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9. Short Debate: Remembering Srebrenica

July 12, 2017

6 speeches by…

  • Elin Jones
  • Jayne Bryant
  • Joyce Watson
  • Ann Jones
  • Jane Hutt

Jayne Bryant

Diolch, Presiding Officer. I’m pleased to give Joyce Watson a minute in this debate. The 11 July to 14 July 2017 marks the twenty-second anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide. Over 8,000 Muslim men and boys were killed by Bosnian Serb troops in the worst mass killing on European soil since the second world war. Last year, I had the opportunity to join a delegation organised by Remembering Srebrenica, led superbly by David Melding, with Joyce Watson, Joe Lucas, a teacher from Penarth, and Owain Phillips of ITV Wales to visit Srebrenica and to meet those who survived the genocide. What I heard and saw there will live with me forever. Srebrenica nestles in a lush green valley among mountains that rise from the banks of the River Drina. But, in July 1995, Srebrenica had been a living hell for three years. In the spring of 1992, Bosnian Serb troops launched a campaign of violence in pursuit of a racially pure statelet, after multi-ethnic Bosnia voted for independence from Yugoslavia. Entire villages were eradicated, towns torched, their populations killed or driven out by ethnic cleansing. Survivors fled into three eastern enclaves where the Bosnian republican army had resisted, one of which was Srebrenica. It was declared a safe zone by the UN, causing the population of Srebrenica to swell from 9,000 to 42,000. Under the direction of President Radovan Karadžić, General Ratko Mladić entered Srebrenica on 11 July 1995. He declared on tv that he was going to take revenge for a violent suppression of a Serb uprising that happened in Srebrenica in 1804. Fearing genocide, thousands of Bosnian Muslim men and boys tried to make the 63-mile trek to safety. Mladić’s troops blocked roads, carried out ambushes and used stolen UN vehicles and uniforms to trick Bosnian Muslims into surrendering. Men and boys aged 12 to 77 were separated from the others. Truckloads of those men and boys, blindfolded, their arms tied, were lined up by the gunmen in fields and forests, sometimes told to pray and then shot dead. The killing, systematic and methodical, lasted four days. Those unarmed men and boys were killed just because of who they were: Bosnian and Muslim. They came to a mass grave in trucks and were buried with bulldozers, all within a UN safe haven that failed to protect innocent people. The only survivors were those who hid under dead bodies and crept away once night had fallen. During our visit, we had the privilege of meeting a survivor, Nedžad Avdić. After the fall of Srebrenica, Nedžad and many other Bosniak men tried to flee through the nearby woods in an attempt to reach territory controlled by the Bosnian army where they could be safe. Nedžad was captured together with the other Bosniaks and was then transported to a village and locked up in a school building. Nedžad said, ‘We heard screams and cries. The classrooms were overcrowded. No water. No air. We drank our own urine in order to survive. People died of heat, literally’. When the massacre started, Nedžad only survived by lying motionless and wounded in a tangle of bodies until the killers moved away. In 1995, I was 17—the same age as Nedžad. I remember, like many, the horrific news stories on tv about the war. A vivid image sticks with me of a young man wheeling an elderly man in a wheelbarrow across mountains for days, fleeing for their lives. Twenty-one years later, I walked around that battery factory at Potočari, which was the UN base fatally abandoned by the Dutch peacekeepers where thousands were slaughtered: an empty, sterile, quiet space, but with an eerie feeling of what took place—the desperate fears of those packed into the room with no escape, no food, no water, knowing they were about to die. Opposite, stand thousands of uniform bright white headstones, each marking a life callously taken too soon. Most of the town’s former Muslim residents are either dead or have emigrated. Though international courts have recognised the Srebrenica massacre as genocide, this is still denied by Serbia and Bosnian Serbs. Nedžad returned to Srebrenica in 2007 and lives there with his family. A startling fact to all of us on the delegation is that the education fails to teach the history of what happened at Srebrenica. Nedžad says, ‘They’re being taught that the genocide never happened. You turn on the tv and it’s like the war never ended. I fear for my daughters’ future. The education system generated new hatred and indoctrination. Despite everything, I hope that I can teach my daughters to grow up without hatred. This will be my success.’ The US-brokered Dayton accords that ended the war set up an intricate federal structure with a weak central Government. For Nedžad, the greater injustice is that the division of Bosnia into two halves—a Muslim-Croat federation and a Serbian republic—has meant that the practice of ethnic cleansing has been legitimised. Many regularly see the killers around the town. Some hold offices in local government. Others are senior figures in the local police force. Last October, Srebrenica elected a Serbian mayor with an ultranationalist history who does not accept that the Srebenica massacres amounted to genocide—something that seems unimaginable to us. While the genocide took husbands, sons and brothers, their mothers, daughters and sisters were left behind. Once a year, the Mothers of Srebrenica, who campaign to ensure each person responsible is brought to justice, host a ceremony to remember their loved ones. This intensely moving event is held in the Potočari cemetery, where some of the victims whose bodies have been found are buried. We had the privilege of meeting some of