Srebrenica’s Bone Hunter
How a genocide survivor in Bosnia and his years-long search for human bones continues to inspire hope.
Filmmakers: Muris Beglerovic and Jasmina Djikoli
In July 1995, months before the end of the three-year Bosnian war and in violation of international law, the Serbian army marched into the United Nations’ supported enclave of Srebrenica.
Led by General Ratko Mladic, thousands of women and children either fled Srebrenica to neighbouring Potocari, or were forcibly evacuated by the Bosnian Serb army. The remaining men and boys of the then majority-Muslim town were systematically tortured and murdered in what would come to be known as the darkest hour for Europe since World War II.
Over 8,000 men, some only children, were executed in a span of days; an ethnic cleansing. Hundreds of bodies are estimated to still be lost in the land surrounding Srebrenica.
Ramiz Nukic is a survivor of the Srebrenica massacre. Although Nukic lost many friends, his father and two brothers in the genocide, he still feels a responsibility towards those who lost their lives and their surviving families.
After coming across bones in the nearby woods, Nukic took it upon himself to undertake an ongoing search for the remains of all those whose bodies remain missing.
Religious guidance in the Muslim burial of those who have passed decrees that a specific percentage of a body must be acquired. For many grieving Srebrenica mothers and families, this is not an option. For many, one bone from a missing son is enough to give them, and the spirit of those who have left this world, some measure of peace.
By Jasmina Djikoli
The Kamenicko Brdo woods near the Bosnian town of Srebrenica, is a true “Theatrum Mundi” – an archetypal, metaphysical symbol of the great theatre of the world, a meeting point of light and darkness, life and death, good and evil.
Several months ago, in early spring this year, I was walking through those woods with the film crew. I heard many times over that the ground I walked on was soaked with blood. We filmed the woods for days, in rain and sun, and despite the almost surreal beauty of the nature surrounding us, there was not a moment where I didn’t think of the horrors it hid.
Thousands of men and boys were killed there in July 1995, when the massacre in Srebrenica was committed. It is impossible not to imagine the sound of gunshots, branches and trees breaking, people running everywhere, screams of wounded and frightened men and the images of dead bodies lying everywhere.
We were in those woods 22 years after the massacre, filming Ramiz Nukic, a man who survived the genocide. He described how he managed to save himself that day when the column of men from Srebrenica walked through the woods trying to break through to the free territory. He ran through the woods and down the hills for hours. He saw many dead and wounded, and lost many friends and relatives, including two of his brothers and his father.
After six days and nights, he reached free territory and cried for the first time. He said it happened when an elderly man offered him and two other Srebrenica survivors accommodation, food and clothes.
“That is what was deeply etched in memory. After all that I had survived, I found this man who offered help. Perhaps that is my main motivator for trying to help others,” Ramiz underlined.
Several years after the war, Ramiz returned home, right next to the woods at Kamenicko Brdo. Climbing the same hill he once had to walk down to flee death in the war, Ramiz continues climbing it in peace, searching the woods for the bones of the killed men of Srebrenica. And he has been doing it for 15 years.
Ramiz does not have an easy life today. He lives with his sick wife, sons and grandchildren. None of them are employed. Occasionally, Ramiz and his sons do some manual work. But, as he says, sometimes even two months pass and he does not earn more than 30 euros.
On the other hand, whenever he finds the opportunity, he goes to the woods. He wants to do a good deed. His life has become these woods, the path and journey through those woods, without a beginning or an end. Away from the sound and fury of the modern world, Ramiz embraces life as a recluse and constantly searches for the lost time, those who disappeared in the woods in July 1995. Alone, without anybody’s help, he walks dozens of miles and finds bones. I watched him as he carefully held a minuscule bone he had found. Just that tiny bone means a lot to families looking for their missing ones.
Of around 8,000 killed men of Srebrenica, about a thousand of them have still not been found.
I think about Hajra Catic, one of the mothers in the film who expressed how she would like to find at least a finger belonging to her still missing son Nino. That mother would bury the finger as proof of the existence of her son in this world, believing that only in that way would his soul find its peace. For this reason, I am convinced that Ramiz’s almost obsessive search has meaning. It seems as if it leads him through the worlds of the living and the dead with him becoming an archetypal seeker through the earthly and otherworldly.