Srebrenica, July 1995: ‘Will anyone come?’
20 years ago, in the fields, roads, warehouses and barns of the verdant Srebrenica valley, more than 8,000 Bosniak men and boys were murdered. Bodies are still being found
Bosnian Muslim women gather in Potocari to remember the dead. Photograph: Damir Sagolj/Reuters
Bosnian refugees from the fallen eastern Bosnian enclave of Srebrenica walk from the United Nations base at Potocari to transport across front lines July 13, 1995. Photograph: Nick Sharp/Reuters
Hajra Catic prays near the grave of her husband in Potocari near Srebrenica. Photograph: Dado Ruvic/Reuters
To listen to the broadcast Hajra Catic stands perfectly still, her eyes half closed, as if hearing it for the first time.
“The dead and wounded are continuously being brought to the hospital. It’s impossible to describe,” the reporter shouts into the microphone. “Will anyone in the world come and see the tragedy that is befalling Srebrenica and its residents?”
The desperate voice belonged to Nino Catic, Hajra’s only son, whose crackly reports on an amateur radio set warned the rest of Bosnia and the world of what was unfolding two decades ago in the remote valley where he lived.
“Nino made his broadcasts from a building in the town centre where United Nations people had an office,” Hajra Catic says. “The Dutch UN soldiers often came here to our house. We asked them what would happen if the Serbs came, because they were surrounding the town. ‘Don’t worry: they will be bombed in five minutes,’ they told us.”
But the United Nations and its Dutch peacekeepers did almost nothing to protect the supposed safe haven of Srebrenica when Ratko Mladic’s Bosnian Serb forces marched in 20 years ago.
“Nino came and told us Srebrenica would fall,” Catic says in the living room of her home, which sits in the lee of thickly wooded hills that almost encircle the town. “He told us to go down the valley to Potocari, to the main Dutch base, and that he would try to escape through the forest.”
Catic would never see her son again, and the recording of his final broadcast that she keeps on her mobile phone has become a precious connection to him.
Five kilometres away at Potocari, Catic and her husband, Junuz, found a vast crowd of fellow Bosnian Muslims seeking UN protection from Mladic’s troops. “Thousands were inside the battery factory, and thousands more were outside. We spent the first night in an old bus,” Hajra says. “The Dutch marked out an area with yellow tape and said they would guarantee the safety of those inside it but not of anyone outside. We trusted them and believed they would protect us.”
Abandoned to the enemy
Outnumbered by Bosnian Serbs forces, deprived of Nato air support that would have forced Mladic to halt or retreat, and with UN civilian and military chiefs unwilling to act, the 400 or so Dutch abandoned the Bosnian Muslims to the enemy.
“Don’t be afraid; no one will harm you,” Mladic told the terrified Bosniaks – or Bosnian Muslims – at Potocari, as he and his men threw chocolates and cigarettes to their new prisoners.
To his own people Mladic gave a different message, peppered with slurs that Serbs have used against Muslims since the days of Ottoman rule in the Balkans.
“Here we are, on July 11th, 1995, in Serb Srebrenica. We give this town to the Serb people as a gift,” Mladic said in an address filmed by a Serb cameraman. “Finally . . . the time has come to take revenge on the Turks in this region.”
Catic says she watched in disbelief as the Bosnian Serbs took equipment and even uniforms from the Dutch, who proceeded to force the Bosniaks to leave the Potocari camp in the custody of Mladic’s men.
“I thought the Serbs would put us in prison camps or make us work in mines. Then they began separating the men and boys from the women and smallest children, and saying they would be taken away for interrogation,” Catic says. “But it was suspicious, because they took away boys as young as 10 and men who were 80 years old. Later we looked for them in the prisons and the mines. But there was no sign of them.”
In the days that followed, in the fields and creeks of the verdant Srebrenica valley, in warehouses and barns and on the side of country lanes, more than 8,000 Bosniak men and boys were murdered.
As the Dutch battalion quietly withdrew – taking with it the world’s hollow promise to prevent a massacre – Mladic’s soldiers used guns, knives and grenades to conduct the worst massacre in Europe since the second World War.
The women, who had been taken to Bosniak-controlled territory, started to search for their male relatives, unaware of what had befallen them. “At first we were looking for living people. Then we started to hear stories about the killings, and mass graves were discovered,” Catic says. “Then we realised that they were all dead. I could never have imagined that they could kill so many people. And it only took them a few days.”
Newly identified victims
Next weekend at least 115 newly identified victims of the Srebrenica massacre will be buried at Potocari, in a cemetery where more than 6,200 white marble headstones now face the rusting hulk of the infamous battery factory.
Mass graves of Bosniak victims from the 1992-95 war are still being found, and because the Bosnian Serbs tried to cover their tracks by moving bodies between graves, using bulldozers and trucks, it is common for the remains of a single person to be discovered at several sites, often dozens of kilometres apart; the DNA analysis required to definitively identify those remains can take years.
