Last week I was part of a Scottish delegation that relived a dark period of European history when we visited Bosnia Herzegovina with the charity that aims to teach the lessons of the genocide and war, ‘Remembering Srebrenica Scotland’. This would prove to be a journey in both the literal and metaphorical sense as we were exposed to the horrors of war, the unimaginable torture and cruelty and the unbelievable strength of the survivors.
Even after hearing the stories from others that had taken the trip previously, I was unsure how we were going to be regarded and what was going to be expected of us. Would we be looked upon with suspicion or friendship? Would we be asked to do anything or commit to anything? What about the weather, the food, the language? I strived to learn a few words of Bosnian – this serves the traveller well in any foreign country and this was no different.
And above all, would we be able to cope mentally and emotionally with all the evidence, information and first-hand accounts that would be coming our way? How do you prepare yourself for that experience? How do you empathise and not patronise?
As it was, on the first count, I shouldn’t have worried. The people were open and friendly. They were glad we were there. They wanted to teach us, to tell us, to show us. They want to make sure that the world learns their lesson and makes sure it never happens again. They don’t want our pity but they command our respect. As you will read later, we met people that are beyond superlatives. We heard stories that are beyond comprehension and we saw things that even Hell itself couldn’t match.
We flew to Sarajevo via Amsterdam and Zagreb on Sunday the 11th of June. As we came into land the countryside fanned out below. Mountains gave way to lush green valleys and houses with dusky red roofs spread along the roads as far as the eye could see. Sarajevo stood in the bright afternoon sunlight, ready to welcome us and share her stories. My first impression of Bosnia was how exquisitely beautiful it is. We would later learn that the same mountains served as vantage points for the Serb forces to attack the city during the siege.
As we arrived at the airport we went through passport control and I had my first chance to test out my Bosnian. Saying hello and thank you may seem like a small effort but the stony faced guard on the passport checkpoint certainly appreciated it. I wasn’t certain about my accent though and later wondered if his smile was one of pity rather than encouragement…
We met our guide, Resad Trbonja, who has been involved with the project since its inception and who had taken up arms and fought in the Bosnian army during the siege of Sarajevo.
We arrived at the very pleasant Hotel Hollywood, our base for the next four days, checked in and dropped off our stuff. Resad took us in the minibus to a very special spot overlooking the city so we could appreciate the magnificent view and get that special photo for our records. I’m glad we did because now when I think back I can remember how I felt looking down over the whole city. Seeing the pictures reminds me that my memories are perfect and it really was as beautiful as I recall.
The rest of that evening was spent wandering around the city, getting to know the group and discussing what was coming up over the next couple of days. As we chatted, we could scarcely believe that somewhere so spectacular could be the scene of such brutality, although the bullet holes visible in many of the buildings remained a silent testimony to its recent troubled past.
We travelled along ‘Sniper Alley’ – the main boulevard in Sarajevo that links the industrial part of the city with the culture and heritage side and has been the subject of many documentaries and films in the subsequent years. It’s a long street bordered by high rise flats that housed marksmen and was notoriously one of the most dangerous places and routinely avoided for much of the siege.
We visited a cemetery that was solely used for victims of the war and although the sight was sobering, we knew it was only a small part of what was coming.
Despite the signs of the very recent conflict, Sarajevo is a bustling, thriving city. Modern shops such as Zara sit alongside traditional souvenir shops. Big screen advertising flashes from office blocks and children play football and basketball in gated pitches.
There is a mixture of houses, high rise flats, sprawling urban ghettos and neat bungalows, often on quaint, winding streets. The red roofs dominate the view and a river winds through the middle. A bridge holds tokens of love in the form of padlocks…
I can’t imagine Muslims being forced to identify their houses with white sheets.
The Bosnian War
The next day we were due to visit the Gallery 11/7/95 which houses a special photographic exhibition by Tarik Samarah, dedicated to the genocide in Srebrenica. Before that, however, our guide, Resad, would outline some of the history of the war in Bosnia and the events leading up to the Siege of Sarajevo and the genocide itself. This would normally take place outside the gallery but it was proving to be too hot to stand outside for any length of time so we opted to have the talk in the hotel instead.
It was a good decision. With temperatures reaching the early thirties we would all be glad of the shade later in the day.
Resad began by explaining some of the background behind the events leading up to the siege and told us that hostilities went back as far as the 1389 Battle of Kosovo when the Ottoman Turks defeated the Serbian Army. It is thought that this is the battle that signified the start of the conflict between the Orthodox Christians and Muslims in the area. Although it must be pointed out, despite certain modern views, that the Bosnian War was never inevitable.
