During July 1995 between 8000-9000 Bosnian-Muslim (mainly) men and boys (also known as Bosniaks) were massacred in and around the area of Srebrenica. This was genocide.
I’ve written a short summary of the events leading up to and during the massacres at the end, but primarily wanted to write about my experience of visiting the memorial.
During the 3 hour journey from Sarajevo we were given a concise history of the region by our guide, a Yugoslav War Veteran, Adnan. He told us his own incredibly fascinating account of his life as a pilot during the war, including his defection, detailing his escape and the reasons for it and his thoughts on the conflict.
Arriving at the Srebrenica–Potočari Memorial and Cemetery for the Victims of the 1995 Genocide, I didn’t know how to feel. Adnan wanted to leave the more specific details of the genocide to be told by our guide at the site, Hasan Hasanovic. Hasan is a survivor, and you can see footage of him, emaciated and petrified whilst on the death march. His father and twin brother did not survive.
Stepping out of the car I took a deep breath and looked around. Despite visiting many memorials and places of human tragedy and brutal violence my initial reactions are always that of blankness. I suppose preparing myself for what I know will be incredibly difficult, invoking so many emotions; pain, sympathy, disbelief, deep, deep sadness, and also anger and rage. Rage and hatred for my fellow humans, which I know I will then have to fight and put aside, for it is not this rage and hatred that will help, or even help to educate others.
Before meeting Hasan Ashli and I walked around the cemetery side of the memorial complex. The site is split into two very different parts by the road. On one, a cemetery filled with white headstones, initially only 600 in 2003, but with more mass graves being exhumed, more remains are buried on July 11th each year. There are now remains of over 6,200 people, but the total number of victims is over 8,000, the ‘…’s below at the end of ‘8372’ symbolise the uncertain number of victims.
Though it is known as the Srebrenica massacre the site is actually located in the village of Potočari. It is here where many survivors, relatives and friends last saw their loved ones alive. As well as the graves there is a large open air space for prayer and reflection.
On the other side of the road is a flower shop ran by the Mothers of Srebrenica. You can also buy small green and white crochet memorial flower pins, as well as books and DVD’s on the genocide. Here I purchased a copy of Hasan’s autobiography; Surviving Srebrenica.
Read more about the shop and Mother’s of Srebrenica on Women for Women International’s blog, here.
We were then met by Hasan, who took us into the Visitors Memorial Centre; a disused battery factory that was the Headquarters for the UN soldiers in 1994-1995. It was here that 5000 civilians fled refuge, and were subsequently forced out, effectively being sent to their deaths.
It was hard to know what to say to Hasan. A flood of thoughts came to my mind, and I wanted to say sorry. But for what. Sorry for his loss? The situation? Guilt? Why? At not having suffered so much? Or just wanting to express my sorrow for all of it? How hard this must be for him, retelling his story, reliving the horrors on such a regular basis. It seemed such a pathetic and useless word, and, ‘nice to meet you’ seemed just wrong. I think I opted for ‘hello’ instead.
We were given some time to walk around the inside of the complex, which now houses an exhibition; a mix of information and photos on the events themselves, not only in regards to the men and boys, but also what happened to the women and children, as well as on the perpetrators and the attempts at seeking justice through prosecution.
Part of the exhibition also focused on locating the mass graves and how and where the remains were exhumed from. As the picture below shows, disturbingly, many remains from the same victim were found in multiple locations. Thought to be attempts to cover up the mass killing by moving the bodies from their primary location to second AND third locations between the months of August – November 1995.
The UN Peacekeepers. Though, I will say that I find some of their actions utterly horrific (sexual abuse, goading of refugees), others reprehensibly disgusting (such as the graffiti), some awful and depressingly sad (watching abuses happen and doing nothing I must emphasis here they were not civilians. It was their job to prevent atrocities and abuse.) But, despite all this, I don’t think it’s right to lay the blame at the foot-soldiers. ‘UN Peacekeepers’ were not (I am not sure now) a group of elite, or even well trained soldiers, with experience or knowledge in major political conflict zones. These, usually very young inexperienced men, were put in the worlds’ most volatile areas and just expected to keep the peace. The thinking behind how this would be successful utterly baffles me. The Generals, those seated at the UN, those in governmental power, those giving the orders. Doing a mixture of nothing, or things to worsen the situation. Utterly disgusting. This was one year after the Rwandan Genocide. I’ll leave you to think about that.
