Insight: Srebrenica, 20 years living in shadow of genocide

A ceramic skull is part of The One Million Bones project in front of the hall at the Potocari cemetery. Picture: Matej Divizna/Getty

A ceramic skull is part of The One Million Bones project in front of the hall at the Potocari cemetery. Picture: Matej Divizna/Getty

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Under a simple pavilion at Potocari cemetery, 7km north of Srebrenica, Nedzad Avdic cups his hands over his mouth and takes a deep breath as he prepares to tell his story of survival. Behind him, ranks of white pillars stand – like upended chalk pieces – on a plane beneath forbidding hills. Each pillar bears the name of one of the victims of the 1995 genocide; some names – Ademovic, Malic, Golic, Osmanovic – appear again and again: whole families of Muslims wiped out by ethnic cleansing.

Avdic has long borne witness to the Srebrenica massacre, the worst atrocity on European soil since the Second World War. For years, he has toured parliaments and schools in the hope his testimony might prove a deterrent to future hatred. But it is especially powerful to meet him here at the memorial, the 6,000 or more graves a graphic reminder of how narrowly he escaped the death squads.

Avdic was just 14 when the war in Bosnia started; 17 by the time Srebrenica fell to the Serbs. Like many other refugees, he had fled to the “safe haven” with his family after his village was captured, confident the UN would protect him. But in July, 1995, as the peacekeepers buckled under General Ratko Mladic’s offensive, he joined a column of 15,000 men and boys attempting to march 100km through the hills to Tuzla, which was under the control of the Bosnian government.

He was among 2,000 captured en route, loaded on to lorries and taken, in batches, to a field to be shot. As each fresh group arrived, the men – their hands tied behind their backs – were told to line up in fives. “I was so thirsty and so scared to die, but I thought ‘I will not suffer for long,’” he says.

Avdic was shot twice, once in his stomach and once in his right arm; for hours he lay bleeding and trembling as, all around him, other men dropped to the ground. A stray bullet hit his left foot. “The pain was unbearable. I said to myself, ‘Oh, God, why don’t I die?’”

Of all those shot in the field, only Avdic and one other man survived. When the lorries moved off into the night, they crawled into the forest; together, they staggered on, hiding in streams and sleeping in graveyards, until they reached safety.

Today, Avdic is back in Srebrenica (now part of Republika Srpska – the Bosnian Serb-dominated part of the country). Married with three daughters, he is grateful for his life and determined that, despite the propaganda disseminated in local schools, his girls will learn the truth about the mass killings. But reliving his trauma on an almost daily basis takes its toll. Shivering in his jacket, he seems fragile and exhausted. “For years, I didn’t speak of this,” he says. “ I thought I could forget, but my psychiatrist told me, ‘No, this will always be part of your life’.”

I have come to Bosnia, courtesy of Remembering Srebrenica Scotland, a charity set up to highlight the consequences of hatred and the importance of creating cohesive communities at a time when much of the world is gripped by sectarian conflict and racist rhetoric is on the rise.

The charity hopes to teach the lessons of genocide through education, politics, culture and the media, so the delegation I am travelling with is comprised of MP Stephen Gethins, MSP Johann Lamont, general secretary of the EIS, Larry Flanagan, professor of public policy, James Mitchell, former arts officer with Glasgow Life, Maggie Singleton, Irish barrister Bernard Dunleavy and me. The four-day trip is being led by police sergeant David Hamilton, the secretary of Remembering Srebrenica Scotland and chair of the north area committee of the Scottish Police Federation

Hamilton’s own links with Bosnia were forged during the war. Back then, he travelled with Edinburgh Direct Aid convoys through heavy fire to the besieged capital of Sarajevo and other stricken towns and cities; shortly after the genocide, he arrived in Srebrenica and wondered where all the men and boys had gone.

A modest man, he has to be pushed to talk about the dangers he faced, but everywhere we go, he is greeted as an old friend. “David is a true hero,” says Resad Trbonja, a former Muslim soldier and Remembering Srebrenica Scotland co-ordinator who looks after us throughout our stay.

