Belfast Telegraph

Integrated education best way to ensure a shared future, says survivor of genocide in Bosnia

Mr Vukalic (back row, centre) meets pupils and staff from Foyle College, St Patrick’s and St Brigid’s, Claudy, and St Cecilia’s College
Mr Vukalic (back row, centre) meets pupils and staff from Foyle College, St Patrick’s and St Brigid’s, Claudy, and St Cecilia’s College
Claire McNeilly

By Claire McNeilly

A refugee who escaped genocide in the Bosnian War has said he believes integrated education is the way forward for Northern Ireland.

Safet Vukalic, a Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) from Prijedor, has been taking part in a series of events this week in local schools to remember the Holocaust and other genocides.

Pupils at Foyle College and Oakgrove College in Londonderry learned how he narrowly avoided being sent to concentration camps with his father and brother when ethnic cleansing began in his neighbourhood.

The genocide survivor also said he believed that politics, not religion, causes wars and he stressed that children must be educated together so they appreciate what they have in common rather than their differences.

"In central Bosnia there have been a number of times where children have protested against the building of segregated schools," the 43-year-old said.

"There are a number of places where there are two schools under one roof. Half of the school is for Muslim children, the other half is for Bosnian Croats, which are really Catholic children.

"But children are starting to stand up and say we want to go to schools together. Most recently, a fence was built between them to make sure they didn't mingle when it was realised they were playing together during breaks and the children pulled the fence down."

The accounts assistant, who fled to London in 1994, lives with his wife Belma (38) and two daughters in Sutton.

He said he remembers growing up in a happy, if diverse, community of Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks until the outbreak of the Bosnian War in 1992 led to conflict between the Serbs and the rest of the population.

Asked by pupils to recount his worst memory of being in Bosnia prior to his escape, he said it was in 1992 "when my brother and dad were taken to the first concentration camp, Keraterm".

"I was certain they were going to be killed," he said. "But then when we heard that my father had been taken to a second camp, Omarska, it was the worst day of my life.

"I locked myself in the bathroom and cried. I thought he would be killed there for sure, as we had heard people only went to Omarska 'on request', which usually meant torture and death.

"He was extremely lucky to survive."

Mr Vukalic said he sees some similarities between his native country and Northern Ireland in terms of religious divisions.

He also said that there was "no obvious difference" between Catholics and Protestants here, just like it was impossible to differentiate between denominations where he's from.

"When people tell me religion is the reason for all the wars I cannot accept that," he said. "The war in Bosnia was not caused by religion. Unfortunately religion is often used and abused by politicians for their own gains.

"That's my personal opinion from experience and there are obvious similarities in Northern Ireland."

When asked about the role of integrated schools here, Mr Vukalic said "like in Bosnia", he's "100% certain the only future is children growing up together".

He added: "The only way you can make sure these children understand each other is by letting them spend more time together."

The talks in schools, supported by The Executive Office working closely with the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust (www.hmd.org.uk), are part of the lead-up to Holocaust Memorial Day 2020 on January 27.

Trust chief executive Olivia Marks-Woldman said it's about helping people learn more about the Holocaust and more recent genocides.

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