the Mothers of Srebrenica. They want to share their story with young children so that they can learn from the past and also prepare for the future. Those who killed believed they could get away with murder. They thought they could erase the identity of their victims permanently. But they were wrong. While we were in Bosnia we also saw the invaluable work undertaken by the International Commission for Missing Persons. The ICMP spearheaded the effort to locate and identify the people who went missing during the conflict. In the aftermath of Srebrenica, work began on what were thought to be the five mass burial sites, each containing many separate graves in which the dead had been buried and left hidden. However, testing showed that body parts from what came to be called the primary graves had been moved to secondary ones, to hide evidence. Sometimes, they had even been disinterred and reinterred again, into tertiary graves. This had two implications: first, that more than a million and a half bones and body parts from over 8,000 people were scattered across countless sites; and the second, that the few byways of rural eastern Bosnia had for weeks—months, even—been heaving with trucks carrying the rotting, stinking remains of these people, yet no one said a thing. Edin Ramulic, of an organisation called Izvor, which campaigns with relatives of the missing, said: ‘They drove past people’s houses along quiet roads. For every one missing person, at least three people know exactly where they are buried—the driver, the digger, and the policeman, plus whoever saw them pass—but all remain silent. While that silence persists, you cannot call this peace.’ Through the work of the ICMP, more than 70 per cent of those people have been accounted for. Furthermore, the scientific evidence of the identity of victims from Srebrenica made it possible to piece together an incontestable narrative of crimes and to present this evidence in numerous trials including those of Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladić. When we remember what happened in Srebrenica it’s also important to remember those others who were targeted. The youngest victim of Srebrenica was a baby girl called Fatima, born in the UN base at Potočari. Fatima was just two days old when she was murdered. Thousands of women, children and elderly people were forcibly deported and a large number of women were raped. The use of rape as a weapon of war is one of the most harrowing and most savage crimes against civilians. The war in Bosnia took sexual violence to new levels. The UN estimates up to 50,000 women and girls, some as young as 12, were raped as part of an organised ethnic cleansing regime. We do not know the exact number because the majority have remained silent through stigma, shame and fear. Many children born of rape have grown up isolated and rejected from society, and this is something that is still not talked about. Pramila Patten, the UN special representative on sexual violence in conflict, said: ‘Rape is a cruel weapon that is as devastating as any bullet or bomb. It ravages victims and their families. It destroys communities, and undermines their chances for reconciliation if left unaddressed. It has also been described as the oldest and yet least condemned crime of all.’ Many women suffered, and now we know many men have suffered from this crime too. Some 3,000 men and boys were raped during the war. Many of the victims have been isolated and shunned by their own families and communities. Last month, in a bid to promote reconciliation, leaders of the Orthodox, Islamic, Jewish and Catholic communities signed a declaration denouncing the stigmatisation of survivors of conflict related sexual violence at Bosnia’s inter-religious council. This declaration is the first of its kind in the world. What happened in Srebrenica was not inevitable; it was preventable. While those survivors mourn the loss of their loved ones and we say ‘never again’, we all have a responsibility to ensure future generations understand how neighbour turned against neighbour, tolerance turned to intolerance and similarities were shunned for differences. Never has it been more important to learn the lessons from Srebrenica. We have a duty to remember those who died and those left behind, but we also have a duty and responsibility to work harder than ever to challenge those ideologies of fear and hatred. Most importantly, we must teach the next generation about what happened in Srebrenica and the dangers of not tackling hatred and intolerance. I would urge other Members to visit Srebrenica, read the testimonies from the survivors and do all we can to bring communities together and stand up to those who try to divide us. Furthermore, I’d ask the leader of the house and the Cabinet Secretary for Education to support the education programme launched by Remembering Srebrenica to ensure that pupils in schools in Wales understand the steps that led to genocide. It also gives us the opportunity to show what can happen if we let hate win. I shall never ever forget the day that I heard the stories of those people who were at Srebrenica and those who lost their loved ones. Their dedication and courage in telling the world what happened cannot be underestimated. Their voices are so powerful and dignified. Every time I listen to them, I feel captivated, ashamed that the world allowed this to happen, and inspired to do something. Our guide Rashad states: ‘Unfortunately, in Bosnia we have three histories, and the most dangerous one is the narrative that kids get from their home. Only by listening to the life stories and remembering what happened can we understand how people can contribute to a better society.’ We’re told to learn from our past mistakes, yet it’s evident that we didn’t. We owe it to the people of Srebrenica. We must remember Srebrenica.