More than 7,000 people are still missing from a Bosnian war that took 100,000 lives, and its legacy not only divides the country’s Bosniak, Serb and Croat communities but also still hampers efforts to improve life for its 3.8 million residents.
A peace deal signed in Dayton, Ohio, in 1995 imposed a complicated political system on Bosnia, splitting the country into a Muslim-Croat federation and a Serb-run Republika Srpska, autonomous “entities” linked by state institutions in the national capital, Sarajevo.
The European Union’s drive to foster reform in Bosnia and bring it closer to the bloc is broadly supported by Bosniaks, who make up about 40 per cent of the population, and by the 15 per cent Catholic Croat community, but opposed by the leaders of Orthodox Christian Serbs who make up about 31 per cent of the country.
The EU’s fiercest critic in Bosnia is Milorad Dodik, the current president of Republika Srpska and the dominant figure in the region’s politics since the war.
Dodik says that efforts to strengthen Bosnia’s state authorities are a danger to Serbs, and he has repeatedly threatened to call a referendum on independence for Republika Srpska rather than see any of its powers transferred to Sarajevo.
Last month, after the EU activated a landmark trade and political pact with Bosnia to reinvigorate its faltering accession process, Dodik torpedoed Bosnia’s side of the deal by rejecting a reform plan that Brussels thought was cut and dried.
Now his assertion that the crimes committed at Srebrenica did not constitute genocide is clouding preparations for the 20th anniversary of the atrocity. “Everything is done to promote a nontruth – namely, that there was a genocide there – while ignoring Serb victims,” Dodik said last month while urging Russia to block a proposed UN Security Council resolution to mark the anniversary.
In a letter to the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, Mladen Ivanic, the Serb chairman of Bosnia’s national presidency, said that the “anti-Serb” resolution “would only divide Bosnian society further”.
“I must warn you that the current [interethnic] situation is bad, and I call on you to recognise that adoption of this resolution would not be a good thing for the stability of Bosnia,” Ivanic wrote.
A chance to soothe strained relations in the Balkans was lost last month, when the Serbian president, Tomislav Nikolic, cancelled what would have been his first official visit to Bosnia, because of Bosniak fury at the arrest of a wartime commander.
Naser Oric, whom Belgrade accuses of committing atrocities against Serbs in the Srebrenica area, was travelling to an event in Switzerland to commemorate the massacre when he was detained on a Serbian arrest warrant.
Oric was subsequently deported back to Bosnia rather than to Serbia, but rancour lingers on both sides: Bosniaks are angry that Belgrade would seek the arrest of a widely lionised defender of Srebrenica at this sensitive time, and many Serbs are furious that a man whom they regard as a war criminal is still at large.
The dispute highlights the inability of Bosnia – a poor, dysfunctional state with the highest youth unemployment in the world – to shift focus from the horrific events of the 1990s to building a peaceful and prosperous future.
A byword for genocide
Nowhere does history lie heavier than in Srebrenica, a bustling, ethnically harmonious town in Yugoslav days, now transformed into a byword for genocide.
A gruesome recent history, lingering tension and Bosnia’s complex and corrupt administration make Srebrenica a tough sell to potential investors. “Before the war we had mines, factories, agriculture, the timber industry and tourism here,” says Srebrenica’s mayor, Camil Durakovic. “Now we have to play the victim, crying every July to bring in investors. The ones who come here want emotionally to help Srebrenica. But we want to be proper partners, to give investors opportunities that are economically sustainable. Unfortunately, that’s still not possible right now.”
By a perverse twist of geography – and the Dayton accords – Srebrenica is in Republika Srpska, and ultimately controlled by Dodik and allies in the regional capital of Banja Luka who deny that genocide occurred here.
“I’m the only Muslim mayor in Republika Srpska,” says Durakovic, who was elected in 2012 thanks to absentee votes from former Srebrenica residents. “They don’t like us much in Banja Luka, and they control what resources we have . . . and can overrule all decisions we make. We have the economic potential here to develop the town, but that would bring more Bosniaks back to Srebrenica, and the people who run Republika Srpska want to limit that . . . The right to return home after the war was one of Dayton’s criteria, but these guys won’t give back easily what they gained through bad crimes.”
Mladic and his wartime political ally Radovan Karadzic are being tried for war crimes at the UN court in The Hague, but a deep sense of injustice continues to gnaw at Durakovic and many fellow Bosniaks. Before the war Bosniaks formed a majority of Srebrenica’s 35,000 residents; now the population is a quarter of that size, and Serbs are easily the largest group.
