We’re dreaming of a better Ireland

‘Twas World Human Rights Day and, all through the centre of Dublin, the streets were awash with colour. The city was stirring on 10 December – it was alive with chants and laughter. From pensioners to babes in pushchairs, thousands assembled at Merrion Square for another mass demonstration against water charges. There was no sign of the ‘weather-bomb’ forecast the previous night – blue skies and crisp sunshine boosted the high spirits of the protestors. Not much evidence of trouble either. A few minor altercations with Gardaí caught the media’s eye, but these occurred beyond the main gathering. Marching from O’Connell Street, women tried to cajole police officers to join and, although their invitations were declined, the exchanges were good-humoured.

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The overall mood of the protest was jovial and welcoming. While certain political elements sought to score opinion poll points from their involvement, they couldn’t monopolise this display of public dissent. Community groups were by far the most vibrant participants, with their handmade placards and wit. Taking part, even for a short time, felt empowering. And meeting an ‘old flame’, demonstrating on his lunch-break, was a tiny bit nostalgic. Though amid a throng of folk who hailed from Cork, Clondalkin, Dundalk, and all the way from Detroit… there’s a fair chance you might find a lad from Sarajevo!

Large protests on this issue, which have been held across Ireland since the autumn, have forced the government into making concessions. In November, it promised that water bills would be capped until the end of 2018. But our leaders would be ill-advised to think that the problem is solved or to dismiss the concerns of the electorate. Demonising those who continue to object to these new charges is destined to backfire. Unlike prominent politicians, most families in Ireland don’t consider €160 a negligible sum. There’s also widespread fear that while payments for water may initially be fixed they will inevitably increase in coming years.

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People can’t trust an evasive, arrogant government. They’ve lost confidence in the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny. Although his view, however cynically expressed, that the protests aren’t just about water is essentially true. They’re about all the penalties imposed on the population of Ireland over the last six years of austerity. Repaying international lenders for the recklessness of bankers has been the official priority. Our ministers are now taking (faking) a sudden interest in the environment and conservation. After they poured taxpayers’ money – more than enough to repair every leaking pipe in Ireland – into the sewer of a bailout that has drained the country. Water charges are the latest in a series of cuts to household income which has impacted most severely on the poorest. Funds for public services have been slashed. The health of the nation has been jeopardised. Education has also been targeted, with children from Traveller and immigrant backgrounds and children with special educational needs among the worst hit.

The human cost of Ireland’s deepest ever recession is enormous. Its toll can’t be calculated in euro alone. Yet the government has the audacity to tell us our situation is improving, based on figures of little relevance to daily life. It crows about employment statistics without acknowledging that these disguise the frustration of thousands of capable people whose options are limited to internships and precarious positions that are often nothing more than exploitative. Meanwhile it woos multinationals with lucrative tax incentives. It boasts of job creation – in software, in finance, in financial software. The property market is buoyant again. Rising rents are forcing families into homelessness. But for landlords ‘tis the season to be jolly…

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Is this the most our country can aspire to – the glorification of greed and the growth of inequality? Events over recent months suggest a hunger for new ideas. Post-colonial politics, peddled by twentieth century parties for their own gratification, has failed. Approaching the centenary of the founding of our state, perhaps it’s time for reflection. Especially when, for many people – despite reports of booming sales – tidings of comfort and joy remain distant dreams.

There’s a well-known Irish tradition of placing a lighted candle in the window at Christmas. It’s worth remembering, though, that it originated from our history of oppression – it was once a symbol of resistance and solidarity. Maybe we need to revive this custom in our hearts. To fan flickers of inspiration which can reach out to others and kindle a brighter future for us all.

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Happy Xmas (war isn’t over)

The first anniversary of the abduction of Syrian human rights defenders, Razan Zaitouneh, Samira Khalil, Wa’el Hamada and Nazem Hamadi, was marked in Dublin on 9 December. A few of us gathered at the Amnesty International memorial sculpture, on a traffic island near Busáras, to raise awareness about this brave group of people known globally as the ‘Douma Four’.

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Lawyers and activists, the four have striven to protect the oppressed in Syria, both before and since the uprising began there in 2011. For over a decade, Razan has defended political prisoners. Her husband Wa’el is one of the founders of the ‘Local Co-ordination Committees’ which, among other vital functions, deliver humanitarian aid to communities affected by the war. Samira has worked to help women in the city of Douma and has written about her country’s notorious system of detention. Nazem is another lawyer engaged in activism – he’s also a poet.

These are just snippets from the profiles of those courageous individuals who were involved in human rights monitoring with the Violations Documentation Centre in Douma before they were seized a year ago. They struggled for justice against all forms of terror in Syria – from the brutality of government forces to abuses perpetrated by organisations such as the so-called ‘Army of Islam’ which is believed to have abducted them.

