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By Janine di Giovanni
July, 2005 (International Herald Tribune)
The last thing she saw before he disappeared into the clearing in the forest was his blue shirt. She was 12 years old and stood watching him from an upstairs window, her tiny nose pushed against the glass. Her father, who was called Smail, crossed a dried out creek, then turned and waved. She watched until she could no longer see his blue shirt, until he was lost among the trees in the forest.
The image stayed with Senada Ibrahamovic, with her mother, her sister, her brother for ten years. They tried to remember the last details of that moment: how the sirens in town were ringing, summoning all the men to fight; how the shells sounded as they fell closer and closer to her house; how exhausted Smail – who had spent all night on the front line and had come home to get a few hours' sleep – looked.
But he never slept. He had to live to find his unit. And her 7-year old brother didn't understand, he chased him. "Daddy, Daddy, come back!"
Her father did actually come back, once, to kiss his children and his wife again, and to tell them that he would meet them in Tuzla, a Muslim-controlled city, in a few days' time.
"I'll go this way," he said, pointing to the forest. "You go that way. We'll all be together soon."
But that was the last time Senada saw him. Until a night in early June when she saw her father's blue shirt again, on a homemade video that was played on Bosnian television. She saw his shirt, his face. Then she saw him executed by a band of Serb paramilitaries called The Scorpions, who were allegedly attached to the Serbian Ministry of Interior. Her father and five other Muslim men were killed on film as the killers shouted instructions to the cameraman.
Originally, 20 copies of the tape were made and distributed, until orders came for them to be destroyed. But one was kept, and hidden for a decade until a tenacious Serb human rights activist, Natasa Kandic, tracked it down and presented it to the UN's war crimes tribunal at the Hague. Without warning to the families of the victims, it was then shown on Bosnian and Serbian television. Six families saw for the first time how their fathers, sons, brothers and husbands were murdered.
For Senada, the initial wave of shock was first seeing her father. She smiled when she saw the blue shirt, hanging out from underneath an unfamiliar leather jacket. At first, she saw her father climbing out of a truck.
But then she saw how thin he looked, how terrified. His face is beaten black and blue around the eyes. Then the killing starts: four men first, shot, and Smail is forced to carry the bodies away, taking the legs while a young boy, Azmir, is forced the take the arms. The men look terrified. They know they are next.
Smail is made to kneel in the Muslim prayer position. And the soldiers are kicking him, taunting him as he begs for a drop of water.
"Where's your army now?" they shout, kicking him in the stomach. They insult his religion. They kick him harder.
"What did you say? You want a drink of water?" one of the Scorpions said, leaning closer to Smail. Senada says she heard her father whisper something, his voice was very weak. She thinks he said: Go ahead and kill me, but give me a drop of water first.
The soldier laughed. Then he shoots Smail in the head. Until that minute, Senada and her family were not even sure their father was dead. They never found his body, so they harboured a secret wish: that he was lost, that he was prisoner, that he would someday walk through the door. And Senada had her own memories – private ones of her father walking her to school or helping her with homework.
"Now my memory is of him begging for water…and dying," she says, her voice breaking.
Ten years ago, the family thought their father wandered into the woods in the midst of war and never came back. They lost their homes, their history, their possessions. They moved to Tuzla, grieved, but slowly began to build something of a life. "We even began to have some moments of happiness….now we have nothing." Senada says. With the video, she adds, fear has come back. A fear that nothing is safe, that anything can happen. That no one is protected.
"I'm nearly 24 now. And I'm afraid to sleep alone."
The family do not even have Smail's bones. They can not bury him. Though the children have given DNA samples to the International Centre for Missing Persons in Sarajevo, what is left of Smail's body is a secret, lying deep somewhere in the Bosnian hills.
Summer is the most beautiful time in eastern Bosnia. The fruit trees ripen, the valleys and mountains are voluptuous and leafy green, especially if there was a winter of heavy snow. The farmers gather hay from the fields, pulling carts with horses and children swim in streams or fish from rivers. If you shut your eyes, you can imagine life with the exactly the same five hundred years' ago.
But when I shut my eyes, I see a woman called Ferida Osmanovic hanging from a tree. She's wearing a white dress and a red cardigan. That woman killed herself after her husband was executed, along with nearly 8,000 other Muslim men, near Srebrenica after the town fell on July 11, 1995. She became a symbol of the worse genocide in Europe since World War II – a genocide we allowed to happen. But she also symbolises the agony of the survivors. She could not continue to live knowing that her husband had been murdered, along with thousands and thousands of other men.