Joyce Watson

My visit to Srebrenica, going to that memorial at Potočari, meeting the survivors of the genocide—that experience stands out as one of the most important things that I’ve done, both politically and personally. Srebrenica was the final act of the worst European genocide since the war, and, in remembering its victims, we must never forget the 20,000 to 50,000 women and girls, mostly Bosniak, who were subjected to unthinkable acts of sexual violence. Twenty-two years later, they go on living with that loss and with that memory. We still do not know the exact numbers of the victims, and we never will. The majority have remained silent, though stigma, shame, fear and trauma are also buried. Many Bosniak women bravely have broken the silence around sexual violence as a weapon of war, and because of their courage, rape was prosecuted for the very first time under international criminal law. What happened at Srebrenica was the most terrible realisation of what can happen when hatred is allowed to root and flourish, when people are dehumanised by reason of their race, nationality, religion and sex. 

Ann Jones

Thank you very much. I call on the leader of the house to reply to that debate—Jane Hutt.

Jane Hutt

Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. I do welcome the opportunity provided by this debate to remember the events of Srebrenica 22 years ago. I thank Jayne, and I think all of us here today thank Jayne Bryant for bringing this to the National Assembly for Wales. It’s vital that we do take time to remember this terrible genocide. As Jayne said, at least 8,372 Bosnian Muslims, boys, men and elderly were massacred by Serb forces in a systematically organised series of summary executions. I know that the Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Children is attending the Remembering Srebrenica commemoration event this evening over in the Pierhead building. I know the visits, from the feedback that we’ve had from Assembly Members who have attended these events and visited—they’ve made an indelible impact on our and your shared understanding, and it’s important that you brought this to us again tonight in this short debate. The theme for this year’s, commemoration is gender and genocide, remembering, in particular, the women of Srebrenica. And, of course, Joyce Watson has spoken of that as well today. It’s this aspect that I want to focus on in my response. Terrible suffering was inflicted on families as a result of this atrocity. We can scarcely imagine the fear, violence and grief that the Bosnian women and girls suffered. We remember today the thousands who were raped, sexually abused or tortured, often under the eyes of others and sometimes watched by their children or their own mothers. We remember the thousands who saw their sons, husbands and fathers killed or dragged away, never to be seen again. We remember, too, the thousands who were uprooted from their homes and made destitute, and Jayne has described this horrific massacre—the horror and crime of sexual violence and raped used as a weapon. Reports show that there were over 50,000 cases of sexual abuse recorded during the Bosnian war from 1992 to 1995. For women in Bosnia and Herzegovina the legacy of the war continues to cast a long shadow. And nearly 20 years after the ending of the hostilities, women continue to fight for justice but arguably they have yet to be heard fully in a male-oriented Balkan society, and you’ve commented on that. There’s still much to be done there to promote gender equality and women’s rights, to tackle discrimination and gender-based violence, domestic abuse, enforced prostitution and trafficking in women. Those who suffered sexual abuse during the war, or experienced domestic abuse in the 20 years since, have also been very vulnerable to economic distress. Many initially returned to homes damaged or destroyed in the war and were thrust into the role of breadwinner without essential skills or an education. The threat of poverty and destitution are an ever-present danger for those suffering domestic abuse in modern-day Bosnia. Jayne, you and your colleagues provided support to the mothers of Srebrenica just by being