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In the twelve months since December 2013, Syria has been steeped in even more blood. The barbarity of ISIS, whose emergence was in no small part facilitated by world indifference to Assad’s torturous regime, has wreaked further suffering. According to a new report published by Amnesty International, approximately 4 million refugees have fled the war in Syria. 98% of them are hosted by five countries: Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt. These surrounding nations can barely cope with the influx. They’ve started closing their borders. The World Food Programme for Syria’s refugees, which aims to meet their most basic requirements, recently faced suspension due to underfunding. Families are enduring yet another freezing winter in exposed camps. While, within Syria itself, millions more are displaced and in dire need of assistance.

The crisis is now apocalyptic. But the response of the world’s richer countries remains pitiful. Calls on their leaders to accept at least 5% of the refugee burden have been ignored. On 9 December, Europe committed to admitting a further 38,000 Syrians – about 1% of the total. In 2014, Ireland has taken 90 people from Syria through a very limited resettlement programme and has pledged to provide a similar number of places in 2015 and 2016. Another 111 Syrians, who have family members already resident in Ireland, have been granted temporary permission to come here. Although, in the cases of those qualifying for this provision, their relatives have had to prove that they can fully support them.

Such reluctance to resettle Syrian refugees compares poorly with Ireland’s acceptance of over a thousand Bosnians during the conflict in the Balkans in the 1990s. This previous scheme included medical treatment for the injured and fairer criteria for family reunification. Sadly, however, the current Irish effort mirrors that of most EU states. With official channels so restricted, Syrians – like many others from regions of unrest – have tried to enter Europe by whatever means they can. This often involves crossing the Mediterranean at the hands of human traffickers. It’s a dangerous journey – an estimated 3000 asylum seekers have drowned en route in 2014 alone.

The tragedy of Syria has become so huge, it’s almost unthinkable. Ironically, this seems to ensure that we deny it any thought. But imagine if around 80% of the population of the Republic of Ireland had to flee as a result of war… Where would we go? What welcome would we expect? Or if your partner, sister, brother or friend was taken captive for defending human rights… How would you feel? What would you do?

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Our plan to light candles at the Dublin memorial was thwarted by heavy rain and gale-force winds. It was hard enough to hold on to our posters! Yet, from within the sculpture which was commissioned as a reminder of prisoners of conscience across the world, a gas flame burned behind us. That stormy night, the chains and bars enclosing it represented the fate of Razan, Samira, Wa’el and Nazem. The dim light inside signified our wavering hope that Syria’s detained and disappeared will, one day, be free. It leapt with the warmth that Ireland could offer vulnerable Syrians… if our country chose to shine as a source of refuge.

For further information please see:

Irish Syria Solidarity Movement (Facebook): https://www.facebook.com/IrishSyriaSolidarityMovement

Front Line Defenders – Syria: No word on four abducted activists; A year on, no information on Douma Four (9 December 2014):

http://www.frontlinedefenders.org/node/27770#sthash.cUz6zmh1.dpuf http://www.frontlinedefenders.org/node/27770

Amnesty International – Left out in the cold: Syrian refugees abandoned by the international community (December 2014):

http://www.amnesty.org/en/library/asset/MDE24/047/2014/en/f9a8340f-d247-4c84-b3b8-ce4e8cbebf0d/mde240472014en.pdf

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A year of Bosnian-Irish coffee

A birthday post from my little niche in the blogosphere! It’s a year since the start of ‘Bosnian-Irish coffee’ and I’d just like to thank everyone who has visited this site and shared its content over the last twelve months. I really appreciate your thoughts and feedback and hope that, among my mixture of topics and styles, you’ve found something to your taste.

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Birthday coffee – Rođendanska kahva/kava/kafa!

After a few weeks in the Balkans, I’m milling new ideas and trying to squeeze in time to jot them down. It’s a gradual process – like making Bosnian coffee! But the inspiration, the nuances, the unsettling feelings and the wonder which always strike me when travelling to Sarajevo and beyond will hopefully seep into my future writing.

Through a summer rife with conflict, many of the lessons that Bosnia teaches are, sadly, all too relevant. Human rights, respect, peace – they seem such hollow concepts when children are murdered. Yet, on a personal level, being part of a Bosnian-Irish family is a reminder that intercultural understanding is still worth striving for in today’s torn world. And that’s one of the things I’ll do my best to express. Meanwhile, for the blog’s first anniversary, here are some images that say much more than I can…

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Welcome to Bosnia-Herzegovina! A ‘stećak’ – medieval tombstone – at the necropolis of Radimlja, near Mostar

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Vijećnica, the former city hall and national library, restored after destruction in the siege of Sarajevo

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The Latin Bridge where Gavrilo Princip assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie – an act that led to WWI

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The memorial centre and cemetery for the victims of the Srebrenica genocide at Potočari

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Message of solidarity with those under attack in Gaza on a bridge in Sarajevo

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Many parts of Bosnia, like the town of Zavidovići, are still struggling after severe floods in May – heavy rain has brought further flooding to some areas

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Vječna Vatra – the Eternal Flame, Sarajevo… where the wild things are!

