JiA Diaries

Finding Justice

In September 2011, a team of six young women from Mulberry School embarked upon a journey to explore the turbulent history of Bosnia, and the genocide that occurred there during the period of 1992-1995. It was the worst genocide in the history of Europe since World War Two. Thousands and thousands of people were killed during this period, most of whom were Muslims. We filmed interviews with survivors of the siege of Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and  of the genocide in Srebrenica, where over 8000 Muslim men and boys were murdered in a matter of three days. We aimed to find out what justice means to the survivors.

We continued our quest and travelled to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia at the Hague to witness the trial of the man accused of masterminding these crimes – the war time leader of the Bosnian Serbs, Dr Radovan Karadzic. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) is a United Nations court of law dealing with war crimes that took place during the conflict in Bosnia in the 1990’s. This was a journey of self-discovery, where we learnt the meaning of justice, both personally and what it means to the survivors as well as those in the justice system.

Having gone to Bosnia and meeting the survivors of the war we realized that they are victims of a war that began the year some of us were born and it was only a matter of chance that we were born in England, whilst the war occurred in Bosnia, yet other people our age died everyday as a result of the war. It was a mind-numbing experience, to think that only by the virtue of one’s birthplace did one avoid war during the early 1990s.

At a time when the youth, especially young Asian Muslim women are perceived to be uninterested in the world, we wanted to break the mould and show the world that young people have a role in positive world change. However we came away from this experience with a deeper sense of personal responsibility for the stories that we heard – to ensure that the voices of the survivors are heard widely so that genocide never happens again. The survivors of this war all had one thing in common – justice to them meant their story being heard by the world so that history does not repeat itself. This film aims to demonstrate that through the power of storytelling we can make a change and work towards spreading peace and justice across the world.

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Sarajevo Day 1 – Aishah Siddiqah

Our first day in Sarajevo  as we had landed the night before in total darkness enjoying each other’s company, unaware of what’s to come. Having not seen the stunning beauty of Sarajevo the night before, the morning I awoke and set my eyes upon the breathtaking scenes of green hills and busy streets, I was truly amazed and instantly in love with the place. The view from my hotel room did not show me a city still bruised from the horror of the war and the siege that took place only twenty years ago. Yet, as you walk down the roads, and past buildings still standing, you witness the physical destruction and you come to the realisation that this beautiful city had suffered a terrible fate.

A local guide and historian, Fedžad Forto, took us through the city and told us that many people call Sarajevo ‘the European Jerusalem’ due to its multi ethnic and multi religious nature. We saw mosques, synagogues and churches side by side within a few hundred metres. Such togetherness and peacefulness in Sarajevo led us to question why something as horrific as the war took place. We soon entered a busy market in downtown Sarajevo. He stopped us to show a monument in memory of 26 innocent civilians. The so-called ‘Bakery Massacre’ is believed to be one of the first massacres in Sarajevo killing innocent Catholics, Muslims and Orthodox Christians who were simply queuing for bread. This first display and monument we came across, listing the names of the victims, emphasised just how horrific and inhumane the war was. This was the first physical evidence we saw of the war and there were many more to come.

The physical destruction is obvious in parts of the city not yet reconstructed, but the mental anguish and emotional scars left in the resilient Bosnian people is less overt. However, it’s soon realised whoever you may come across, whether it be the driver or that shop owner, each had their own story of the war to tell and each had their own view of justice. Hasan Nuhanovic was the first survivor we interviewed. He was 18 years old when the war broke out. He had lost his family when General Mladic and his Bosnian Serb army took over the UN declared ‘safe haven’. The Dutch stood by as thousands of men were separated from the women – Hasan’s parents and brother were amongst them and were murdered by the Serb forces. 8000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were murdered. Hasan has won a nine year case against the Dutch Government for ordering his family members out of the ‘safe haven’ and to their death. Although he believes the man who ordered the death of his mother works in the same building as he does, he continues to strive for justice and commends the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia for its work.  Hasan’s resilience and continuous campaigning for the truth and for justice inspires me. It teaches us to never give up and to strive for what we believe in.

The first day in Sarajevo had left me inspired and wanting to learn more of the war and the stories of the victims and survivors. Hearing personal experiences such as Hasan’s made the war that took place 20 years ago, before I was even born, seem more real and even more important to learn from.

