‘They gave us to Mladic’s soldiers, to kill the men, rape the women’
Two Bosnians living in Ireland react to Serb general’s conviction at UN court
Ratko Mladic, the former Bosnian Serb general, enters the courtroom in The Hague today to hear the verdict from the United Nations war crimes tribunal. He was convicted of war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity in the slaughter of Bosnian Muslims during the breakup of Yugoslavia. Photograph: Peter Dejong/Pool via New York Times
Alen Osmanovic was 17 years old and still at school when war came to his village of Potocari, 5km from Srebrenica in eastern Bosnia. “Everyone was shocked,” he recalls. “Everything shut down – shops, schools, everything.”
The predominantly Bosnian Muslim area, not far from the border with Serbia, was strategically vital for Serbs seeking to ensure their new political entity of Republika Srpska was geographically coherent.
Under the command of Ratko Mladic, Serb forces began ethnically cleansing the region, terrorising and killing Muslims and driving them out of their villages. Many of the refugees ended up in the enclave around Srebrenica. “Every day they bombed us, up to 6,000 bombs a day,” says Osmanovic, who now lives in Swords, Dublin with his wife and daughter.
Between April 1992 and March 1993, Srebrenica and the villages around the area were subjected daily to Serb military assaults, including artillery bombardment, sniper fire and bombing from the air. Potocari in particular was a daily target for Serb artillery and infantry because it was a sensitive point in the defence line around the enclave.
The siege went on for three years, with conditions worsening all the time. “Our town was surrounded by Mladic’s troops,” says Osmanovic. “No food, no medicine, nothing. People started dying of starvation in the streets.”
But the worst thing to happen, he says, was that Dutch UN troops promised the besieged population they would be protected. “In the end, they gave us to Mladic’s soldiers, to kill the men and rape the women.”
The events of July 1995 are well documented. Amid chaotic and terrifying scenes, Mladic and his forces entered Srebrenica. In Potocari, about 25,000 terror-stricken Muslim refugees besieged the UN base begging for shelter. They did not receive it. More than seven thousand men and teenaged boys would be systematically killed in the following days.
Two weeks’ trek
Osmanovic was already fleeing with his family towards the town of Tusla, two weeks’ trek away through enemy territory. “You can imagine,” he says. “They followed us with helicopters, they killed many of us in the woods.” Three of his uncles and several cousins were killed in the massacres.
In 1997, he arrived in Ireland, where he would marry his Bosnian wife. He has returned to Bosnia many times since – he used to try to get back every July 11th, the annual day of commemoration of the massacre at the official genocide memorial in Potocari. But he says most of the houses where his family and friends lived are destroyed and overgrown.
Zlata Filipovic was 11 years old in 1992 when the siege of her native Sarajevo began and Mladic’s forces started terrorising Bosnia’s capital with relentless shelling, mortars and sniper fire. The diary she kept over the bleak months that followed would ultimately become an international best-seller.
For the last 23 years she has lived in Ireland, where she makes documentary films. Watching the reaction to today’s verdict, she recognises the cathartic reaction of joy, “or at least some sort of satisfaction”, from women in Srebrenica.
“On the other hand, she says, there will be people in Serbia who will see the verdict as another injustice against them.
“Of course it’s good this has happened,” she says. “But the fact there is this division shows that we still live in a very divided society.”
For Filipovic, Ratko Mladic, along with Republika Srpska leader Radovan Karadzic, were always the twin faces of the malevolent violence she experienced as a child.
She describes watching footage of them in the hills above the city discussing which neighbourhoods to fire on. “You hear your street being called out,” she recalls. “It was so malicious, so directed at me.”
She used to go back to Bosnia more than she does now. “It still feels worrying,” she says. “The fact is it’s a frozen conflict.”
Does she hate Mladic? “I don’t know if it’s hatred now. I think I’ve rid myself of that.”
She does wonder, though, about all the others who participated in atrocities. “How many were on the hill, directing sniper fire at our house? Do they feel any remorse?”
For Alen Osmanovic, today’s verdict, in which Mladic was convicted of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity by a UN tribunal at The Hague, represents an important moment of justice. But bitterness runs deep. “I teach my daughter to never forget,” he says. “And to teach her children never to forget, so this never happens again.”