Northern Ireland

Are there lessons for Northern Ireland in Bosnia?

CEMETERY WHERE WAR DEAD ARE BURIED
Image caption The NI delegation visited the cemetery where some of Bosnia's war dead are buried

It is a place where the consequences of bigotry and division were unspeakable.

Visitors to Srebrenica often say they find the experience hard to put into words, but they do come away with lessons and reflections.

I travelled to Bosnia with a group from Northern Ireland, on a trip organised by the charity Remembering Srebrenica.

The delegation included representatives of faith groups, community organisations, and Troubles victims.

'Visibly moved'

While acknowledging that the conflict in Bosnia was on a different scale to the Northern Ireland conflict - 100,000 were killed in the Balkan state - some of the ongoing challenges in a post-conflict society resonate.

"The war is constantly present somewhere in the background of our lives," explained Resad Trbonja, who guided the group as Remembering Srebrenica's co-ordinator in Bosnia.

He was in the Bosnian government army which defended the capital city, Sarajevo, when it was besieged by Bosnian Serb forces for almost four years from 1992 to 1995.

He says there are still those will deny the extent of the war crimes - and that is holding up healing.

When I asked him what it would take to bring about reconciliation in Bosnia, he replied: "Accept the fact, say it wasn't done in my name; acknowledge it and move on."

That theme of "acknowledgement" is one which came up repeatedly, when the visitors from Northern Ireland had discussions with Bosnians about the familiar issue of dealing with the past.

Image caption The group also visited siege tunnels in Sarajevo

The Victims' Commissioner, Judith Thompson, said Northern Ireland was still struggling with acknowledgement.

"Recognition of pain and actually finding truth - or what's available of it - is more important than the discomfort of those people who don't want to acknowledge," she said.

She and other members of the delegation were visibly moved when Hasan Hasanovic told his harrowing story.

'Death march'

He was a survivor of the genocide in Srebrenica.

The area was designated as a UN "safe haven" and Dutch peacekeepers were charged with protecting the Muslims who fled there.

But in July 1995, Srebrenica fell to the Bosnian Serbs, and they set about killing all the men and boys.

Eight thousand were murdered.

Hasan was in a column which tried to get to safety over the mountains, but the Serb forces attacked them.

His father and twin brother did not survive what became known as the "death march".

I asked him what world should learn from Srebrenica.

"Whenever they see a problem with ordinary civilians being hurt, they should intervene and save their lives regardless of who they are," he replied.

"When there is a problem, politicians need to think about ordinary people, and not just about interests."

The Srebrenica victims were buried in mass graves.

Then, in an effort to conceal the war crime, the remains were removed to other sites - meaning bodies were dismembered, and dispersed.

The remains of Hasan's father were not found until 2003, and his twin brother's remains were not recovered until 2005.

'1,000 still missing'

The Northern Ireland group visited the laboratory run by the Missing Persons Institute where scientists examine exhumed remains to identify bodies,.

About 1,000 people remain missing and the experts say the future of the work is uncertain, as it is unclear whether funding will continue.

Most of the bodies which have been found are buried in a huge cemetery at Potocari, opposite the old factory which used to be the base for the UN peacekeepers in Srebrenica.

Visiting the graveyard was the final stage in the group's visit to Bosnia.

Image caption The Northern Ireland group visited the laboratory run by the Missing Persons Institute where scientists examine exhumed remains to identify bodies

Denise Wright, the race relations co-ordinator for south Belfast, said the experience had made her "more determined" in her work.

She said it was frightening to think that the genocide started with "intolerance and thinking people were different".

Edwin Graham, a member of the Northern Ireland interfaith forum, said: "I think there's a massive amount we can learn in terms of the way in which it's very easy to categorise a whole group of people and demonise them."

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