Students need to be told of the horrors of genocide

14th July 2017 at 00:00
Survivors’ stories must be told if society is to learn from the tragic lessons of the past

I am a Scottish Bosnian. I was born in 1994 in Scotland to two Bosnian refugees from a small town in Northern Bosnia called Kozarac, between Prijedor and Banja Luka.

For the last couple of years, I have been involved with the charity Remembering Srebrenica. I feel it’s vital that young people learn about stories like those of my parents, to challenge prejudice and help people learn lessons from history.

I share my family’s story as a means to teach people about Bosnia and what happened there just two decades ago. For me, it’s not only a means to educate others, but also to make sure those killed aren’t forgotten, and that what people went through wasn’t simply for nothing.

Having not directly experienced these harrowing events, I find it easier to talk to people about what happened. I know all too well the traumas faced by so many survivors of the war. Understandably, not many people speak out, simply because they can’t face or comprehend their past. For some, it took decades to break their silence; others to this day remain silent.

You could say that I am from a family of survivors; three generations before me have survived concentration camps. My great-grandfather survived Auschwitz and walked all the way back from Auschwitz to Kozarac, passing away not long afterwards. My parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts all survived various concentration camps in the 1990s.

In June 1993, after experiencing the worst year of their lives, my parents arrived alone and newly married to the UK. My mother was 18 at the start of the war and lived on the outskirts of Kozarac, in the infamous town of Trnopolje. She lived five houses away from what was once her primary school, a building that was turned into a concentration camp at the beginning of the war by the Bosnian Serb army, along with the town hall. At least 20,000 men, women and children passed through that camp, many never to be seen alive again.

My father, aged only 23, survived a grenade attack on his home, which led to him being separated from his family. He was then captured, starved and tortured by the Bosnian Serb forces. By some miracle, he survived not only one but three separate concentration camps: Manjaca, Keraterm and Omarska.

Along with the other detainees, he was saved by journalists Ed Vulliamy and Penny Marshall after [former Bosnian Serb leader] Radovan Karadžic staged a propaganda visit in an attempt to show the world that those imprisoned were “grateful prisoners of war” and not victims of ethnic cleansing.

My mother could not believe it when she saw my father again at a refugee camp in Karlovac, Croatia. She, along with many of my relatives, thought he was dead. After being reunited, they decided to get married – a classic love story.

I am one of the few incredibly blessed and fortunate people who can say all of my immediate family members survived. That said, to this day we are still searching for the remains of family and friends.

The devastation of genocide

Our war in Bosnia was not like other wars; it wasn’t invaders who committed these atrocities but people who my parents grew up with. It’s one of the key messages people need to try to understand. They need to look at what caused our parents’ Serb neighbours to turn on them – hatred and propaganda that was spread by leaders like Karadžic.

Most people don’t realise that there have been genocides since the Holocaust, and there has always been a targeted group – most recently, it has been Muslims: who will it be next? People really need to engage with and learn from the lessons of history like that of my family’s. I was honoured to help launch Remembering Srebrenica’s Scottish education pack, which I hope will educate the next generation of young Scottish people like me about the devastation of war and genocide.

The pack has been tailored by the Scottish government to fit the requirements of the Curriculum for Excellence. The resource is designed to raise awareness of the potential for ethnic tensions to escalate into violence and promote learning of the lessons from the past. I would advise all teachers to go onto the Remembering Srebrenica website and download the free materials at bit.ly/srebs.

In my everyday life, I am also fortunate to be able to use my identity to challenge prejudice. If you look at and listen to me, I don’t look or sound like a foreigner, a refugee or a Muslim. I don’t introduce myself to people as Amra, a Bosnian Muslim, even though I do consider myself as a Bosnian Muslim. When I do tell people, once they’ve got to know me, the expressions on their faces are usually priceless.

It’s incredibly important that we move beyond stereotypes of “refugees” or “Muslims” or even “Bosnians”. I find the best way to move beyond stereotyping is to be curious and learn about other cultures – this needs to be encouraged in the education system.

Growing up in the UK, I witnessed first-hand how the nation remembered many global atrocities, yet there was never a similar ceremony for us. It honestly felt as if our suffering wasn’t important enough to be remembered. At a young age, I understood the importance of the next generation not forgetting the war and the killing that occurred.

I have had the opportunity to speak with the mothers of Srebrenica, various survivors, including survivors of mass execution, and rape victims, as well as those who lost almost all of their immediate family. I will never forget what they have told me over the years and I take the responsibility to encourage others to learn from it.

On each White Armband Day, 31 May, my family and I remember all those in Prijedor and other parts of Bosnia who were marked for extermination – while also trying to educate others on what we need to do to prevent this from happening again.


Amra Mujkanovic is the daughter of Bosnian refugees and a partnerships officer for the Remembering Srebrenica charity. She tweets @AmraMujkanovic

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