Srebrenica is an icon now, a symbol of true evil, but also of the failure of the United Nations, the international community and of the visceral horror of war. Some of the acts of cruelty that took place during the killing spree which went on for days after the city fell are difficult even to read. Judge Fouad Riad, from the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia described it as "truly scenes from hell, written on the darkest pages of human history." Before the war, Srebrenica was a town of around 38,000 people, 73 per cent Muslim town, famous for a silver mine, and also for curative waters meant to be drunken when one was either pregnant or having eye problems. Then the war started. The Serbs, who had already over run most of Eastern Bosnia by the summer of 1992, wanted the strategic city. They cut off food and medical supplies, shelled it relentlessly.
In 1993, after a terrible winter of killing and hunger, Srebrenica was deemed a "safe area" by the UN Security Council. A ceasefire was drawn up; the Muslim defenders were meant to disarm. But the Bosnian war was a brutal one, and neither side kept their part of the bargain. Meanwhile, security was meant to be provided to the civilians by an under-armed and under-manned Dutch battalion. Srebrenica was kept artificially alive for two more years.
By 1995, General Ratko Mladic, the head of the Bosnian Serb Army, promised to give the Serb people Srebrenica as a gift. It was psychologically crucial: the Bosnian Muslim defenders had held out for nearly three years, and the town had become synonymous with heroism. Pop songs were written about it. The Bosnian commander, Naser Oric, had become something of a folk hero. Mladic was furious.
Starting on July 7, 1995, Bosnian Serb forces began attacking Srebrenica. The Bosnian Muslims managed to briefly push them back, but on July 11, Srebrenica fell. As Mladic entered the town, the terrified people fled to Potocari, the Dutch UN base located in an disused battery factory. But only a limited number could be given refuge.
Thousands of men, many of them fighters, decided to set off through the forest. The Serbs trapped them like animals, sprayed them with gunfire as they hid in the foliage, or loaded them onto buses where they mowed them down in fields or houses, en masse. The injured were left to die of their wounds. Those who surrendered were assembled and shot. Some were forced to dig graves and then were buried alive in them. Only a very few escaped, mostly a column of men who took a different route towards Tuzla. But in all, nearly 8,000 men and boys disappeared.
Justice has still not been done for the victims of Srebrenica. Ten years on, there is a memorial at Potocari. There are rows and rows and rows of neat green headstones, and stone benches to sit, and an open air mosque on the site where the terrified people gathered. But only 2,000 bodies have since been identified by the International Committee for Missing Persons in Sarajevo, and only 1400 buried. There are plans for 600 more remains to be laid to rest on July 11 at the Potocari memorial.
General Mladic is still at large. So is Radovan Karadzic, leader of the Bosnian Serbs. Slobodan Milosevic plays the court room at the Hague like his private poker match. But far worse is that the killers and the rapists and the ethnic cleansers – the small fish, the ones the Hague will probably never get – went back to live in Srebrenica, gloating at their triumph. Everyone knows who they are. Srebrenica is a victory for ethnic cleansing. It is now mainly a Serb town, resting inside the boundaries of the Republika Srpska. (After the Dayton Peace Accords which ended the war in November, 1995, Bosnia was split in two: a Muslim-Croat federation and Republika Sprska.) Muslim families who had lived in Srebrenica for generations will never go back: first because their houses have been burnt; their possessions scattered. Second because they are really not welcome.
"I have only come back to make sure my father and my brother's killers are not walking on our land," says Hakiya Meholjic, who was the head of Srebrenica's police force from 1993 until the fall. On July 11, 1995, he escaped through the forest, and managed to survive. His brother, father and dozens of other male family members did not. Now he is re-building his house, which was burnt down by Serbs. His brother's house is still empty.
"Returning is my revenge," he says. "I came back so that ethnic cleansing can not win. That's my contribution to the future."
Ten years' on, there is a wall of silence drawn around Srebrenica. The Serbs I spoke to inside the town said they weren't there at the time of the massacre. Or they say the numbers were exaggerated. In Belgrade, I have even spoken to intellectuals who say that the Serbian government knew nothing of the slaughter. There is a collective denial. Some even called the fall of Srebrenica the "liberation", or said it was a revenge attack for an ugly incident in which Muslim fighters killed Serbian civilians in 1993.
But the video changed that. After it aired, a series of arrest were made in Serbia and Bosnia. Four of the killers, who managed to evade the law for a decade, were arrested. More than a hundred people linked to it are being sought by Serbian police. Pressure is mounting to find Mladic before the 10th anniversary. Radovan Karadzic can not be resting easy, either.
The current mayor of Srebrenica is, incredulously, a Muslim (because the outlying, mainly Muslim villages, have the right to vote in municipal elections) called Abduraham Malkic. He escaped on July 11, managing to cross into Serbia where he was held as a prisoner of war for four months. But at least he survived.
