounts of those who know things first-hand. What can a non-native say? Here, all I’ll draw on is my own experience, accepting my limitations as a stranger, a strankinja. These are just jagged pieces of reflection. My meagre contribution to an infinite jigsaw of remembrance.

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The most haunting aspect of our trip to Bosnia this year was our visit to Gallery 11/07/95. This exhibition centre, off the main street in Sarajevo, takes its name from the date of the beginning of the Srebrenica massacre. Its aim is to preserve the memory of the 8372 people brutally killed, over a couple of days, in that eastern Bosnian town. A place now synonymous with genocide. In Europe. In our time.

Spending an hour in a carefully planned display space can’t compare with making the journey to Srebrenica. Someday we’ll go there. When the children are a bit older – our youngest daughter is only six. Instead, we brought the three of them to the gallery. Despite Trip Advisor’s warning that the exhibition is ‘very difficult and clearly not to be recommended for kids’. But our children are half-Bosnian. Learning about war and its aftermath isn’t an optional subject, it’s their inheritance.

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The travel website was correct, however, in describing the gallery as a ‘must see’. It’s more than that. It’s a must remember. The layout is stark: walls covered with the names and faces of the men and boys who were murdered in July 1995. The date struck our eldest, she was born in 2000. Then the photos of survivors – people displaced to Tuzla or strewn to other countries. Many of these were taken in 2002. The year of our second daughter’s birth – still too recent to be history. But Srebrenica is an unfinished tragedy. A running sore, the black and white images remind. An unearthed skull stares out, admonishes. Among shots of cracked family pictures, decomposing clothes, forensically identified remains, legions of coffins… After almost two decades of burial, the search continues for traces of the missing.

SG2There’s a lot crammed into this wooden-floored tunnel of a room. In its annexes, multi-media installations are presented. Barbarism meets state-of-the-art technology in the interactive mapping of mass graves. While a video plays, on loop, its few minutes of documentary. Again the irony – Srebrenica caught on camera. But this was the mid-nineties. The advent of reality TV. Far too horrifically real… The testimony of mothers, sons, wives subdues the huddle of viewers. As they talk of last goodbyes and of farewells left unsaid, we pretend we’re not crying.

Perhaps the saddest thing is that Srebrenica was totally avoidable. It wasn’t some freak natural disaster. People made it happen. Through their actions: the footage shows Ratko Mladić seizing the town as a ‘gift’ to the Serbian nation he claimed to represent. And through inaction: that of the UN peacekeepers, who failed to protect civilians, and of the world’s leading powers, who let carnage engulf Bosnia in the three years before Europe’s worst atrocity since World War II. The inadequacy of the international response was admitted in 1999 by Kofi Annan, then UN Secretary General. In 2012, his successor, Ban Ki-Moon, visited the memorial centre and victims’ cemetery in Potočari. ‘We must learn from the lessons of Srebrenica,’ he said, making specific reference to the war in Syria. A year later, the conflict there still rages. And crimes against humanity are perpetrated on a daily basis in less-reported combat zones. Which town will be next to share Srebrenica’s grim accolade as a source of global shame?

SG1An outsider’s visit to Gallery 11/07/95 is nothing but a meaningless gesture unless it’s followed by a commitment to act. The gallery is envisaged as a place both for ‘the continuing remembrance of the innocent citizens of Srebrenica who were slaughtered’ and ‘for the articulation of voices against all forms of violence in the world’. It challenges its visitors to respond to this call for commemoration. To bear witness, to speak out, so that horrors such as 11/07/95 can never be repeated. Even the smallest effort – the writing of a letter or joining a campaign – could be significant. For each marks a personal step, it adds to the groundswell of human will that could finally relegate genocide to the past. It won’t ease the grief of the bereaved of Srebrenica. But it might spare another family from enduring a similar nightmare. To save a single life is to save the world.

When in Sarajevo, visit Gallery 11/07/95. For contact details see its website: http://galerija110795.ba/

Three baby girls

On a similar theme to ‘A gallery to remember… Srebrenica’, here’s a post I wrote for a previous blog-site before we left for Bosnia. The reflections are something of a maelstrom – remembering Srebrenica but also linking to recent events that sparked protests in Sarajevo and elsewhere in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Their common thread is the impact of conflict and injustice on the world’s greatest hope – its new-born children.