Serbian legend tells that in 1389 the Serbian King wasn’t actually defeated- that instead he went on to be the king in Heaven which made the Serbian race superior to everyone else. Slobodan Milosevic, President of Serbia from 1991 – 1997 stated that “All Serbs should be responsible for their own fate”. Even today, the Serbians still disparagingly call the Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) ‘Turks’ despite there being little or nothing to relate them anymore.
This was part of the dehumanisation that took place of this ethnic group over a period of time in order that the ‘ethnic cleansing’ that eventually took place was firmly embedded in the Serbian psyche. Dehumanisation meant that the Muslims were no longer looked upon as human beings and therefore it was made easier for the atrocities to be committed.
Resad explained that the most chilling aspect of the war was neighbour turning on neighbour - all of the people that we spoke to told us the same story. “One day we were all neighbours, living side by side, doing all the normal things that friends and neighbours do, living and loving together then suddenly people had taken up arms against each other and my best friend thought nothing of trying to kill me and rape my wife…”
We were also frequently reminded that the people leading the charge for a “pure Serbian nation”, the people that stood up in the country’s parliament and stated that the Muslims had to be “exterminated or brought to an acceptable number” were all highly educated, extremely intelligent individuals. This wasn’t a war that was started by a declaration of a call to arms on a whim, this was a deliberate, measured act perpetrated by academics in positions of power against defenceless, peaceable people.
The Siege of Sarajevo
In 1992, Bosnia held a referendum which resulted in 99.7% voting to become an independent country. The turnout was 63.4% and this mainly consisted of Bosniaks and Bosnian Croats, the Serbs either boycotted the referendum willingly or were prevented from voting by the Bosnian Serb authorities. Bosnia declared independence on the 1st of March 1992 and was admitted into the United Nations in May.
What the Bosniak people of Sarajevo didn’t realise was that the Yugoslav National Army had been preparing to surround the city for months. Alterations to infrastructure that were passed off as improvements for agricultural purposes were actually planned for the siege. Despite holding a concert for peace in April, the snipers were already in place, the first two victims were woman. The war had begun.
In the weeks that followed, the citizens of Sarajevo had no water or electricity. Their freedoms were severely restricted and they began to realise that many Bosnian Serbs and those that looked towards Serbia for their identity were leaving the city. The Yugoslav National Army, who controlled the airport, were allowing them to leave on up to nine flights a day.
The Serbs had been told that “the Muslims were coming” and were ordered to leave the city. They even dug up their dead and took them with them. One Bosnian Serb explained that “If I didn’t leave I would be killed by my own people”. It turned out that this was how it felt to many Bosniaks. Living side by side for 500 years, the ethnic groups “looked the same, talked the same, dressed the same, the only way to differentiate between them was by name.”
The war was described as very intimate. Resad said “I never thought that the people that lived with me would turn on me because I am a Muslim and they are Orthodox Christians. I was just a normal nineteen-year-old that listened to U2 and the Sex Pistols. Then one day I had an AK47 shoved in my hands, three bullets, no training and no choice.”
The Bosnian Army wasn’t just made up of Muslims. Roma, Jew, Croat and also some Serbs fought alongside each other for the longest siege of a European city in modern warfare. For forty-seven months, the citizens of Sarajevo tried to get on with their day to day lives – fetching water - that one act alone the cause of so many losses of life. Cutting up old tyres and anything they could find to make fires, with whole families living in two rooms because that was all they could heat. Finding food was difficult, international aid depended on how many planes could get in.
The airport was now under the control of the UN after being passed over by the Yugoslav Army but sometimes they would go months without seeing anything. Resad used to go to more than one hospital to give blood in exchange for packets and tins of meat that his mother would stash until such desperate times. One day they saw a packet of cookies that had been given to the children and was stamped ‘Vietnam 1967’. It seems that war rations are transferrable.
The black market that existed meant that people could supplement the usual macaroni, beans, rice flour and oil with luxuries such as sugar and coffee – if you had enough jewels or valuables to exchange for them.
Children still had to be schooled. They used to meet in one flat one or two times a week and the teacher would come to them. “It was better to sacrifice the one than the many trying to get to school”. Students went to the university to collect their books and were told to come back when they were ready to sit the exam, although the students should not expect it to be the same professor due to the huge loss of life.
Although there was no public transport, hunger, fear and death all around, Resad describes it as a time of “great fairness. Most of the people were living to the same standard, misery made them kind, we all looked out for each other.”