Malkic's role as a Muslim mayor can not be easy – a few years back, a Muslim municipal council member was stabbed in the men's' washroom in the municipal building and left to die. He lived, but initially, Malkic had to have constant security by the international police force. He watched the video, which was painful, because he had also been tortured and narrowly escaped death. It will force people to "wake up", he says. "Anyone who denied what happened here either was sleeping during the war or is stupid."
And the video is in fact only six men. It is difficult, nearly impossible to think of eight thousand deaths, equally gruesome, equally tragic. "What happened to all of them? How did they die? Where are their bodies?" asks Senada Ibrahamovic.
These are questions the Mothers of Srebrenica and Zepa enclave, a support group founded ten years ago, try to answer. Six women started the group, in an effort to find out how their husbands died. It has now grown to around 5,000. When I first met the women in Sarajevo five years ago, they sat smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee in a grim office with one phone line. Now they have fax machines, computers, and are getting funding from the International Committee for Missing Persons. These are simple women, in their 30s, 40s, 50s. All of them have terrible stories: the final kiss goodbye, the son who was torn from their arms as they tried to march through Serbian lines, the bones they search for and can not find. But they support each other, because as 62-year old Suada Mujic, who lost her husband and father, puts it, "I don't really feel comfortable being with someone whose main concern is where to get their hair done or where to buy a new dress." She looks around the room at the five other women, her best friends united by genocide. " I only feel comfortable with someone who went through this too. How could anyone else ever understand?"
It's not much of a life, not really. Ever since her husband and two sons were killed, Nurijaja Alispahic lives on auto-pilot, rising with the light, getting through the day and going to sleep at night praying that she won't ever wake up.
She tries to make her life cheerful, to have small moments of happiness. She keeps her little house spotlessly clean. She picks purple wildflowers from a field and puts them in a vase; she tries to meet with other mothers and wives who also lost their loved ones in Srebrenica; she takes out the worn photo of her two little boys and stares hard into their eyes. Both sons are dead: Azmir murdered by Scorpions; Admir in a mortar attack in Srebrenica. Her husband, Aliya, was shot by a sniper as he was taking his shoes off at their front door. "He fell into the hallway and his brains spilt out of his head," she says, the tears beginning to come.
These are the terrible images she lives with. There are little compensations for the constant pain. Still, she tries to go on living. A few weeks ago, she did what she does every night: put on her nightgown and watched television before bed. But her usual show was not on. Instead, Nurijaja saw her 16-year old son, Azmir, for the first time in a decade.
But what she saw next was the worse thing a mother could ever witness: the murder of her son at the hands of the Scorpions. The first time she saw it, Nurijaja put her hand in her mouth to stop herself from screaming. The video was shown repeatedly on Bosnian television and Nurijaja watched it every time. "I wanted to turn it off," she says crying. "But my heart kept drawing me to it, just to see my son."
Azmir suffered in the video, he was the youngest of the 6 men and he was beaten and forced to watch the others killed before him. As he lay dying, his leg twitching from shock, one of the Scorpions kicked him again and again, before shooting him dead. Nurijaja says that when she watched this, the most awful thing was that she was powerless to protect her son: "which is the job of every mother."
Instead, she keeps re-playing her final moments with her youngest son, remembering how they walked to the edge of Srebrenica together on July 11, how she told him to follow a group of men who were escaping the town in the forest. She thought it would be safer for him, that he would elude the Serbs. She took another route: walking to the UN base and then over the mountains to Tuzla.
Azmir did not want to leave his mother. "Go, son, go!" she urged him. She thought it was for the best. "If he was with me at Potocari and the Serbs pulled him from my arms, it would have been more painful." But she remembers that when they parted, Azmir clung to her. Then he ran away, joining the group of men.
Shortly after, the heavy shelling started. Nurijaja and a group of other women took shelter in an abandoned house. She remembers feeling utterly devastated, feeling already the loss of her son, when she looked up and Azmir was there, at the window.
"Mama," he said. "I forgot to kiss you goodbye."
She kissed her youngest son and watched him run back into the forest. She never saw him again.
What pains her the most is that some of the killers are walking free, that they are living life having cut short the lives of others. "They have to catch these criminals," she says. "they should bring them to the mothers of Srebrenica and let us pass judgement."
Last year, she got a call from the ICMP. They found Azmir's remains. She buried him, but even that did not give her some release. She keeps thinking about what he would have been like if he grew to be a man.
"He was a really good boy," she says. "Every mother says that about their son, but he really was. If I asked him to wash the dishes, he washed the dishes."
There is such sadness in her clean little house, in her posture, even in the small smile that she gives when we leave, that it is painful to be with her. When we go, my interpreter, Sonja, takes Nurijaja's hand in hers, and tells her she hopes she finds some peace.
"Only when I die," Nurijaja says quietly. "Only when I die."
