We’re probably all familiar with what happened during the Second World War to the millions of Jews who were singled out, de-humanised and forced to live in ghettoes. We are also likely to be aware that this attack on a people, continued with them being shipped to concentration camps, far away from their homes. We will also likely be aware of the mass extermination of Jews in these camps.
This knowledge has in part come from our schooling as part of a history curriculum. It may also have come from the annual events which makes sure we remember just what happened, in the hope that it will never happen again. At the end of the WWII this was the message pushed by the collection of countries who liberated the camps and made the invisible truly visible.
Whilst many of us will remember the holocaust, how many of us are aware of what happened in the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990’s? A place where concentration camps were again used and a place where genocide took place on a large scale and a place where rape was used as a weapon of war. A tool to ethnically cleanse large parts of the country
This month I journeyed to Bosnia as part of a delegation of Scots to learn more about what happened during the war with a particular focus on the genocide that took place at Srebrenica over a period of a week in July 1995.
The 9th July 1995 was my eldest daughter Jenni’s birthday. This was a great time in my life. On that day I was feeling like the luckiest man in the world. I had two wonderful, healthy daughters. This was an emotion that was an impossibility for any dad in the town of Srebrenica. This predominantly Muslim town was being over-run by the Serbian Army. Any chance of celebration was impossible. What was about to happen in this town was by all accounts a descent into hell and on many levels invisible in plain sight to the entire world.
The worlds media was there and presented reassuring newsfeed that with the United Nations (UN) in place the civilian population would be safe. This, however, could not be further from the truth. With a lack of moral leadership on the ground and a lack of leadership from the top echelons of the UN, the civilian population were eventually left dangerously exposed to the well-equipped and experienced Serbian army.
Over the next 7 days men were separated from their wives and children. Boys aged 13 and over were separated from their mothers and younger siblings. Some would join their fathers in this modern day ‘selection process’.
What happened next was a throwback to the 1940’s. Over 8000 boys and men were forcibly marched into the forests, into buildings and onto sports fields. In groups they were shot, many in the back, by the Serbian soldiers. From testimony at the subsequent War Crimes Trials these executions were non-stop with soldiers rotating on a sort of ‘one hour on, one hour off’ killing spree.
This was 1995 not 1945. We were told it would never happen again. It did. We also saw mass slaughter in the genocide in Rwanda in 1992. It happened there. Could it happen it here? You may think I’m being a bit over the top with this question. If you do, ask the population of the former Yugoslavia if they thought this was going to happen to them. Ask them if they thought that neighbours would turn on neighbours. If neighbours, in large numbers, rape other neighbours.
The banality of evil was on display. The perpetrators of these acts were not monsters. What they did was monstrous, but they were not monsters. They were, in the main men, fathers like me, police officers like you, soldiers like the soldiers we have serving in the United Kingdom.
What turned them into men who would commit mass murder and rape? How easy was it for them to make this transformation? These are the questions that we need to be mindful of.
For these perpetrators it was the situation that supported these acts. It was the leaders who created the perfect situation for the bad apples to rise to the surface of the barrel. The ‘barrel makers’, through their language and actions in many ways supported the stereotypes and prejudice that already existed in the country. These leaders simply lit the touch paper of hate. The continuous dripping of language overflowed and led to the horrors that took place in Srebrenica and in other parts of the country.
Here in Scotland we see the prejudice and the hate in our daily news-streams. The good thing here is we have a counter narrative, a different sort of dripping tap that puts some protective factors in place. However, we cannot be complacent and must continue, at all levels to oppose all forms of hate in our country.
This week we have seen two really positive news articles that present us with evidence of this dripping tap. The Scottish Parliament voted unanimously to overturn the convictions of the men who were convicted in the past simply because of their sexuality. Furthermore, Scotland’s most senior police officer Iain Livingston went on record stating that his experiences in Srebrenica last week will help shape Police Scotland’s response to hate crime in all its forms (see https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-44396872).
Like me, Iain was moved by the testimonies from women who work tirelessly to bring their rapists to justice. As fathers we were both touched by the courage of a mother who lost her husband and son in the genocide. Whilst the body of her husband was recovered, the only part of her son she was able to bury were two shin bones.
I am hopeful that these and other positive actions in Scotland will develop our resilience to help prevent what took place in Srebrenica.
We all have a role in tackling hate. Take responsibility when you witness hate. Become the driver, not the backseat driver. Stand up for what you believe in. Be the best you can be, don’t let others own your individuality. You may be surprised at how many people will support your stance. Being anonymous are the breeding grounds for the bad apples to rise up.
Work to change conditions that impact on others. Support actions that make others feel special. Be that role model that is needed. Respect authority, rebel against unjust authority. Step back from a situation and reclaim your independence. Don’t forget your past experiences and don’t be influenced by those who work to make you act differently.
My trip to Srebrenica has been life changing. The sight of 8000 white gravestones had an impact. One had a particular significance. A man born in 1968 just like me. We should both be celebrating our 50th birthday this year, but due to the situation he will always be 27.
The purpose of this blog is simply to bring what happened in 1995 into your lives. If we forget what happened are we in many ways continuing the persecution of the people who were targeted during this period?
You can ‘do the knowledge’ by heading to the website https://www.srebrenica.org.uk/about-remembering-srebrenica-scotland/