I researched a lot when I was asked to write poetry for the 20th Anniversary of the Bosnian genocide both last year and this year to be performed by myself at the Manchester Cathedral yesterday. I felt that I had gone through every emotion imaginable when looking in towards someone else’s pain. As I said in my opening speech, writing poetry for this event was very difficult. How does one use poetic devices and lyrical beauty to sum up a mother’s loss, or the rape of a daughter or the rape of 50,000 daughters or the spirit of 8400 men and boys executed in horrific ways? I thought I had read most accounts of the survivors.
But there is always something new that burrows through and envelopes the heart with sadness. What moved me yesterday, wasn’t the fact that everybody was waiting and listening to hear me speak, or the fact that here I was, sat among dignitaries, mayors, mayoresses, ex UN members, the Dean Roger Govender, Lord Lieutenant Warren Smith, Police Superintendant James Ligget, David Arnold of Manchester Council of Christian and Jews, Imam Abid Khan, Tony Lloyd the interim Mayor of Greater Manchester, councillors and other prominent figures of the community but the poignant details I learnt afresh from the film ‘Silent Emotions’. A Bosnian mother described how her youngest son, trying to hide from his killers under the community hall stage, was terrified in the last stages of his death. The last few words that were said in that fateful exchange of goodbye between mother and son haunted me all night. That his mother had to find solace in the fact that when buried, he was only missing an arm and little finger compared to the missing bodies of her husband and older sons she has yet to find. Yet to find. 20 years later and loved ones are still waiting. Each year, they only manage to bury pieces of the dead. Mass graves and the constant moving around of the pits by Serbs during the genocide in order to hide the evidence, now means that many families cannot move on.
That this happened to fully assimilated Bosniak Muslims who were light skinned, fair-haired, living side by side in multi-ethnic communities only 20 years ago beggars belief. The speeches by the speakers were insightful and wise if only we act upon them. If hatred, intolerance and extreme nationalism are allowed to breed, if they are unchallenged by us as a community, then old horrors will only repeat themselves. We must mean it when we say, ‘Never again’ and learn to value that all life is sacred…
David Arnold MBE stated that what is often overlooked during conflict is the matter of choice. He gave examples of how during the holocaust, Muslims rescued Jewish families and vice versa. During the Charlie Hebdo attack, it was a Muslim worker who saved Jewish shoppers. So each of us have and can make political choices. When we describe ourselves we focus more on our differences though we have commonalities within religion that share the sanctity of all human life. The murderers of Bosnians thought themselves superior. If we remembered our oneness the world would be different. Being different is the heart of being human but we must always reaffirm shared thoughts and oppose racism and Islamaphobia to create cohesive societies.
Imam Abid Khan reminded the guests that the Bosnian ethnic-cleansing was systematic. Nearly 200000 people were murdered, 12000 of them children. 50000 women were raped. He reminded us that the failure of the international community to intervene culminated in mass murder. If intolerance is left unchecked, hatred can result in this atrocity reoccurring. If far-right extremism and nationalism are left unchallenged, horrors reoccur and at a time of unprecedented Islamaphobia we need to challange extremists who seek to divide us in order to uphold universal tenets of justice, respect, honour, freedom and peace.
The lovely Dudijia Zilic, a Bosnian refugee said that if we talk of the past, we can learn lessons for the future. She repeatedly asked, how does humanity become so inhumane? She recalled how her neighbours helped her leave and get to Croatia. She left behind a mother who told her to save herself and her children, reassuring her that she was now old and not afraid to die. I couldn’t imagine what Dudijia must have gone through. She told us that life for Bosnian Muslims, crumbled. Many had to hide their identities in order to survive and this kept taking me back to the Holocaust. What have we learnt? She explained how she met a young woman near her hometown whose ‘eyes wouldn’t make contact’. When asked how she was, among tears and quiet whispers she told Dudijia that Bosnian Serb soldiers had gang raped her and left her battered. The young girl had begged for death but soldiers wanted to impregnate her to increase the serb populace. Dudijia explained that the first casualties of war are mostly defenceless young girls who are still feeling the shame to this day. She also stated she had seen much courage in the survivors. ‘We are here’ she echoed. She stated negative propaganda and excessive nationalism can lead people to hate each other. Boys were killed because of their names while the international community let them down. She implored that we cannot allow for other nations to be let down again and our faith teaches us this. Common humanity can defeat inhumanity. We can forgive each other.
