SREBRENICA, BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA — ON July 11, 1995, a Dutch¬ contingent of United Nations peacekeepers ceded control of Srebrenica, leaving the town’s civilian population — swollen with thousands of Bosnian Muslim refugees — at the mercy of besieging Serb forces. Serb soldiers and paramilitary police officers systematically executed about 8,000 Muslim men and boys, dumping their bodies in mass graves, which were bulldozed to hide the evidence.
The images most people remember today — the skeletal prisoners behind barbed wire, awaiting death in concentration camps — are only a part of the genocide. This was the worst atrocity on European soil since World War II; the entire region is dotted with mass graves.
Less well known is the history of “The Column,” a group of about 15,000 Bosnian Muslims who tried to escape the executions by walking more than 60 miles northwest through thick forests toward the safe haven of Tuzla. The harrowed survivors who reached the town were emaciated and traumatized.
To honor the memory of those who died, and to highlight the lack of justice served on those who perpetrated war crimes, hundreds of survivors and supporters this week walked the route taken by The Column in reverse. Working with the photographer Laura Boushnak, I interviewed survivors and relatives of the victims.
Nedzad Avdic was 17 when, together with his father and an uncle, he joined The Column, setting out across rough terrain to escape Srebrenica’s killing fields. The march took its name from the formation the fugitives used to traverse minefields; if the leader was blown up, at least those behind stood a chance.
Amid the confusion, the boy soon lost his father. “I cried, calling for him,” Mr. Avdic told me. “But everyone wanted to save themselves.” Scraps of his father’s remains, identified by DNA testing, were recovered from a mass grave a decade later.
After two days in the forest, Mr. Avdic was captured with his uncle. The Serbs took them to a school building in the village of Petkovci, about 35 miles from Srebrenica.
“They called for us five at a time,” he said. They heard shots and bodies crumpling to the ground. His uncle went first, in hopes of somehow sparing him. It was the last time Mr. Avdic ever saw him alive. His uncle’s remains were finally located two years ago in a secondary mass grave (his body was bulldozed and reburied in another location to conceal war crimes).
A soldier bound Mr. Avdic’s wrists and ordered him to take off his shoes and shirt. He had no shoes, so he took off his socks instead. His group was driven by truck to another killing field. The soldiers lined them up in front of rows of bodies.
The shooting started and he fell, with bullets in the arm and torso. “I prayed to God to die because my pain was terrible,” he said. But he stayed quiet, fearing the Serbs would finish him off in some unspeakable way.
When the soldiers finally left, he saw another man move among the bodies. Mr. Avdic rolled over the dead to reach this survivor. Mr. Avdic used his teeth to untie his companion’s ropes.
First, they hid in bushes as Serb paramilitaries marched another group of Muslims to slaughter. Then they resumed their flight, hiding in burned-out houses, even sleeping in a graveyard. After four days, Mr. Avdic’s wounds were infected and he could no longer even crawl. His companion carried him until, at last, they reached Tuzla.
Only a few thousand survived the “death march.” Many were killed by land mines or attacks by Serb forces. Some died of dehydration and sheer exhaustion. A few committed suicide rather than face capture by Serb forces.
To this day, there are many in Bosnia — teachers, municipal officials, police officers — who played a dark part in the mass killings of 1995. Until recently, Serb-dominated schools still proudly displayed pictures of indicted war criminals, including the Bosnian Serb politician Radovan Karadzic and the commander of the Army of Republika Srpska, Gen. Ratko Mladic. Both men are on trial in The Hague for war crimes related to the Srebrenica genocide.
Mr. Avdic lost his father, four uncles, six cousins and at least 20 other relatives in the war. Despite the horrors of Srebrenica, it was also his home, he said, and he refused to be driven from it. He returned to live there in 2007 and is now the father of two girls, ages 3 and 5.
“What kind of future do we have,” he asked, “when my children are taught by people who participated in the massacre itself?”
“I found out about my son’s death by watching the news. A journalist on television revealed footage by claiming, ‘Now, maybe mothers can identify their sons, or sisters will recognize their brothers.’ The video showed children exiting trucks, with their tied hands behind their backs. I recognized the fourth one off the truck immediately. It was the last time I saw my son.”
— Nura Alispahic, who also lost another son, her husband, a brother and 11 cousins in the war.
“I listen to music in the car to distract me, but I had to turn it off because I was passing a mass execution site. Twenty minutes later I turn the music on again. Within a few minutes, I must turn it off because I know there is a mass grave on the side of the road. And for another hour’s drive, I cannot turn my music on again because the entire area is bursting with the voices of the dead in all those mass graves.”
— Hasan Nuhanovic, who was an interpreter for the United Nations peacekeepers in Srebrenica in 1995; his parents and brother died in the genocide.
“My sons died twice for me. Once in the genocide, and then again, when their bones were recovered. No mother should have to bury their child, and no mother should ever have to bury just the leftover bones of her child from a mass grave.”
— Hatidza Mehmedovic, at the gravestones of her sons; her husband and two brothers also died during the massacre.
“The Bosnian Serb soldiers tried to take my older brother away but we had one family rule: ‘Nobody gets left behind.’ Us three kids grabbed my mother’s skirt and she yanked my brother’s T-shirt. And that is how she saved our lives.”
— Edin Ikanovic, who was in Srebrenica from age 4 to 7.
“My mother became delirious and started hallucinating... She clutched my hand and ran me through cornfields to a small river, saying we should jump in the river to save ourselves from torture.”
— Elvisa Avdic, at the former United Nations compound in Potocari, where she and her mother hid during the genocide.
“If I met Gen. Ratko Mladic today, I would say, ‘You have the heaviest burden of all. You are haunted by the ghosts of 8,000 innocent souls, and worst of all, you brought it upon yourself.’ Dying is easy, but his burden is 8,000 times worse. It cannot be undone. He has so much blood on his hands that it actually comes to his shoulders.”
— Enver Secic, who fled in The Column, at a trail that leads to Srebrenica.
“I was one of the few women in The Column. I had to stay with my two wounded sons. The Bosnian Serb soldiers snatched my two sons from me and pushed me aside with their guns. I asked them, ‘What will you do with them?’ I saw General Mladic say, ‘Nobody wants you people. They will be returned to you.’ But they never were.”
— Nura Mustafic, with a photo of her husband and three sons who died in the genocide.
Seema Jilani is a pediatrician, a Fulbright scholar and a fellow at the Truman National Security Project.
(source: The New York Times, 10 July 2015)