In March 1993 work began on digging a tunnel under the runway from Sarajevo to Bosnian territory just outside. There were few machines and nearly all of the tunnel was dug out with hand held tools. It reached for 800 metres and was eventually opened in July. It was used to take in supplies, including a pipeline for oil and communications to the outside world. Many Sarajevans fled the city and even the President made his escape.
We visited the Tunnel Museum, which houses the opening to a 20-meter part that you can still go through. I can’t imagine what it must have been like going any further in those cramped and stifling conditions with shelling and bombing only metres above your head, limited air and water up to your waist.
The tunnel itself became a symbol of resistance and hope. Both ends were heavily guarded by Bosnian troops and Resad recounts the first time he went out to free territory… “I tasted a potato for the first time in months. It was indescribable how good that potato tasted.”
He told us of many trips back to the city with supplies in his backpack before the track was put in and goods were able to be moved more easily.
The siege officially ended in February 1996 with the loss of over eleven thousand lives.
The Mothers of Srebrenica
After we visited the Tunnel, we travelled to the office of the Mothers of Srebrenica, a non-governmental, non-profit organisation set up in 1996 by Munira Subasic to find out the truth about what happened to the men and boys of Srebrenica that left and were never seen again. We were given coffee and juice and the most fantastic cherries and peaches I have ever tasted. They were impeccable hosts.
Munira and Kada Hotic, in their sixties and seventies respectively, told us that they strived to locate and identify the remains of victims and also offer support for lone children and mothers left behind and severely traumatised. They also offer help to women that were raped and are suffering from intense mental health problems.
Munira told us of a woman that had approached them in the office and had told her to “lock the door, I have something I want to tell you.” She went on to tell them that she had been raped but had never been able to tell anyone about it, she was so ashamed. She left that day and never came back, despite repeated attempts by Munira and others to contact her. She told them that she was so ashamed she couldn’t look them in the eye. There are thousands of woman that feel like this in Bosnia today.
Kada and Munira also told us about their fight to take the UN and the Dutch Foreign Minister to a tribunal in The Hague but the court ruled that the UN had immunity and the Dutch were held responsible for only 300 of the deaths. An appeal is due to report soon - Munira tells us “we have given them no peace for 20 years”.
Munira tells a story of despair and pain that no human being should be made to suffer. Between them, Kada and Munira have lost over 70 members of their families. Munira recalls leaving her house when Srebrenica fell and walking in her socks to the UN base at Potocari. One of her sons was taken away right in front of her eyes. He was her youngest, just seventeen years old. She later managed to bury two of his bones found in mass graves twenty-five kilometres apart. She buried a second son in 2004 after his remains lay unidentified in a morgue for eight years.
Munira’s stories of the UN base are sometimes too horrific to be recounted. Babies murdered, children raped in plain sight and acts of evil depravity that make you wonder how she can still be sitting here, retelling her story again and again with such clarity. There are no tears but there is certainly passion.
After some months she was reunited with another son and says that gave her new hope and the resolve to go and help others. She was instrumental in establishing the memorial centre in Potocari, opened by then US President Bill Clinton and it was Mothers of Srebrenica that persuaded the European Parliament to adopt the Resolution on the Srebrenica Genocide, meaning that EU states would mark the 11th of July as a day of remembrance.
The Mothers of Screbrenica continue their quest to share their story around the world, educate their children about the horrors of what happened in Bosnia and bring to justice those responsible.
Munira said “The women are the ones that have carried the burden of war. They killed our husbands but they didn’t kill us and we talk on their behalf. We remain to fight for justice and truth.”
What is truly remarkable about these woman is that they hold no hate in their hearts. They do not seek revenge but justice. They strive to find remains so that families have proof that these people existed, to give them somewhere to come and grieve. Munira is thankful to have found the remains of all her loved ones, other mothers remain completely alone, their children have never been identified, they cannot bury them, there is no closure.
“The biggest injustice is waiting to get justice.”
Kada tells us how hard it is to live amongst people that they know have committed terrible crimes. She says one of the hardest things, apart from the obvious revulsion of living with what happened, is that many of these people used to be her friends – “how can we live together now? How can I trust them? We need to ask them ‘Are you ashamed? Do you have regret? Does denying it make it any easier?’”
Even though several of the main players in the Serbian army have been found guilty in The Hague of genocide and other crimes against humanity, it is still officially denied by Serbs in Bosnia, including by both the president and the mayor of the Republic of Srpksa, the Serbian controlled territory in Bosnia which includes Srebrenica. Kada said “Denial of the genocide is like being killed all over again. It’s rubbing salt into the wounds. We need to define what happened and move on, they are stuck in their crimes over their heads and they can’t get out.
