Srebrenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina – Srebrenica’s local mosque is filled with women, young and old. It is Ramadan and in front of the recently reconstructed building is a sizable group of young men and the usual pile of slippers. The paint still looks fresh. Noticeably absent are men from an older generation. Most of those who would have been present had been killed twenty years before.
On July 11, 1995, Bosnian Serb forces entered the town of Srebrenica and in the ensuing days killed 8,100 Bosnian Muslim men and boys in mass executions in what is considered the worst atrocity in Europe since World War II.
Among the dead are the husband, only son and 22 relatives of Fadila Efendic, 63, who runs a small kiosk selling macabre mementoes – most of which are emblazoned with “Don’t Forget Srebrenica” – across from the Potocari memorial centre, where more than 6,000 of those who were killed in the massacre are now.
Efendic has spent the past 13 years trying to rebuild her house, which was destroyed by Bosnian Serb forces after Srebrenica fell along with most of what she loved. All that was left of her devastated house when she returned was her dead son’s diploma. Today, her white house has been mostly rebuilt and painstakingly decorated, but Efendic maintains it is not what it used to be.
Like all of its former Bosnian Muslim inhabitants, Efendic was moved from Srebrenica and remained in majority Bosniak areas, some 95km from Srebrenica, for the first seven years after the war. But she was aching to return.
“I wanted to return here to be with my husband, son, and family members [who are all buried in the Potocari memorial though she can only find parts of them],” she says
Efendic’s husband was buried in 2003, but his skull was found in another mass grave two years later.
As for her son Fejzo, only his leg bones were found.
“I still hope to find the rest of the bones. But I can visit my loved ones. It is much harder for the widows and mothers who still haven’t been able to bury their loved ones,” she told Al Jazeera in her store while crocheting one of the white roses she sells in her shop, a symbol of the Srebrenica massacre.
After the deaths in July 1995, Serb forces dug up the bodies and reburied them in secondary and even tertiary graves in order to hide evidence of the mass slaughter.
I can visit my loved ones. It is much harder for the widows and mothers who still haven't been able to bury their loved ones.
Since 1995, 233 mass graves with bodies from those killed at Srebrenica have been found and investigated by the Bosnian Institute for Missing Persons and the International Commission on Missing Persons.
In several cases, bones from one body have been found in four and five different grave sites. DNA samples are taken from the dead and matched with those provided by survivors searching for their loved ones.
About 1,000 people remain missing from Srebrenica, another 7,000 are unaccounted after the 1992-1995 conflict which claimed a total of 100,000 lives.
On July 11, Efendic will be among the thousands of relatives and dignitaries like Bill Clinton and former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright attending the burial of 136 bodies identified in the past year. The burial is part of the annual commemoration organised by the Bosnian government and the memorial center at Potocari.
Twenty years later
Twenty years since the Dayton Peace Agreement ended the war in December 1995, Bosnia remains hobbled by the dysfunctional state the treaty created.There are two entities: the predominantly Orthodox Serb Republika Srpska, where Srebrenica is located, and the Muslim and Catholic Croat “Federation.” It has three presidents, one from each group, and just as many school curricula.
Srebrenica is one of the top sources of contention between the two entities. Though the UN international Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) ruled that what happened in Srebrenica was genocide in 2001, Serb leadership within Bosnia and in Serbia refuse to acknowledge it as such.
Officials from Serbia and Republika Srpska prefer to relativise the crimes, making statements that “crimes happened on all sides” or admitting that “grave war crimes” happened, but disagreeing with the use of the term ‘genocide’.
After the recent arrest of Naser Oric, the Bosnian Muslim wartime commander of Srebrenica, on a Serbian warrant, and the decision to extradite him to Bosnia instead of Serbia, Republika Srpska president Milorad Dodik called Srebrenica “the greatest deception of the 20th century,” alleging that a double standard had been applied, heaping undue blame on Serbs but minimising crimes of Bosniaks.
Oric’s arrest came as a surprise, because he had already been cleared of war crimes charges by the ICTY.
“Serbian politicians are trying to make a lie from the truth,” says Efendic. “They don’t want to be responsible for what they did.”
Srebrenica, which had a pre-war population of 9,000 people, swelled to 42,000 in 1992 as neighbouring majority-Muslim areas emptied, with many Muslims being killed or fleeing to territory held by the Bosnian army.