Muslims don’t feel threatened here anymore, but they resent constant reminders that Bosnian Serbs still run the region they ethnically cleansed 20 years ago. The schools are named after Serbian military heroes and do not teach what happened at Srebrenica, and there is no official memorial day to commemorate the genocide.
“Everything here carries the name of Republika Srpska. It feels like Serbs are even claiming to own the air and the water – everything is theirs except the crimes,” says Durakovic, who as a 16-year-old fled through the hills to escape the massacre.
He is angry that the likes of Dodik declare loyalty to Republika Srpska while questioning Bosnia’s future and blocking EU-backed reforms. “Serbs and Croats have another homeland next door. We Bosniaks only have Bosnia . . . so how about we build our own state, all together, without these entities and cantons? No one wants to fight now, we’re all tired of that . . . But if we keep living as three separate peoples, with three different stories, we’ll have conflict again in another 200 years.”
Singing in Sarajevo
In a country still wounded by war, where rival histories clash and one community’s hero is another’s war criminal, Pope Francis preached tolerance last month. Listening to harrowing wartime stories from priests and nuns, the pope told them: “This is the memory of your people. A people without memory has no future. Don’t forget your history, but not in order to get revenge but to make peace.”
All Bosnia’s communities supported and co-operated over the pope’s visit, which the Vatican said was intended to promote ethnic harmony and peace. A Bosniak carved the ornate wooden chair on which the pope sat during Mass in Sarajevo, and a multiethnic children’s choir from Srebrenica sang for him.
“To have Bosniak and Serb kids from Srebrenica singing for the pope is like science fiction for Bosnia,” says the choirmaster, Ismar Poric. The choir is from a school that offers teaching in music, singing and foreign languages to more than 200 children from the Srebrenica area. “A few years ago there was nothing in Srebrenica, but now you can hear children signing, playing and speaking German and English. We want to be the best music school in Bosnia, so that Srebrenica is known for something other than genocide,” Poric says. “And if we can bring together children and their parents in Srebrenica, why can’t we do it in the rest of Bosnia?”
Her still-missing son
Hajra Catic will visit her husband’s grave at Potocari next Saturday, along with thousands of other relatives of Srebrenica victims and dignitaries from around the world.
She will grieve for her son too, even though the space next to Junuz in the cemetery lies empty; 20 years after Nino was killed his remains are still to be found.
Three years ago, desperate for some trace of her son, Catic travelled to the remote creek where Nino was last seen on his escape from Srebrenica. In an area that was still mined she found human bones lying on the ground. “I brought back a skull with me. I know I shouldn’t have moved it, but I couldn’t stop myself. I reported it immediately,” she says.
The remains of five people were found in that spot, three of whom have been identified using DNA analysis.
“Every year more victims of the genocide are identified, and we bury them on July 11th. And every year I think I’ll bury Nino,” Catic says, sitting beneath photographs of her husband and son that hang on the wall.
“I worry that if Nino’s remains are not found, and it’s not proved that he was killed, then in a few years someone could try to deny that he was murdered, and deny what happened here. It would be as if they murdered him a second time.”
Bosniaks and Serbs mostly get along in Srebrenica today, but talk of the war is taboo. “If I need a plumber or electrician or gardener he’s usually a Serb, but no one wants to mention the ‘issue’,” Catic says. “Most pretend not to see the photograph [of Junuz and Nino]. But one Serb, who came with his son to set up the internet for me, looked up and said, ‘God, I knew this guy.’ He had worked in a factory with Junuz before the war.”
Catic never considered leaving Srebrenica, and she believes that, with investment, young people will return and bring life and prosperity back to her hometown. She is now a leader of Women of Srebrenica, a group that holds a protest march on the 11th of every month to demand justice for the massacre victims.
“I have to stay and keep busy, to show that not all of us have gone. And we must keep talking about this, so the world doesn’t forget,” Catic says quietly. “If they had known how much noise we women would make, then they would probably have killed us too.”
Dayton legacy: Corruption, bureaucracy, paralysis
A peace deal signed in Dayton, Ohio, in late 1995 imposed perhaps the world’s most complicated political system on Bosnia.
The Dayton accords split the country into the Muslim-Croat Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and a Serb-run Republika Srpska, autonomous entities linked by state institutions in the national capital, Sarajevo.
Each region has its own parliament, government, prime minister and president, and each of the three main ethnic groups also provides a representative to a tripartite national presidency; they take turns to be its chairman. There is also a national parliament, with two houses, and a national government in Sarajevo.
To complicate matters further, the Muslim-Croat federation is subdivided into 10 cantons with significant autonomy, there are 22 police agencies around the country, and local elections in 2012 saw 190 political parties compete for posts.
The system breeds suffocating bureaucracy, corruption and cronyism, paralyses decisionmaking and perpetuates the power of veteran politicians who have based their careers on defending only the interests of their ethnic kin.