“Bosnia is a beautiful country but the people are polluted, how do we save their souls?
“I remember one day watching a man setting fire to Muslim houses – going from one to the next with a burning torch. In one house there were eight disabled people – they all burned to death. He still works here. We still see him. Everyone knows who he is.
“Let him live with his conscience. If they won’t see the face of justice, we will get in their faces. We tell them they are worthless. They can’t be proud of what they did.”
They travel all over the world raising awareness and meeting other NGO’s (non-governmental organisations) and women from other countries that have suffered the same fate. The organisation has won dozens of international awards for their human rights work with women and children but they keep striving to have the genocide recognised in the country, to stop children being brought up full of hate, to keep supporting the survivors.
“The longer time goes on, the harder it becomes to get justice.”
Sexual Violence as a Tool of War
We then went on to visit another organisation, The Association of Women Victims of War, set up in 2003 and met with Bakira Hasecic, who recounts stories of rape and sexual violence. She, her sister and her two daughters aged sixteen and nineteen all fell victim to this terrible crime during the war. Her sister had been taken to a concentration or ‘rape camp’ and used as a sex slave before being murdered. Her remains were later found in several mass graves.
Her own story is intensely personal but she tells it to educate and encourage other victims of rape and sexual violence to come forward. She told us “Other victims have to be encouraged to come forward. Our main message is for the world to make sure that this never happens again. Every media appearance is a message to all the women of the world to speak out. If we don’t talk, we send out the wrong message.”
When asked if she knew her attackers, the story suddenly took an even darker twist. She knew one of them. What makes it worse is the fact that she cannot get away from it. When she returned to her home after the war, the police would taunt her, saying things like ‘Did you come here because you want more?’ and ‘Do you want us to finish what we started?’.
Understandably, Bakira finds it hard to explain to her granddaughters what happened. She said it took many years to explain it to herself. “It was complete humiliation. It was someone that you knew. It leaves a permanent scar. They were saying things like ‘you will not give birth to Turks anymore, only Serbs’.”
As with Munuira, Kada and countless others, Bakira’s fight for justice also continues. Stories about fifty-three schoolgirls taken away one night and used as sex slaves, an eleven-year-old girl pushed from a balcony and murdered after being repeatedly raped along with countless other first-hand accounts of atrocities, including up to seventy people being locked in a house and burned alive. Up to fifty thousand women are thought to have been victims of rape or sexual violence.
With twenty-seven members of her family slaughtered, her and her daughters raped several times and having also been witness to dreadful outrages, she could be forgiven for seeking her revenge.
“Revenge doesn’t lead anywhere.” She told us. “Revenge brings shame on your family. The only justice is through the courts.”
She also admits that there have been at least three attempts on her life but she refuses to be afraid. “They can’t hurt me anymore, I’m not afraid of dying – after everything they have done to me – I would be going back to my family.”
Bakira is worried that the pace of justice is going too slowly and that many of the perpetrators, as well as the survivors, will die before the conclusion.
“At the moment it is better to be a war criminal than a victim of war…”
“Thousands of men executed and buried in mass graves, hundreds of men buried alive, men and women mutilated and slaughtered, children killed before their mothers’ eyes, a grandfather forced to eat the liver of his own grandson. These are truly scenes from hell, written on the darkest pages of human history.” – ICTY (International Criminal Trial for the Former Yugoslavia) judge Fouad Riad
As the temperature that day reached thirty-one degrees and after a light lunch in the shade, we continued on to Gallerija 11/7/95, founded by Tarik Samarah which permanently exhibits his works on the Srebrenica genocide.
His photographs have been exhibited all over the world – the Holocaust museum in Washington, the UN Headquarters in New York, Westminster Abbey in London, The Hague and many others. They have also been used on several covers of research books and publications and Tarik has won countless awards for his work.
His photographs are haunting. Depicting the horror without actually showing any of the detail of the genocide, he leads his audience into the imagination of Hell. A broken doll from a concentration camp, a spade broken from the digging of so many graves, a mother’s hand with a drop of blood on her finger as she tries to locate her lost family by DNA identification.
There is also a room dedicated to pictures of the missing and murdered. Every wall covered with pictures of men and boys, unaware of the fate that was to become them, just normal people with normal lives. I think the hardest thing about being in that room was the sheer amount of pictures. Every time a number was mentioned, it was really just that, a number, shocking as it was. In this room the numbers became people.
I couldn’t help thinking about my family and I think that was the moment that it hit me hardest. They must have been terrified. How could anyone possibly do that to another human being, let alone time after time after time? Now I understood dehumanisation. Not how it could be done but how it had allowed this to happen. What I couldn’t understand was how the rest of the world had allowed this to happen.
