Sunday, August 09, 2009

A Week In Bosnia

We returned last Friday but I deliberately waited before posting this. Bosnia is a hugely complex place with great contrasts, not least in the emotions it brings out in visitors, and bringing the country to life in print is challenging. Well, here goes, and this may take some time.

First the disclaimer - which is unfortunately necessary in the current political climate. This was a working visit, not a Parliamentary style fact finding mission. We did it in our own time and paid for our own flights and basic accommodation. All the material we used was donated by well wishers. No tax payers were harmed in the course of this event.

First Impressions

Bosnia was a part of the greater Yugoslavia which fell apart during the nineties. Sandwiched between Orthodox Serbia and Catholic Croatia, the moderate Muslim state soon became the target of a territorial 'carve up' orchestrated by its more powerful neighbours. Now enjoying a fragile peace, Bosnia is divided into Bosnian, Serbian and Croatian territories largely according to where the front lines ran when hostilities were suspended. The country has a three man presidency, one from each ethnic group and each taking turns to lead.

The capital, Sarajevo looks to be about the size of Reading. The city sits in a valley and was besieged by Serb forces during the war. We passed through on our arrival and spent some time there on our last day and the healing process looks to be going well. Prosperity has returned, new building is under way, crowded trams and trolley buses run in the streets, the airport is functioning.

Outside the city the story is different. Homes, mosques and churches are being rebuilt but there is still great poverty. Whole villages were destroyed during the ethnic cleansing and many ruined buildings remain - forlorn skeletons against the clear sky or just patches of rubble.

The countryside is attractive but sombre, rolling hills and mountains, all cloaked in dark forests. The roads are winding and poorly maintained in many places. The climate is warm and humid, but in winter heavy snow falls and whole areas are isolated.

The Tragedy of Srebrenica

Srebrenica is a three hour drive from Sarajevo. We arrived as dusk was falling on the first night. Here, in 1995, Bosnian Serbs led by General Ratko Mladic attacked the town, clearing its Muslim inhabitants. Supposedly a UN protected enclave, in reality the Dutch peacekeeping troops were powerless to prevent the murder of some 8,000 civilians by the heavily armed Serbs. There is a genocide memorial here, constructed with the help of London's Imperial War Museum, and it is a deeply moving place. I remember seeing the awful events unfold on television at the time, but nothing can prepare you for actually being here.

At home, we commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day and we send visitors to Auschwitz so that the grim lessons of history are not forgotten, yet here in Srebrenica another ethnically inspired massacre took place just fourteen short years ago. Many of the bodies were never recovered and the forests around the town conceal numerous mass graves. It takes a lot to silence a group of politicians yet we were left unable to speak.

The town itself has a haunted, watchful, atmosphere. Not content with cleansing the population, Mladic also destroyed the homes of non Serbs so they could not return. Many of the houses and blocks of flats stand derelict and empty. Most of the inhabitants, the town officials and the police are Serbs and there is an air of sullen hostility, a wariness of outsiders.

Getting Our Hands Dirty

The Fund For Refugees had requested our help with three projects. With the help of Microsoft, computers were to be installed in Srebrenica's school. There was work to be done painting and finishing off new houses for the villagers up in the hills. Finally, a team led by Tobias Ellwood MP would help to create a football pitch for the local youngsters and we hoped to play a match against them before we left.

I got to work on the house and it soon became clear that my painting skills weren't up to Bosnian standards. The local builders and the old lady who owned the place soon took the roller off me and gave me a cloth to clean up after my more expert colleagues. Deborah Dunleavy - our candidate for Bolton - had clearly missed her vocation and her painting efforts were rewarded with cries of 'Super! Super!' from the admiring locals.

For the rest of the day I was banished outside to help break up a stone outhouse and cart away the huge lumps of slate. Pushing a wheelbarrow around over the following three days was not the most skilled of tasks, but at least I kept up my exercise regime. There were vicious scorpions amongst the debris and we were plagued by blood sucking flies, but the spirit of the team - led by my old Assembly colleague, Eric Ollerenshaw - now the candidate for Lancaster and Fleetwood - remained high and on the last day we hosted a picnic under the trees and were joined by the old lady and her neighbours.


Clearly people were surprised to find politicians who were willing to roll their sleeves up and join in, but why do it? The contribution we made was meaningful but given a few more days the Bosnians could have done the job themselves. For me, the opportunity to talk to the people at the sharp end, unsupervised by local political figures, was the most valuable part of the exercise. Politicians visiting trouble spots are usually fed an official message, toured around a local showpiece, given a slap up meal then put back on the plane, so this was refreshing.

Over three days we were able to communicate, even though the old lady and her neighbours knew very little English, and we knew no Bosnian. They were cheerful and stoic people but beneath the surface was great tragedy. Everyone we met had lost relatives in the war and many had been displaced. They had some truly harrowing personal stories. Grief was never far away.

There are no easy solutions to the world's problems and intervention cannot always be the answer. There is however no excuse for lack of preparation or a confused response. At Srebrenica peacekeepers were deployed but could not be used effectively, leading to a disastrous loss of confidence in the UN.

Enjoying a farewell barbecue on the last evening, we raised our gaze to look across the valley at the towering cliffs and mountains, as close to us as Canary Wharf is to The City. 'That's Serbia. They shoot at us from over there.' we were told.