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Sarajevo Day 1 – Fatima Begum

On arriving in Bosnia, I was full of apprehension. I had read all the articles and researched the history dating back to the 13thcentury. I felt prepared to an extent and readied myself for an emotionally and physically demanding trip. On the first day I woke up to the sun shinning and clear blue skies. The entire city is built on hills and it was difficult to comprehend that less than 20 years ago a war had devastated the country. Our first day included us meeting with a renowned Bosnian historian -Fedžad Forto. Fedžad took us through the city of Sarajevo, and as we walked he explained that Sarajevo is considered to be the ‘European Jerusalem.’  Seeing the beautiful Mosques, standing next to Orthodox Churches, neighbouring Catholic Churches, it dawned on me that this beauty was once the cause of division and war in Bosnia.

As we walked, and I took in the wonder of Sarajevo, Fedžad stopped in the middle of the market and explained that it was here the siege of Sarajevo began. He pointed to a spot on the ground, which was marred by scars of shelling and bullets and explained that it was on this very spot that innocent civilians had been gunned down as they stepped out to buy bread. Upon hearing this, my heart stopped! The beauty of this city that I was basking in suddenly became a dark place, as I imagined all those who had lost their lives in the very spot on which I was standing. Immediately a wave of sadness passed through me and it struck me that the events that occurred in 1992 are very much in the recent past. On the wall, stenciled on were at least a hundred names of all the innocent people who lost their lives that day, a constant reminder to all Bosnians, us, the world and now me, of the remnants of war and the consequences of the lack of inaction by the international community. In a way I felt, perhaps not responsible, but guilty that, as a fellow Muslim, a fellow human being I could not help save their lives. At this point a moment of realisation passed through me, and I vowed that while I could not have saved those who had lost their lives during the war, I could live in a way that would honour them. I decided there and then that I would listen intently and pass on the story of all Bosnians, of their struggle and ensure that they would not be forgotten. This was the justice I had to offer the people of Bosnia.

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Sarajevo Day 2 – Afifa Gill

Our second day in Sarajevo began with a trip to a youth centre in Zetra. Here we were scheduled to interview a group of survivors that were teenagers during the war years, to get a different perspective in our search for the meaning of justice. The interviews were set against a backdrop of vibrant graffiti, though the years since the war had caused some fading. Although many depictions were difficult to interpret, there seemed to be a common theme of the attack on innocence. There were many disturbing images of fierce monsters and unusual, sinister creatures; dark images that could only be fashioned in dark times.

One of the survivors we met here was a journalist, he was a teenager when the war broke out and joined the army at the age of 16. An age at which for most of us our biggest concern is GCSE results. He described how he felt like a 45 year old man trapped in the body of 17 year old, facing ordeals that few grown men even experience. It reminded me again how much we take for granted. As well as provision, shelter and safety, we rarely appreciate our mental and emotional peace in comparison to victims of war. For many of us, recalling carefree childhood memories is a source of comfort and joy, while there is a generation of Bosnians that will only remember pain and danger.

Of all the survivors we met that morning, a woman named Sabina left the greatest impression on me. I never imagined we would meet someone who would have positive memories from the war. There was a look of longing in her eyes as she described the unity and humanity that the war brought about; a sense of unity that she has never experienced since. Her words were haunting; ‘now we have three countries in one country, and everybody hates each other’. Twenty years after the war, I felt a strong desire for unity and humanity still resounds in Bosnia.

The idiom ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’ is a common one, but for me speaking to these survivors made that statement ring true unlike never before. On greeting them, they all seemed like ordinary people with average lives, so effortlessly concealing the scars left by their past. It was only when they began relating their recollections of the war that it became obvious just how extraordinary their lives are. This applied to everyone we met over the next few days in Sarajevo – everyone had a story.

From the youth centre we headed towards the tunnel which was a means for people to escape during the Siege of Sarajevo. On the way we stopped to see a block of flats that had not been repaired during the post-war developments and still had visible signs of shelling. Seeing such serious damage to domestic quarters was a reminder that it was civilians, defenceless civilians that were targeted. Even more shocking was that people still live in these flats, constantly surrounded by reminders of a horrifying past.

On arriving at the tunnel, we could see just how difficult escaping from Sarajevo must have been, and how much endurance people had to have. Even in broad daylight the tunnel is small, dark and frightening. We spoke to Lejla who travelled through the tunnel herself to escape from Sarajevo. Undoubtedly it takes great courage to leave your home behind and travel in difficult conditions to unknown territory, but she told us that when going through the tunnel, people didn’t think about bravery; they just knew that had to survive.