We watched two short videos. The first was actual footage and interviews with women that had lost loved ones. They talked about seeing their sons walking away, never realising that would be the last time. They talked about the worry of not knowing, the pain of finding out and the injustice of the war. Their suffering was palpable.
One woman’s words will live with me forever, she recalled the moment when her husband was taken away – “I felt his trembling hand on my shoulder, I can still feel it trembling inside me now, I remember his hot breath on my ear as he told me everything was going to be ok. I never saw him again. I wish I’d told them not to take him. I wish I’d screamed and shouted. Maye it would make it easier to bear now.”
We then watched a dramatisation of a young boy that went to fetch water in Sarajevo during the siege. He says goodbye to his mother just as his father returns from the front line. His mother is nursing a baby and setting the table for dinner. There is a lot of family camaraderie even though you can see the poverty and the pain they are going through; they are making the most of each other. The boy chats to some soldiers on the way and then joins the queue for the water. As he begins to fill his water containers the shelling begins and one of the soldiers grabs him and pulls him away. He runs home, whilst all around him bombs are blasting. He manages to get to his flat to find his parents dead and the baby still crying.
At this point I think I went into some kind of shock. I could barely comprehend what I was seeing and hearing. I stared at the photos on the wall and then went to the front of the gallery with the rest of the group who were talking to the photographer. I hadn’t even noticed they weren’t with me anymore. I bought a book about the exhibition and Tarik signed it. Then I went outside and stood round the corner as I tried to gather myself.
The way I felt in that moment of time is almost indescribable. I was shaking and crying, I was finding it hard to breathe, the air was so oppressive, the situation more so. I felt guilty and ashamed – why had we not done more to stop this? How could I have been happily preparing to go to college when all this was happening in this country, this European country. At the time I thought it was so far away but it turned out to be a lot closer to home than I had realised. These people had been let down and betrayed in the cruellest way imaginable.
The British Ambassador to Bosnia Herzegovina
That night we visited the home of the British Ambassador, Edward Ferguson and his wife, Caroline. We chatted about the situation in Bosnia, unemployment rates, tax, opportunities and education. The damaging way that young Bosnians are taught different versions of their own history depending what school they go to.
We discussed the lack of positive destinations for young people and that youth unemployment was in the high fifty per cent. Young people were offered little in the way of employment when they left school and many moved abroad and never came back.
We also discussed what provision was available through social security and how people were supported through difficult financial times.
He asked for the discussion to be off the record and I respectfully took no notes. His message was clear, however, Bosnia Herzegovina is a country in a region that is still very unstable and almost certainly divisions between the ethnic groups have not healed. The international community are monitoring the situation very closely.
Identifying the remains
The next day we set off at seven am for the bus journey to Tuzla, the city that the Column or the Death March had been trying to reach from Srebrenica when thousands of men lost their lives. Every year since 2005 thousands more replicate the march, now known as the Peace March to raise awareness of the events of the past.
For the purposes of our trip, Tuzla is home to the Podrinje Identification Project and we met with Senior Forensic Anthropologist, Dr Dragana Vutectic. The project is a run by the International Commission on Missing Persons and was set up in 1999. Dragana explained to us how difficult it was to identify some of the bodies because they had been moved from their primary graves to secondary graves and sometimes to tertiary graves. This was done to move the bodies closer to the frontline so that the excuse of being killed in combat could be used. Dragana said that some bodies had bones found in up to five different sites.
There have been over one thousand bodies found in the forest and on the banks of the river – those that took part in the Death March were shelled as they sought freedom. Even with these bodies being found, only ten per cent of the total number have been complete, making the identification process very difficult.
In the days before they used DNA, they used to make up books with pictures of the clothes that had been found so that people could try and find loved ones that way. Since the introduction of DNA testing in 2001 over eighty per cent of the remains have been identified.
As we went into the centre, Dragana showed us the sealed room that contained hundreds of bags of bones and thousands of bags of clothes. She told us that some of the bones had already been identified but because the bodies were not complete, the families refused to bury them. She told us “We keep them here until more bones are discovered or the families change their minds.”
As long as I live I will never forget the smell in that room. I have never smelled anything like it. It was the smell of decay and death. It was the smell of sorrow and regret, evil and wickedness, the smell of thousands of lives wasted, the smell of loss.
We heard about the DNA process, how one sample costs six hundred dollars and how some bodies need several tests to put the bones back together. We heard about how, in the beginning, they used to send away whole bones, until they realised that only a small sample was needed. The integrity of the bone has to be maintained so that it can be compared with its partner bone on the other side of the body.
