Inside Srebrenica: old scars, new wounds

Twenty-five years after the Balkan conflict’s worst atrocity the Bosnian town remains divided

Bosnian Muslim woman, relatives of victims of the Srebrenica genocide, visit one of the sites of 1995 mass executions. Photograph: Damir Sagolj/Getty Images

Bosnian Muslim woman, relatives of victims of the Srebrenica genocide, visit one of the sites of 1995 mass executions. Photograph: Damir Sagolj/Getty Images

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Three years after fleeing his home near the town of Vlasenica and taking refuge in the UN’s “safe zone” of Srebrenica, Nedzad Avdic found himself lying in a field with his arms tied behind his back and wounds to his chest, right arm and left foot. Surrounding him were the corpses of hundreds of men who had just been murdered, in groups of five at a time.

Avdic was one of the few who survived the mass killings of mainly Muslim men and boys in eastern Bosnia in July 1995. Today, he lives a short walk from the cemetery in nearby Potocari, where many of the 8,000 massacred in the days after Srebrenica fell to Bosnian Serb forces are buried. His father is among them.

We met last month in Srebrenica, on the eve of the annual genocide commemoration. Avdic spoke about the events that preceded his brush with death. Captured in the forest as he tried to flee on the day the safe zone fell, he was stripped of most of his clothes and deprived of food and water, before being taken by truck to a school, then lined up and shot.

The massacre would come to be seen as the culmination of the bloody three-year war involving Bosnian Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks, like Avdic, which claimed 100,000 lives in all.

Avdic was 14 when his village was overrun in 1992. He was one of tens of thousands of Bosniaks who crowded into Srebrenica. He was still a minor in July 1995 when more than 40,000 women, children and elderly people were expelled from the town and he was captured by Serb forces. His eventual survival depended on another man who used his clothes to bind Avdic’s wounds and spent four days carrying him through forests, streams and villages.

Now in his early 40s, Avdic lives in Potocari and works as a purchasing and sales manager at a metalwork plant. His office is next door to the Srebrenica Memorial Center, a former battery factory that had been the UN base before the organisation left the town in mid-July and handed it over to Serb forces. “I never thought I could get married here, have a family, never,” he tells me. “Because after everything, it is unthinkable. But I had some need to return here.”

Two entities

Today, the centre of Srebrenica is a mix of dilapidated apartment blocks, abandoned buildings and recently rebuilt homes. It is a far cry from the times when people travelled from all over to the healing waters of the Guber spa, first mentioned in Ottoman writer Evliya Celebi’s 17th-century travelogues, and developed during the 19th century when Bosnia was part of the Habsburg empire.

Bosnia now comprises two entities: the Republika Srpska – a Serb-dominated entity whose political leaders have long advocated for independence, led during the war by Radovan Karadzic – and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

These days, residents of different ethnicities live and work side by side in the town, shopping in the same stores, attending the same schools and playing at the same sports clubs. In most places this would be unremarkable. But Srebrenica is, in Avdic’s words, a “paradox”, the only town of its size in Bosnia and Herzegovina split evenly between Serbs and Bosniaks. “That is an example for everyone,” he says. “Genocide happened here but we are the only city where we live together. Despite everything, it is possible.”

It is also a consequence of what took place here. Before the war, more than 70 per cent of Srebrenica’s 37,000 inhabitants were Bosniaks. Though thousands who were displaced during the fighting returned and rebuilt their homes, mostly in the early 2000s, today officially it has 13,000 residents, although observers say the actual number of people living there year-round is probably much lower. The war left many towns and villages “ethnically cleansed”, the chilling term coined by Karadzic for the mass expulsion and killing of non-Serbs.

Bosnian Muslim Nedzad Avdic at the Srebrenica memorial in Potocari. Photograph: Elvis Barukcic/AFP via Getty Images
Bosnian Muslim Nedzad Avdic at the Srebrenica memorial in Potocari. Photograph: Elvis Barukcic/AFP via Getty Images

Despite the atrocities committed here, there is evidence of local co-operation and coexistence. The main mosque, destroyed during the war and since rebuilt, is near the Serbian Orthodox church, whose bells peal before the ezan, or call to prayer, emanates from the minaret.

