Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

Freedom of Religion or Belief — [Ms Karen Buck in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:02 pm on 12th March 2020.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Bob Stewart Bob Stewart Conservative, Beckenham 2:02 pm, 12th March 2020

I am jolly pleased to hear it, but I want to see that happen on the ground. Trying to stop it is very, very difficult.

I know the reality of what happened in that village— I was not there but I had an eyewitness. A few days later, I was having dinner with a BBC journalist called Martin Bell, when a woman walked into my house and said, “You have got rooms in this house. I want you to put up some children in it.” I said, “You must be joking. I am the British UN commander. How the heck am I going to look after kids in my house?” She said, “Can I remind you of your mission, colonel? Your mission is to save lives. I’ve got some children here whose lives need saving. I hope you will understand that you have no choice.”

I went weak at the knees at that because she then turned to my two bodyguards—who, I have to say, were big soppy soldiers—and said, “Boys, you’ll look after a little girl aged six who needs a home, won’t you?” Of course, they said, “Yes, ma’am.” Many people in this room know that woman—particularly the shadow Minister, Fabian Hamilton, for whom she has rather an attachment—because she is my wife, Claire. She was the International Committee of the Red Cross delegate for central Bosnia. She embarrassed me into taking a child—a six-year-old girl called Melissa Mekis—whom she said she would bring the next day. I did not believe that she would, but she bloody well did! She walked out of the prison camp where the girl was, holding her by the hand, and was stopped by the camp commandant, who said, “What do you think you’re doing?” She replied, “Get the hell out of my way. I am a delegate of the International Committee of the Red Cross. Do you make war on children? Is that your way of dealing with things?” The commandant moved aside.

Claire walked into my house with the kid, who was filthy as she had been in the camp for about 10 days. The two soppy soldiers took her away, boiled up a billycan of water, took her clothes off, bathed her, went to Save the Children nearby, got her some clothes, put a little bed between their camp cots and looked after her. When Claire came two days later, to reunite Melissa Mekis with her family, the girl did not want to leave those boys.

Melissa told us what happened. Early one morning—I know that the time was 0500 because we heard this happening—soldiers came to her house in a box truck. Her parents told her to dress quickly and come downstairs. The soldiers grabbed Melissa, her mother, her father and her brother, and threw them all outside, where they killed the parents and shot the boy. Someone could not kill Melissa, so she ended up in a prison camp. When I was back in Bosnia last year, a boy came up to me—well, he is not a boy anymore, but middle-aged—and he said, “I was Melissa’s brother. Can I thank you and your soldiers? Your soldiers found me severely wounded nearby, picked me up, took me to a medical centre and saved my life.”

I do not really know where my speech is going because I have lost my script, but I will say one thing. I have given evidence about those events in four war crimes trials, after which four people were found guilty and did very long sentences. I care very much about freedom of religion. Who in this room does not? Of course we do. But what the heck can we do about it? The Prime Minister’s representative, my hon. Friend Rehman Chishti is here, and we can all put lovely words on paper—I had lots of lovely words on paper when I was in Bosnia. I was aghast at what I saw. To this day, I still wonder what the heck we can do when people are determined to act in that way, because words will not stop it.

After the genocide in Ahmići, Claire and I buried more than 104 people in a mass grave—women, children and some babies. We did not know how to do that—I was never trained as an undertaker—but Claire came along and insisted that we took the bodies out of the bags. Did you know that people cannot be buried in plastic bags? I did not. All those bodies were taken out of the bags and buried. Those people were Muslim, but I also found Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians dead. I was technically neutral because I was attacked by all three sides, who shot the hell out of me. We have got to find a way to move quickly when we see signs of ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity—it is difficult. Crimes against humanity quite quickly become genocide.

Colleagues, what a ramble. What a load of twaddle; how unstructured. Please, let us believe. Although we in this place at least shout about it, what I would really like is more action from the United Nations and other international bodies to send troops in to stop such things as soon as they start. That is what our soldiers did in 1992 and 1993. We took more than 2,500 men and women out of Srebrenica in April 1993, and their lives were saved. If we had not, most of them would have been dead two years later. Colleagues, I am sorry that this has been a ramble. Thank you.