There were no medical records available from Srebrenica so the relatives were asked to fill out questionnaires that could contain two to three hundred questions. Dragana said that often when mothers or others are asked to describe the person they are looking for, they get the height slightly wrong or forget about past fractures or other physical attributes that could help. She stated that it can be difficult for relatives to remember everything about the person, especially if a number of years have passed.
Every year the numbers of bodies being identified is falling. There were no new remains found this year. Dragana says there are still over one thousand missing persons, meaning that there are at least two mass graves still to be uncovered. Satellite images helped to locate the ones already found but the vegetation has been growing now for twenty-two years so they feel very unoptimistic about finding them.
Unless those with the knowledge speak out about their whereabouts, it’s unlikely they will ever be found. Dragana told us she wanted to bring cadaver dogs over from Sweden but the funding wouldn’t allow it and the funding is dwindling every year as they turn their resources to other countries.
Potocari Memorial Centre
The last leg of our journey was a visit to the Memorial Centre and Cemetery in Potocari. The Memorial Centre is housed in the old UN base, where the refugees were held in what they thought was safety. The building is an old battery factory that had been taken over and used as a base for firstly Canadian soldiers and then the Dutch. The space inside is vast but you can’t imagine what it must have been like with so many people crammed in there at once.
Five thousand people sought refuge there away from the Serb forces. Video footage shows the bewildered faces of those that were left outside when they locked the gates. Now it lies empty but huge pictures line the walls of women crying in distress, mass graves uncovered, rows and rows of green covered coffins and one in particular… of a woman called Ferida Osmanovic. Ferida is hanging from a tree. She committed suicide after her husband was taken away and she was raped by Serb soldiers. She left behind a son aged twelve and a daughter aged ten. The pain and the shame had been too much for her to bear.
We were then led into the newly built memorial centre with a big screen and interactive listening stations. We were the only group there so we were able to move around freely and look in all the individual rooms. First, we sat down to watch a video of footage of the war. The men’s faces on the Death March and a father shouting for his son, telling him that the Serbs were to be trusted and he should surrender – they were later found in mass graves.
The videos can be seen online and its worth having a look to get a sense of how it actually was, how the people felt, their fear writ large over their faces.
It showed the clips that we had seen several times now of General Ratko Mladic entering Srebrenica after it fell and giving a speech to camera about going after the ‘Turks’. Footage of the meeting between him and the Dutch Commander of the UN troops. Mladic telling the refugees that they would be able to leave soon. As it turns out, this was nothing more than an appeasement because the cameras were rolling. After the cameras were turned off, Hell descended on the camp and the horror of death and torture began.
By this time, I was beginning to wonder if I could be shocked any more, if I had actually reached peak revulsion. It turned out I could and I hadn’t. At the end of the video it showed six young men in a truck, being driven to a place where they would all be slaughtered. They are made to lie face down on the ground, their hands are tied behind their backs. Then their executioners change their minds and make them stand up and marched them over to another area. Then they are shot. All but two of them fall to the ground. The two remaining young men then have to drag the lifeless bodies over to a hole in the ground, where they are then shot as well.
Somehow I knew the most horrific would be left to the last but by this time I just felt numb. It was almost like watching a film. Almost. In the back of my mind I knew it was real but admitting it meant that I would have to make some sense of it and I was completely at a loss at how to do that.
Shock. Pure and utter shock.
Then Hasan Hasanovic came and sat with us to tell us his story. He went right back to when he was a child and described how happy he had been, living in a small village then moving to a town just outside Srebrenica called Bratunac. He told us about school, about how his teacher was Serbian but there was no division, no hatred. He told us about life in his village, how they grew their own food, how strong his bond was with his twin brother.
He told us how his uncle had been killed by a shell in Tuzla in 1992. The family was devastated. He described the pain and disbelief he had felt and how he had looked up to his uncle. They had no idea how much worse it was about to get.
Hasan remembers waiting for international help when Srebrenica fell. Help that never came. The town had suffered since 1992 with men being killed and Hasan and his family had been driven out of Bratunac and lived in the forest for a few long months before the forest was shelled. They managed to escape but many of their animals were killed.
He says that the area around Srebrenica was completely cut off and constantly coming under fire. There was no electricity, the Serbs had destroyed the water tower on the outskirts of the town. He witnessed several children being blown up while they played a game of football – one that he was supposed to be playing in. He described in detail limbs lying on the ground, flesh and hair stuck to the fencing. This was the first of several times he would cheat death.