Being in a place where unthinkable crimes, and unimaginable heartache took place, there are moments when you feel useless; how is making this documentary even going to help? But after the interviews at the youth centre that day, I felt confident that we can, and we will make a difference.  Even just storytelling, letting others know what happened in Bosnia, its fulfilling one of the wishes of the survivors that has been denied for too long – to be heard.

Sabina’s words regarding this project encapsulate what many of us hope will be achieved:

‘I hope that people will see how we suffered, and how the war is hard and how they change the people… people are damaged. They’re sad, hurt. Everyone must come here, meet people, talk with them and then they will see what the change is and how the war changed us. It’s too deep and I think no one can forget. They can push that inside but they never forget’.

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Sarajevo Day 2 – Suraiya Chowdhury

We visited Dzenana on our second day in Bosnia. She had been shot when crossing the road on a day that had been declared to be a cease fire. However, the bullet had gone through her stomach and had hit her seven year old son Nermin. Dzenana survived the shooting but her son didn’t. She showed us pictures of Nermin and told us what he was like as a child – he was sweet, intelligent and kind. He would probably have had a brilliant future but I guess no one will ever know. Interviewing her made me realise how wrong I was regarding my notions of justice. It is a struggle for Dzenana to get through everyday – a bullet that didn’t kill her, ended the life of her son. I asked myself how can any person, let alone a mother live with that pain? I realised that my definition of justice, that it meant an eye for an eye, didn’t really ring true. Those who survived the war, lost so much and a death sentence could never bring any of it back. I realised what was most important for those people was that their story be told to the world so that something like this could be prevented in the future. Dzenana also testified at the ICTY and when asked if testifying provided her with some closure or any sense of justice, she replied that nothing would ever bring Nermin back so there was no justice or closure for her…ever. However what was so honourable and most inspiring was the fact that despite this, she still believed in the justice system. She was ready to testify whenever called to do so. This made me realise, that justice is much more complicated than a text book definition. Although it is not always served in the way that it should be, it is still there. More importantly justice means different things to different people. Justice to Dzenana meant her story be told, that this genocide never be forgotten.

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Sarajevo Day 3 – Farihah Begum

On day three of the ‘Justice in Action’ project, the entire group travelled to Srebrenica – where the infamous massacre of 8000 men and boys occurred. You couldn’t help but take notice of the shelled buildings that emphasised the hardship of the citizens – a visual reminder so that the city and its survivors are never forgotten.

With us on our journey was a man named Muhammad, a survivor from Srebrenica. On the way we stopped at a tunnel on Asphalt Road which was a particularly significant part of his survival story; on arrival at this site he knew that his safety was ensured. We stopped the coach at the tunnel and stepped out to ask him some questions about what it felt like when he first arrived here almost 20 years ago. Even we could feel the relief and joy through his words as he explained that he was welcomed at this site by Bosnian soldiers on the frontline cheering him on, and a man waiting to register his name as a survivor.

Afifa, Aishah and I had the opportunity to ask further questions about Muhammad’s story and his view of justice in the Srebrenica memorial room. This was the room in the Dutch base camp where thousands of Bosnians had sought refuge from the Serbs, but were let down. The spacious, grey room displayed some very poignant photographs as well as very disturbing ones. There was a section that had pictures of some of the victims and what (objects) were left at the time they were found. We all went around browsing the pictures, and one in particular completely shocked me. There was one photograph that had documented a conversation between the Serbs regarding the disposal of dead corpses. Even though these people were no longer alive, the Serbs in particular treated them worse than animals – and that is an understatement. It absolutely horrifies me to think that even after killing them in the most brutal way possible, the dead did not even ‘rest in peace’ as they received no respect, no compassion and no proper burial. Despite what happened here, it was amazing to hear Muhammad express his strong belief in justice, and hope for the future. He said that to him, justice “is a dream I would like to live… this is why I came back from the States to live in Srebrenica, to rebuild my community”.

We then walked through a forest area in which Muhammad continued the riveting story of his journey from Srebrenica. At only 20, he chose to leave Srebrenica on foot towards Zepa– and survived. His active role in seeking justice is inspiring and motivates me to be more involved; he has projects to educate young people; the leaders of tomorrow, about what happened in Bosnia so they can ensure these atrocities can never occur again. It was clear to us all that this entire city still has a lot to heal from and that the genocide will never be forgotten no matter how many buildings are repaired or rebuilt; Srebrenica will not be forgotten.

