Saturday, 20 February 2010

Beginning Again at the End of the World.

Friday 19th February

I was nervous about today. We caught the bus East over winding mountain roads to Srebrenica, the furthest place in Bosnia, just a few miles from the river Drina and the Serbian border.
In July 1995 the town was the site of the worst European genocide since the Second World War when Serb forces overran the town, which had previously been demilitarised and designated a safe haven by the United Nations. Women and young children were quickly evacuated to Bosnian controlled territory in Tuzla, they were told the men would join them there once further buses were available. Helpless the Dutch peacekeepers stationed there also withdrew. With the witnesses gone and the international community dithering, Serb soldiers took only three days to massacre the 8,000 Muslim men left behind. The bodies are still being recovered from the mass graves that surround the town. It was the most shameful of betrayals.

Fifteen years later and a three hour bus trip from Sarajevo we were greeted in the Primary School at Potocari, which is now trying to work with a new generation of Serb and Bosniak children. Stef immediately launched herself into an impromptu Drama class. I'd stupidly left my camera on the bus and so went into town with fourteen year old Rasima to see if we could find the driver.

Rasima's story isn't unusual. Her family had managed to escape the enclave at the start of the war and she was born and brought up in Tuzla. Then in 2002 her parents took the brave decision to return to the town and make their own personal commitment to ensuring that the project to ethnically cleanse the town would not be successful. Rasima, as the youngest, returned with them, but she dreams of being with her older brother and sister who have escaped to Ljubljana and are bringing up her nephew and niece as Slovenes. For the most part though she was less interested in her place in Balkan politics and more in whether I thought Lady Gaga or Leona Lewis was the better singer.
To my relief we found the driver, reclaimed my camera and were driven back to the school by Senaid, the social worker in charge of the NGO responsible for relocating families back in the town.

'The real problem is not cultural,' he said 'It's economic. If you have a secure job you tend not to blame your neighbour. You don't start the - he got my job because he's a Serb - story. Ethnic tensions only really rise when there isn't enough work to go round. So the real job is ensuring employment for the families who want to come back. It's pointless just making a gesture.'

I pointed out the newly rebuilt mosque, sitting less than fifty metres from the orthodox church and suggested that it told a positive story of the possibility for a multi ethnic state, even here deep in the Republic Srpska.

'I don't know,' he sighed 'My opinion is that there are too many stories in Bosnia. Everybody has a story to tell, but nobody knows how to listen. We all seem to have so much to say.'

After lessons had finished we made our way up to the memorial centre, close to the site of the Dutch base to meet Hatidza Mehmedovic, who now runs the Srbrenica Mothers Association. A support group for widows of the massacre, actively campaigning to bring the perpetrators of the crime to justice. She greeted us warmly.

'The Republic Srpska is the only country in which genocide is rewarded,' she began 'but we will speak for the dead. We will ensure that those who stand trial at The Hague are punished for their crimes. Only then can we begin again. I don't want revenge. I don't agree with Jihardists who seek to kill. I just want to live in my home and know that it is my home. I lost two brothers, two children and a husband - but I will not leave this place. It is everything to me. My home. I will never accept the legitimacy of a Serbian state in Bosnia. Here I speak for all the mothers. We will never forgive the international community. We will never forgive you for abandoning us! Now there is much work to do. I wasn't interested in war, but it was interested in me. We must never forget that it can happen and we must never let it.'

Quite simply she was one of the most impressive women I've ever met. Stef asked if we could take her picture and I got my camera out.

'Good camera,' she said 'did you really leave it on the bus? If only I'd been lucky enough to find it. It would have made my day to have a camera like that. Now let me see the picture. I want to make sure my eyes aren't closed.'

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