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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Taking action – tips from Ireland and Bosnia

Despair. The world is awash with it this week. Blood staining the streets of Cairo as fumes of slaughter poison Syrian children. Leaders condemn… and do nothing. We’re watching with a sense of déjà vu. That’s how it was two decades ago in Bosnia. Happening over, sparking the question, what can we do? I wish I had some answers. All I know is that – whatever the issue – indifference can be a passive way of legitimating injustice. So here I’d like to explore a few practical responses. Based on how members and friends of the Bosnian diaspora in Ireland have been raising awareness of current concerns in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Ideas which could be applied to many contexts…

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During the first six months of 2013, Ireland held the presidency of the European Union. As Croatia neared accession, the topic of EU enlargement was back in vogue. Attention spread to other Balkan countries which appeared to be making progress. In particular, Serbia and Kosovo were praised for their endeavours to bury old disputes, at least on paper. Meanwhile, almost unnoticed, Bosnia and Herzegovina was languishing at the bottom of the EU candidates’ league.

Bosnian and Irish activists sought to put the country back in focus. They highlighted how, eighteen years after the end of the war, Bosnia and Herzegovina still flounders. How the international community acquiesces in a political system which perpetuates division and leaves the state economically crippled. They stressed to Irish politicians that the EU, as a major player in this nexus, must act in the interest of ordinary Bosnian citizens. As a result, the situation in Bosnia was discussed in May by the Irish Parliament’s Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs. It was also raised by a member of parliament, Deputy Patrick Nulty, in a parliamentary debate later that month. He questioned Ireland’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs, Eamon Gilmore, about the EU’s engagement with Bosnia and Herzegovina. In reply, Minister Gilmore admitted this required a ‘comprehensive review’.

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At this point, my husband and I got more personally involved. Over the years we’d always been active on matters Bosnian (as outlined in my post ‘Love in a time of protest’). Then kids arrived and the stratospheric house prices of ‘Celtic Tiger’ Ireland left us stranded far from Dublin. It was difficult to keep up with campaigns sustained by our stalwart friends. Or those were our excuses… but now they’d worn thin. We started by writing an article, examining the role of the EU with regard to Bosnia and Herzegovina. It was published in the Irish Times and generated plenty of feedback. This motivated us. E-mails to the members of the Irish parliament’s Joint Committees for both Foreign and European Affairs were our first follow-up. We appealed to these politicians to do their utmost to place Bosnia on Ireland’s European agenda during the remaining weeks of the Irish presidency. However, as we were sending these messages, news of demonstrations in Sarajevo began to emerge.

By early June, public frustration in Bosnia and Herzegovina had reached fever-pitch. It finally erupted at the government’s failure to pass the ‘JMBG law’ – essential legislation to regulate the issuing of ID numbers (see my previous post ‘Three baby girls’). The JMBG debacle meant that a seriously ill baby, Belmina Ibrišević, couldn’t get a passport in order to travel abroad for medical treatment. Outcry ensued. Mothers of small children gathered in front of the parliament building in Sarajevo to express their anger. In subsequent days, protests spread to other cities. For a fleeting moment of history and the first time en masse since the war, people of all backgrounds were galvanised by a simple demand: basic rights for their country’s youngest citizens.

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As parents, we couldn’t but respond. Initially we followed threads which popped up on social media, adding to comments and images of support from across the world. On-line activism is easy in a cyberspace full of virtual Che Guevaras! Still, at 2 a.m. on a Sunday morning, making posters brought me back to the early nineties. Then, during the war, our slogan was ‘Let Bosnia Live!’ Now, we were uploading the JMBG movement’s message: ‘Svi smo mi Belmina’ / ‘We are all Belmina’. Different times… but, sadly, not much fundamental change.*

It’s one thing ‘liking’ and ‘sharing’ from the comfort of your couch, but old-fashioned solidarity is hard to beat. To coincide with large-scale demonstrations held in Sarajevo on 11 June, we organised a small protest outside the Irish parliament. It was all pretty spontaneous, but the rain cleared for an eye-catching little spectacle. Tourists and school groups were attracted by our colourful mix of placards, flags and football hats, while the sweets on offer soon disappeared. More importantly, though, it gave us a chance to speak with representatives of Ireland’s main political parties. We delivered letters – explaining latest developments in Bosnia – to the Ministers for Foreign and European Affairs and to members of the Joint Committees for these policy areas. We also had an in-depth meeting with an official from the Department of Foreign Affairs who had responsibility for matters relating to the Western Balkans during Ireland’s EU presidency.

