As the world comes together to mark Srebrenica Memorial Day and to remember the thousands of people who were killed in the massacre of Srebrenica 20 years ago, Islamic Relief pays tribute to those affected.
The war in Bosnia and Herzegovina took place between 1992 and 1995 and was the cause of 258,000 deaths and disappearances. It was devastating in its impact, and, as entire towns were wiped out, survivors fled to various enclaves – Srebrenica among them. The town was under siege for more than two years. Then in early July, troops marched into Srebrenica. The women and children were turned out of the town, and men and boys were killed. In the Srebrenica massacre, which lasted from June 11 to 13, some 8,000 people lost their lives.
Islamic Relief began working in Bosnia in 1992. Our head of humanitarian department Imran Madden arrived in Bosnia in early July 1995. Here he shares his memories.
Bosnia was a very difficult country to get into. They had closed the airport because previously they were shelling the runway. I remember we drove along a road and suddenly the tarmac stopped, and the driver put his foot down and sped up until the dirt road ended. He later told me people tarmacking the road had had to miss out a section because a sniper had been there. Everyone went fast there in case the sniper was still around.
The city of Mostar was one of the scenes of the heaviest fighting in the war. There was a 16th-century Ottoman bridge – the Stari Most Bridge – that was smashed. The city was divided into east and west by the river. In the west, there were cafes open – everything seemed normal. In the east, houses were destroyed. Machine gun fire had been so intense the walls had collapsed. Some homes were gutted. The family furniture was in bits, their photographs lying on the floor.
In Zenica, a lot of NGOs were based in an old fire station. Along a main corridor were old lockers for the firemen. Someone had scraped off the names of the Serb and Croat firemen. It was a sharp reminder of the divisions.
Bosnia is a beautiful country, with towns following the course of the rivers and tucked in valleys. Tuzla was tucked in one of these valleys. It was very heavily shelled in the war. It had been the scene of a massacre not long before I arrived. Shells had landed outside a café. Seventy-one people were killed. I remember putting my foot in the hole left by the shell, thinking ‘If I had been here just a few weeks before’.
Islamic Relief was in Tuzla providing food in camps for displaced people. One day we saw huge numbers of women and children coming to the camp. We didn’t know what was going on. I remember going to the gate and seeing women and children coming in. They were exhausted, very weary. They had been stuck in Srebrenica, surrounded, in very bad conditions for a long time before they were bussed in and dropped outside Tuzla. As they got to the camp, some of them collapsed. I don’t think they knew what was happening back in Srebrenica. Gradually the news came through that the men and boys had been killed. They had been turned loose in the hills and had been hunted down. In the camp we had heard the thump and thud of mortars, the guns and shelling, but we hadn’t known what was happening. You hear gun fire on TV, but it sounds very different in real life.
Their resilience then and going forward is something I don’t forget. The country continues to remember those who died and honour the survivors. Their strength even today is remarkable.
Islamic Relief provided more than 700 tonnes of aid to people in Bosnia during the war. As part of his work, Imran Madden helped repair schools, organising the installation of toilets, showers, and heating so they could be used as collective centres for those who had come to the camps.