Remembering Srebrenica

Can we learn from the past?

1st April 2016

On 12 July 1995, outnumbered, under-armed, and un-supported by their NATO allies, the Dutch battalion of UN peacekeepers bowed to  pressure from Ratko Mladich and his troops and  forced thousands of Bosnian Muslim families out of their compound at Poticari. Bosnian Serb forces separated the men and boys, drove them away in trucks and began executing them. Their bodies were buried in mass graves in what international courts have ruled was genocide.

Today, the former UN base is peaceful and quiet. It is almost impossible to imagine the chaos and fear of thousands of families huddled together, desperate for protection from the advancing Serb forces.  It is even harder to imagine this happening in the 1990s, fifty years after the end of the Holocaust.

Looking at the lists of thousands of names on the cemetery’s memorial plaque, some of them jump out at me: Edin Hadjarevic, Almir Sejmenovic; they were born the same year as me. Whilst I was finishing my exams and looking forward to the summer holidays, their lives were coming to a terrifying and brutal end. Were their bodies even found? Did their mothers have anything to bury? Many of the mass graves were dug up and the bodies dispersed. We heard testimony from Khadija, of the Association of Mothers of Srebrenica, whose two sons were murdered. She was able to bury one of them almost intact, but all that has been found of the other is his two shin bones.

We were in Bosnia as part of a delegation organised by Remembering Srebrenica, founded by Dr Waqar Azmi OBE, which aims to commemorate the genocide and encourage the learning of lessons. We were pleased to have with us two of the Foundation’s longstanding partners, Paul Salmons from theUCL Centre for Holocaust Education and James Smith from the Aegis Trust. Both of them brought a valuable perspective to our trip.

Paul’s work as an educator is all about complexity. What does it mean to learn from the past? The Dutch Battalion of UN Peacekeepers were arguably the most highly Holocaust-educated soldiers the twentieth century had produced. They would have learned about the Holocaust in school and perhaps some of them had even visited Anne Frank House and yet, for whatever reasons, their presence did not prevent genocide. Can we learn lessons from history?  How do you train teachers to educate children about the darkest events in human history? And how do we relate knowledge and understanding of the Holocaust to subsequent genocides? These are all questions that Paul and the CfHE team think through on a daily basis.

What about the role of international intervention more generally? Of course it is right to commemorate genocide, but can it be prevented? As a campaigner and activist, James Smith and the Aegis Trust work tirelessly on these issues including trying to create peace education programmes in Rwanda and the Central African Republic, but it is hard to get attention. We heard from the Director of the International Commission on Missing Persons that there is a desperate need for them to begin to work with the Yazidi people, and Aegis too are campaigning for greater recognition of their plight, but they need governments and the UN to take this seriously and direct action and resources to them.

The situation in Bosnia is still precarious, with rival narratives and ethnic segregation. As one of the speakers said, ‘If genocide could happen when we all lived alongside each other, I fear for the future now we are all living in isolation.’ Pears Foundation has always seen it as part of our work to support partners such as the Three Faiths Forum, the Integrated Education Fund in Northern Ireland, the Hand in Hand schools movement in Israel and The Linking Network that promote meaningful interactions between people of different backgrounds.

If our trip taught me anything, it is that, as always, there are more questions than answers. The world is an unsettling place and organisations like Remembering Srebrenica, the Centre for Holocaust Education and the Aegis Trust are important in their willingness to confront the darker side of human history and help both children and adults to make sense of it without resorting to simplification or cliché.