Yet for Bosniaks such as Avdic, the consequences of the Dayton peace agreement that ended the conflict continue. The accord essentially froze the boundaries between the Republika Srpska and the Federation and enshrined the Republika Srpska in the constitution.

In Srebrenica, much of what happens is dictated by Republika Srpska-level institutions. Despite the even population split, for example, fewer than 10 per cent of police officers are Bosniak. Similar levels of inequality occur in public utilities such as the post office and schools. In a struggling country where the state is the biggest employer, this leads to systemic discrimination. “They send a message that we aren’t part of society here, that we can never play a role, that we are not welcome,” worries Avdic. “We live together only because of us ordinary people, in whom there is still something good left, despite everything. One might think that it is the current system or policy that promotes such values. No, they only incite evil, as they incited genocide.”

The struggles of contemporary life here also play out against a backdrop in which the memory of the war, especially the events in Srebrenica and across eastern Bosnia in July 1995, are increasingly contested.

Two UN courts – the International Court of Justice (ICJ) and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague – have ruled that the mass slaughter of men and boys was a genocide perpetrated by the Bosnian Serb army with the support of the governing structures of the Republika Srpska. However, many in Serb-dominated parts of Bosnia and Serbia deny what happened. For Avdic, this is hard to comprehend.

“Today, 25 years after genocide, I didn’t expect this situation would be as it is,” he says. “Unfortunately, there hasn’t been enough done for those who survived, and because of that we have more and more aggressive denial of the genocide. This narrative happening now reminds me of the time just before the war in Bosnia.”

Competing events

The week of the July commemorations sees competing events in Srebrenica. Two posters on the outside of the town’s Yugoslav-era cultural centre illustrate the divide: one shows children offering a prayer of mourning, with the caption “Srebrenica: 25 Years. Day of Memory”. Next to it, a dark poster designed to look like a scroll bears the caption “28 Years of Crime Without Punishment”.

The crime it refers to is the killing in July 1992 of 69 ethnic Serbs, a combination of civilians and combatants, in nearby villages. According to an ICTY verdict, Serb villages were subject to raids between 1992 and 1994 by Bosnian army forces trapped in the UN safe area.

Some 10km away in the town of Bratunac, a group of Serbs celebrate the “liberation day of Srebrenica”. Posters for the event, organised by a pro-Russian group, show a picture of convicted war criminal Ratko Mladic with the words “there was no genocide”. After years in hiding, Mladic, the Bosnian Serb military chief, was convicted by the ICTY of genocide in November 2017; the final (appeal) verdict is due at the end of this month.

Vojin Pavlovic, an organiser of the “Srebrenica liberation day” event poses with a photo of convicted war criminal Ratko Mladic with a word “hero” written on it onin Bratunac, near Srebrenica. Photograph: Damir Sagolj/Getty Images
Vojin Pavlovic, an organiser of the “Srebrenica liberation day” event poses with a photo of convicted war criminal Ratko Mladic with a word “hero” written on it onin Bratunac, near Srebrenica. Photograph: Damir Sagolj/Getty Images

While the commemoration in Potocari is attended each year by foreign ambassadors and dignitaries, the event held by ethnic Serbs in the region, on a hilltop called Zalazje, is a much smaller affair. Families observe the Serb Orthodox custom of bringing food, coffee and alcohol to leave on the gravestones of their departed.

But it is also political. At last month’s commemoration, Srebrenica’s local priest, Aleksandar Mladjenovic, presided over the religious portion. In his homily, he cast the fight for Srebrenica as part of a long legacy of Serbs’ “defence” against Muslims going back to the 14th century.

“The Serb victims here in Zalazje, in 1992, were in the same position of defending the world and European democracy, and justice and truth,” he said. In fact, Bosnian Muslims practise a moderate form of Islam, something that was especially true during the socialist Yugoslav era. But when Mladic took Srebrenica on July 11th, 1995, he said he was “liberating Srebrenica” and giving it to the Serbs as “revenge against the Turks”, who had ruled it centuries before when Bosnia was part of the Ottoman Empire. Today, the term “Turks” is a derogatory one used against Bosniaks, seen by many as denying their unique ethnicity.

