The First Burials in Srebenica-Potocari

by Christina Murrell

11 July 1995: why is this date so significant to me?

Many people know me as the Managing Director of Veterans at Ease Enterprise Ltd, responsible for setting up charity shops on behalf of the North-East charity Veterans at Ease.

Others know me as the wife of the charity’s founder and current CEO, a veteran’s wife of a soldier who had struggled for many years following a tour of Bosnia with the Cheshire Regiment in 1992.

But – like so many of the soldiers we support through the charity – I have experiences that sometimes come back to haunt me. They remind me why I do the job I do, and why I am so passionate about helping our veterans find peace of mind.

I’m not a veteran, I have never served my country.

But in May 1999 I made the decision to leave my lovely easy life in London – working for the European Bank – and move to the former Yugoslavia as a humanitarian. I wanted to help the estimated 880,000 men, women and children who had crossed the border from Kosovo, into neighbouring Albania and Macedonia.

As the Balkans Reports Co-ordinator for Oxfam, I was based in neighbouring country Bosnia, a decision that would change my life forever.

This country, torn apart by a war that had only just come to an end 3 years earlier, was still very scarred, covered in landmines, and full of so much hatred and fear.

Having spent a year with Oxfam and another year with European Commission to Bosnia & Herzegovina, I felt I had a good understanding of the people of this beautiful country.  I had friends from all three religious backgrounds, I spoke the language, I had experienced first-hand their health system having had my first child Cassie there, and I believed it could be easy for the people to rebuild and forget.

Then I took on a job at the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP). Of all my work experiences in this country, this one tore at my heart the most.

Just weeks into my job, I went on a visit to a mass grave, the huge morgue and the blood and bone collection facility in Tuzla and I cried, and cried at the injustice of this whole bloody war.

Clarifying the fate of our loved ones!  When someone goes missing in the UK we see families torn apart because they cannot get closure, they don’t know if their loved one is going to walk through that door one day. Are they safe?  Did they suffer?  So many questions that they wantanswers to.

Now let’s multiply that by 40,000, and we are somewhere close to the heartache facing so many families in Bosnia.

ICMP’s teams of anthropologists, archaeologists and scientist worked tirelessly to uncover the graves, collect the bodies, identify them, and hand them back to the families, so they could have closure.  ICMP worked with families, Governments, and the international community to locate these sites, and for that short period of time, I played my small part, securing funding so the work could continue.  I remember us identifying our 1,000th person using the cutting-edge DNA technology ICMP had perfected, and on 31st March 2003 I sat with the women and children on the bank overlooking the first 500 graves of the victims of Srebrenica. As speeches came to an end, and breaking with Muslim tradition, the women started running towards the graves, sweeping me up in a rush to start their grieving, to give their loved ones the burial they deserved.  They wanted to be closer to their children, husbands, brothers, fathers – I could not imagine losing one child, yet some of these women had lost three or four.

The pain and the tears of that day will stay with me forever.

Back in 2003, it seemed such a long path for ICMP and the “Mothers of Srebrenica”, we still had over 7,500 people to find and identify, but the work of ICMP continued.

Many people already know of my husband Garreth’s struggle with his mental health.

It took him 14 years after leaving Bosnia to admit he had a problem and seek help.  But was he really over his trauma?  He said he didn’t get any more flashbacks or nightmares, he’d successfully returned to work and seemed happy.  But who really knows?

So many British soldiers served in Bosnia as part of the multi-national protection force. 72 British soldiers died keeping the peace, and many others sustained physical injuries. However, many more returned with mental scars and injuries, unseen by others, but very real to the soldiers living them.

But I know first-hand, that there is light at the end of that dark tunnel.

In 2018, six years after we met, Garreth and I went back to Bosnia with my children.  For me, a chance to show my daughter her birth place, and to see the Stanic family who look after her in her early years, but also a chance for me to visit Srebrenica-Potocari to say goodbye to the brave men and boys who had lost their lives and to see them in their named graves, rather than scattered, unidentified, in mass graves – I was moved to see that there were now over 7,000 people buried there, and to see the remembrance wall with the names on it.

And for Garreth, this trip was a journey of reconciliation and forgiveness and a chance for him to make happy family memories for the future.  So is he really over his trauma?

Yes, 100% – Otherwise, wild horses wouldn’t have got him on that plane.

His success story and that of our other beneficiaries is what drives me to continue doing the job I do.

People say “the war is over but the battle has just begun”.

I have my moments to reflect and feel sad and cry, but those moments are few and far between – our ex-soldiers should not be having bad days every day, if they are, then we are here to help.  We support our serving regular and reservist soldiers, our veterans and their immediate family members.

If you know someone who is showing any of the symptoms of PTSD and would like to speak in confidence to someone, please feel free to contact us.