Writer’s Reveal

Tracey McCallum speaks to Robert McNeil MBE about his new, book Grave Faces

“Welcome to Hell, ethnic cleansing in Bosnia” (donated to the Bosnia UK Network, Birmingham) the graffiti on the wall was put there by Dutch UN Peacekeepers @Robert McNeil

Born in Partick in 1947, Robert McNeil MBE FAAPT left Glasgow for London at the age of eighteen to enrol at Art School. He returned three years later in 1969- taking a job in the old Western Infirmary. Following a long career as an Anatomical Pathology Technologist (APT) Robert is now filling his retirement with painting and his roles as an ambassador for Remembering Srebrenica UK and Affiliate Artist for UNESCO’s Refugees Integration through Language and the Arts. 

Robert’s new book Grave Faces tells the story of his painstaking work in Bosnia and Kosovo. His work in exhuming bodies from mass graves was vital in bringing war criminals to justice for genocide and crimes against humanity. Heartbreaking and heartwarming in equal measure, Robert’s story is a must read – especially as genocide is once again in the headlines as the wars in Ukraine and Middle East rage on.

How would you sum up this book for our readers? 

In 2014, Remembering Srebrenica UK invited me to join a delegation to Bosnia to meet victims’ families and survivors of the genocide of 1995 and visit the beautiful cemetery and memorial centre near Srebrenica. I was deeply moved when listening to the stories of horror and deprivation endured by them and also shocked to learn about the level of genocide denial that continues to this day. Gathering evidence of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide, I did in Bosnia and Kosovo from 1996 – 2002. I kept a diary whilst on deployments, and so I decided that I should use my experiences to challenge the denial and help support the people whose lives were devastated by this  war. 

My hope is that my book will remind people about a largely forgotten war in Europe, where over one hundred thousand people died in a war of aggression against Muslims. Over two million were ‘ethnically cleansed’ and made refugees. Forensic experts rarely talk about their work, so I wanted to shine a light on the important work that they do sometimes in difficult and challenging places. 

From Art School to Forensics, how did that happen?

I’d planned to go to Art School and become an artist, but personal circumstances instead forced me to find a job quickly, and I was offered a job as curator of Glasgow University’s Museum of Pathology in the old Western Infirmary. I often attended the post-mortem room and sometimes was asked to help the pathologists with autopsies when their technicians weren’t available. After studying for a diploma in anatomy, physiology and autopsy technology, I decided that this was what I wanted to do full-time. 

When you first arrived in Bosnia, it must have been a complete shock to the system – the brief you were given must have been overwhelming?

At our first briefing from the lead investigator from the International Criminal Tribunal (ICTY), we were all taken aback by the enormity of our mission ahead. Over eight and a half thousand men and boys from Srebrenica were alleged to have been executed over just a few days and thrown into mass graves. When I was taken to the first grave and witnessed over two hundred commingled and decomposing bodies, it was indeed a shocking sight, but I realised how important it was to recover, clean, examine and identify each one in order for the victim’s families to give them a decent burial. In addition, to help ensure that those responsible for such terrible crimes were prosecuted to give a sense of justice to the bereaved. 

Did it take you a while to adjust to the primitive living and working conditions or was it the case that you had a job to do and simply didn’t have time to think about that too much? 

The temporary mortuary we used to examine the victim’s bodies was a bombed-out garment factory with no running water and sporadic electricity. Security was also an issue. At one point, we had to abandon the mortuary on advice from the UN Peacekeepers. The war was technically over, but there were still occasional outbursts of violence. We had little choice but to adjust to our working and living conditions and try to get on with our job. Life for the civilian population was much worse than ours.

It seems like you bonded quickly with your colleagues – that must have helped lighten your days a little?  Humour is important even in the worst of situations, would you agree? 

Yes! I agree that humour is often important in situations like these. Most of the team bonded quickly, partly because we spent so much time working and eating together that we almost became a substitute family. Thankfully, there were only a few who found the work difficult emotionally, they preferred to spend their free time alone and unsupported. After they returned home from their deployment, they understandably didn’t want to come back. I cherish the friendships I still have with former colleagues. 

When carrying out the examinations of the bodies, you talked about being careful to look for clues that might identify the person such as tiny pieces of rolled-up paper or repairs to clothing – it must have felt like finding a little nugget of gold when you did find these things?

When we examined the clothing and recovered items found on the victim’s body, we knew they would be helpful when the bodies were finally identified. Unfortunately, we couldn’t be certain then that the clothing or, indeed, the items found belonged to the victim wearing them. 