Standing in front of a large map, Hamilton traces the perilous route he took on his trips to the capital. By mid-1992, the predominantly Muslim city had been surrounded and Bosnian Serbs evacuated. The airport – the only strip of land connecting Sarajevo to Bosnian-held territory to the north – was under the control of the UN and being attacked from either side.

If the convoys passed through Serb-controlled land, much of their aid would be extorted from them. So they wound their way down Mount Igman on rough forest tracks. At first they made their way over the airport road and into the city. Later – after volunteer Christine Witcutt had been shot dead in “sniper’s alley” – they offloaded their parcels close to the entrance to a secret tunnel carved out beneath the runways.

Strolling through the city today, Hamilton is struck by its transformation. The famous Sarajevo roses – scars left by mortars and painted red – remain, but most of the bombed out buildings have been restored. The old centre, with its cafés and bazaars, is bustling and the aroma of cevapi (Bosnian sausages) taunts empty stomachs. “During the war, these streets were reduced to rubble, but look at them now,” Hamilton says. “It makes me optimistic for Syria. Aleppo has been destroyed, but it too will rise again.”

One of the messages Remembering Srebrenica Scotland promotes is that if genocide could happen in Bosnia, it can happen anywhere. We might see the ethnic conflict that followed Marshal Tito’s death and the break-up of Yugoslavia as inevitable, but those who live here insist it was nothing of the sort.

Until 1992, they point out, the country’s Muslim Bosniaks (44 per cent), Catholic Croats (17 per cent), Orthodox Serbs (32 per cent) and Jews – had coexisted for 500 years. In Sarajevo – as in Jerusalem – mosques sit cheek by jowl with Christian churches, the call to prayer mingling with the chiming of bells. The city is an east-meets-west hotchpotch of Turkish souks, Hapsburg facades and communist-era apartment blocks.

Even when conflict engulfed Croatia, many Bosnians believed their country was too well integrated to follow suit. And yet, just over a month after its successful independence referendum in March 1992 – a referendum spurned by Bosnian Serbs – Sarajevo was already under siege and former neighbours were exchanging fire across the frontline.

Trbonja was 19 when the war started; though culturally Muslim, religion was not the core of his identity. He saw himself first and foremost as Bosnian and assumed all his fellow countrymen would unite against the invading forces. He was wrong.

“If you had come to Sarajevo in early 1992, you would have seen me in my Converse trainers, my Levis and a T-shirt,” says Trbonja. “On a good day, I would have been listening to U2; on a bad day, the Ramones and the Sex Pistols. You could have lifted me up and placed me anywhere and I would have blended in.

“If you had come back a few weeks later, I would have been the same, but I would have had an AK-47 in my hand.”

Trbonja joined a makeshift army of “empty-headed teenagers” whose only notion of what it meant to fight was gleaned from Hollywood films such as Rambo and Commando. Throughout the 47-month siege, which claimed 11,541 lives, he spent six days on the frontline protecting his city followed by two days at home protecting his family. With no electricity or water and precious little food, it was like stepping back in time.

“When you were buying your first PCs, we were burning tyres to heat our flats,” Trbonja says. Every time people went out for water, they risked being hit by sniper fire or mortars. “It took 180 litres to fill a bath. I learned to carry 60 litres in one go. I would make three trips, so I could go back to the frontline knowing my parents had enough supplies.”

Twenty-four years on, Trbonja, who has a masters degree in criminology, can tell you the precise chronology of the conflict; he can describe the protest where the first victims fell and what it felt like to grope his way through the 800-metre tunnel, hip-deep in water, with a 30kg pack on his back. But he cannot explain – even to himself – how those he considered allies became his enemies.

What seems to distress him most – more than the privation and the danger – is the betrayal of a Bosnian Serb friend who lived in the same block. The pair had grown up together, were “like brothers”, and, when the shelling began, his friend moved into Trbonja’s apartment. Then, one night, as they played cards, his friend said he wanted to sleep in his own place. The following morning, he and all the other Bosnian Serbs in the block were gone; they had been evacuated out of the city.

