Survivors bear witness and work to bridge divisions

I spent three days (on annual leave) in Bosnia this week, on a health delegation organised by the charity Remembering Srebrenica, whose goals are to promote Srebrenica Memorial Day on 11 July and educate people about the consequences of hate. On that day in 1995, towards the end of the Bosnian War, over 8,000 men and boys, mostly Muslims, were systematically massacred in the worst atrocity in Europe since the Second World War. We visited Potočari, the site of the UN base, where thousands fled when Srebrenica fell. This is where Bosnian men and boys were handed over to Ratko Mladić’s army only to be executed en masse and buried in mass graves. The youngest name I saw in the graveyard was aged just 11.

The UN base is now a museum to ‘the failure of the international community’ to protect the people of Srebrenica and we were shown round Hasan Hasanović a survivor who lost his brother in the massacre. The memorial cemetery looks down accusingly on it from a nearby hill. We also met Ilijaz Pilav, one of only five doctors serving a population of over 40,000 throughout the siege. He lost 17 male relatives in the genocide and had to perform surgery without anaesthetic. You can still see the pain in his eyes as he describes the events.

These were appalling acts and we spent most of our visit meeting people dealing with the consequences. Dragena Vucetic, a forensic archaeologist from the Missing Persons’ Institute, told us that 6,700 bodies from Srebrenica have now been identified, mostly by DNA, while 400 are still being investigated and 800 are still believed missing in as yet unidentified mass graves. The skeleton of a 19-year-old man from an unmarked grave was laid out in front of her as we spoke.

We also met Bakira Hasečić, who founded Women Victims of War to encourage women to speak up and give evidence about sexual violence and who has personally tracked down many perpetrators to face justice, and Branka Antic Stauber, who runs a support group for women, from the proceeds of herbs they grow and sell. Finally, the inspiring Sabiha Husić whose Medica Zenica has helped 50,000 women, children and men who have experienced sexual violence during a war and its aftermath. Many only speak up for the first time 20 years or more after the event and need help to communicate their experiences to their families.

What message did they have for us? First, survivors wanted us to be absolutely clear that hate can escalate easily and quickly, especially when it is exploited by extremists and must be resisted by all of us. Ilijaz told us that ‘many people say it is impossible for Srebrenica to happen again but we too thought it was impossible.’ A mum who lost both son and husband in the massacre was concerned that similar events were already happening in Syria.

We know the number of hate crimes has increased in the UK. But just as critically, the NHS works with many people who have fled conflict as well as those who have experienced sexual violence or hate crime here in the UK. Staff need training in handling disclosures sensitively and people who have experienced post-traumatic stress need help to control it. A crucial role is often played by experts by experience and the support groups they establish. We have things to learn from and share with the wonderful voluntary organisations we met. For example, Sabiha spends three to five days with women to help them find a way to communicate their life story to family, friends or others who might not otherwise understand. Our delegation pledged to work together to try and improve the understanding of hate crime within the NHS and the support that is available to professionals responding to it.

Finally, our host Rešad wanted to stress that despite its traumatic history and unresolved tensions, Bosnia is a beautiful country with much to enjoy. Sarajevo is one of a few cities with mosques, a synagogue and an orthodox cathedral within easy distance of each other. Such interwoven lives were a key part of Bosnia before the war and remain the ideal for many Bosnians today. After all the slaughter and ethnic cleansing, one of the most poignant remarks I heard came from a man who said he did not only want to live with other Muslims but also alongside Serbs and Croats. That’s what Bosnia meant to him and what he hopes will be possible again one day.

The bravery of Bosnian genocide survivors in standing witness, rejecting hate and building bridges provide lessons for us all.

Neil visited Bosnia with the charity Remembering Srebrenica who organise a programme of visits from the UK.

Dr Neil Churchill

Neil is Director for People and Communities at NHS England, having joined the NHS after a 25-year career in the voluntary sector. His work includes understanding people’s experiences of the NHS, involving people and communities in decision-making and leading change to improve the quality and equality of care. He has a particular focus on strengthening partnerships with unpaid carers, volunteers and the voluntary sector.

Neil has previously been a non-executive director for the NHS in the South of England, is a member of the Strategy Board for the Beryl Institute and Chair of Care for the Carers in East Sussex. He is himself an unpaid carer. Neil tweets as @neilgchurchill

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  1. John Farebrother says:

    Nice report on what was obviously an inspiring visit. I worked as an aid worker in Bosnia at the time, and have since worked in the UK as an interpreter, among others for people with PTSD from Srebrenica. Bosnia is an amazing country, and has my second home since the war. You might enjoy my memoirs of that time: