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War in Bosnia shows Holocaust can happen again

Fifty years after the Holocaust, the world watched in horror as images of concentration camps and mass graves in mainland Europe once again appeared on our television sets during the war in Bosnia.

BASW’s England Manager Maris Stratulis, who worked in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the aftermath of the conflict helping to reunite the country, says the experience showed her first hand how easy it is for once peaceful communities to tear themselves apart.

 

 

Genocide, ghost villages, the scars of torture and rape, burnt and bullet-ridden houses, talk of mass graves, razor wire, yellow mine tape, bombed bridges, checkpoints, iconic cultural symbols destroyed, an attack on the soul of communities.

This was the world I stepped into when I arrived in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1997 to work with Save The Children Fund as a Child Protection Adviser, focusing on re-unification.

The Dayton Agreement had brought peace to the region barely two years previously, but the war had changed everything.

Each person had their own story to tell, of people that had lived side by side as neighbours, friends and colleagues. They spoke of families that had a shared identity through partnerships and marriages. Of a history that celebrated diversity. All of this was swept away to be replaced by ethnic hatred and division.

I worked with displaced children and families in Sarajevo, Tuzla and Banja Luka and felt the pain, loss and suffering of families, but also their commitment to rebuild and look to the future.

Witnessing first hand the suffering that people had gone through, I could not help feel a sense of shame and guilt towards the countries of the West and the community of Europe. Why did we not act more quickly when the grim reality of genocide had been reported on and televised since the start of the war in 1992? How could this have been allowed to happen again in Europe?

It is estimated that between 9,500 and more than 14,000 people were killed during the siege of Sarajevo which lasted from April 1992 until February 1996. It is also estimated that more than 8,000 men and boys were killed in Srebrenica while up to 30,000 Bosnian Muslim civilians were expulsed from a so-called UN safe haven. Atrocities and mass expulsions took place across wide areas of the former Yugoslavia.

I have been back to Bosnia Herzegovina many times since 1997. Today in Sarajevo the physical recovery of the city is evident. The streets are once again lined with cafes and fashion shops. There are gleaming new buildings and a transport infrastructure. There are also non-physical signs of recovery, such as a strong cultural identity and a commitment to embrace religious and cultural diversity. Hope has been reclaimed, yet beneath the surface there is also fear that what people believed would never happen, could happen again in Europe.

As Savo Heleta puts it in his book Not my Turn to Die: Memoirs of a Broken Childhood in Bosnia: “I realise that what happened in Bosnia could happen anywhere in the world, particularly in places that are diverse and have a history of conflict, it only takes bad leadership for a country to go up in flames, for people of different ethnicity colour or religion to kill each other as if they had nothing in common whatsoever. Having a democratic constitution, laws that secure human rights, police that maintain order, a judicial system, and freedom of speech doesn’t ultimately guarantee long lasting peace. If greedy or blood thirsty leaders come to power it can all go down, it happened to us it can happen to you.”

A powerful warning that all of us should take heed of on Holocaust Memorial Day.