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After that, we thought we’d done our bit. However, by the next weekend, the tragedy of another sick baby filtered through the internet. Two-month-old Berina Hamidović died when her emergency transfer from Bosnia to a specialised hospital in Belgrade was delayed due to problems with documentation caused by the wrangling over the JMBG law. The death of little Berina forced us to renew our appeals to Irish politicians to use their influence, in whatever way they could, on behalf of the Bosnian people.

The visit of the international community’s High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, Valentin Inzko, to Dublin on 25 June gave us further impetus to act. Addressing the COSAC Conference of European parliamentary committees, Mr. Inzko told a large assembly of parliamentarians from across Europe that it was necessary to ‘rethink’ policy towards Bosnia. Mr Inzko was challenged, however, by one of the Irish delegates – a member of both Joint Committees with which we had corresponded. Deputy Eric Byrne spoke for Bosnia’s ‘wonderful diaspora’ in Ireland by asking the High Representative why Bosnia and Herzegovina had been so ‘neglected’ in comparison to its Balkan neighbours. In his answer, Mr. Inzko conceded that a ‘mistake’ had been made in presuming EU ‘pull factors’ would be sufficient to persuade Bosnia’s leaders to co-operate for the common good.

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Other members of the Irish parliament, Deputy Robert Troy and Deputy Maureen O’Sullivan, also responded positively to our lobbying. They questioned the Minister for Foreign Affairs about Ireland’s position regarding the JMBG crisis. In a parliamentary debate at the end of June, Minister Gilmore described the Bosnian government’s handling of this issue as ‘deplorable’ and explicitly lent his support to the citizens’ protests. He reiterated these views in early July and expressed his condolences to the family of baby Berina Hamidović.

Of course, it’d be naïve to think these statements can impact directly on the realpolitik of Bosnia and Herzegovina. A cynic would say that foreign politicians are adept at criticising their counterparts in other countries while avoiding difficulties in their own. Yet raising awareness among public representatives – even if it gleans no more than a quotable phrase or two – is surely better than nothing. During the summer, we met some people who’d been involved in the demonstrations in Sarajevo and talked to international analysts working there. We learned a lot about the plethora of complex problems plaguing Bosnia. The JMBG outrage was just the tip of an iceberg of dissatisfaction fractured by underlying tension. From a distance, we can do little except, perhaps, to inform a wider audience.

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Last week we had the opportunity to meet the MEP for Dublin, Emer Costello, and to speak to her about challenges facing Bosnia and Herzegovina. Her personal interest in the country and her consideration of the matters we discussed was most encouraging. We hope she’ll convey our concerns to her colleagues in the European Parliament. Small mentions – they’re all we can contribute. Alone, they don’t change policy. But they could accumulate. So, maybe, communication is what counts. A constructive response instead of a sigh of despair… For every reaction can lead to positive action.

Read more about the Bosnian-Irish connection:

Irish Times, 3 June 2013 – Bosnia must not be left ignored on margins of EU: http://www.irishtimes.com/news/world/europe/bosnia-must-not-be-left-ignored-on-margins-of-eu-1.1414957

Radio Sarajevo, 4 June 2013 – BiH ne smije biti ostavljena na margini EU: http://www.radiosarajevo.ba/novost/114604/nocache

Sarajevo Times, 6 July 2013 – Action in Ireland for Bosnia and Herzegovina: http://www.sarajevotimes.com/action-in-ireland-for-bosnia-and-herzegovina/

* Since this post was published in August 2013, baby Belmina, whose name became a desire for change in Bosnia, has passed away. The least we can do, in her memory and that of baby Berina, is to try to keep issues relating to Bosnia and Herzegovina from falling out of international focus. In recent months, we’ve followed the action outlined here by writing further reports and letters and sending these to Irish politicians.