Nicola Sturgeon: We must keep the memory of genocide alive

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon lays flowers at a monument to the victims of Srebrenica. Picture: PA

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon lays flowers at a monument to the victims of Srebrenica. Picture: PA

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This weekend I have been in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where I visited the site of the 1995 genocide at Srebrenica.

It was a privilege to meet with survivors and the bereaved, and learn first-hand how they have fought to preserve the memory of their loved ones.

Described by the United Nations as “the worst crime in Europe since the Second World War”, the genocide saw more than 8000 men and boys murdered in the space of a few days.

They had sought safety in this small town, but instead they had their lives taken from them in the cruellest ways imaginable.

The horror of Srebrenica is compounded by the fact that it happened when they were under international protection from the United Nations Protection Force.

This is a tragedy which could, and should, have been prevented – one of the biggest failures of the international community in recent decades.

Twenty-one years have now passed since the 1995 genocide – and while for most people the name Srebrenica is instantly recognisable, for today’s children and young people it may be a part of history that they know very little about.

That is why the work of organisations like Remembering Srebrenica is so important – helping to keep alive the memory of the genocide, and the thousands who died, for future generations.

Whether it is the development of education packs for teachers, the holding of commemorative events or organising visits to learn first-hand about the genocide, Remembering Srebrenica is helping to ensure that the horror of this genocide is not forgotten.

And it was with the help of their Scottish Board – chaired by the Very Reverend Dr Lorna Hood – that I visited Srebrenica this weekend.

It is safe to say that the experience has had a profound impact on me, and sitting here writing this as my visit draws to a close, I am still struggling to find words which adequately describe it.

One of the first things that struck me on arriving in Srebrenica was how beautiful the surrounding countryside is – it is scarcely believable that this was the backdrop to such horrors only a generation ago.

But of course, that landscape is dominated by seemingly endless rows of white headstones set in the Potocari Cemetery, stretching almost as far as the eye can see.

My guide was Hasan Hasonovic, who as a young man escaped from the death march, although sadly his twin brother and father – along with many of his friends – were killed.

He has devoted his life to ensuring that the world never forgets what happened in Srebrenica. As well as travelling far and wide to tell his story, Hasan acts as curator and translator at the Memorial Centre.

Hearing Hasan’s story is not easy – but is a story which absolutely must be heard.

So too the stories of the group Mothers of Srebrenica, some of whom I was introduced to by Hasan. These women lost their sons in the genocide and some waited years to find out exactly what happened to their loved ones. Others still do not know. In all cases, their plea to the world is the same – do not forget about those who were killed, and help ensure that such atrocities are never repeated.

During my visit, I was also able to reflect on the many stories of heroism and bravery that came out during and after the conflict – including some that have their origins very close to home.

Edinburgh Direct Aid delivered thousands of tonnes of much-needed supplies and medicines to desperate people in many parts of Bosnia. Christine Witcutt, along with her husband Alan, were two of the first to volunteer to drive the convoy to Bosnia.

Tragically, Christine was killed on “snipers’ alley” in Sarajevo a few months later. However, her name lives on in the Christine Witcutt Day Care Centre, established in 2001 to provide support to families with disabled children in Sarajevo.

I visited the centre on Sunday morning, and saw for myself how it is bringing some light and happiness to children in Sarajevo most needing help. I was greeted by Christine’s son-in-law David – who himself drove relief lorries during the conflict.

The humanitarian work of Christine, her husband, her wider family and countless others has helped Bosnia and Herzegovina progress to where it is today. And it is the work of organisations like Remembering Srebrenica that helps ensure that the world never forgets the horrors of the genocide.

Although our two countries may be separated by geography, I was struck during my visit by the warmth with which people in Bosnia and Herzegovina speak of Scotland.

And like every other nation, we must commit to learning the lessons of the past as we try to build a more peaceful, tolerant future.