On 11 July 1995 Bosnian Serb troops captured Srebrenica, a small enclave in Eastern Bosnia. The town was a UN ‘safe area’, guarded by a battalion of Dutch peacekeepers. But when the resistance of local defence units was broken, the population was left at the mercy of Serb soldiers. At least 8,000 men and boys were killed: frog-marched into the hills surrounding the city, then shot and buried in mass graves, where many of them still lie.
Ten years ago Munira Subašić watched her husband and a teenage son being dragged away by Serb soldiers, and has not seen them since. Today, Munira is an activist with the ‘Mothers of Srebrenica’ – a loosely knit network of determined women fighting to expose the truth about the brutal murders that took place that fine summer day over a decade ago.
‘Often I wish I didn’t survive the fall of Srebrenica,’ sighs Munira. ‘Many women think so, we often talk about it. Whenever I go to the city where once I had everything, I smell the horror. I see criminals who took part in the killing.’
Branches of the group operate in Sarajevo, Tuzla, Podrinje and also in Srebrenica itself. The women are divided by the geography and politics of their resettlement. Srebrenica remains a part of Republika Srpska, the Serb-dominated part of the country, while Sarajevo and Tuzla are part of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
But the distances are not enough to defeat them. Since 1996 the ‘Mothers’ have held vigils in the crumbling streets of Srebrenica on the 11th of every month to commemorate the slaughter, but also to bolster the search for justice. They lobby and pressure politicians relentlessly.
One of their victories is the Memorial Centre in Potočari, near Srebrenica. The Centre, dedicated to the victims of the genocide, was opened in 2003 by former US President Bill Clinton – ironic, given the West’s refusal to intervene at the time. The memorial was built in the meadow where the Serb paramilitaries selected men to be shot, and hundreds of victims are buried there.
But most of all they agitate to find out the truth about their ‘missing’ husbands, sons and brothers. ‘Ten years have gone and we still look for the bones of our dearest,’ says Munira Subašić, her voice cracking. ‘We are still refugees in out own country. Ratko Mladić [the Bosnian Serb general who led the Srebrenica operation] and Radovan Karadžić [the political leader of the Serbs in Bosnia who ordered the assault] are still at large. And so are the murderers. They freely walk the country. Justice from the Hague has not come here yet.’
Munira is referring to the Hague-based International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), the UN-mandated court for war crimes. The Hague is a long way from the Balkans and the ICTY is a cumbersome beast. Yet, there have been glimmers of hope. In August 2001, the Bosnian Serb General Radislav Krstić was sentenced to 36 years in prison for genocide – a landmark verdict.
Srebrenica today is a city of ghosts, full of deserted houses and near-empty streets. Yet a handful of those who survived the massacre have returned. Safeta Beganović and Ifeta Merjemić are sisters, living in Konjević Polje, a village near Srebrenica.
‘This used to be a nice little place. As long as we sit in our houses, it’s fine. But when we go into the streets, we realize how miserable and desolate it actually is,’ says Safeta. She and her sister survive on earnings from a small chicken farm.
Hatidža Mehmedović also returned. Today she is a key organizer with the Mothers of Srebrenica and a nominee for the Nobel prize.
‘It is hard to live alone,’ Hatidža says softly. ‘I have carved the names of my sons on the doorstep. And over there are three fir trees reaching into the sky. Instead of watching my children age, I watch these three trees grow strong and tall, imagining my two sons and my husband. I want every mother in Srebrenica to find out the truth. Our children were denied their right to life; we mothers have the right to truth.’ •