We were then taken into a small room inside the centre where Hasan told us about what happened, as well as his own personal story, followed by a documentary showing news footage of the time, which included images of himself on the Death March. This was a ‘walk’ undertaken by approximately 10’000 – 15’000 unarmed Bosniak men trying to flee to the town of Tuzla, 100km away, through mountainous terrain. As well as being malnourished and exhausted, the men walked through minefields whilst also being shot at by the VSA. At some point Hasan continued walking on, just looking forward, and was separated from his twin brother and father, never seeing them again, but burying them 8, and 10 years later.
I was utterly mesmerized by Hasan’s story, holding on to every word. It was hard to comprehend that what he was actually telling us was HIS story. That the words coming out of his mouth and the images forming in my head, were his experiences. Him, sat right there. And here we were, sat together, normally, in a room, in peace, in calm, in safety. How unimaginably painful it must be to re-tell and re-live these traumatic memories again and again, but he said he did it because he had too. He has to let the world know what happened, tell the stories of his brother, his father, his friends, and has to continue to fight on for justice and recognition of the truth; genocide.
Afterwards I spent a bit of time wondering around the cemetery again. Dazed. Feeling desperate to tell the world what happened. But how, why, who would listen? What could I actually do that would have any meaning? I looked at the graves, read their names, and said sorry to them in my head. Meaningless perhaps, but I was full of so much sorrow. Confused, why is there so much hate. Why is their so much ‘us’ and ‘them’ in the world. The world seems to be going backwards in this respect, not just between ‘others’ but with more in-fighting as well. But this should not, and cannot stop me mourning, remembering, sharing and fighting on.
Background to the Genocide
In the two years prior to this 296 Bosniak villages had been razed and destroyed causing the internal displacement of approximately 70,000 people, with approximately 40,000 fleeing to Srebrenica and the surrounding areas. This caused General Morillon, head of the UN Protection Force, to visit in March 1993, declaring this area a ‘safe zone’ under UN protection, saying to the crowd, ‘You are now under the protection of the UN forces. I will never abandon you.’
For the following two years Srebrenica was held under siege, a Muslim enclave with inhabitants effectively living in a ghetto, starving and without necessary essentials of food, water, medicine, and living in cramped, unsanitary conditions. The fear of a potential massacre and vast blood shed if the Army of Republika Srpska (VRS) captured the area has been widely documented, and horrifically these fears came true. The UN had also forced the Bosniak soldiers to hand over their weapons, under the false promise that they would protect them, leaving them unarmed, and eventually, just leaving them.
On July 11th, 6 days after receiving orders from the President of the Republika Srpsk to capture the area, VRS successfully did so. Subsequently 5000-6000 civilian refugees took shelter in the UN base in Potočari, which housed 400 armed Dutch UN Peacekeepers. The UN had refused to give air support, and NATO had attempted airstrikes, but stopped due to threats of the compound being bombed. There were approximately a further 25,000 people outside the base, and there are countless stories of rapes and murders that took place during this time, as well as people dying from starvation. This area previously housed around 4000 people. Despite the International outcry and condemnation the next course of action, following “negotiations” with Mladić, (Chief of Staff of the Army of Republika Srpska, who has now been found guilty and imprisoned by the International Crimes Tribunal) the Dutch UN Peacekeepers ordered the refugees sheltering inside the base to leave, effectively handing them over to their murderers. These civilians were separated by gender, women sent to the town of Kladanj, where they were met by international NGO’s (non governmental organizations) such as Medicin Sans Frontiers. It was noted at the time the worrying lack of men arriving in Kladanj.
Men were separated into different groups… to be systematically murdered. They were taken by bus to different holding locations; generally warehouses or schools. Some men were killed at these locations, mainly by gunfire, but some were blown apart by hand grenades. Others were taken to isolated outdoor executions sites in the forms of football pitches, riverbanks, or just the fields nearby. Men on the Death March were forced to surrender, ‘or else be killed’, then also suffered the same fate. These accounts come from the survivors, those who managed to hide or to run away, and also the perpetrators.
In 2004 Bosnian Serbs admitted that a massacre had taken place. This was a huge step, but refused to admit genocide. In 2015 the UN put forward a resolution to label what happened as a genocide, but it was vetoed by Russia (as part of the UN Security Council.)
Remembering Srebrenica – For an abundance of informative documents and analysis click here
Human Rights Watch, 19th December 2017 Beyond Justice: How the Yugoslav Tribunal Made History
Sarajevo Funky Tours – Understanding Genocide Day Tour from Sarajevo
Guardian Article, 22nd Nov 2017 Ratko Mladić convicted of war crimes and genocide at UN tribunal