there, by understanding, by listening and having a witness with them of their suffering, and making a clear statement. Commemorating Srebrenica is about all communities coming together to condemn the genocide that took place on our doorstep in living memory, continuing to learn the lessons and committing to do something in our own community to challenge hatred and intolerance. It’s vital that the stories and experiences of victims and survivors of past atrocities are never forgotten. We’ve heard more today of those memories—those personal stories. I know that that will be very important in terms of taking forward your request to look at ways in which we can share that understanding, learning the lessons in our schools, with our young people and older generations. We have to remember, with violence against women in the UK increasing, it’s more important than ever to unify the stories of women in order to amplify their voices and learn from the horrors inflicted on women throughout the world. Creating a more equal Wales where everyone has the opportunity to reach their full potential is a central goal for the Welsh Government, and it’s vital that all women are able to achieve and prosper. Women encounter inequality in many areas, which only intensifies if they’re also part of another protected group. Women from black minority ethnic communities, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender women, elderly or disabled women all often face multiple disadvantages and can find it even harder to reach their full potential. We’re fully committed to implementing the rights of the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women. Our officials have provided a contribution to the UK’s eighth periodic report, which will be submitted later this year and highlights the progress we’ve made in promoting the rights of women since 2013. Reducing all forms of harassment and abuse, including domestic abuse, hate crime and bullying, child-abuse and the abuse of older people, extremism and modern-day slavery is a key aim of the Welsh Government’s strategic equality plan for 2016 to 2020. We are seeing considerable progress, including through the Violence against Women, Domestic Abuse and Sexual Violence (Wales) Act 2015, our tackling hate crimes and incidents framework, our Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act 2014 and our equality and inclusion programme—not only this landmark piece of legislation, the violence against women, domestic abuse and sexual violence Act, but focusing on ways in which we can prevent violence wherever possible and to provide effective support for victims. We are making progress in delivering the measures of the Act and have committed £4.9 million to this work. The key—and we understand this, and it’s really coming to the fore today as a result of your debate, Jayne—is to change attitudes so that violent behaviour is not acceptable in any circumstances, locally, nationally or internationally. It will not be tolerated in our society. We’re confident that our legislation and wider work will help develop a culture that challenges abusive behaviour to create a Wales, and a world, where everyone has the right to live free of fear. I also recognise that we have to be resilient in the face of extremism, spreading hatred and fear, and strengthening our resolve to become stronger together whenever we’re tested by hate crimes, striving to build a strong and diverse society where people of every race, faith and colour are valued for their character and for their actions. That means bringing people together, breaking down divisions to create well-connected communities. It means fostering tolerance and good relations between people. In this work, we can draw inspiration from the survivors of Srebrenica, and women, men and children who’ve had the strength to endure their ordeal, and the courage to find ways to rebuild their lives and communities. The genocide in Srebrenica should never be forgotten. Jayne has reminded us of this again today, and, of course, following in the Pierhead building tonight, we must continue to learn lessons and continue to work to end sexual violence here in Wales and around the world.