Our Trustee, Robert McNeil MBE, gives an interview to Al Jazeera Balkans


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Former Hague forensic scientist paints the truth about the Srebrenica genocide

Robert McNeil translated his horror memories into works of art that spread the truth about war crimes in BiH across the UK.

If he had traveled to Rwanda, it might have been different, but the fate of Robert McNeil took him to the Balkans in the mid-1990s, the centre of horror that fundamentally changed his life.

With 30 years of experience and work with pathologists, mostly on Glasgow homicide cases, this Scottish forensic scientist has accepted an engagement in Bosnia and Herzegovina at the request of the United Nations, instead of Africa, after aerial footage revealed mass graves in the Srebrenica area.

This, as it turned out, was the beginning of his engagement in gathering evidence for the Hague Tribunal, as well as the fight for the truth about the events in BiH, which he continued in the UK after finishing his job in a way that he probably never could have expected.

Although he had absolutely no experience in the field, McNeil decided to dedicate himself to painting, and his artwork, featuring the Srebrenica Golgotha, will be part of a campaign to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the UK genocide.

In this way, McNeil not only leads the fight to preserve the truth about the Srebrenica genocide and the horrors that hit the Balkans two and a half decades ago, but also tries to return to a life that, after learning about the dimensions of the massacre in BiH, has experienced dramatic  change and left him with the effects of post-traumatic stress.

In an interview with Al Jazeera, McNeil told his strange story, from his first arrival in a completely unknown country, to the present day, when the UK is spreading the voice of truth in BiH.

“When I came to BiH at the request of the UN in 1996, they took me to the first mass grave in the vicinity of Cerska.  They briefly briefed us on the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina and told us that the victims were most likely Muslim men executed around July 1995. Our job was to retrieve evidence from the tomb and gather information that could help identify and possibly supply the remains of the families with dignity  burial, “recalls McNeil, who states that prior to his arrival in BiH, he had no knowledge of what was happening in the Balkans.

Every night we watched on television what was going on, but many of the people in the UK, including myself, could not quite grasp the essence of the conflict.  It seemed so complicated.  I remember the disbelief that such crimes could happen in Europe, especially after the Holocaust, which, as everyone was saying at the time, should never be repeated.  I felt guilty that I knew so little about the history of the conflicts in the Balkans, so I began to study, ask, read and talk to people in BiH who were directly affected by the war. ”

“One of them, Zlata, asked me on one occasion, while drinking coffee, that if I found her father’s body, I would not say anything to her mother, because it would break her heart.  Her story really struck me and helped me learn a lot about this beautiful country, which reminds me so much of Scotland, where there is still religious division today, ”explains McNeil.

Although over time, he increasingly understood what was happening and witnessed the horrific scenes, this former forensic scientist says he always tried to be objective and professional, although it was difficult.

“I was trained to stay fit even when dealing with the most traumatic killings, but when I started dealing with a large number of bodies from the tombs around Srebrenica and later Prijedor, it was sometimes difficult to maintain that objectivity, especially when I saw the injuries. .  Particularly traumatic was the knowledge that parts of the bodies from the primary were transferred to secondary graves, with the desire to never be found or assembled, ”McNeil says.

McNeil converted what he witnessed, what he was gathering evidence for, when he retired, into activism, with the aim of spreading that knowledge to the people around him.

“Shortly after I retired, I began to suffer from a milder type of post-traumatic stress disorder.  At night I was sweating and having nightmares.  But it did not bother me as much as it did my wife, who told me that I would cry in my sleep as a child.  When I woke up, I would feel relief and realize that it was just a bad dream and that it was nothing compared to the nightmare that victims and their families were still experiencing.  Since art has always interested me, I soon began learning how to make a painting.  What I wanted to paint were, in fact, images that crawled out of the pile of horror that had been locked in my head during the night.  And, when I started painting, the nightmares were slowly diminishing, “says McNeil, who adds that he drew 12 paintings about Srebrenica and Kosovo, which at the beginning did not even need to be accessible to the public.

During one of his stays in BiH, McNeil visited the Memorial Center in Potocari on Facebook

“I didn’t think anyone else might be interested in them, but my wife showed them to a local art gallery in Glasgow.  Their people convinced me that they needed to be seen by a wider circle of people and they started organizing exhibitions called Witness across the UK, including the Parliament of Scotland, where I had the opportunity to talk to politicians about what was happening in BiH, ”McNeil continues.

This was not the end, as this former forensic scientist also became involved in wider social activities related to the Srebrenica genocide.

“Five years ago, I offered my experience to the Srebrenica UK Foundation.  I used to teach people my experiences, but I didn’t want to show them any photos, out of respect for the victims and their families.  Instead, I used drawn pictures to illustrate the events.  And I do not want to profit from it, but I want to donate all the benefits for purposes that will be useful for BiH.  I have also donated paintings to several museums, which will use them to educate and inform people about events in BiH. ”  says McNeil.

Asked what people in Scotland, and in the UK in general, think of the Srebrenica massacre today, McNeil replied:

“I am sad when I ask the people who are at the lectures if they have heard of Srebrenica and they are looking at me in confusion.  I have found that a few people have never heard of BiH or the war in the Balkans.  That is why I have a passion and desire to teach these people about BiH and its history.  I am happy that more and more professors are adding this topic to their curriculum and I hope there will be more of them over time.  My pictures will definitely help that.  It may be a slow process, but it should not be stopped, ”says McNeil.