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Sarajevo Day 3 – Samrah Rashid

On day 3 of our trip to Bosnia we visited the city of Srebrenica where thousands lost their lives. We started filming in Srebrenica by filming Mohammed, one of the survivors next to the tunnel that he came through when he escaped. Then we went on to film at the cemetery. Filming in the cemetery, really put into perspective the whole situation for me, seeing all the headstones and reading some of the descriptions really made it hit home how young were some of those who were killed. The sheer number of the dead was mind blowing and to think there were mass burial sites still being discovered. Just thinking about that made me think how they used to move the dead from one burial site to another to avoid the sites being found which usually led to the bodies being separated and this therefore made it a much longer process for the families to receive the bodies to finally lay them to rest.

On the drive to Srebrenica we drove through the Sarajevo, we were used to seeing the shelled streets and the building with remnants of the assault on the city by the snipers, but driving through the countryside and seeing the open land and thinking that people ran across the land to escape while being attacked by the snipers and soldiers and it may have been raining or snowing but they still tried to do everything that they could to escape.

When we were filming Mohammed’s story it was unreal to imagine the fear that he must have felt as he tried to escape. It was beyond my imagination. He also spoke of his family and while we were at the cemetery we saw the names of people that had died and there were names of whole families that had died.

It just made me think of all the families that had been torn apart due to the senseless violence that had been carried out against a group of people for no justifiable reason. It also made me think of the question that we came to Bosnia with, ‘Can justice be served to the people of Bosnia?’ and then and there it felt as if justice could never be fully served to those people as justice will not bring back their loved ones, but it could provide them with some closure to that part of their lives and that would help them to try and move forward, and for them that would be a huge milestone in trying to overcome this horrific event.

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Sarajevo Day 4 – Aishah Siddiqah

It was our last day in a marvelous city; rich with an amazing mix of culture, a harsh history and resilient people. I was incredibly sad to leave but the people I interviewed on that day, and the last 3 days, left me feeling motivated and eager to get their stories heard.

We interviewed two strong survivors of the concentration camps. The first survivor we interviewed was Murat Tahirovic who is now the President of the Association of Camp Prisoners of Bosnia and Herzegovina. During the war Murat was a member of the Bosnian Army and was seriously wounded. He was found by the Serb Army in Croatia and then sent to a concentration camp. He was one amongst six Muslims in the camp who were particular targets. He told us of the torture they faced, not just from the soldiers but also from civilians. Thankfully, Murat and his five Muslim companions did survive. With the help of the International Red Cross, the six prisoners were exchanged for six Serb soldiers. Although Murat does not believe that justice can ever be served, he continues to help other camp survivors. He truly is a symbol of hope for many in his community. Murat displayed the utmost courage and determination to survive – to see his daughter again. With his serious wounds and horrific treatment in the camps, he shows us just how far resilience, determination, and love for one’s family can take you.

Another survivor of the concentration camps we interviewed was Maria who is a Bosnian Croat. She was ordered to the concentration camps to be punished because her son had joined the Bosnian Muslim Army. He had fought for his country and died in 1992. Maria’s pain and loss is still clear in her words, her eyes, and her tears. She also described to us the constant torture she and others in her camp faced every day. With no access to food and sanitation, unless the soldiers felt like providing, they were left to fend for themselves in a tiny room holding 26 men and herself. Justice for Maria and countless others is a complex topic. Although she strives for justice, she told us nothing can ever replace her loss or heal her wounds. Maria taught us to be ‘sensitive to everybody’s tragedy. No matter what kind of tragedy it is. No matter who you lost or what bad things happened to you.’

We had also interviewed someone we had become very close to during our stay, Zinaida Ilaria, our fixer. Talking with Zinaida and hanging around, we could never have guessed she had also been through a lot during the war but this is what surprised us the most in Sarajevo- nearly everyone you came across had their own story and view of justice. Zinaida was 15 when the war started and she revealed how her father was sent to a concentration camp, and how her brother had been beaten up many times in the Serb controlled Banja Luka. To have to go through such horror at the tender age of 15 is sure to leave many scars and painful memories of one’s childhood. Zinaida explained to us her multi-layered view of justice. For her, the justice process must involve- trying and convicting war criminals; recognition of the crimes committed; and reconciliation. She is another person who came out of the war a stronger and better individual with the determination to ensure justice is fulfilled.