“He just disappeared,” Trbonja says, with a rare flash of bitterness. “I lost other people, of course. It was a war; people die. But I never thought my friend could do such a thing as this. I still don’t understand. Did he feel threatened by me? Because I didn’t change. I stayed exactly the same.”

In as much as he has any answers, Trbonja blames the way Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic, Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and Mladic mythologised the past and promoted ethnic cleansing as revenge for “crimes” committed by the Ottomans in the 14th century. “The ideology was so intense, so aggressive, people fell for it,” he says.

Certainly, that was the justification used by Mladic as he made his triumphant entrance into Srebrenica, a small town heaving with refugees. In footage, shown at his trial for war crimes, he leers at the camera and cries: “The time has come to take revenge on the Turks.”

The fall of the “safe haven” and the massacre that followed is one of the most shameful incidents of modern European history. Not only did the UN fail to protect the enclave with air strikes, but its peacemakers stood by as men and boys, some of them disabled, were rounded up and shot in schools, factories, a football stadium and fields.

After Srebrenica fell, 25,000 of its citizens (mostly women and children) fled to the UN base at Potocari; several thousand were allowed in, with the vast overspill in neighbouring buildings or stranded on the grass outside.

Terrified of the Serbs, most of the men and boys opted to walk to Tuzla, knowing the journey through enemy territory would be hazardous. The men who stayed in Potocari were separated from the women, and many were tortured and executed. Rape was also widespread.

Over the next few days, truckloads of women and children were transported to Bosnian-controlled territory. There, they set up camp and waited for their male relatives to join them. In the immediate aftermath 3,500 arrived. Between 1,000 and 2,000 more hid in the woods and emerged in dribs and drabs in the coming months. But 8,400 were murdered in the successful attempt to “cleanse” Srebrenica. In 2004, the massacre was recognised as genocide.

Today, the dilapidated UN base opposite the cemetery is part of the Potocari Memorial. Its former parking lot – a cavernous, haunting space with rough concrete walls and open pipework – has been turned into a gallery. Though the images displayed there are moving, it derives most of its emotional power from snatched memories of its past: TV footage of desperate refugees trying to push their way in and then, in 2003, hundreds of green coffins in rows awaiting the first mass burial.

The burials were only possible because of the painstaking work carried out by forensic experts at the International Commission for Missing Persons (ICMP), which has devoted the past 20 years to piecing together and testing body parts in the hope of identifying the dead. Its job was made more difficult by the way in which the Serbs attempted to cover up the scale of the massacres. Having buried the bodies in mass graves, they used diggers to move them to other plots, so most of the corpses were split between several locations.

At the ICMP offices in Tuzla, senior forensic anthropologist Dr Dragana Vucetic stands behind a metal table on which a partial skeleton – two femurs, tibias and fibulas along with other assorted bones – has been laid out. Vucetic explains how scientists use a combination of their own anatomical expertise and DNA tests to reassemble the human jigsaws.

Then, they check the DNA against samples given by relatives of the missing in the hope of making a positive identification. Families told that some of their loved one’s bones have been recovered can choose to bury them at an annual interment ceremony at Potocari, or elsewhere, or leave them in Tuzla mortuary in case more are unearthed. Early misidentifications, made when DNA was in its infancy, and the subsequent discovery of more bones from the same individual mean exhumations are common.

Vucetic leads us into the mortuary, which consists of lines of gridded shelving units. Each shelf holds a metal tray, and each metal tray, a plastic bag. If it were not for the stench of decay, it would be easy to convince yourself you were in a left luggage office. Yet each plastic bag contains what is left of one human being.