I’m writing this on July 11, the eighteenth anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre. I’m writing as an Irishwoman who, as a European, must share the shame this day casts across our continent. Here on the far side of Europe, we’ve scarce right to speak of things too dreadful to comprehend. Yet silence breeds amnesia and words, however weak, are a weapon against forgetting. As the mother of three Bosnian-Irish daughters, I can’t avoid this part of my kids’ heritage – the recent history of their father’s land. Though these thoughts I’m jotting down are the only wreath I can lay. They’re just rushed notes – we’re preparing for Sarajevo. A few days to go until our annual trek to Bosnia… And I’m in charge of logistics. But dusting out empty suitcases and folding summer dresses, I’m reminded of another three little girls. Belmina, Berina, Fatima… their Bosnian names chime with those of my younger daughters.

SG3Fatima should be turning eighteen. On the cusp of adulthood, she should be full of life. Instead, her stillborn remains lie buried in Potočari. She’ll be known, solely from her headstone, as the youngest victim of Srebrenica. Her mother’s anguish of labour must’ve drowned in the screams of thousands – the slaughtered and the tortured, the bereft. Fatima couldn’t survive in a world of death. In a ‘safe haven’ where over 8000 men and boys were killed in an act of genocide because they belonged to the faith of Fatima’s parents. Eighteen years later, their identities are still being pieced together from fragments of bone and traces of DNA. 409 lost loved ones interred at this year’s ceremony. It’s too unthinkable… Maybe that’s why we can’t – or we don’t – think.

The Bosnian war ended in 1995, several months after Srebrenica. Either because the world was appalled or powerful nations decided it was prudent to enforce peace in their time. Eighteen years since the conflict that marked its birth, Bosnia and Herzegovina should be coming of age. It should, at least, be starting to face up to its past. Remembering with dignity and trying to reconcile. Although its leaders don’t appear that way inclined… They’re accentuating division, even at the expense of children’s lives.

JMBG3ATwo more little girls – Belima and Berina – were born in Bosnia this spring. Both struggling with serious illnesses, they needed operations which could only be performed in other jurisdictions. These urgent medical transfers were hindered by the infants’ lack of documentation, due to political squabbles over legislation to govern the issuing of ID numbers (Jedinstveni matični broj građana or JMBG) to new-borns. This is Bosnia and Herzegovina, 2013. The honchos of war-carved entities prefer to deny their most vulnerable citizens official proof of existence than to compromise. Their contempt for children’s rights thwarts the treatment of sick babies. It halts Berina on her journey to hospital in Belgrade. It leads to a fatal delay… Public demonstrations force stop-gap measures to be introduced in the case of little Belmina. But after what unnecessary loss of time? She’s fighting for her tiny life in Germany. It seems kids can still be sacrificed to the prejudice of rulers. Now, eighteen years since Srebrenica.

44 young boys were among those laid to rest on this anniversary. Some a year or two older than my eldest daughter… It doesn’t bear thinking – I throw my pen aside and pack with fury. Why do these horrors happen? How do we let them? In our age of information overload – when carnage is a screen, a page, a finger-click or a flick of a switch away? When we’re saturated with coverage? When we’re lapping up tragedy, almost voyeurs? Even the human stories – those child victims are always so emotive. They tug on our hardened heart-strings… for a second.

SG5The international media is giving Srebrenica a brief mention. Then its dwindling interest will wane until next year… Does anyone care about Europe’s 9/11? Despite the fact that the Srebrenica death toll was over twice that recorded in the attacks on the Twin Towers. Despite the massacre ranking as the worst crime on European soil since the Holocaust. Does anyone recall July 11, 1995? Not really, or the memory is uncomfortable. Eighteen years on, every European nation should have the maturity to remember. Britain, for the first time, is officially commemorating the atrocity. We’ve written to Irish politicians suggesting that, in coming years, Ireland might follow suit.

Another day passes before I type up my scribblings. Blame the packing…  My kids are giddy, counting the hours to Sarajevo. While the sun sets and rises on Bosnia and Herzegovina. With each new dawn, its war-torn past becomes that bit more distant. But does time heal or does it just seal deepening scars? Are Bosnia’s children – its baby girls and boys – growing any closer to a brighter future?

Subsequent dedication: In memory of the three baby girls, Belmina, Berina and Fatima. Belmina lost her fight for life in October 2013.