I am always talking of Bosnian people’s resilience, and I will continue to do so since it is exactly that which has inspired me. Their stories, their kindness and openness, their culture and beautiful country has left me motivated and instilled a thirst to find out more and ensure they are never forgotten. Before we had left, we drank from the fountain of a Mosque where it is believed if one drinks from it, you will most certainly return. I drank eagerly.

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Sarajevo Day 4 – Fatima Begum

The final day was a very emotional day. In a matter of a week, I had grown to love Bosnia, Sarajevo and the brave people of Bosnia and so it saddened me to part and leave all those who had touched my life with their stories. The last day was as busy as every other day; we began doing vox pops of various students in a high school and also our translator, Lejla. Filming the vox pops, I heard many different answers as to what ‘justice’ is. I came to Bosnia with a view that justice is fair, equal and consistent, but hearing the Bosnian people-those who have had such injustices carried out against them, I quickly realised that justice for them wasn’t fair, it most definitely wasn’t equal and was almost coming a little too late. Lejla spoke of how justice could never be served and I thought to myself for a moment what if my goal of bringing justice to the people of Bosnia was futile. I asked myself, am I doing this for them, or for myself? As we wrapped filming the vox pops, Lejla’s words wrung strong in my ears, my views of justice had changed, and I had lost some of my drive, as I questioned my own motives. We then drove to meet a woman called Bakira. As I was briefed in the car about ‘her story,’ I really could not prepare myself for the last interview in Bosnia. Bakira is a victim of rape and as she told me her story, tears came rolled down my face. Watching her cry and speak of the injustices she had faced, I felt her pain. I felt rage pass through me, knowing that such monstrous crimes had been committed and still, no one had been held accountable. As I neared to my final question-the question which began my own journey to Bosnia-I felt futile in asking it. ‘What is your idea of justice?’ Bakira, the woman who had fought her grief, pain and tears, and still shared her story with me, merely answered, ‘justice is hope.’ Despite the injustices she has faced, she still has hope that those responsible will be held to account and will pay for their actions. Bakira’s hope, swept away any doubt I had over how little I could do to help. This woman, who in the face of so much adversity was still striving for justice, telling her story and even helping to rehabilitate other rape victims, gave me a renewed purpose, gave me renewed hope that justice will one day be achieved. And with that final interview I boarded the plane, back to England. I was left with a cocktail of feelings and emotions,  touched by the brave people of Bosnia and I had renewed hope.

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The Hague Trip – Farihah Begum

During the trip to The Hague we were split into two groups again. On the day we arrived, my group spent some time taking shots (General Views) outside the ICTY while the other group was conducting an interview inside.

Before watching the trial I had already said that Karadzic’s accused actions are without a doubt inexcusable and such acts need to be punished for the sake of humanity. I couldn’t necessarily predict what I would feel, however, I could honestly say I would be furious if justice isn’t achieved and would want to do something about it. And I was. I watched the trial knowing the struggle of the survivors and their anger, passion and despair. I felt I was now a part of their fight for justice.

On our second day in Holland, as I walked into the public gallery, the first face I saw was Karadzic’s. This is the man who has been accused of killing and tormenting thousands of people many of whom still suffer today. Seeing him just metres away from us smirking, laughing and joking only fuelled our emotions. How could he smile knowing that such serious allegations are being made against him? His whole demeanour was ruthless; I remember him dismissing one of the guards in a totally disrespectful manner.

The next day, as well as watching the trial again, we had to the opportunity to interview Chief Prosecutor Brammatz. It was very insightful to be able to speak to someone who is actually part of the justice system itself. It gave us the chance to ask some of the many questions that had been buzzing around in our heads about the actual process of serving justice, such as how indictments are chosen, how charges are decided, and how difficult it is ploughing through masses of evidence.

Our second sitting in the court room simply fuelled my anger further. In no way is any kind of violence or abuse of power acceptable regardless of the situation.

Having actually seen the justice system operating with my own eyes prior to this trip ‘Justice’ meant to me the quality of being just/fair and the act of discipline. However, during this insightful journey I questioned my initial thoughts and having heard the stories of the survivors, I too, like a few of them began to question whether or not justice exists or will ever exist. Though having said that, other survivors, in particular Hasan, gave hope that justice can be achieved it’s just a matter of when. Even if war criminals are convicted it won’t change the fact that there will still be countless number of people still suffering.  Also, the UN’s main purpose is to acquire harmony and the way forward is to ensure that wherever in the world, justice is something everyone can and should aspire to attain.

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