By Kezia Dugdale MSP
From Sarajevo, Bosnia
(Photos by Lesley Martin)
*This article first appeared in The Times on 17/04/18*
In March 1995, President Radovan Karadžić ordered ‘Directive 7’. It tasked his troops along the Bosnian Drina river to create ‘an unbearable situation of total insecurity, with no hope of survival or life for the inhabitants of Srebrenica and Zepa’. They could just as easily be the words of Assad ordering deaths in Aleppo or Douma.
By 1995, the war had been raging in Bosnia for three years. On average 330 shells a day would fall into Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital, from countless bases in the hills above the city.
In the smaller towns and villages, Serbian soldiers would walk in and shoot Bosniak (Muslim) men in the back as they ploughed their own fields. They’d rape the women, knowing that this was the single best weapon they had to force families to flee, cleansing the towns of Muslims.
Many left before the soldiers arrived, having heard what was coming from family in other towns. They arrived in the small, largely Muslim, town of Srebrenica where they believed there would be safety in numbers. What they were was a target.
General Ratko Mladić and his men, following the President’s orders, killed 8,000 men and boys over a period of 11 days in July 1995. Bodies were ‘buried’ in mass graves.
In June of last year, I travelled to Srebrenica with the charity Remembering Srebrenica Scotland to study the atrocities here. The more I learnt about the slaughter of the Muslim men, the more I wanted to know about the fate of the women who were left behind. This weekend I returned with a delegation of 11 other Scots to meet some of the women whose life work is now recovery, reconciliation and the pursuit of justice.
One of those women, Fadila Efendić, has a shop no bigger than a garden shed which sits on the roadside opposite the cemetery and national memorial to the genocide. Here lie the bodies of thousands of men who were executed in empty schools and factory buildings. And thousands more who set out to walk to Tuzla through forests ridden with land mines and shelled at night.
Each resting place is marked by one tall thin white granite stone engraved with their name. Fadila’s husband and son are amongst them. She set up shop here to be close to them.
Women like Fadila lost everything during the war. Their belongings and home. Husbands, brothers and sons. Their way of life and reason to live.
Problems were compounded from 2001 onwards when people returned to their homes expecting them to be intact only to found they had disappeared altogether.
Fata Orlović’s home was there, but a church had been built in her front garden. She’s been battling the authorities for 21 years now to have it removed. She’s old and tired but still lives with the constant threat of abuse and violence. Having heard of her courage we stop at her house on our way back to Sarajevo with a gift, only to find her sore and clutching her hip. A car had sped by her house that morning, opened the door and struck her. Yet another warning to stop being difficult.
Dr Branka Antić Štauber established Snaga Žene, which translates as ‘Strength of a Woman’, as an NGO in 1996. During the day she works as a regular doctor - having written two books on gastroenterology - yet the treatment for the trauma the women have faced is much more holistic.
It was a lesson learnt in 2001 when the first six women left the refugee camps determined to return to their homes in Srebrenica. When Dr Branka heard they had left for home she was alarmed and deeply anxious, worried about what they what they would face in a town now dominated by Serbs. So much so, that she and a fellow doctor jumped in a car in search of them. They found the six women in an abandoned and half demolished house, smoked out by their attempts to keep warm from a makeshift fire emanating from the building.
Dr Branka asked if the women were scared. One woman replied: “We’ve lost our husbands and our sons, we are dead already.” She realised she had to give the women reasons to live, including a sense of their own identity and self-worth.
Dr Branka Antić Štauber
She put together a strategy which focused on dealing with their medical and mental health issues and the legal advice they needed to exercise rights over their own land. Key to the success of this strategy, though, was supporting the women to exercise their economic rights and security.
Before the war, they women worked the land. Farming is what they know and when they lost their homes they lost the means by which they could literally feed themselves. In a lightbulb moment, this was the key. So Snaga Žene focused on finding land for the woman to farm again. They started to grow roses first, then herbs and lavender. Fifteen years on they have 11 acres and the produce is sold; the profits shared. You can buy it all at Fadila’s shop by the side of the road. The shop is called ‘Ahya’ which translates as ‘I’m alive’.
The entrance hall to the memorial says ‘Srebrenica Genocide - a failure of the international community’. As we returned on Saturday from Srebrenica, news reached us the UK was sending jets to Syria. They never came to Bosnia.
The similarities are both striking and overly simplistic but, as the world struggles with whether to intervene in Syria or not, we wondered whether intervention could have made it any worse?
They relive their trauma every time they try to warn the world about the dangers of letting it happen again. Yet there is now empirical proof that trauma can be inherited, the pain passed down through generations. This cycle has to be broken if the country is to have any chance of moving on. The peace is so fragile, the recovery so delicate. History is repeating itself, just in other countries. It could happen again here too. Erdogan flexing his muscles in Turkey on one side, Putin on the other: a toxic recipe for conflict.
Bosnia is the tale of ignorance and inaction on European soil, the ramifications of which are carried on the faces and souls of the survivors. We must remember Srebrenica and - in so doing - ensure it never happens again to no one and nowhere.