“What we have here is a war for the interpretation of the war,” says Emir Suljagic, who survived the genocide and returned last October to head the Srebrenica Memorial Center in Potocari. “One is factual and based on DNA evidence,” he says, referring to the process of identifying bodies dug up from mass graves and matched to living relatives. “The other is based on myths that were based on more myths.”

At another July commemoration in Bratunac, Radovan Viskovic, the premier of the Republika Srpska, spoke about a new government study on Serb victims in Srebrenica and Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital to which Serb forces laid siege for 44 months. According to Hikmet Karcic, a genocide scholar, “this is part of a larger strategy of denial which is done in co-ordination with [the Serbian capital] Belgrade” and which he says is providing funding for organisations challenging the truth about Srebrenica as established by the ICTY and ICJ, among others.

“[The authorities are] hijacking the memory of the execution sites and trying to rewrite history,” says Karcic. “They like to look at events in Bosnia with multiple narratives, multiple sides, multiple truths. Imagine looking at Rwanda or Cambodia with ‘multiple truths’.”

Constant struggle

For many of the victims’ families, the climate of denial means they find it hard to move on. For them, the fight for acknowledgment is a constant struggle.

Every year on July 13th, the Mothers of Srebrenica, an association of women who seek justice and accountability for lost loved ones, organises a convoy of buses to visit the mass-execution sites where their sons, brothers, husbands and others were taken and systematically killed.

Today, one is used as a sports field, another as a rubbish tip. One is a fully functioning school: signs on the door advertise sign-ups for the first grade. (As the women gather there, one cries out: “What do the children learn in school today? They learn that Mladic and Karadzic are heroes!” Several others begin to cry.)

None of the sites has a plaque to mark the killing of hundreds of men and boys. As the women shuffle back towards the bus, I notice a man and a woman peeking out of a doorway. The area surrounding the school is full of houses, which leads me to wonder what the neighbours heard and saw in July 1995.

Few of the women enter the final site at the former cultural centre in Pilica, which today is abandoned and dilapidated. Inside, the walls are peppered with bullet holes and covered in graffiti glorifying Mladic and Karadzic. Outside, next to a second World War monument, stands a memorial to the Serb soldiers who died during the Bosnian war.

For years, the mothers have sought to put up plaques at the sites of mass killings, but local authorities have refused, says Hasan Hasanovic, a researcher at the Srebrenica Memorial Center whose twin brother was killed in Pilica. He gets annoyed when journalists and western officials ask about prospects for reconciliation, considering the pervasive climate of denial. The authorities and many locals “are negating that these women ever had husbands and children”, he says. “And they want us to talk about reconciliation.”

Bosnian Serb MPs have rejected laws criminalising denial of genocide, the Holocaust and other war crimes, most recently last year. (The federation has also been unable to pass a law criminalising genocide denial.) The country’s high representative, Valentin Inzko, an Austrian diplomat tasked with overseeing the implementation of the Dayton agreement, has the powers to impose such laws but has not done so.

“Neither the Bosnian state nor the international community have done enough,” says Avdic. “They didn’t stop the killing – there was a genocide. Yes, there was the Hague tribunal, and that’s a good thing. They brought peace here; they forced people to sign the peace agreement. But they didn’t finish. Despite everything, Srebrenica was given to the hands of people who committed crimes.

“They left us survivors to fight against those who negate genocide, who support war criminals, who celebrate war heroes.”

Some architects of the genocide were convicted at the ICTY. But most of the lower-level participants have been able to live their lives largely untouched by the state. Many former soldiers went on to become police officers or public officials. About 800 war crimes cases remain pending before Bosnian courts.

Karcic estimates that in July 1995 alone, almost 20,000 individuals took part in the genocide. “It’s a huge number. We are talking about people who physically shot others, who bought the fuel for the trucks, the drivers, the cooks, the bureaucrats who were drafting military orders.”

Football team

As the convoy of grieving women snaked back towards Srebrenica under police protection, a group of 30 or so men and boys laced up their football boots on the town’s pitch. The stadium belongs to FK Guber, an amateur football team with a century-old history in which Serbs and Bosniaks play side by side.