Kadira Salkic also watched her son, Sidik die on the video. Her daughter, Berezeta, who is 38 and lost her husband on the Road of Death in Srebrenica, as it is now known, saw it too. Berezeta is beautiful, with big blue eyes and dark hair. While her mother weeps in a corner chair, remembering the last time she saw Sidik, Berezeta lashes out with anger. She tried to follow her husband, her father and her brother into the forest that day. She kept running after them, but the men told her to go back.
"Don't follow us!" Sidik said, giving her a last hug. "We'll all meet later."
"But I knew I would never see them again," she says.
Like Nurijaja, Berezeta was watching television before bed when the video suddenly came on the screen. She stared at it in amazement for a few minutes before she recognised her brother. Then she began to scream and scream, to hit herself, to work herself into such a state that she had to be taken to the medical centre. She could not breathe. The doctor gave her an injection and told her to calm down.
"Would YOU calm down if you watched your brother's murder?" she screamed. Then, mercifully, she passed out.
The day they separated from their men, Kadira and Berezeta were taken in open trucks from Potocari to Tuzla. When they passed through Serb villages, the people threw bottles, rocks and trash at them. With them were Sidik's children, including his 14-year old son. Before they boarded the truck, they passed one of their Serb neighbours. He tried to take the boy away from them, and send him off with the other men who were headed to their deaths.
"I said shame on you!" says Kadira. "he was my neighbour for years and years!" The man let the boy go, muttering, "don't worry, we've got plenty more Muslims." The two women live alone in a half built house outside Sarajevo, near Vogosca, not far from the site where Sadik was taken and killed. Berezeta says she will never marry again: "I feel dead inside. I have no taste for life." She does not have children. The two women will never go back to Srebrenica to live, only to visit, which they do, every year on July 11 to remember their dead.
Kadira says all she feels inside is sadness, but Berezeta feels more: anger, vengeance. "To be truthful, the only thing that will ever make me feel better is to bring me the leader of the Scorpions, and do what he did to my brother. And to force his mother and sister to watch."
The Hague sentence for him, she says, is not enough. "A jail cell is too nice compared to what he did to my brother."
They found Sidik's bones and brought him back to Srebrenica to be buried. But even that does not give Kadira any peace.
"Every night I lie down and pray I do not meet the dawn," she says. "My story has ended."
When we leave, Kadira goes outside and sits on a cushion on a half finished balcony and sobs and sobs. It comes from somewhere very deep within her, and it is heartbreaking to hear. A neighbour passes by and tries to comfort her: "Crying won't bring them back," he says.
But Kadira just cries harder.
Ten years after a war is a dangerous time. In Africa, most of the modern wars were re-ignited after ten years; simply because they had not addressed the issues that started the war in the first place.
After the genocide at Srebrenica, the world finally paid attention to Bosnia. The war officially ended on an airfield in Dayton, Ohio in November, but for many people, it was simply too late: nearly one-quarter of a million people died in the wars in the former Yugoslavia. The country is haunted by the dead.
And the hatred has not evaporated. Ending a war does not mean that ghosts are laid to rest or that grievances are dealt with fairly. It simply means front lines are frozen, maps are re-drawn and peace treaties are often grudgingly signed.
Srebrenica today is a horrible place. The day I arrived, a "house of reconciliation" had just opened and a fun fair was in full swing. But there was a false gaity: after all, a party was taking place on the site of a former slaughterhouse. Down the road, in the Café Seka, a group of Muslims sit having morning coffee. But they are separated from the rest of the town. Vasva Mustafic, who was born and raised in Srebrenica, and lost her brother in the forest, says of her Serb neighbours: "I don't see them and they don't see me. We ignore each other."
She says she just can not forget. Which is natural. How can you ever forget what has happened? How can vengeance ever stop? If women as gentle and sweet as Senada or Nurija or Berezeta want to rip the throats off of the men who killed their beloved men, then how can these people ever live together?
The answer is they probably can not. For the moment, the international community ensures that they do not slaughter each other. But in a few decades, when the EU forces go home, and everyone hear starts to remember what happened, the cycle of vengeance and violence will probably start again. My Bosnian friends tell me glumly: it will all probably repeat itself. The violence of the 20th century began and ended after all, in the former Yugoslavia. World War I commenced with an assasination in Sarajevo in 1914; and 1999 saw the ethnic cleansing, mass expulsion, rape and killing in Kosovo.
One can only hope that the lessons of Srebrenica will be learnt. That evil things happened, and can happen again. Football hooligans, taunting their Muslim opponents have a gruesome chant. It seems to epitomise the horror of what happened here. In Serbian language, it rhymes, but in English it is simply chilling: Knife, Barbed wire, Srebrenica.