Robert McNeil on Srebrenica, art and forensic science

Robert McNeil writes about his journey of realisation about the tragedy of the genocide in Srebrenica and what we can learn from it.

In 1996 I was asked by the war crimes tribunal in The Hague (ICTY) in my capacity as a forensic technician to join the first of many international forensic teams to gather evidence of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide following the discovery of hundreds of mass graves in Bosnia.

I stayed with a mother and her teenage daughter in Tuzla, both of whom had suffered during the war. One day Amela, the daughter, invited me to travel with her to Sarajevo where she had endured a siege that lasted three years. During a coffee Amela asked me a question that had a profound effect on me: “Why did you let it happen?” she asked, referring to Western politicians. I felt both embarrassed and guilty because back then I had little idea about what the war in Bosnia was all about.

As we worked our way through the hundreds of victims from Srebrenica and in addition, those who were so cruelly tortured and murdered in the concentration camps of Luka and Omarska, I felt compelled to learn more about how it could be that crimes against innocent civilians on such an enormous scale was allowed to happen in Europe, whilst the world did little or nothing to prevent it.

I deployed to Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo many times from 1996 until 2001. Each time, although I learned more about what had happened, as we discovered more and more atrocities, I found myself asking the same question over and over. ‘Surely these horrors could have been prevented?’

When I retired in 2009 my wife grew concerned about my increasingly disturbed sleep. Apparently I would cry out in the night whilst graphic images from my past career crept into my slumber. To me they were simply bad dreams from which I awoke to a peaceful and normal life. A few bad dreams were nothing compared to the reality of what happened to the victims in the graves who could never awake.

When I first discovered ‘Remembering Srebrenica’ through their web site in 2014, it was as if a light had come on in my head. For the first time in all these years, I’d discovered that there were people in the UK who cared passionately about what happened to the people of Bosnia. I contacted ‘Remembering Srebrenica’ to offer any help I could. This resulted in my being invited to return to Bosnia as part of an inspirational delegation in 2015 where I met some of the survivors and mothers of the victims of Srebrenica as well as survivors of the siege of Sarajevo.

Returning to Bosnia as a guest was of course a very emotional experience but in addition I felt a special closeness to the people and their country that had suffered so much and still does.

To pass my time in retirement I had taken up painting and felt compelled to portray some of the images that visited me in the night. Iota, a local gallery ‘discovered’ me and curated exhibitions that culminated in my ‘Witness’ paintings being shown in the Scottish Parliament in 2016, under the banner of the charity. I was given a unique opportunity to speak to politicians of all colours and I was very impressed by their interest and support. The exhibition resulted in widespread publicity in the media about the genocide in Bosnia. I plan to donate any proceeds from the sale of the paintings to Remembering Srebrenica in order to, in a small way, fulfil the pledge I made to support the ethics of the charity. However, I feel I can do more.

2016 marks the 20th anniversary of first deployments by ICTY. Later this year I’ve arranged to take a delegation of eminent international forensic specialists, all of whom worked in Bosnia, to take part in the ‘Remembering Srebrenica’ experience and whom I know will be moved and inspired as I was to help support the charity and to continue to challenge intolerance.

Whilst, together with my colleagues, I felt very privileged to have played a small part in the prosecution of the perpetrators of these horrors, I feel that I now can attempt to answer to the question Amela asked me in Sarajevo twenty years ago:

“We as individuals didn’t demand that our politicians speak out strongly against the signs of intolerance that resulted in genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. Even when the victims of persecution pleaded with us to stop the killing, their voices were largely ignored. We should feel ashamed about that. The signs were there long before the horrific events happened, we didn’t act until it was too late. We must learn from that and make sure that younger generations learn, not just about the history of the genocide in Bosnia but how to recognise the signs of intolerance and the violence it generates wherever in the world it occurs and take action to persuade those in power to end it.”

Robert McNeil MBE, Artist/Former Forensic Technician.