Alicia Kearns – 2022 Speech on Srebrenica

The speech made by Alicia Kearns, the Conservative MP for Rutland and Melton, in the House of Commons on 14 July 2022.

I thank the hon. Member for Bolton South East (Yasmin Qureshi) for coming to this place at such a difficult time. My heart goes out to her and her family and to all those for whom she cares so deeply. She is a true friend to Bosnia and Herzegovina; she has been since she came to this place, and I know that she will continue to be for a long time. I thank her for all her work on the issue and for working with me to secure the debate, which matters because what we say in this place is heard. What we say in this place changes things and can make people safer, so we have a duty to speak today.

I must declare an interest in this debate as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Bosnia and Herzegovina. Our debate takes place during Srebrenica Memorial Week; I thank the Backbench Business Committee for making sure that that could happen. Most of all, I am pleased to be able to speak today because we are joined in the Chamber by my constituent Karen Packwood and her family, who are observing the debate. I thank her for allowing me to tell the story of her late husband Amir, a victim of the Bosnian war—a proud, kind, and loving man.

Before I come to Amir’s story, I want to reflect on why today matters so much. We all know that the Srebrenica genocide represents the most extreme case of ethnic cleansing in the long and painful Bosnian war of 1992 to 1995. There are many other atrocities that we should reflect on, and we must take the time to do so, but that one has become symbolic of just how industrialised, appalling and truly evil were the acts that we saw taking place during that time. It was the barbarity in Srebrenica and the failure of the UN’s peacekeeping mission that forced the international community to finally put an end to the bloodshed and implement the Dayton agreement, which has prevented a bullet being fired in anger since then.

Back in March 1995, the so-called President of the self-declared Republika Srpska directed his military to remove Bosniaks from Srebrenica. He called for the creation of

“an unbearable situation of total insecurity, with no hope of further survival or life”.

This grim directive was followed on 11 July 1995 by the then leader of the Bosnian Serb military entering Srebrenica and boasting:

“We give this town to the Serb nation…The time has come to take revenge on the Muslims.”

Ten thousand Bosniaks had fled in advance, but many were captured or intimidated into surrendering by the use of terror, murder, torture and rape. The men and boys were rounded up and put into makeshift concentration camps, and then the killing began in earnest.

Over 8,000 Bosniak Muslim boys and men were killed in cold blood, often after mutilation or being blindfolded. Their bodies were not just hastily buried without respect or decency; they were buried and then, weeks later, in came the diggers to dig up their bodies and move them from site to site in what was an obvious attempt to hide a genocide. As a result, many have yet to be buried. Their bodies lie in small boxes in a dark, cold chamber that I have visited in Bosnia, where I could see the many bones that people are working tirelessly to put together so that families can bury their loved ones and finally find some semblance of closure. I remember seeing a funeral when I was in Bosnia. The heartache in that community, as people came together to finally bury one of their loved ones, is something that I will never forget.

This was a deliberate genocide to eradicate the Bosniak population and replace them with a Serbian community that was somehow suggested to be superior to another. Today, we remember the victims. We remember what led to this, and we draw and learn lessons to prevent it from happening again.

I also want to remember all the victims of the Bosnian war, which saw more than 100,000 deaths and 2 million people displaced. Whether they were in Banja Luka, Sarajevo or Brčko, those who faced expulsion, terror and death in the name of ethnic cleansing must always be remembered. That is why I will use their names and the stories of people like Amir, rather than naming those who sought glory in the death of others. Each of those victims is an individual whose story was distorted, tortured and eradicated, cut short by the brutality of ethnic cleansing. We must always keep that truth close to our hearts and remember it, because hearing individual stories matters, no matter how difficult it might be. That is why I want to share the story of Amir, who was only 11 when the war began in 1992.

Amir was a happy boy who lived with his family, played football in the park and enjoyed toy cars and comics, but then the militia came and Amir was evicted. He lost everything: his toys, his comics—everything he loved—and his innocence. As Amir, aged 13, walked down the infamous Sniper Alley in Sarajevo, a Serb soldier took aim and shot him. I am not ashamed of my tears today, Madam Deputy Speaker, because every time we shed a tear we show that we care and that we will not stand for these people being forgotten and silenced. When he was shot, Amir cried out to the soldier: “I’m just a boy, I’m not a soldier. Why are you shooting me?” Sadly, Amir knew the answer: he was a male and he was a Bosniak. This made him a target for annihilation, because according to the Serbs he was not human, did not deserve to live, did not deserve a family, and did not deserve a future. That day, they tried to take everything from him—but they failed. As Amir lay struggling, he noticed a nearby United Nations tank and a peacekeeping soldier. He cried out for help and the soldier did nothing. The soldier ignored his screams of agony and the cries for help of an innocent 13-year-old boy.

