Srebrenica survivors still struggling against Serb genocide denial

Bosnian Serb mayor of 1995 massacre town not invited to commemoration events

"I thought they might kill one, 10 or even 100 people. But kill all of us? I thought that was impossible," Nedzad Avdic said over the clink of shovels striking the stony earth of eastern Bosnia.

“In the end they would kill thousands... But they made the mistake of leaving people like me alive, to keep talking about their crimes.”

Beyond the pool of shade under the tree where Avdic sat, three men were digging a grave in blazing heat. They worked among a sea of slender white headstones, which mark the resting places of most of the 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys who were murdered in nearby Srebrenica 22 years ago by Bosnian Serb forces.

Victims of the massacre are still being found in mass graves around Bosnia, and every July 11th they are buried here at the Potocari memorial cemetery, a short drive down the valley from Srebrenica.


On Tuesday, 71 of those people will finally be given a funeral; the youngest, Damir Suljic, was only 15 when he was killed, and he will be buried next to his father, grandfather and uncle.

As Avdic spoke, he looked towards the graves of his own father and uncle and touches the smooth skin on his elbow. It is one of several bullet scars that are reminders of his near-miraculous escape when he was just 17 years old, and left for dead amid piles of people executed by Bosnian Serb soldiers.

"The dead are not a problem for them – we are the problem, those of us [Muslims] who want to live here," he said of Bosnian Serb and Serbian leaders who reject United Nations court rulings that the slaughter was an act of genocide.

“They denied the crimes, then the mass graves and now the international judgements... If we want to build a future, we have to start somewhere – and those judgements are a basis.”

This is an always traumatic and often tense time for Srebrenica, but this year’s commemoration is further clouded by controversy over the town’s new mayor.

Furious reaction

For the first time since Bosnia's 1992-5 war, Srebrenica is now run by an ethnic Serb, Mladen Grujicic, who also denies that genocide was committed here.

"It was a horrible crime, that's the best description. We don't avoid that – it happened and we don't deny it," he told The Irish Times this week, while complaining that Serbs' wartime suffering was ignored by most of the world.

“With more accent on prosecuting those who committed crimes [against Serbs]the whole perception of the war would change,” Grujicic said.

Two years ago, Serbia's leader Aleksandar Vucic fled Potocari in a hail of bottles and stones, amid furious reaction to his enlisting of Russian help to veto a UN resolution that would have condemned denial of the Srebrenica genocide.

In the run-up to this year’s commemoration, local Serbs planned to put up a monument in Srebrenica to the Russian UN envoy of the time, Vitaly Churkin.

"I forbade the erection of that statue because I don't want any incidents," said Grujicic, who was not invited to Potocari for events largely organised by Srebrenica's former mayor Camil Durakovic, who is a Bosnian Muslim ([or Bosniak].

“I wasn’t invited and I read that my presence is not desirable there,” Grujicic said. “I expected that. I believe there’s no readiness on the other side to make steps towards each other or visit places of Serbian sorrow.”

In Bosnia’s war, which took about 100,000 lives, the vast majority of civilian victims were Bosniaks killed by Serb forces.

“I have no problem with a Serb being mayor of Srebrenica. But I only ask that he’s a Serb who promotes tolerance and accepts the facts of what happened here. Can you find me one?” Avdic said.

“Is it normal to build peace with people who deny what happened? The mayor wants to talk about development and new companies coming to Srebrenica. But we have to solve the main problem – without that there’s no reconciliation, it’s an illusion.”

Twenty-two years ago, Avdic and his father and uncle were among thousands of Bosniaks trying to trek from Srebrenica through the mountains to safety. Thousands of others, like his mother and younger sisters, sought refuge at the Potocari base of Dutch troops tasked with protecting this supposed UN “safe haven”.

On July 13th, two days after Dutch troops looked on as Bosnian Serb militia took all the men and boys from Potocari to be killed, Avdic and his ragged, desperate companions were captured.

The Bosnian Serbs swiftly executed some and beat and humiliated the others, before transporting them by truck the next day to an abandoned school near the town of Zvornik, some 60km north of Srebrenica.

Held captive with countless others in a sweltering classroom, Avdic recalls the screams of Bosniaks being tortured elsewhere in the school, and the echo of gunshots outside as people were murdered in the night-time gloom.

“When I was ordered to leave the classroom I somehow still hoped we could survive. No one was ready to die. But as I walked out I felt something sticky under my bare feet. It was blood, people’s blood,” he said.

Piles of bodies

The prisoners were taken by truck to a dam near Zvornik and ordered out.

“I don’t know if I felt fear. I thought that I might die without suffering, how I would be hit, that my mother would never know how I finished and where I ended up.”

Avdic was struck by several bullets – but did not die.

He found a fellow survivor among piles of bodies, and they trekked for several days before reaching the safety of a Bosniak village.

Avdic believes the western powers that failed to defend Srebrenica also failed by creating a Serb-run republic in Bosnia – Republika Srpska – whose leaders deny genocide and threaten to secede from the mostly Bosniak state.

“We thought the UN peacekeepers were coming to protect us but actually they just came to observe our tragedy. This was ‘civilised’ Europe – what happened here is their shame,” he said.

“And Republika Srpska was created through ethnic cleansing and then legalised,” by the western-brokered Bosnia peace deal. “Is that okay?” Avdic asked.

He returned to Srebrenica in 2007, met his wife here and is now raising three daughters in this verdant but still deeply troubled valley. “What sense is there in living peacefully somewhere else when you’ve survived such tragedy here, especially when they deny all that?” Avdic said.

“I just had some need to come back here. Maybe just to show them that I’m still alive.”