In July 1995, as a one-year-old, I was saying my first words, taking my first steps and exploring the environment around me. At the same time, over 8,000 men and boys were systematically massacred in the small town of Srebrenica, Eastern Bosnia. Most were killed with bullets or grenades in fields, warehouses and football pitches. Bulldozers were used to bury bodies in mass graves which were then moved to try to hide evidence of the genocide. As a result, many bodies were spread across multiple mass graves and, nearly two decades on, remains are still being uncovered. Over 1,000 victims have not yet been found.
Despite Srebrenica being described as the 'greatest atrocity on European soil since the Holocaust' and the ﬁrst case of genocide legally established by the international courts in Europe, I had never heard of Srebrenica until my late teens. It was never mentioned in any history lesson. Even today, public knowledge of the genocide is extremely limited. So a year on from visiting Auschwitz-Birkenau with a delegation, I was asked to lead a Young Leaders Delegation to visit Bosnia & Herzegovina with the British charity 'Remembering Srebrenica', whose aim is to raise awareness of the massacre and learn from the genocide to help work towards a rejection of the racism, hatred and extremism.
Upon arriving in Sarajevo I travelled past buildings that bore the scars of war yet stood defiant as a testimony to a city with the enduring determination to survive a 44-month siege. I found that determination was a word I would use to describe the country and its people many times during my visit. I also travelled past a street which has four religious places of worship on the same stretch of road. It was sobering to see how a city once so integrated and accepting of different faiths could end up becoming so divided.
The following day, which fittingly, was Remembrance Day, I made the journey 3 hours east of Sarajevo to Potočari, driving through Bosnia's beautiful terrain, rivers and mountains. Here I met Hasan Hasanović a survivor from Srebrenica and curator of the Srebrenica-Potočari Memorial Centre. Hasan relayed how, following, the assault on Srebrenica by Serb forces in 1995, he and several family members began a 100-km 'Death March' in order to try and escape to the free territory of Tuzla along with thousands of other men and boys. Hasan survived the six-day and managed to reach Tuzla, however he was one of only a very small minority who did. Hasan's father, twin brother and uncle were killed trying to get to safety.
In the warehouse behind the Memorial Room, we were confronted with artefacts that had been recovered from mass graves and read personal narratives. Being able to put a face to a name and read a story of how one of the victims ran away from home to get married to the woman he fell in love with, or how another was studying at university, makes a concept like genocide really hit home. These people are more than just numbers. They all had families, they had careers, they had dreams and aspirations and every single person's death matters. This fact was made clear to me again upon visiting the Srebrenica-Potočari cemetery. A memorial wall at the entrance is inscribed with the names of the 8,372 victims and the cemetery contains the same number of white marble columns piercing from ground like thorns that are divided in between eight petal-shaped sections. While sitting at the top of the hill, in a moment of prolonged peace and serenity, in awe of the beauty of my surroundings, I found myself having to take a step back and try to comprehend just what happened here. I looked at the white marble columns and the names and dates of birth and death stared back at me. I could not help but think about my own male relatives who are the same age as some of the victims. I could not help but feel anger at the international community who watched as innocent men and boys were killed and the women who were systematically raped. I cannot come to terms with what horror mankind is capable of.
Growing up I was naively under the impression that after the Holocaust, the world (Europe, in particular) had learnt its lesson. Yet here I stood in a cemetery with over 8,000 graves and had heard heart-wrenching stories that were not consigned to the distant past but within my own lifetime. Reading the long list of names of those murdered, hearing from women who never saw their loved ones again, watching authentic footage of Mladić coldly talking about killing Muslims, seeing soldiers empty bullets into the head of young boys and men, witnessing exhilaration on the faces of Serb soldiers who proudly filmed themselves as they went on a crusade to create an "ethnically pure" state within Bosnia, reading personal narratives of victims and seeing their possessions brought home the true horror of genocide and the impact of hatred. It was summed up by one survivor who said simply "War. Nothing is worth it."
Next year will be the 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide. The British government is funding 750 young Britons to travel to Bosnia and Herzegovina to learn lessons from the Bosnian war and recognise the dangers of what can manifest when racism, religious-hatred and discrimination go unchallenged and ethnic divisions are exploited by political leaders. For more information, visit http://www.srebrenica.org.uk/Suggest a correction