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Learning from tragedy

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In the second part of a two-part series, BMA medical ethics committee chair John Chisholm recounts a visit to the site of the Srebrenica massacre and meets those trying to lay a horrific past to rest

Visiting war-ravaged Bosnia-Herzegovina, and particularly the site of the Srebrenica genocide, is a harrowing, moving, poignant, emotional and revelatory experience.

Meeting those who are working to achieve a better future, putting aside the bitterness and enmity of the past with their quiet heroism, courage and dignity, is humbling and chastening, but also inspirational.

I had the privilege recently of joining a Remembering Srebrenica delegation, with most members having a health background, including people from the BMA (my colleague and human rights expert Julian Sheather and I), the Royal College of GPs and NHS England.

We met Ilijaz Pilav, a heroic doctor, a role model for ethical behaviour and totally dedicated to his patients, one of five doctors caring for 40,000 people in Srebrenica when it was besieged by Serbian forces during a three-year period.
Ilijaz, a newly qualified doctor at the time, gave us a haunting testimony of how he became a trauma surgeon in the most primitive and challenging circumstances and of the horrors he faced. For much of the time, there was no electricity, no refrigeration, no antibiotics, no analgesics and no anaesthetics.

Amputations, abdominal surgery and the treatment of wounds were carried out as if in a world before the 1840s, with patients dosed with plum brandy before facing the excruciating pain of surgery. Seventeen of Ilijaz’s male relatives were killed in the genocide. He talked with dignity of the failure of the international community to intervene to protect the town, with catastrophic, evil consequences.

We were shown round the Srebrenica-Potočari museum, memorial and cemetery by Hasan Hasanović, also a survivor of genocide and the death march to Tuzla, who lost his father and twin brother. He has written about the massacre in his book Surviving Srebrenica and is curator at the memorial centre.

He told us, with understated emotion, the history of the genocide and in particular, like Ilijaz, how the international community, including the Dutch troops of the UN Protection Force who were supposed to guard the town, had failed the Bosnians trapped in Srebrenica, by failing to intervene to prevent what happened.

As a result, at least 8,372 men and boys were massacred, in mass executions because of their religion, their ethnicity, their names, their perceived otherness – slaughtered because of malign hatred.

 

Senseless slaughter

Visiting the cemetery and seeing rows of tombstones, identical apart from the names engraved on each, is like visiting a war cemetery; pointlessness and cruelty are everywhere in evidence. The memorial, in which names are listed alphabetically by surname, makes visible and vivid the way in which the males of whole families were exterminated.

We visited the Podrinje Identification Project in Tuzla and met Dragana Vučetić, one of a forensic team of eight working under the auspices of the International Commission on Missing Persons, set up at the behest of former US president
Bill Clinton.

So far, mostly using DNA evidence, 6,700 genocide victims have been identified. As a result, their families can bury them, at Potočari or elsewhere. Dragana suspects that some mass graves are yet to be discovered.

We visited organisations dedicated to helping victims of sexual violence and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Inspirational work is being undertaken by Sabiha Husić of Udruženje Medica Zenica and Branka Antić-Štauber of Snaga Žene (Strength of a Woman) in Tuzla.

The brilliant, inspiring Sabiha has helped 50,000 people. Their understandable reluctance to tell their stories means that some have remained silent for more than 20 years.

Sabiha’s work helping women and girl victims of sexual violence involves providing safe houses, counselling, psychotherapy, listening, encouragement to speak about their experiences, and support for their families.

Sabiha also gathers evidence to help prosecute the perpetrators of sexual violence, and provides training for healthcare professionals so that they are more sensitive to their patients’ stress and trauma.

Branka, equally inspirational, committed and kind, supports the victims of wartime sexual violence and refugees in Bosnia, psychologically, socially, medically, legally and with occupational therapy, particularly horticulture. The women she supports grow and sell medicinal herbs and herbal teas.

We met Bakira Hasečić, whose organisation Udruženje Žena-Žrtva Rata (Association of the Women Victims of War) and personal courage and determination have resulted in the prosecution of war criminals and rapists in the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and in Bosnia-Herzegovina, in the face of much institutional indifference.

She has spoken about her own harrowing experiences – she was herself raped and witnessed the rape of her daughter – and has encouraged and supported some 25,000 women to break their silence, speak out and give evidence.

She doesn’t want revenge, but truth, justice and fairness – and increased understanding.

Bakira believes that court verdicts against perpetrators are a testimony to future generations, a message to the world that these atrocities and war crimes should never happen again.

 

Survivors: where next?

Indeed, ‘never again’ was a recurring theme from those we met. Ilijaz says ‘this is my commitment – to speak out. I survived. I am obliged to speak to those who wish to hear, to avoid Srebrenica happening again.

‘Many people say it’s impossible. We also thought it was impossible. Trust me, it is possible. Impossible things at one moment become very possible the next.’

Hasan says, ‘I want to speak to people, and share my story because my heart speaks. And now, finally, someone is listening.’

Sabiha is committed to reconciliation and peace, to learning from the past to prevent recurrences in future. Branka understands that those on the UK delegation are trying to change British society.

However, Bosnia-Herzegovina is still divided into two main entities – the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Republika Srpska – following the Dayton Accords.

The position of chair of the presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina rotates between Bosniak, Serb and Croat members.

Political parties are mostly organised on ethnic and religious lines and political representatives are chosen according to their ethnic origins.

Many schools are segregated, with separate curriculums. There is little teaching about the horrors of the Bosnian war and the need for reconciliation.

There is widespread unwillingness to confront the past, in the way that has been so successful in post-war Germany. Several of those we met, including our guide Rešad Trbonja, feared that old hatreds lay just under the surface.

 

Simmering hatred

Sadly, we see a rise in nationalism, racism and xenophobia in many countries.  That is why we must never forget the Holocaust or the Srebrenica genocide.

We need to build communities free from hatred, discrimination and intolerance. Yet while we remember, while we say never again, we see Syria, Yemen, Myanmar, Hungary, Poland, Turkey, Israel and Palestine, a world where nationalism and hatred are rampant.

We even see hate crimes on our own streets in the UK and attacks on immigrants (more frequent since the Brexit referendum), a Government policy of creating a ‘hostile environment’, the shame of the Windrush crisis.

We must prevent and tackle hate crime, whenever and wherever it occurs. Those who have visited Srebrenica are committed to that goal but are unhappily fearful that tolerance may not prevail.

John Chisholm is the BMA medical ethics committee chair

Read the first installment