When Srebrenica fell on July 11, 1995 almost 25,000 ran seeking refuge in an old car battery factory that was being used as a base by Dutch UN peacekeepers. But the Dutch peacekeepers eventually handed over the compound to the Army of Republika Srpska, led by Bosnian Serb commander Ratko Mladic, who is now on trial before the ICTY.
Many of the women and children stayed on the UN base counting on the international troops to protect them, but some 12,000 men fled on foot on the night of July 11, 1995 in the hopes of reaching territory held by the Bosnian army, 55km away. Most of the 8,100 who were killed were intercepted by the Bosnian Serb army after which they were taken to nearby fields or warehouses and executed.
Those who escaped made the long journey through the heavily mined forest in four or five days, others in ten or eleven.
Elvir Hafizovic, now 36, spent 78 days and nights in the forest. Most of those traveling with him were killed, by landmines and snipers.
“I remember it as vividly as if it were yesterday,” he says.
Twenty years later, Hafizovic is the only member of his family who has returned to Srebrenica, where he is the only Muslim postman in the area.
“By and large only the elderly, who had nowhere else to go, have returned here.”
Signs of hope
There are some signs of hope in Srebrenica: a Muslim/Serb rock band, an integrated football club, Guber, named for the thermal springs that once made Srebrenica famous, and a recently opened music school where almost 250 Bosniaks and Serbs learn to sing, together. A few companies have also opened factories nearby, including a food packaging plant and a car seat manufacturer. The town’s residents anxiously await a French fry factory that is being built, hoping it will boost the economy.
But by and large, the unemployment remains high at 40 percent in all of Bosnia and morale low. Economic development has been hampered by the government’s inability to make or implement any policies or job-growth initiatives.
At a commemoration held for the 3,500 Serbs killed throughout the war in the region in the region of Bratunac, a predominantly Serb city 10km from Srebrenica, Dodik said he would call on Russia and China to veto a UN Security Council resolution on Srebrenica drafted by Britain. The resolution, which condemns the genocide and suggests that July 11 become an official memorial day, was vetoed on Wednesday by Russia.
“The goal is to register at the UN, on the basis of false declarations and reports, that a genocide was committed against Muslims,” said Dodik at the commemoration.
Dodik has renewed his calls for a secession referendum and in April, days after his first official visit to the Potocari Memorial Center where the Srebrenica victims are buried, announced that he plans to hold a vote to separate from Bosnia in 2018. Dodik has also pledged to have a referendum about Bosnia’s state court, the highest level court in the land, which also tries war crimes preferring to empower the country’s entities over country level institutions.
Posters of Putin
cannot live here.”]
Towards the end of June, two weeks ahead of the July 11 anniversary, posters of Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared all over the municipality including on the walls of a warehouse in the village of Kravica where an estimated 1,000 to 1,500 Bosniaks were summarily executed after the fall of Srebrenica.
The posters say “Eastern Alternative,” and “Republika Srpska,” or “Serb Republic,” and show the preference that many Serbs have for Russia over the European Union. They were perceived by many Bosniaks as an insult.
There was no movement to remove the posters, and some residents told the media that they supported Putin.
“There is a sense here that all the things that are going on right now are a continuation of the policies that initiated the idea that other people [non-Serbs] cannot live here,” says Mirnes Zahirovic, a local activist.
Zahirovic was born in Srebrenica, but lived elsewhere after the enclave fell. His grandfather, who was 62-years-old in 1995, was found in a mass grave with his hands tied behind his back with wires.
It took time for Zahirovic to ready himself to come back, but he returned this year to join an activist movement encouraging people originally from Srebrenica but living elsewhere to register to vote in their place of birth. He and other Bosniaks believe this will encourage more people to return.
Today, Srebrenica is 55 percent Serb but Serbs hold the majority of the jobs in the public administration.
Hafizovic says increased return and increased representation at the ballot boxwould help Bosniaks to feel more secure.
“The same people who created the graveyard are now serving in our government and, as the local police force, are supposed to be protecting us. This is illogical,” he says.
Until there are enough jobs for residents to live normally side by side, low level tension that inhibits true reconciliation will remain.
“We are just waiting for the economy to improve so that we can say to one another: ‘I don’t care who you are or what you believe, just give me a job.”
Meanwhile, the events of July 11 have left the deepest of scars on the residents and families of Srebrenica.
Despite the loss, Efendic says she will live out her days across from Potocari.
“When I am upset, I go to the cemetery and I immdately feel better,” she says.
“This is the place I need to be.”
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