As one of the members of the board, Faruk Smajlovic, puts it: “I tell the players that when they step on the pitch, their only nationality is ‘footballer’. If anyone spreads hatred, there is no place for them here.”

Smajlovic is thrilled to talk about the team, but he is dismayed at the attention it receives from local and international media. “This should not be a story – this should be normal,” he says. Still, he acknowledges that considering all of the pressure on Srebrenica, the team is unique in the Republika Srpska.

One of the players, David Maksimovic, an ethnic Serb, says the team is one of the things that keeps him in Srebrenica, even after many of his siblings and friends have moved abroad in pursuit of jobs and a different lifestyle. “Wherever I go, I don’t feel as good as I do here,” he tells me as we watch a group of under-10s train. He says he does not separate people by their ethnicity – “only primitive people do that”.

Maksimovic, who is 23 and was born two years after the war ended, adds that for his generation, “the division is between people who look at who a person is for themselves, and those who depend on a political party for their livelihoods”. There are, though, some topics he avoids, he says: he does not speak with his Bosniak friends about the war.

Like Maksimovic, 17-year-old Irma Buric says she does not identify her friends by ethnicity but by personality. I meet Buric, a Bosniak from Potocari, at a multi-ethnic summer camp for teenagers from across the country to learn about the war and one another. She tells me her parents both lost close relatives during the genocide: her father’s father was killed, as were her mother’s brother and uncle. She sometimes goes with her mother to their graves.

When I ask if she has ever spoken to her Serb friends about what happened to her family, she shakes her head. “I think they were always scared of my reaction and my truth about what I know and what they don’t know,” she says. “And, of course, we never talked about this topic because I don’t want to ruin my relationships with anyone. I never got into this topic with them, but I think they know. This is all over the internet, on every platform, so there is no chance that they don’t know.”

Buric dreams of moving to the United States or to Germany to work. Like many young people in Srebrenica – and the rest of Bosnia – she doesn’t see many opportunities in a town where, without economic growth and job creation, the population will continue to shrink.

Smajlovic returned 15 years ago, when he says he was “a chronic optimist”. He helped organise a music festival that drew hundreds of people from all backgrounds. Now, he says, there are fewer people around to attend the events. He, too, feels many of the problems stem from the way political elites use Srebrenica for their own purposes, squabbling over its historical record. “Politics doesn’t allow us to have a life here,” he says as we sit watching training drills.

Srebrenica’s Serb mayor Mladen Grujicic says the same thing. When I meet him in his office in the town’s neo-Moorish Habsburg-era city hall, he tells me: “It would be better if politicians looked at Srebrenica differently; it is looked at as an object of personal interest.”

Many Bosniak residents, though, see Grujicic as part of the problem. The mayor, whose father died early in the war during a military action, denies the genocide. He has never been to the Srebrenica Memorial Center. Hoping to run for re-election in the autumn, he says a Serb must run the municipality, because Bosniaks are a minority; both this reasoning and the idea that Bosniaks are a minority are disputed by his predecessor and many others. “If [a mayor enters city hall] who returns us to the past, we could be at war for 100 years,” says Grujicic. “There are things that it seems Serbs and Bosniaks cannot agree on – ever – and that’s how it is. And that should not even be insisted on very much.”

At the memorial centre, Suljagic says: “Genocide denied is genocide repeated. The people who do that nowadays are laying the groundwork for future genocides and they are not even shying away from that.” He says the museum will carry on educating people, though he laments that while visitors come from all over the world, very few come from the local Serb community.

Building the memorial so soon after the war (it was officially opened in 2003) was a journey into uncharted territory. “There is no historical precedent in Europe for what we are trying to do here and what is happening,” Suljagic says. “The European way of dealing with genocide, mass murder, violence, is forgetting.”

It took Avdic years before he could speak openly about what happened to him but he is now writing a book about his experiences. Despite the pain he feels, he has personally confronted Serb genocide deniers. In this climate, he says, “they expect from us victims that we apologise, that we extend our hands”.

For him, the future of Srebrenica carries resonance far beyond this small community in eastern Bosnia. “In the case that evil triumphs, that criminals become heroes, then in spite of everything, it will be a defeat,” he says. “Not for us victims – we have already lost so much – but for everyone.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020

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