In 1995 Srebrenica was a haven of calm and security: a UN declared safe zone. Bosnian Muslims could relax a bit in the relative security of the Dutch Peacekeeping force sent there to protect them, while war raged all around. Then Serb forces barged their way into the town.
Thirteen years later we stood together under the hammering hot sun of midsummer on a meadow near the town of Srebrenica. Tens of thousands of us gathered to commemorate those 8,000 massacred thirteen years ago.
Seeing themselves out numbered by Serb forces the Dutch force, UN to a man every one, hands-up and handed over helpless civilians to the Serbs. Now indicted but as free today as he was on that fateful day, war criminal General Ratko Mladic ordered the men and boys to be separated out. 8,372 men and boys were executed over the next few days. Some tried to escape through the forest. Mladec ordered Serb soldiers to hunt them down and kill them all.
The remains of 308 victims of the genocide were buried, as we stood there in respect under the glaring sun. One might say from mass graves where they had been dug up since the end of the war to a cemetary of individual graves. This time with the due respect and the personal grief of families that had waited so long to grieve. Thirteen years has been a long time to wait.
The mass graves were discovered in the dense forest and beautiful high, green hills which surround Srebrenica. To honour the dead there is now a memorial and landscaped cemetery where the massacre took place. Aptly perhaps it is adjacent to the former UN base and old factory were many of the victims were held.
Families wander around the old factory, looking at the dark rooms where victims were once held. A makeshift noose improvised from an old cable hangs from the ceiling of one room, a striking symbol of what took place here. An execution. With bullets, though, the Serbs proved themselves more efficient.
Marks on the walls, pictures and graffiti all testify to the events that took place 13 years ago in this old factory. The atmosphere of darkness is palpable. Bright beams of light manage to penetrate through cracks and filthy windows. But the darkness was as if indelible, morbid forever. Bosnians wander around as if in the trance of a dilemma: Frightened to witness the unspeakable yet curious to share somehow in the experience of the victims. A virtual scrum to sign the guest book at the entrance, many hands at once on the same page leaving messages of hope and condolence.
In spite of the fine words of treaties and peace agreements, Bosnians see it as important to remember the reality of what took place. Tens of thousands stood there subdued and solemn in the shade of this factory from hell waiting for the ceremonies to commence. Water came in container vehicles to quench the waiting crowds. More water for ablutions. Yet more for the rows of mobile toilets providing some ease for those that had endured so much hardship to be present.
It is hard to forget the war in Bosnia. Cities, towns and villages are filled with graveyards full with those that died in the war. Buildings still bare the scars of the war, their walls riddled with bullet holes, their occupants too poor to pay for reconstruction or repair. The hill tops of Sarajevo are full of graveyards. White gravestones reflect the sunlight and catch the eye of the visitor, a reminder of what took place in this beautiful and historic city. Each crescent and star on a white gravestone signifies yet another Muslim grave: An entire people standing there on the hillside facing Makkah. I saw the dates on the gravestones:1992-1995 most of them. The war did not discriminate between old and young – wars rarely do.
Some 5,000 bodies are yet to be found and identified. Families still wait for the remains of their loved ones, dragged away to their death: all under the “protection” of the UN.
People came from all over Bosnia to attend the Friday 13th commemoration. Hundreds of coaches have traveled over rough tracks and winding roads, as the occupants of vehicles closed their windows gasping for breath in the red dust filled air. As we ourselves found it was a choice between the heat of the summer day or getting covered in dust. Police stand at intervals indicating the road to Srebrenica: every half mile or so. To protect the pilgrims, no doubt, for this is now Serb majority territory.
Many have come from abroad like Aida Siddique, a Bosnian currently living with her family in Aberdeen. This was her first time in Srebrenica. “It is painful to come here” The sorrow shows on her face. “Now that I am a mother I feel the pain of the mothers here”.
Amir Kobilic was in Srebrenica when the Serbs took the town. He escaped through the forest fleeing for five days until he reached Tuzla 65 miles away. Amir now lives in Sweden only now returning for the memorial.
“This great crime calls for justice, there must be no pause for the pursuit for justice, this great crime calls out for a response. Come! See! Feel! Weep and act!”. Thus spoke the American representative speaking at the memorial.
Srebrenica was the largest massacre to occur in Europe since the Second World War. Mustafa Ceric, Mufti of Bosnia, called on the European Union to declare the 11th of July a European day of mourning.
Relatives of the dead stand by the graves waiting, waiting for 13 years to lay their sons, fathers, brothers and husbands to rest. Boys of 15 marched off with the elderly from so many families. Entire communities destroyed.
I got tired walking amongst the thousands of people attending the memorial. The surrounding hills were full of families waiting just a little longer to bury their dead. Walking from grave to grave writing names, speaking to relatives, it was painful yet oddly surreal. Never have I witnessed such public sorrow and pain yet borne with dignity. I didn’t know any of the victims, but today I felt the sorrow standing with the families, praying for their loved ones, our loved ones, Europeans all. Men and women alike shed tears unable to hold back emotions. We in the West rarely remember or even know the names of the dead who are not ‘like us’. These are human beings that were murdered for being Muslim, Europeans all.
Speaking to people in Bosnia they are nice and hospitable. Mention Srebrenica and you see them physically shiver. The woman hotel owner in Travnik, literally quaked at the very sound of Srebrenica when I told her where I was going. Wounds are deep.
“We will never forget Srebrenica” Swore Ekrem Halilovic remembering the war. Ekrem served in the army and police. Bosnia was subjected to Genocide, rape camps and bloody sieges. Bosnians will never forget those lost family members, or those mothers, sisters, daughters and wives that were raped. “We will never forget.”
The International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands, has ruled that the Srebrenica massacre was genocide. This Genocide took place in Europe, in full view of the international community. For many there is still no closure, no justice with the main perpetrators of the massacre still at large, Ratko Mladic and Serb political leader Radovan Karadzic as free as they were in 1995.
(In no particular order) . . .
Mehmedovic Sadik Sead, 21 years old, no 259
Alkanovic Osman Aljo, 43 years old, no 123
Becirovic Sabrija Murat, 26 years old, no125
Halilovic Omer Mehmed, 72 years old, no 119
Masic Sluejman Fahr, 20 years old, no 66
Kurtic Becir Rifet, 39 years old, no 65
Muminovic Hesan Nasim, 63 years old, no 67
Becrovic Salejman Samir, 20 years old, no 64
Avoc Kadrija Mesad, 21 years old, no 58
Bosnak Alja Amr, 18 years old, no 31
Sujkic Ramiz Amho, 21 years old
Hasic Nedzib Edin, 16 years old, no 61
Srebrenica, Yes, remember that name! Never Again! Lest we forget.