Reading your story, I was amazed how many news stories I’d read about in the 1990s but had completely forgotten, namely the cellist Vedran Smailovic who played Adagio in G minor for 22 days and the U2 concert featuring Miss Sarajevo – a song performed by Bono and Pavarotti. You attended that concert – it must have been hugely emotional?

Yes! The U2 concert in 1997 in Sarajevo was the most emotional event I’d ever attended. It was the first public event allowed after the war. Many tears were shed by the packed audience (and by us) when the band sang Miss Sarajevo. In the book, I describe the background of this amazing event. 

It’s difficult to comprehend the levels of violence that humans can inflict on one another – you mention having depression and suffering nightmares on your return. Painting seems to have been just the therapy you needed? 

I dismissed as nonsense the advice I was given by a PTSD Counsellor following my return from a difficult deployment to Kosovo in 1999. By then, I’d spent over thirty years working with the dead with no mental health issues whatsoever. However, when I retired in 2009, I began to show signs of PTSD during the night. With profuse sweating and serial nightmares, my wife would tell me I would cry out like a child. It was as if I’d bottled up in my mind some of the horrors I’d seen, and they began to pour out at night. 

I found that teaching myself how to paint was therapeutic, especially when I painted some of the images from my dreams. I painted over thirty works depicting events in the war. A local Art Gallery in Partick (iota) ‘discovered me.’ The owners, Monica and Duncan, curated exhibitions in the Mitchell Library and in the Scottish Parliament, as well as in their gallery. St Mungos Museum acquired three of my paintings, and I have donated others to Museums in Nuremberg, France, and other parts of the UK. All proceeds from those paintings are donated to charity. 

How does it feel to have played such a vital role in bringing war criminals to justice?  

I feel proud to have played a small part in the most comprehensive forensic investigation in history that resulted in the conviction of both the military and political leaders who orchestrated this terrible war and gave some justice to the victims and their families. This was the first genocide to occur in Europe since the holocaust. However, many of the perpetrators are still free to carry on with their lives. This is very painful for the bereaved and those who suffered physically and emotionally and have been denied justice. 

‘West End Festival Woman’ (Private collection) @Robert McNeil
It’s 30 years since the war in the Balkans and yet the world seems to have learned nothing. That must frustrate you after all the work you’ve done? 

I naively thought that after seeing what happened to many of the leading perpetrators in Bosnia, potential war criminals would think twice before committing similar crimes that could cost them their liberty, but sadly, as we see every night on our TV screens, this has not happened. 

You seemed particularly moved by the sexual violence inflicted on so many women and the proceeds of this book are going to a Woman’s Refuge in Sarajevo. Can you tell us about the work they do? 

It’s been reported that up to fifty thousand, mainly Muslim women and girls, were raped during the war. The Serbs used sexual violence as a cheap weapon of war against women and some men to humiliate them and their families. For example, in the town of Visegrad, a luxury hotel was used to imprison hundreds of Muslim women and girls who were systematically raped. Some traumatised women threw themselves from balconies to escape their torture. 

Bakira Hasecic, a courageous woman from the town who herself and her daughter were victims of rape, formed The Association of Women Victims of War to support women of all ethnicities who suffered violent sexual abuse. After being nominated by Remembering Srebrenica (Scotland) in 2017, I was privileged to see Bakira receive an honorary degree from Glasgow’s Caledonian University. I donate all the proceeds of my book to the Association.  

You’re an Affiliate Artist for UNESCO’s Refugees Integration through Language and the Arts – what does this involve?  

I was thrilled to be appointed an Affiliate Artist for UNESCO RILA. Their Chair, Alison Phipps, and her colleagues are doing wonderful work bringing people from around the world together to share their arts, cultures and experiences. 

Between your art and charity involvement, you seem to be packing a lot into your retirement.  What’s next for you? 

I’ll continue to deliver presentations in schools and other venues about the war and the consequences of hate crimes. I also encourage young people who’ve experienced any form of trauma, if they feel they can, to express their feelings through art, music and literature.  

Next year will be the thirtieth anniversary of the genocide in Bosnia. There will be a lot of coverage on that, so I’ll continue to support Remembering Srebrenica as one of their ambassadors. 

Perhaps after that, I’ll return to painting more sedate and traditional works for pleasure and pick up my guitar again after a long absence. I’ll also be able to spend more time with my dear wife, Kathy. 

Book Cover painted by Robert McNeil
Book available to buy from www.beharpublishing.com

Return to Culture and Arts Articles


SanFair Newsletter

The latest on what’s moving world – delivered straight to your inbox