Rob Potts reiterated that the lesson for future generations is to take collective responsibility to ensure this never happens again. He stated the police force is dedicated to tackling hatred and extremism so that we are able to celebrate our diverse society.
Nabeela and Oumama, recalled their mothers’ experiences and how the genocide still haunts them. Bosnians still speak of this atrocity, unable to move on without it. They now attend Bosnian Saturday schools to remember their identity, culture, language and heritage. They struggle with a life between two worlds- not fully being Bosnian and not fully being British either. They highlighted the need for supporting refugee children everywhere. They also vowed that through this pain and terrible loss they vowed to stay positive and promote peace and tolerance.
Tony Lloyd also asked the question ‘what causes hatred, among people living in mutual joy and cooperation?’ He emphasised that those who don’t challenge the rising tide of hatred compound the situation. The massacres weren’t challenged and now the justice process at The Hague is a necessary step. One must remember what happened, in order to move forward so that reconciliation can happen. We must always choose life where life offers light to transcend hatred.
Elinor Chohan, a champion for the organisation Remembering Srebrenica, stated we must play our part to create a better, safer society for all. This conflict reminded everyone of the vulnerability of people and how xenophobia could pervade anywhere. She recognised Britain has come a long way in terms of race relations but there is still alot to do. In this are lessons for future generations. She recalled how walking through the cemetery in Bosnia, reading the names, she felt the weight of crushed hopes and shattered dreams. She reminded us that as children of Adam, we have the mysterious and precious breath of life enabling us to stand and walk tall. Let no one take that away – our creative minds, tender hearts and empathy must work for the greater good.
Lord Warren Smith summarised the speeches with, ‘Evil will flourish if good men do nothing’, and that we cannot move on without reconciliation. The power of the individual to make a choice, to make a difference is profound. Governments felt they could do nothing under the circumstances but standing by has meant that Srebrenica is a huge hole in history. It is our duty to prevent bullying and hate crime and learn the lessons needed to stop this happening again. We can all do something about that.
My thoughts at the end of the day, were with the Bosnian brother, Sulejman who came up to me at the end, thanking me for capturing something they could find no words for. My thoughts were with Dudijia who kissed both my cheeks and said ‘Thankyou on behalf of our people’ and told me how my words had moved her, with the little boy hiding under the stage in order to try and live, with the haunting image of all the mothers, separated from their loved ones, the ones asleep among the forests and caves still waiting to be claimed. ‘Never again,’ is a mantra that has lost all meaning. Repeated genocides all over the world are still taking place. May we all take the steps needed to bring light into darkness and be in service to humanity by spreading compassion and kindness. May He bless all those who lost their lives to war and conflict everywhere and provide ease to all those still suffering. X
A pendulum broken,
Collapsed – Time laid its head on concrete slab,
Raked a hand among the fields, hid in whispering
Riverbeds – a cello strums Strauss
Over blooming lily hills, caught by wind,
Carried to the still, asleep within the forests where
Bullets mark the barks, spirits of the column
Where men and boys once marched
A golden lock of hair, shards of shattered bone
A thousand mothers wait
For sons to come back home
Draped green coffins, all in measured lines
Time kneels between them, hands wire bound, tight
Discarded rubber boots casket nail and skin
Earth-stained squares of families – sepia images
Black frames, broken watches, remains of someone’s brother,
Mother, sister, son and uncle; clothes
Strewn together, a headless doll, a little teddy bear,
A jaded world turns in every father’s tear
Name after name, chiseled into stone
Time wanders in between, blows dust from every letter
A woman – aglaze, clasps a tiny pocket book
Each page a stoked memory, all berry stained
Broken glass bottles, burns on sacred flesh
Wombs were the kilns of the battlefield instead.
Villages now whitewashed, cities darken in the night
Red flowered chairs glisten under moonlight
Time has turned its cheek on a particular refrain
A gramophone on loop weeping, ‘Never again’