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29 March 2017 – The Rev. Tim Novis, Senior Chaplain
Human beings are ‘meaning-making’ mammals who tell each other stories. We ask not only ‘how’, but ‘why’. Some of these stories on one end of the spectrum are life-giving, whilst others are counter-productive and odiously evil at the other.
Stories were told in Bosnia in the 1990’s, and earlier, which led to the massacre of over 8000 innocent Bosniaks. This was Genocide. Considering the fire-bombing of parts of Sarajevo, it was also Urbicide – the attempt to wipe out even any trace of a people’s culture and history.
Rather than ethnic difference and attempts at insisting on the supposed superiority of one group of people over another, an alternative narrative is the only hope for this little Balkan country with so much potential, yet chronically standing in its own light, with politicians exploiting pointless yet centuries-old differences among the people.
The Wellington College Peace and Conflict Institute (WCPCI) was established with a robust rationale rooted in best educational practice, and this paper offers four reasons why we recently took a group of 12 pupils to Sarajevo and Srebrenica from the 25th to the 28th of March, 2017.
1/ One story often heard about pupils at high fee-paying independent boarding schools like Wellington College is that they are ‘cossetted’ from the real world. Wrapped in cotton wool, their academic and professional journey takes them from Wellington to Oxbridge to a seat in parliament with a political party whose ideological flavour I will leave to your imagination. ‘Out of touch with reality’, disengaged from the ‘real world’, these people are modern-day Marie Antoinettes. The cake served in the memorial ground at Srebrenica was bitter to the taste and hard to swallow although painfully true. In one case, a pupil counted over 280 of the same family name on the stone monument – ‘ethnic cleansing’ carved in stone.
2/ Pupils engaged with our educational trips see, as close to first hand as possible, ‘the evil that men do’. With the power that these pupils will have as future leaders comes an enormous responsibility. Knowing how badly wrong leadership can go, the lessons of Srebrenica are targeted at a group of young people who will make an enormous difference in our world. Gone badly wrong, these same leaders could lead our world yet again into the darkest places. This is a lesson from the past with immediate, tangible and tactile impact. Looking out across a football pitch where the father of one of our hosts was executed for political reasons by Chetniks will not soon be forgotten.
3/ In an educational sector where pupils generally come from backgrounds of substantial economic means, the trip highlights their ‘1st World Problems’ of such limited consequence and whose significance quickly recedes whilst listening to one of the ‘mothers of Srebrenica’ whose own child was torn from her arms to be executed with her husband, the child’s father, in some field or at some quarry, and whose body would be buried, then exhumed, then buried again by a people desperate to deny the atrocities they committed.
4/ In terms of the aforementioned denial of the Genocide, having taken 12 pupils on the trip, the world now has 12 more voices to add to those who would counter the narrative of denial that this Genocide, or indeed any of the Genocides proceeding or following it, never happened.
Without a doubt, the WCPCI ‘does what it says on the tin’. We encourage pupils to engage with the past, to contemplate life for people today, and to look to the future with hope. We are meaning-making mammals who tell stories, but we can also be darkly destructive. Sigmund Freud was wrong about many things, but sadly accurate when he wrote of ‘Thanatos’ – man’s impulse to destroy. The WCPCI ensures that only after having had a cold and boldly brutal look in the eye of evil can students begin to build something upon a foundation of the very best that humanity can offer itself.