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This must never happen again - Remembering Srebrenica

This opinion piece is over 8 years old

Martin Johnstone's visit to Srebrenica, where 8,000 men and boys were massacred in 1995, reminded him of the importance of compassion today

When you stand in a graveyard where thousands of men and boys who were brutally murdered are buried, your heart almost breaks with sadness and your head bursts with the sense of deep despair.

This must never happen again.

In September, I was part of a small delegation from Scotland visiting Bosnia-Herzegovina at the invitation of Remembering Srebrenica led by Lorna Hood, a former Moderator of the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly and chair of the Scottish board of the charity.

As well as spending time in Sarajevo – which just twenty years ago was described as the largest concentration camp in the world – the principle purpose of our visit was to spend time in Srebrenica.

Martin Johnstone
Martin Johnstone

Over the course of just four days in July 1995 almost 8,400 men and boys were murdered in Srebrenica. Their hands were tied behind their backs and they were shot. Huge numbers of women – separated from those that they loved – were violently abused and raped. It was the largest genocide on European soil since the end of the Second World War. It represented not just the depths of human barbarity but also the failure of the United Nations to protect the innocent.

This must never happen again.

We visited the morgue where over a thousand bodies are currently being stored awaiting reburial having been recovered from mass graves across the region.

From there we went to the International Commission on Missing Persons where we learnt of the incredible and painstaking task of identifying the remains of those who were killed and returning them to their families – where any survived.

We spent time in the cavernous, and now dis-used, battery factory where over a thousand died - the feel of death was palpable. And we ended the day in the Memorial Graveyard, where we met with Nura Begovic, one of the mothers of Srebrenica, and Nedazad Avdic, who somehow survived the killing despite being shot in the back, leg and foot and having to crawl eighty miles to safety. The miracle was that they spoke without malice but with a desire that no other community should ever have to experience the grief that they experienced and continue to go through.

This must never happen again.

And yet, perhaps, the most haunting thing that I heard during those four days was the fact that, in recent times, the International Commission on Missing People is focusing increasing energy and attention around the Mediterranean, Syria and Iraq. We were also reminded that world attention has shifted from the Ukraine but many of the circumstances which led to the senseless slaughter in the Balkans also exist in that region. The almost unimaginable reality is that in twenty years’ time some delegation will be visiting other death fields in another part of the world and saying: "This must never happen again."

I returned to Scotland haunted by what I had seen, inspired by the people I had met with and had shared this incredible journey with. But, above all, I came home with the realisation that what we do now determines what the next generation will think of us. What we do in Palestine, in Syria, in the Ukraine and in Europe in response to the refugee catastrophe in our own neighbourhoods. Let us not walk by on the other side of the road; let us not say that this is too difficult.

This doesn’t need to happen again.