In March I travelled to Bosnia with the charity ‘Remembering Srebrenica’ in my role as Lead Member for ‘Stronger Communities’ in Brent. It was both a shocking and sobering visit. To learn about the horrors that happened in Srebrenica, just a two hour flight from London, is a powerful reminder of why we must reject those who practice the politics of division, intolerance and hate.
As someone who grew up in Brent, which has the most diverse population in Britain, it was particularly poignant. Here we celebrate our diversity and see it as a strength but one that we must continually fight to protect and preserve.
An estimated 8,000 people from the town of Srebrenica were killed in a 72-hour period back in 1995. The youngest victim was reportedly a two day old baby who was found with multiple gunshots to the head. After the Holocaust we said ‘never again’ but in Bosnia there were both concentration camps and mass slaughter on religious lines.
The visit was part of a delegation organised by the charity ‘Remembering Srebrenica’ of Councillors and practitioners from the police, academia and armed forces from across the country. Over three days we visited the graveyards of those who were killed and met with survivors and their families. Dr Waqar Azmi OBE, Chairman of ‘Remembering Srebrenica’ which has taken over 950 people out to visit the site over the past three years, explained that the purpose of the delegations were for people to see the “consequences of hatred and take ownership of that knowledge”. One survivor of the war told us how he’d witnessed “what man does to another man that an animal would never do to another member of its species”.
Community cohesion means a rejection of hate of any sort. We must not, we cannot sit quietly. A Bosnian photographer who chronicled the Genocide in Srebrenica urged members of the delegation to “take a bit of our pain and teach people about it’. On the visit, terrible story followed terrible story. People were killed for having Muslim names. A survivor who was tortured by his own former teacher wrote that ‘war unleashes a beast within all of us’. A former Bosnian soldier told me that “where logic ends, Bosnia begins”. One survivor we met was 17 years old when the massacre happened. He was captured and shot three times in the stomach and once in the arm. He managed to escape but such was its trauma that he only went public with his story twenty years after the event.
Across England and Wales, hate crime rose by 18 per cent from 2014-2015. In Brent, Islamophobic attacks increased eight-fold last December compared to the same month in 2014 following the terrorist atrocity in Paris last year. Thankfully these numbers are still very low and our Borough Police Commander, Chief Superintendent Michael Gallagher, is right to explain that “the rise in these offences is due to Muslims feeling empowered to come forward and communicate with police. The Muslim community is very well integrated here and the main thing is for people to be alert but not alarmed.”
However, we must all be alert to attempts to divide our communities and challenge those who do so. I look forward to working with Brent residents to mark ‘Remembering Srebrenica Day’ on July 10 this year in Brent Civic Centre. Last year we launched a pioneering ‘Stronger Communities’ strategy that set out a vision for tackling complex challenges such as hate crime, radicalisation and child sexual exploitation by working with communities and residents, alongside professionals within the statutory services, to develop a community-based approach. Later this year we look to host Louise Casey, who has been commissioned by the government to look into integration, in the Borough as part of a day long workshop looking at these issues. In Brent we love where we live and are determined to show the country the way in demonstrating our stronger communities.
Cllr James Denselow, Cabinet Member for Stronger Communities