On the 20th anniversary of the murder of 8,372 Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica in 1995, I was privileged, along with other civic heads from throughout Scotland, to attend a special commemoration service held in St Giles’ Cathedral, Edinburgh.
The Service was also attended by the First Minister, the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland (both of whom gave moving addresses), other church and political leaders and representatives of a range of voluntary organisations.
In one of the darkest chapters of European history, what happened in and around the valley and hills of Srebrenica on those fateful summer days in July 1995 was an act of genocide that shamed Europe and the world. And we must never forget what happened.
After Auschwitz and Birkenau during the 1940s, we dared to believe that such unspeakable horrors were consigned to history and could never happen again in our modern world.
But they did. So we must learn afresh the lessons of Srebrenica, and the urgent need to act in the face of evil and tyranny.
Among those attending the service were three mothers of some of the victims and one survivor, all of whom lit candles in remembrance of their own lost ones and all the other victims.
One of the mothers, Nura Begovic, gave an unforgettable testimony and spoke powerfully of the need for justice and reconciliation in that troubled land.
After the service, I had the opportunity to speak with each of them, and to recall my work in their country in the 1990s, as part of an international team under the auspices of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, to help re-construct the Balkan countries in the years after that terrible conflict.
Others who took part in the service were young Scots – youth delegates from the Scouts, the Guides, the Girls’ and Boys’ Brigades, and the Army Cadet Force. Standing shoulder to shoulder, each in turn spoke, and a candle was lit not only in remembrance, but as a beacon for the future.
As we go about our daily lives in our beautiful and peaceful Borders, let us all pause and reflect for a while on these piercing and visionary words from those splendid young folk, and what each of us might do to make the world a better place for our children and our grandchildren in the continuing troubled times in which we live:
“We choose to witness to a better future for the world, a future where people of different faiths will encourage rather than fear one another.
“In a world of religious violence where religions are building walls to separate themselves from one another, we choose to build bridges of understanding and support.
“In a world that has mastered the art of war and destruction, we choose to witness to the power of forgiveness. To forgive is to establish a new and binding covenant with those from whom we have been cut off by hatred and hostility.
“Violence cannot cure violence. Hatred cannot end hatred. The only antidote to hatred and violence is forgiveness and reconciliation. May this be a day when we are empowered to pursue justice and mercy for the oppressed.
“We believe that forgiveness is not an ending but a beginning. May this be a day when a change of heart occurs in this city, in this country, in this world.”