Remembering Srebrenica: Harrogate woman returns from Bosnia

Srebrenica-Poto'ari Memorial Centre and Cemetery for the victims of the 1995 Genocide in Srebrenica (S).
Srebrenica-Poto'ari Memorial Centre and Cemetery for the victims of the 1995 Genocide in Srebrenica (S).

Almost 20 years since the massacre of more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys in the Srebrenica massacre, a Harrogate woman joined a group of UK delegates to discover why the conflict has left scars still visible today.

Fozia Parveen, a locum optometrist based in Harrogate, visited Srebrenica for three days, returning last week.

This town in Bosnia, which saw the death and torture of thousands of Muslims by the Serb forces under the command of General Ratko Mladic in July 1995, is a place still struggling to find closure.

Ms Parveen said: “The Srebrenica genocide was something I didn’t learn much about when I was younger, but with recent efforts trying to get the people responsible prosecuted for their crimes it has come back into the public sphere.

“You don’t associate these types of crimes with the west, and it took place very close to home. I wanted to go to find out what caused the war and really bring the lessons back to the UK.

“Before I embarked on this trip I knew very little about the war which ravaged the Balkans. Upon returning it strikes me that we expect too much from the people of Bosnia with little support - they cannot reconcile without justice.”

The delegation of around 20 people from the UK, all chosen for the work they do in their communities, was taken to Bosnia by the charitable organisation Remembering Srebrenica.

Ms Parveen was recommended to the charity in light of her involvement with women and the role of female empowerment in society.

Though she realized the trip would be challenging, she said she didn’t expect how difficult she would find it.

“They showed us the bones of people and talked about how they had been scattered across different parts of the country - that was how they tried to hide the evidence. Some families are burying family members with only two bones because they don’t have bodies,” she said.

“I was horrified to find that the military not only massacred and piled the bodies of Muslim Bosnians in mass graves, but they would also dig them up and re-bury them elsewhere, normally along frontlines and retreat lines to conceal genocide and suggest they were combat casualties.

“It is not uncommon to find the remains of one person scattered across four different mass graves.

“I was shocked. I wasn’t prepared for it and it is only now that I am coming to terms with it.”

As well as the mass graves and high number of casualities, Ms Parveen was also deeply affected by the plight of the women of Srebrenica.

She visited the survivors and families of the town. The day before they had been to the Hague seeking justice for their loved ones.

She said: “I wanted to listen to the experiences of the women there. They were still picking up the pieces 20 years on because a lot of the breadwinners were killed.

“It was interesting to learn about the different therapeutic programmes for the women. Sexual violence was a tool that was used as well as killing, and the army set up rape camps as well as concentration camps.

“The Nazis completely exterminated different races, but in Bosnia they were trying to do ethnic cleansing through rape as well, to bring a generation of their own.

“It is really important to learn how to stop something like that happening againg, and to nip it in the bud early on.

“We need to be working with people towards common goals to try and get people not to dehumanise someone that might be different to them.”

Along with the survivors of the massacre, Ms Parveen met with the Bosnian President Bakir Izetbegović, the Grand Mufti Husein Kavazović, the UK Ambassador to Bosnia Jo Lomas, and the Chief Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia Serge Brammertz.

She also spoke with Hasan Hasanović, a massacre survivor who walked 100km on the Death March from Srebrenica to Tuzla to escape Serb forces that had entered the UN ‘safe zone’.

He talked in detail about the events of July 11, 1995, and the deaths of his twin brother Hussein and father Aziz, both of whom were killed and found years later in mass graves.

Now Ms Parveen hopes to share what she has learned back in the UK and to help bring about the justice that has been missing for so long.

“The conflict that went on for so long and people are still suffering, they are still trying to find closure,” she said.

“You had neighbours turning on neighbours. A maths teacher took part in the concentration camps because people were of a different ethnic group. It was a nationalist kind of narrative, which happened in Germany as well.

“They do have the Hague trials, but they are not really like the Nuremberg trials where they were hunted down and there were no excuses.

“In Bosnia you could be living in the same neighbourhood as someone who killed your father or raped a family member, and it is quite hard to bring them to justice.

“This was a very challenging visit, both physically and emotionally. I was overwhelmed with so many emotions, and everything is still very raw.

“I hope to honour victims and survivors of hatred both in the UK and in Bosnia from this thought-provoking journey through the hearts of the people of Bosnia.”