Last week near Srebrenica in eastern Bosnia 409 bodies were laid to rest. Amongst them was a newborn baby girl who was only days old when she was killed. Had she lived, she would have just turned 18 and have her whole adult life before her.
Her remains, together with many of the 8,000 others murdered, have been identified after painstaking research by the International Commission of Missing Persons.
Adam Boys, a Scot, is the Chief Operating Officer of the ICMP and has lived in Bosnia for almost 20 years running the world’s largest DNA human identification facility.
The ongoing funerals and the identification of victims from the conflict in the former Yugoslavia are testament to the scale of the unresolved consequences of the war and the failure of the international community.
To focus attention on the challenge, the UK marked the first Srebrenica Memorial Day with a solemn commemoration in Lancaster House in London to remember what happened on 11 July 1995 when Srebrenica fell to the forces of Ratklo Mladić and Radovan Karadžić.
Four survivors movingly recounted the horrific circumstances when Dutch UN peacekeepers allowed the handover of thousands of civilians to the Serbs. Women and children were separated from the men, who were marched away before their brutal murder. Hasan Hasanović managed to escape, but his twin brother and father did not. Saliha Osmanović told of the loss of her family and the profound grief she feels every day.
The memorial event was moderated by the veteran journalist Martin Bell, who reported from Bosnia throughout the war. A range of political speakers acknowledged how the people of the Balkan republic have been let down. Foreign Secretary William Hague pledged support for Bosnian membership of the EU and NATO. Baroness Warsi spoke of the guilt and shame of allowing the genocide in Bosnia. For Labour Hilary Benn appealed movingly for improved community understanding, while Liberal Democrat Lord Paddy Ashdown, who served as High Representative to Bosnia, warned that the current situation in Bosnia is actually moving backwards.
Speaking on behalf of the Scottish National Party, I highlighted the long history of Scotland welcoming asylum seekers and refugees, including many from Bosnia. I also recounted my experiences working in the former Yugoslavia during the war as a young journalist sent to interview the victims of “ethnic cleansing”. These included women and children expelled from their homes by the likes of Arkan, the notorious Serb war-criminal and his brutal henchmen.
According to the latest statistics, more than 100,000 people died during the war in Bosnia, while between 20,000 to 50,000 women were raped. More than 2.2 million people were displaced and many are unable to return to their homes to this day. The economy of the republic also suffered, with a 75 per cent drop in GDP and the large-scale destruction of its infrastructure. Unemployment remains staggeringly high while wealth per head is below 30 per cent of the EU average. Unsurprisingly, many of the brightest and best from Bosnia-Herzegovina have left to seek a better life elsewhere. It is estimated that there are 2 million Bosnians living outside Bosnia while less than 4 million remain there.
In many respects governance in Bosnia is frozen within the Dayton Agreement framework which ended the war in 1995. The ethnic entities of the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Republika Srbska are supposed to work together, but the ultimate authority still remains with the international community in the shape of the High Representative.
After the end of the war in Bosnia, attention shifted elsewhere to the likes of Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria. There is a real risk that people forget what happened on our own European doorstep and lose sight of what still needs to be done to help our neighbours.
We have a challenge in Scotland and elsewhere to ensure that we never forget the appalling events of the war in Bosnia. Despite promises to learn the lessons of even recent events, sadly too often we don’t.
In a special publication by the trailblazing organisation Remembering Srebrenica, First Minister Alex Salmond wrote of his determination “that our young people learn to shape their future through awareness of the lessons from the past, including events such as the Srebrenica genocide”. That is indeed the right thing to do, and there is more we can do.
The European Parliament has recognised the 11 July as the day of commemoration of the Srebrenica genocide all over the EU and called on the countries of the Western Balkans to do the same. Dr Waqar Azmi, chairman of Remembering Srebrenica, has asked that Scotland do so too.
I hope that next year Scotland formally marks Srebrenica Memorial Day. By doing so, we will help ensure that we remember what happened in Srebrenica. We would also raise the profile of unresolved challenges in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Government there is in a factional stalemate with corruption sadly rampant. The economy has never properly recovered and too many people there still fear for their lives. It would also send a message to people in Bosnia-Herzegovina, that they and the victims of the conflict have not be forgotten. • Angus Robertson is the Westminster SNP Leader and the Foreign Affairs and Defence spokesman.