Jeremy Cook, Pro-Vice-Chancellor, who was part of the NATO Peacekeeping force in Bosnia after the Srebrenica genocide, and student Admir Meskovic talk about their experiences on this year’s anniversary

“The atrocities committed in the Bosnian War were truly frightening and I witnessed first-hand the suffering of the victims as we helped them rebuild their lives.

“My time in Bosnia taught me that we must always remain vigilant to the threat of those who incite intolerance, hate and discrimination.”

So says Jeremy Cook, Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Colleges and Student Experience) at Durham University, reflecting on the 25th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide.

In July 1995, over 8,000 people – mostly Bosniaks – in and around the town of Srebrenica, part of modern day Bosnia and Herzegovina, were killed by units of the Bosnian Serb army under the command of Ratko Mladic.

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The graves at Srebrenica Picture: AMRA MUJKANOVIC

The United Nations had declared Srebrenica a “safe area” under its protection, but failed to prevent the town’s capture or the subsequent massacre.

Prior to joining Durham University, Mr Cook served with the British Army and in 1995 he was part of the NATO Peacekeeping force in Bosnia a few months after the Srebrenica genocide.

Last week was the UK’s Srebrenica Memorial Week for 2020, with remembrance activities taking place across the region. In Durham, Srebrenica genocide flags were flown from Durham Cathedral; Durham Castle, home to University College, Durham; and County Hall, headquarters of Durham County Council.

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Flying the flag in Durham Picture: GAVIN WORT

The Very Reverend Andrew Tremlett, Dean of Durham, encouraged people to pray for continuing peace. Cllr Angela Surtees, Durham County Council’s Cabinet member for social inclusion, said the lesson of Srebrenica was that hatred and intolerance can flourish if left unchallenged.

Admir Meskovic was only a child when the Bosnian War started. Fearful of what was to come, his family relocated to live with relatives. It proved to be a wise choice: not a single bomb exploded in their new home town during the four-year conflict.

Nevertheless, the young Admir was close enough to hear explosions and the movement of hostile tanks. He recalls his family turning out the lights to avoid hostile attention, sleeping in jeans in case you had to move quickly during the night and child refugees from the region around Srebrenica living in his home.

Now studying for an MBA at Durham University Business School, Admir reflects: “There are frightening stories of those people who survived that hell. Not many, because few have survived. These kind of stories cannot be paraphrased, you have to hear directly from a person witnessing the horror.

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Admir Meskovic

“This includes my peer, a then-seven-year-old boy Fahrudin who survived the mass executions of civilians from his village, including his father. Fahrudin was wounded in his arm and leg, and was saved by the Red Cross driver who noticed that something was moving in the mass of dead bodies that was waiting to be transported to the mass grave.

“The driver who saved the young boy was not considered a hero, however. He suffered the consequences because of his ‘betrayal’ during his life, and his funeral later was attended by only the closest relatives.

“If we say that it is important to remember the Srebrenica genocide, we talk about something that happened in the past and finished. It is incomparably more tragic to see that the ideology which led to genocide is still live and active.”

The annual Memorial Week is co-ordinated by the Remembering Srebrenica charity and this year’s theme was ‘Every Action Matters’. Lucy Adams, chair of the charity’s North East board, said she was delighted to see Durham’s University, Cathedral and County Council marking the anniversary.

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Just some of the names of the people who died

County Durham has long-standing links with Bosnia and Herzegovina. During the 1984-5 Miners’ Strike, miners from Tuzla sent aid to striking miners in the North-East. Then during the war, Durham miners reciprocated, sending aid to Tuzla.

Durham University also has links with the area through its School of Government and International Affairs and the Durham Global Security Institute. Dr Stefanie Kappler, an Associate Professor in Conflict Resolution and Peacebuilding, has conducted extensive fieldwork in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

With Dr Lydia Cole and the University of Manchester, she is currently working on a project exploring how art can be part of peace processes, with Bosnia-Herzegovina as one of four case studies. She has also researched how the ways past atrocities are remembered can impact the quality of peace in the present.

In April 2018, Dr Kappler organised for the interreligious choir Pontamina, from Sarajevo, to perform at Durham Cathedral. The event featured Nedzad Avdic, a Srebrenica survivor, telling his story and Dave Temple, from the Durham Miners’ Association, speaking about the historic links between Durham and Tuzla.

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Srebrenica graves Picture: Rooful Ali

Speaking about this year’s Memorial Week, Smajo Beso, a former Bosnian refugee who is now an architect and lecturer at Newcastle University, said: “We were warmly welcomed to the North-East more than 25 years ago and supported by the incredible people of this region. I don’t think you will find anyone in our community that hasn’t lost a loved one or that isn’t still suffering with the traumatic effects from the war.

“But now to have our pain and suffering acknowledged in such a visible way is incredibly powerful and cathartic. We’re a small community but we all proudly call the North-East our home. Thank you to all those that have supported us and continue to do so.”

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