Just how much those remains mean is obvious when we meet Fadila Efendic, one of the “mothers of Srebrenica”. Efendic, who now runs a small souvenir shop near the memorial, has a warm, infectious smile. But it fades when she talks about her losses. In 2003, she says, she buried her husband without his skull, exhuming him two years later when it was recovered. All she had of her son was two shin bones, but in 2013 she decided it was time to bury those too in the hopes of gaining closure.

“Closure” is a word we use to make grief seem manageable. Like arranging things – prisoners or coffins or graves – in tidy rows, it suggests containment where there is none. Despite the burials and some high-profile convictions at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, Bosnia Herzegovina remains a country in a state of post traumatic stress disorder.

Physically, there has been progress; there is only one ruined building left in Sarajevo – a former old people’s home that stands, its front and back missing, as it did in the war. But the physical regeneration has not been matched by a spiritual regeneration, and there is an air of hopelessness, especially among the young.

With many Bosnian Serbs denying the genocide, it has proved impossible to set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. But, without it, resentments continue to fester. There is enduring hostility towards the UN which bought into the idea of the conflict as a civil war as opposed to an act of aggression by one ethnic group towards another, and so maintained an invidious neutrality. Less openly talked about is an irritation with the focus on Srebrenica, given ethnic cleansing took place across the country. More than 5,000 Bosniaks and Croats died in Prijedor, for example, but so far only the massacre at Srebrenica has been officially recognised as genocide.

Many of Bosnia’s ongoing social problems are a direct consequence of the Dayton Agreement which ended the conflict, but entrenched ethnic divisions and created political gridlock. It divided a nation of just 3.8 million people into two semi-autonomous entities: Republika Srpska (80 per cent Serb), and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (70 per cent Bosniak Muslim, with a significant Croat minority). The whole country has a tripartite presidency – one Muslim, one Croat, one Serb – while each entity has its own prime minister and 16 ministries. The Federation is further divided into ten cantons, each with its own administrative government. Relative local autonomy on education means children in different areas are taught different versions of their recent history.

The result of this labyrinthine structure is economic stagnation and corruption. Youth unemployment stands at more than 60 per cent (the highest in the world) and cynicism towards politicians runs deep.

Publicly, much hope is being pinned on accession to the EU (last week its 28 member states accepted the country’s application). But few believe the politicians are paying anything more than lip service to the notion, given EU-driven justice reforms in neighbouring Croatia led to the jailing of representatives on the take.

There are also efforts to shift the economy from the public to the private sector and so weaken political patronage; however, a recent injection of money from Arab countries has raised concerns about the potential rise of extremism.

Meanwhile, political stability is threatened by flagrant acts of provocation by Republika Srpska. Earlier this year, its president, Milorad Dodik, unveiled a plaque naming a student dormitory in Pale after Radovan Karadzic, just days before he was convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity.

Dodik’s recent decision to hold a referendum on whether Republika Srpska should celebrate its own national day on 9 January has caused the greatest crisis since the agreement was signed and brought the country to the brink of renewed conflict. The national day had already been ruled discriminatory against Bosniak Muslims and Croatians by the country’s constitutional court and some believe the referendum is a way to ensure nationalist rhetoric dominates municipal elections being held today.

In this febrile climate, and with images of dying Syrian children once again being greeted with an international wringing of hands, the work of a charity that exists to oppose sectarian hatred could scarcely be more relevant.

So, what did I learn from my time in Bosnia? I could talk to you about the power of folk memory, the dangers of blood and soil nationalism, or the resilience of people like Avdic and Trbonja, and all of that would be true. But what I will remember most is the terrible price exacted by survival and the heavy burden of bearing witness.

During our visit to Potocari, when Hasan Hasanovic relates his own experience of surviving the death march, his distress is tangible. “It has stayed with me,” he says. “It follows me every day; from the moment I get up, to the moment I go to sleep.” Yet he has chosen to work at the memorial. What impels him to walk in the shadow of death; to replay his trauma four, five, six times a day? “This is what motivates me,” he says, gesturing towards the cemetery where his twin brother Husein and father Aziz lie buried. “They are silent. We are their voices.”

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