We know the international community failed in Bosnia, but there are also many who served with distinction at that time, including British soldiers who were in this place, and those who saved thousands. I particularly commend my right hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart)—now known as Bosnia Bob, for exactly the right reasons—who helped to evacuate thousands by helicopter from around Srebrenica, despite being told not to. That is the kind of heroism that we need more of around the world—people who step up, step through bureaucracy and refuse to be told no, because they will save lives and protect those who deserve it.

Despite such actions of heroism, the international community did not do enough. It did not stop the war, it did not prevent the genocide, and it did not do enough for Amir. We have to work harder in this place, within our Government and internationally to help those struggling against hatred and violence, some of whom have been mentioned. The voices of the Uyghur people should have been heard two decades ago, because the genocide is not new, and yet somehow it is only since 2019 that anyone in this place has wanted to talk about it. We have an obligation to do better and to be the voices for those who others seek to silence.

As Amir lay bleeding on the floor, a passing civilian grabbed him and carried him to a car, saving him. In the car, he fainted. He awoke in a Sarajevo hospital, where he was subjected to attempts to save his life that no 13-year-old child should ever have to endure: blood transfusions and operations lasting up to nine hours. Amir had a heart attack and barely survived. But finally he began to recover, only to awaken to discover that parts of his body would never truly be the same again. His colon was attached to a colostomy bag, and he had to see his body in a state that no child should.

After three months in hospital, Amir was barely hanging on. Malnutrition caused his teeth to fall out and his weight to drop to 3½ stone. Then holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel saw him on the news, and, unbeknown to Amir, someone decided that goodness had to win and began to organise his rescue. Elie ensured that Amir was taken to Paris, where, away from the war, he received the first-class care that he deserved and was given the food that his body needed to recover and survive. But he took no joy in being able to eat; he thought only of his family in Sarajevo who still starved under the Serb blockade.

Amir survived, and he learned to thrive and to find joy again. He found love with Karen and he lived a full life. Many of the boys of Srebrenica, and across Bosnia, did not receive this second chance. But the agony of war stretches far into the future, and it was not the bullet that was shot in hatred but the transfusions that had saved his life that ultimately killed him, because they were of contaminated blood. His liver failed him 25 years later, and he became another victim of the Bosnian war. Today, we pay tribute in this place to Amir and his family, and we remember all the victims and all the survivors, whoever and wherever they are.

I have been and remain deeply moved by the strength of those who survived those terrible events, particularly the mothers of Srebrenica, whom the hon. Member for Bolton South East mentioned. These women fight so hard for justice, and for their loved ones and communities, and they have seen the worst of humanity yet demonstrate the best of it. I met them again most recently a few months ago, and they gave me this flower—a memorial of Srebrenica, and one of only 8,000 made—so that I could carry their strength in my heart at all times. Their lack of vengefulness or desire for revenge in the face of such evil, and their drive for justice, is the story of Bosnia and Herzegovina now. From the pain, the people of Bosnia have built a culturally rich, vibrant and beautiful place that is a forward-looking European nation. Positivity out of pain is one of the greatest strengths of the Bosnian people.

But the ability to move forward and heal is reliant on one thing—the truth. Through dialogue and through truth we heal, and we help those who are still searching and still healing. The whole foundation of modem Bosnia relies on truth—the truth that what occurred in the war was a deliberate genocide. That is why genocide denial is not a difference of opinion. No, genocide denial is a deliberate and calculated attack on survivors. It is a weapon that seeks to hurt the people and institutions that have grown out of the ashes, against everything that has been thrown at them. Denial is a continuation of the genocide itself. What begins with violence and killing is continued through the falsification of history. We see this today. I have sat opposite Dodik as he used the word “Muslim” as a weapon. I have sat opposite people who glorify these murders, deny they took place, and still go and intimidate Muslims in Bosnia, lighting up flames and saying that they will drive them out of that country. Language is a weapons system, and there are foreign Governments facilitating secessionist and divisive narratives.

I am pleased that since we last debated this, there has been enormous progress, driven by the all-party parliamentary group. We demanded that the Government raise Bosnia and Herzegovina at the NATO meeting of Ministers, and as a result we were the only country to do so. We demanded sanctions, which have now been put in place and which the President of Bosnia thanked us for again last night. We demanded that disinformation experts be delivered to Bosnia, and they have been. All this is thanks in large part to the amazing Bosnian ambassador, Vanja, and to our ambassador, Matthew Field, who has sadly now moved on to another role.

We know that violence must be combated with strength, but we must also remember that denial is fought through remembrance. That is why this debate matters. The theme for this year’s Srebrenica Memorial Week is combating denial and challenging hatred. So let us be very clear today that the British Parliament and the British people will never forget Srebrenica, and we will never forget our Bosnian friends. We will remember the past, reject hatred and division, and build upon a foundation of truth, and in so doing we can only build a better future. We will be a voice for those whom others seek to silence. We will aspire to adopt in our own lives even a shred of the dignity, compassion and strength that the survivors of Srebrenica and their loved ones show. They are the best of us, and as the spectre of hatred and division is weaponised again in Bosnia, we cannot let them down.