Fiona Hodgson is a former Chairman of the Conservative Women's Organisation and was elected a Vice President of the National Conservative Convention last month. She reflects here on what she discovered during a trip to Bosnia-Herzegovina earlier this month.
Visiting Bosnia-Herzegovina last week with the NGO Women for Women to view their programmes for women, it became very apparent that, although it is nearly 15 years since the conflict ended there, and the global media spotlight has moved on to other regions, tensions still abound, justice is yet to be done and differences yet to be solved.
As in every theatre of war, women are affected disproportionately to men. In the aftermath many women are left widows, having to struggle to support themselves and to bring up their children on their own. Organisations such as Women for Women offer a lifeline to these women by giving them training in an income generating project and teaching them their rights, thus giving them a means of support and helping them to stand on their own feet.
The horror of the Bosnian war was bought home to us with shocking clarity when we visited the War Memorial at Srebrenica. It was here that the worst massacre since World War II took place in July 1995. Srebrenica had been designated a ‘safe area’ by the UN and about 25,000 Muslims gathered here to be protected from the approaching Serb army. The 313 UN Dutch troops were garrisoned in an old battery factory at Potocari and were quite overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of people, estimated at around 25,000, who came for shelter. Some of the men tried to escape over the mountains to the city of Tuzla and of those many were captured and killed.
The UN troops looked on whilst Serb forces and paramilitaries (Chetniks) led by General Ratko Mladic separated the remaining people – we heard heart-breaking stories of sons being wrenched from their mother’s arms – men and boys over seven, were loaded on to buses, taken away and shot. The women meanwhile were bussed to near Tuzla, made to walk the last 3 km with the Serbians scanning the lines for any boy over seven, so that they could pull them out. Thousands of men and boys were summarily executed and buried in mass graves within a matter of days while the international community attempted to negotiate access to them.
Understandably, many of the women survivors find it hard to ‘move forward’. Of the 8,372 confirmed victims only around 2,000 bodies have so far been recovered, and, while some wait anxiously hoping for the bodies of their relatives to be found, others cling to the forlorn hope that maybe their loved ones will turn up one day, having been taken off to Serbia. We were told that there are over 7,000 plastic bags or remains waiting to be identified. The search for victims continues and it is thought that the Serbs, in their efforts to cover their tracks, reburied many bodies in secondary and tertiary graves.
For Hana, who met us at the memorial to tell us about what had happened there, finding the remains of relatives also brought more heartache. Her father’s headless body was recovered in one grave and, later, his head in another. They had also recovered 30% of her grandfather’s remains and until 70% is found they cannot bury him. At the memorial we saw a digger digging more graves because every 11th July there is a ceremony where bodies that have been recovered during the previous year are laid to rest.
The women who survived are still traumatized, and those, whose fathers, sons and brothers have not been identified, are still waiting and wondering what happened. Some Muslim women have gone back to live around there even though it is a mainly Serb area – one woman told us that she just wanted to be close to where her two sons last walked. They have rebuilt their houses, destroyed in the war, and try to pick up shattered lives.
It is also estimated that about 20,000 women were the victims of systematic Serbian rape campaigns in the camps during the war. The Serbs desired to degrade, humiliate and impregnate Bosnian Muslim women with “little Chetniks”. The Government allowed these women to be recognised as civil victims of the war, however, they had to ‘prove it’ and to do so necessitated appearing before panels of men. Only 3,000 women registered, and it is a subject rarely talked about in Bosnia, with many of the women who ended up bearing children as a result leaving the country out of shame.
There is much anger that not enough effort has been made by the Serbs to give up the people like Ratko Mladic who perpetuated these crimes and that they are being allowed to continue to live free lives.
Driving into Sarajevo one was left in no doubt that this is a post conflict country, as many of the buildings still bear the scars of shelling, bullet holes and other damage. It was sobering hearing the stories of how people survived there during the war. Sarajevo was besieged for nearly four years with the Serbs mounting guns on the hills around and firing into the city. Around 10,000 people were killed with about 1,600 of them being children. For much of the time the people had to live without water, electricity and gas and food was in very short supply. It does not take much imagination to realise how desperately difficult this must have been – in terms of cooking, sanitation, washing, not to mention the cold of the winter.
Children were confined to the houses and flats as it was too dangerous to venture out, and when they did so, they risked being killed by a sniper. There were no telephones and no televisions so it was difficult to get news and to know what was happening. We were told many heart-breaking stories here too – of a shell landing in a garden and killing and maiming the children playing there; of another shell landing near a water tap and killing the 20 people waiting in turn to fill their water cans. However, it was also cheering to hear from one of our guides, who had been 8 years old at the start of the war, that there had been a real feeling of camaraderie and community in the city, with everyone sharing the little food that they could lay their hands on.
Sarajevo is a truly integrated city with mosques standing alongside churches, both Catholic and Orthodox. Shops selling Turkish looking coffee pots and metalware stand near cafes selling elaborate Austrian looking cream cakes, reflecting the heritage of the Ottoman and the Austro-Hungarian empires respectively. This is a country which challenges our conception of ‘what a Muslim looks like’ as they are mostly indistinguishable from Christians, with few women choosing to cover their heads.
Bosnia is estimated to be the second poorest nation in the Europe after Kosovo and suffers from an over top-heavy state bureaucracy. It was described to us as a dysfunctional state and every day it is getting harder. The world economic crisis is having a very bad effect with 35,000 people losing their jobs in the first few months of 2009 and now there is over 40% unemployment. The two entities of the state – the entity of Republika Srpska and the entity of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina – do not have an easy relationship. Thus the State is weak and the leadership divided.
However, the international community must not fail Bosnia, neither should Bosnian leaders be allowed to do so. Her citizens deserve peace, stability and freedom from fear, like the citizens of any other European country.