As Srebrenica’s anniversary nears, tensions remain high and morale low, despite signs of hope.
When Elvir Hafizovic was born in a small subsistence farming village of 300, mostly Muslim, inhabitants in 1979, nearby Srebrenica was just a hamlet nestled between mountains and famed for its thermal springs.
Now, it is known the world over as the site where approximately 8,000 Muslim men and boys were slaughtered.
“Before the war, I lived in a big, happy family: mother, father, three brothers, my sister and me, and during the war I got a fourth brother,” Elvir remembers. “We lived just like any other normal family. My father had a job in a business while my mum was busy keeping house.
|WATCH: Remembering Srebrenica|
“We went to school normally and helped our mother around the house and in the fields that we farmed.”
Then, in 1992, their village, Suceska, and neighbouring ones were overwhelmed by Bosnian Serb forces. Like many others, Elvir fled to Srebrenica, which, at the time, was still held by the Bosnian army.
There, they lived under an effective siege, without access to food or supplies, even after the area was declared a UN “safe zone” in April 1993.
Before the UN forces arrived, Elvir was wounded in the thigh by sniper fire.
When Srebrenica fell to the Bosnian Serb army in July 1995, women and children took refuge in a UN compound in the next village, Potocari.
Elvir was 16 years old.
Concerned because he was now close to fighting age, he decided to join the more than 11,000 men and boys who fled the night Serb forces took the town.
They hoped to reach the Bosnian army-held territory of Tuzla, some 55km away. Some managed to reach it safely in a matter of days. But it was not so for Elvir.
He spent 78 days walking through the woods, trying to evade the Serbian forces. “It had been a sunny, warm day when Srebrenica fell,” he remembers. “Shortly after dark we set out for Tuzla, all in a long formation, like a column.
“But very soon after, we encountered a minefield – many people died. Every moment I thought I would be next.”
The group was being pursued by soldiers from the Bosnian Serb army.
“It was like a game of hunter and rabbit,” Elvir says. “The first 15 or so days, we subsisted the whole time on leaves, snails and wild mushrooms.
“Every so often we would find a field that had been planted but not harvested, which gave us a bit more food.”
While Elvir was in hiding, thousands of men who had stayed behind, and those who had been caught, were being killed, execution style, in the towns and villages around Srebrenica. Their bodies were buried in mass graves.
He had his suspicions that something terrible was taking place – but he wouldn’t discover the details until some months later.
“Almost every house we saw had been burned out by the Bosnian Serb army,” he says. “It looked like a scene from a horror film.”
And many of those with him fared little better. Of the 13 men he was hiding with, 11 died in 10 days – killed by landmines or sniper fire.
Elvir estimates that he walked about 120km to finally reach safety in the town of Kladanj, which was held by the Bosnian army.
As the first town on the frontline with the Bosnian Serb army, Kladanj swelled with refugees and internally displaced Bosniaks.
By the time he got there, Elvir says: “There was no skin on my feet, just bloody flesh. There was no sole left on my shoes.”
Then the process of finding out what happened to his family began.
Elvir’s father and two of his brothers had been killed.
They were eventually located in a secondary mass grave – meaning that, after their initial burial, their remains had been dug up and reburied elsewhere in an effort to hide the evidence of what had taken place.
Elvir was able to identify the partial remains of a brother using DNA identification, and has since buried parts of his relatives in the memorial centre in Potocari.
He is now a regular at the Mars Mira or Peace March, during which survivors and others walk approximately 100km – from the hamlet of Nezuk to Potocari – over three days, a reclaiming of territory of sorts.
Elvir returned to Suceska nine years ago.
“When Srebrenica fell, my father and two brothers were killed. Today, I live alone,” he says.
“My mother and youngest brother, who was born during the war, live 100km away; another brother lives in France with his family; my sister and her family live in Austria.
“My family did not come back because there are few conditions for school here, and my youngest brother was going to school at the time. My mother experienced too much trauma for her to live here and be reminded of that daily,” he says.
“When return began, no one wanted to return … but something inside me felt strongly that I was called to come back.”
Today, he works as a postman, the only Bosniak, or Bosnian Muslim, in the eight-man team covering the Srebrenica area.
This is in contravention of a law that stipulates that employment should be divided among ethno-national groups as it was during the 1991 census, when Srebrenica had some 27,000 Bosniaks and 8,000 Serbs.
Elvir delivers mail to the same villages he visited as a child, and to some of those areas he walked through during his 78 days in hiding. But, these days, he doesn’t have to be afraid of being seen.
On his route are Bosniak and Serb villages.
Elvir remembers how he once dropped off a letter at a house where a veteran of the Bosnian Serb army complained that he wasn’t getting a veterans’ pension.
“Twenty years ago, when they needed me to kill the Muslims, I answered their call,” the man told him. “But now I don’t receive any pension for it.”