Because of the limited provisions there was no medical supplies or anaesthetic in the local hospital. On several occasions the doctors had to get the patients semi drunk on brandy just to cut off their limbs with a handsaw. People were knocking on doors, begging for food. Hasan told us that he would save them the shame of having to look at him “People were so desperate already; I didn’t want to add to their shame”.
International aid was being dropped by parachute but sometimes the parachutes didn’t open and Hasan recalls seeing a boy killed when a parcel dropped on him only ten metres from where he was standing. They put out a plea to the world on amateur radio for help but the help never came.
He described how women would use the material from the parachutes to make and mend clothing, how the local school was full of refugees, how the whole place was basically “a prison without bars”.
But he also tells, as Resad did, of life continuing under the surface – babies being born, sporting and cultural events taking place, his brother played in a band and Hasan used to pedal a bicycle to generate his electric guitar. A music concert that used a tractor as a generator. Sugar being used to pay for higher education courses.
On the 10th of July 1995 the Serbian army had totally surrounded the town. The Bosniaks had been demilitarised when the UN had taken away all their weapons because the area was supposed to be a safe zone. Hasan said “I sat with my twin brother, Husein, and my father and we knew then that if we were going to survive, we had to join the column.”
They gathered with the rest of the men and set off for Tuzla. The shelling began and Hasan lost his brother and his father but he knew if he stuck around he would be killed. He managed to cross a field without getting shot, he arrived in a forest with gunfire all around him, bullets ricocheting off trees. “I was frozen in shock, people all around me were crying. Someone gave me some sugared water to drink and this gave me the energy to go on.”
Hasan walked without sleeping. He was afraid that he would be found and killed and on the 13th of July he reached the road to Sarajevo. He said “I felt like I was walking and sleeping at the same time. The skin had fallen off my feet. I wanted to lay down and sleep but a man pulled me up and told me to keep going. Later I found out that the army had managed to take the area up to that very spot. Had that man not kept me going I wouldn’t have survived.”
On the morning of the 15th of July the army was closing in. Hasan could hear gunfire coming closer and closer and the boy in front of him had his foot blown off. He managed to find shelter in a creek but the rain was so heavy that it threatened to wash him away. He waited there for eight hours until he heard that the Bosnian Army had broken the stronghold and he walked into free territory.
People from a nearby village were bringing out food and he remembers people gorging themselves and vomiting but he ate nothing. He also notes that was the first time he realised that the Serbs had used nerve gas – people were hallucinating and “going crazy”.
Hasan was eventually reunited with his mother, his younger brother and his maternal grandparents in a UNHCR tent. “There were hundreds of women there looking for male family members. They surrounded me but I couldn’t tell them anything”.
He buried his twin brother in 2005. He told us “The pain was indescribable. I don’t know how I got through it, I don’t know how I stopped myself going in the grave with him. We find an invisible strength that pushes us forward”.
Hasan has been the curator of the museum in Potocari since 2009. “Telling my story so many times a day never gets any easier but it has to be told because distorted facts shape a false history of what happened. Because the genocide is being denied, the places that murders took place are not commemorated. Young people need to be taught it was genocide. At the moment there is a new generation being produced with the same ideals”.
“Denial is a wall between the victims and those who inflicted their suffering”.
Nedzad Avdic is the same age as me. His story and survival is nothing short of a miracle. He was one of only two men out of one thousand five hundred to survive the firing squad. He was seventeen years old. He arrived in Srebrenica in 1993 with his father, mother and three younger sisters looking for refuge under the protection of the UN. Just as Hasan before him, he describes the town as an “concentration camp without barbed wire”.
When the town was surrounded, he and his father hid in the forest for days then joined the column to Tuzla but were soon separated and Nedzad continued without him. He was part of the group that surrendered after the Serbs told them that they would not be harmed. They were taken to a meadow where all the wounded men were killed.
The remaining men were taken to a school where they were kept in classrooms. Nedzad recalls “The Serbian soldiers kept telling us that we would be with our families soon. I didn’t realise it at the time but there was sarcasm in their voices”.
They were kept there for hours. He said “We could hear people beings tortured and killed. The moans and the screams. The gunfire. My turn came at midnight. I was taken to a classroom next door and told to remove my clothes, the room was full of clothes. My hands were tied behind my back and I was taken to the playground. As soon as I stepped outside I felt something under my feet. I looked down. There was blood everywhere. I looked up and saw bodies piled up. Bodies everywhere.
“I was put in the back of a truck with other men. We were taken to a field. There was another guy in the back of the truck that had managed to untie his hands, he offered to untie mine as well. I said to him ‘what’s the point? We will be killed trying to escape.’ He jumped out the truck and was shot right in front of me.
