20 years after Srebrenica
This week marks the 20th anniversary of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, when, over the course of 6 days, 8,000 Bosnian men and boys were systematically slaughtered in Europe’s worst atrocity since the Holocaust.
Before the war, Srebrenica was a small and prosperous mining town in the centre of Yugoslavia, inhabited predominantly by Bosnian Muslims. Just 5 kilometres from the Serbian border, it was hotly contested during the war. Today, although life is coming back to the town, job opportunities are limited due to ethnic divisions and a lack of investment.
In 1992, in an attempt to ‘cleanse’ parts of the country and create an ultra-nationalist utopia for the Serbian people, Serbian General Ratko Mladic’s army began forcing Muslims and Croats to leave their homes. Before long, Bosnia was in a state of war.
Preparing a dinner of chicken soup and cabbage, Fahreta Dudic, a Bosnian Muslim, remembers how she never thought the war would come to her country:
‘I trusted my Serb neighbours and they trusted me. We were all friends in Srebrenica.’ But the war did come, and in 1992 Fahreta fled to Slovenia, and then Germany, with her 4 sisters. Her father and 3 brothers stayed behind.
Mladic, Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic’s surrogate leader in Bosnia now on trial for crimes against humanity, launched his attack on Srebrenica in July 1995. His army brushed aside the Dutch peacekeepers stationed there to enforce the UN ‘safe area’ policy, and the Serbs rolled into Srebrenica without a fight.
Mghmed Muharmovic was a soldier in the Bosnian army and on the frontline when Srebrenica fell. As the Serb forces moved into the town, he fled north with Srebrenica’s inhabitants towards the United Nations military base in Potocari, a village just north of the town.
On the way, this great mass of humanity – civilians and soldiers – divided into 2 groups. Some 20,000 people carried on to Potocari, hoping they would receive protection from the Dutch peacekeepers, while 20,000 more, including Mghmed, distrusted the UN and decided to try to push through Serbian territory, in a snaking column, to the city of Tuzla, held by Bosnian government forces.
‘My family was already in the UN base, so my brother and I decided to set off towards Tuzla together. As my brother’s leg was injured, he couldn’t walk very fast. I decided to go ahead and see what was going on at the front of the column. The Serbs started shelling us. When I came back, I couldn’t find my brother. Many years later, his bones were discovered and buried here at Potocari,’ Mghmed recounts.
He then points to a great scar on the side of his chest. Although he made it to Tuzla alive, a bullet from an anti-aircraft gun hit him as he was escaping through the woods. ‘It could have been my heart,’ he says with a grin.
Being soldiers, his group had weapons and a guide, and were physically fit; they were some of the first people to reach Tuzla.
However, like his brother, the men that followed weren’t so lucky. They were repeatedly cut and ambushed by Bosnian Serb forces, with thousands killed en route or else taken to warehouses and executed en masse. There were even rumours that an incapacitating chemical agent ‘combat gas’ was used to cause the escaping men to become disorientated and hallucinatory.
Back at the UN base in Potocari, Dutch soldiers evicted those who had sought their protection, and watched as the Serbs spilt thousands of Muslim men and boys from women and children. The latter were transported far from their homes, to Bosnian government territory. The men and boys were taken to isolated locations in the vicinity of Srebrenica and exterminated in their thousands.
At the International War Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, Judge Fouad Raid of Egypt described the events as ‘truly scenes from hell, written on the darkest pages of history.’
Every year on 11 July, Fahreta Dudic goes to the Srebrenica memorial ceremony in Potocari. Being the 20th anniversary of the massacre, this year’s event was attended by several high-profile figures, including former US President Bill Clinton and Aleksandar Vucic, the Prime Minister of Serbia. The VIPs watched from a stand as hundreds of women wept and prayed at the graves of their murdered relatives.
During his speech, Clinton praised Vucic for turning up despite strong opposition from many Bosnian Muslims. They are angry that while the Serbian government has condemned the massacre as a ‘horrible crime’, it refuses to describe the event as genocide. Vucic is also a firm believer in the ‘Greater Serbia’ ideology and once said that his country would kill 100 Muslims for every Serb who died in the Bosnian war.
As he laid flowers at the memorial, the crowd began to hiss and boo. When he entered the graveyard they began shouting ‘Allah Akbar’ (God is Great) and hurling bottles and stones.
Vucic’s spokesperson told the Associated Press that a rock hit the prime minister on the lip and that his glasses were broken as his delegation escaped the commotion, which provided a powerful reminder of just how difficult reconciliation can be in the Balkans.
The women and children who survived Srebrenica continue to live without their men, but the wounds of war are still horribly fresh, even after 20 years. Nearly all the town’s residents – Bosnian, Croat and Serb – lost friends and family in the 1995 war.
Although over 6,000 bodies have been identified using DNA analysis at the Srebrenica Commemoration Centre in Tuzla, progress remains painfully slow. Many families still do not know the fate of their relatives. Some families continue to hope that their relatives are still out there, just waiting to be found.
After the war, Fahreta returned from Germany to the village of Vidikovac, about a kilometre out of Srebrenica. Only one of her sisters has come back to Bosnia. The other 3 remain a part of the sizeable Bosnian diaspora.
Asked why this was, she replies simply: ‘The Serbs killed my 3 brothers and my father in 1995. Their graves are the only things for my sisters to return to.’