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My lovely horse – dreaming on in Vrelo Bosne…

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For peace comes dropping slow… sunset over the Adriatic Sea, Cavtat, Croatia

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And the sun also rises – early morning, Cavtat

Thank you for your interest in my blog and please drop in anytime for a read… for updates on new posts etc., follow @BiHIrishcoffee on Twitter!

Hvala za vaš interes za moj blog i molim vas posjetite ponovo ovu stranicu… za nove članke itd., pratite me na Twitteru @BiHIrishcoffee!

Ireland’s solidarity with Syria

Forgotten people die forgotten. They’re tortured, raped and shelled without anyone noticing. We’ve seen their unremembered faces, their dismembered bodies. They’re on our screens daily, but we’re not watching. After almost three years, gore becomes boring. The world has tuned out from the war in Syria. Victims of chemical weapons can’t compete with Miley Cyrus in the annual internet ratings. Who wants to recall hundreds of poisoned children? The kerfuffle over US intervention dissolved into anti-climax as the story just got bloodier. Devoid of any clear script, it’s now portrayed as extremists killing each other.

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An estimated 130,000 people have died since the conflict began as a popular uprising in 2011. While this peaceful revolution met brutal oppression from the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, its spirit survives among many Syrians who strive for a democratic, tolerant state. However, in the turmoil of war, such aspirations have been hijacked and thwarted by fundamentalist groups with foreign links. Opposition forces are a disparate bunch, increasingly at loggerheads. The situation appears too complex to resolve.

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Of course, this has served as a perfect excuse to ignore it. Russia’s clever manoeuvres on behalf of its tarnished ally enabled Western leaders to sheathe their unenthusiastic sabres. Global powers selectively forgot the principle of ‘responsibility to protect’ – a commitment to act against mass atrocities which was made by the United Nations after its failure to prevent genocide in Rwanda and Bosnia. Meanwhile, the crisis in Syria has continued to escalate. Agencies such as UNHCR are struggling to deal with its human consequences – over 2.3 million refugees, half of them children. The impact of the conflict on Syria’s youngest citizens has been severe. By November, it was reported that over 11,000 children had been killed in the fighting. Since then, more have perished. Cases of polio, particularly among infants have been confirmed by the WHO, while curable diseases have proven fatal due to lack of healthcare and sanitation. Children are now dying from starvation and freezing winter temperatures have taken their toll.

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The facts are tragic. But how can Ireland respond? Syria may have slipped from the headlines, but donations from Irish people to organisations providing humanitarian assistance have contributed to a relief effort of historic proportions. As individuals, it seems we haven’t entirely forgotten Syria’s plight. It must also be acknowledged that the government has given significant aid to help those living in refugee camps in surrounding countries. However, at state level, Ireland could do more. Millions are displaced within Syria’s borders, with many in desperate need of food and medicine. Donor nations should insist that aid reaches civilians most at risk, especially those trapped in besieged towns.

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Furthermore, Ireland, along with other EU members, must be prepared to resettle a substantial number of Syrians. Amnesty International has described Europe’s response to this immense refugee crisis as ‘pitiful’. Thus far, the Irish approach to it has been disappointing. Last year, Ireland accepted only 35 people from Syria with a promise to take 90 more in 2014. This figure is negligible compared to, for instance, the 10,000 places pledged by Germany or the approximately 15,000 Syrians admitted by Sweden since 2012. Contrasting present Irish policy with that pursued in relation to past conflicts, our official attitude seems to have lost any vestiges of ‘fáilte’. In the 1990s, more than 1000 Bosnians – refugees and injured people requiring urgent treatment – were brought to Ireland. My husband, who had been seriously wounded in Sarajevo, was one of those medical evacuees. In many ways, we owe our family to the resettlement programme devised for Bosnia and Herzegovina at that time. Two decades later, Syria holds personal reminders.

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That’s why we, together with our three daughters, went to the gathering to mark the Global Day of Solidarity with Syria which took place in Dublin on Saturday 11 January. Attended by people of diverse ages and cultural backgrounds, it was part of an international campaign to refocus the world’s attention. The military blockades imposed on areas under siege were highlighted, with some participants fasting in support of Syrians who are starving as a result of this tactic. Above all, the need for a speedy end to the conflict, followed by a just resolution process involving the investigation of war-crimes and prosecution of their perpetrators, was emphasised. A petition expressing these objectives was signed by many passers-by while a symbolic ‘refugee tent’ added an eye-catching attraction. The Irish event was inevitably smaller than the marches and manifestations held in larger cities but, in front of the Spire on a busy afternoon, it made a striking impression. It also issued a powerful statement – saying Ireland won’t forget the Syrian people. Now we must act on this message and encourage our government to do likewise.

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You can still sign the petition online at:

https://www.change.org/petitions/petition-for-the-protection-of-the-people-and-human-rights-in-syria?share_id=gXkcOQnRzC

For more pictures of the event in Dublin see: http://www.demotix.com/users/robin-english/profile

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.