“At that moment I made up my mind that I would die quickly with no suffering. All I could think about was that my mother wouldn’t know where I was…”
As Nedzad lined up with the other men, the Serbian soldiers shouted at them to lie face down on the ground. He had barely reached his knees when the shooting began. He said “I was hit in the right side and in the right arm. The pain was unbearable. At that moment I just wanted to die. The soldiers fired again and I was hit in my ankle. I heard them say ‘check that they are all dead’. The man next to me was moaning and the soldier came over and shot him again. I closed my eyes and thought I was next but then they left”
Nedzad and another man managed to untie themselves and crawl over to some bushes where they hid while truck after truck arrived throughout the night. They witnessed the mass slaughter of hundreds of their fellow men. They travelled for several days, broken and bleeding, until they reached a safe area. Nedzad recalls times when he thought his companion had left him as he was away for hours getting food but he “always came back in the end”.
He has now returned to Srebrenica to live and is married with three daughters. He says it’s not usual to come back and liver here after such horror “for others Srebrenica is history, for us it is life” but life is difficult living in the Republic of Srpska as a Muslim. He said “My daughters’ school doesn’t even recognise the Bosnian language, how can we teach them about their writers and poets? They can’t be president because they don’t belong to any of the three ethnicities. I fear for their future – the educational system that we have now generates new hatred in the future, so in ten or twenty years we will have a new generation of people who are completely indoctrinated by this.
“Despite everything, I hope that I can teach my daughters to grow up without hatred, that will be my success”.
The Potocari cemetery is a peaceful place. It is a testament to the strength of the survivors and everyone that has helped locate and identify the remains. It is also a testament to the horror of war and genocide.
Thousands of white columns stand in perfect rows in the sun, the surrounding area is green and beautiful, birds sing and crickets sing noisily in the grass. When the monuments became dirty over the years, local schoolchildren were brought in to clean them. This ensured that they read the names and the ages of these men and boys that died in a futile attempt at ‘ethnic cleansing’.
In total, one hundred and sixty-one people were indicted by International Criminal Trial for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). Since the arrest of Goran Hadžić on the 20th of July 2011, none of the accused remain at large. As of the 17th of September 2013, one hundred and thirty-two cases have been completed and twenty-nine have remained uncompleted.
The ICTY has one case undergoing trial - Ratko Mladić, who’s verdict is expected this year and twenty-five cases on appeal. Thirteen defendants were transferred to other courts, with eleven being convicted, one of them, Rahim Ademi, acquitted, and another, Vladimir Kovačević, was ruled mentally unfit to stand trial in 2004. Additionally, it was reported that two acquittals (from 2013) had been overturned by an appeals panel and new trials are pending, for Franko Simatović and Jovica Stanišić.
The highest profile imprisonment was that of former Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic who was found guilty of genocide as well as nine other crimes and sentenced to forty years imprisonment.
Slobodan Milosevic died whilst on trial in 2006.
The situation in Bosnia Herzegovina is one that simply cannot be explained in an essay or from a four-day trip. There are politics here that I will never understand. What I do understand is the need for us to learn the lessons of the Srebrenica Genocide and the events that led up to it.
We need to remember these people. We need to know their names. They are not just statistics, they were husbands and fathers and brothers and beloved members of families. They were also wives and mothers and sisters and babies, children that will never grow up. The videos and photographs tell a tale that can never be understood by those that weren’t there. So many victims, so much hope and life all gone.
The one thing I will never forget is strength and dignity of the survivors and their willingness to tell us everything in their quest for recognition. The fact that they hold no hate. Revenge is a dirty word for them, they want and need justice and they want to Serbs to admit that genocide was committed so that they can move on. The denial and the refusal to teach the younger generation ensures that lessons cannot be learnt, that somehow their loved ones died in vain.
Undoubtedly the most poignant message, said over and over again was the shock of people that had lived together for hundreds of years suddenly turning on each other. They were people like you and me. Educated, modern, civilised and although the story seems too horrific to contemplate, meeting the people and hearing their stories made it all too real.
We are all human beings. Yes, we should celebrate diversity and difference and understand different religions and cultures but prejudice has no place in our society. Hate speech needs to be stamped out every time. Tolerance and love should be promoted.
I will leave you with the last word from Resad -
“Please just be aware that things can go wrong, no matter how good you think your society is. All it takes is a few idiots and a few people that are ready to follow them…”
Remembering Srebrenica 2017.
My sincerest thanks to all involved.