Bosnia is a mountainous land with forests, valleys, rivers, and traditional farms and houses dotted across the countryside. During the Yugoslav era various peoples lived together in peace, a mix of cultures and religions, reflected by the churches and mosques found in towns across the country.
Following the collapse of the iron curtain in 1990, various states of Yugoslavia began voting for independence, including Bosnia in 1992, which voted overwhelmingly for independence (98%). Immediately the new (Serb) government outlined its main objectives, which included the restoration of former Serbian borders and state.
From being best friends, playmates and school companions, divisions along religious grounds suddenly began to surface, which baffled many. In 1992 all Serbians in Sarajevo departed overnight, leaving their friends behind. The city was subsequently under siege for 3 years, surrounded by Bosnian Serbs, snipers and mortar fire.
All media links were cut off: no-one knew what was happening, neither in the country nor globally. The airport was an exclusion zone so humanitarian aid was delivered weekly. Under the airstrip an 800m tunnel was constructed by those under siege in order to smuggle in supplies. Sometimes the tunnel became flooded, and it could take between 45 and 90 minutes to get through. The Serbians knew it was there and bombed the entrances but couldn’t destroy the tunnel.
As part of a visit organised by the Remembering Srebrenica charity we spent three days being shown around by Rased Trbonja with a delegation from the NUT. Rased was 19 when his best friend left overnight. The siege of Sarajevo began immediately and he had to join the defence corps. He would spend 4 days at the frontline and 2 days off at home.
Moving across the city was dangerous, so Rased would try and gather water, food and firewood for his parents while he was off duty. Each time he went home, he would give a pint of blood from one arm on one day, and another from the other arm the next. Each time he received a can of beef and a biscuit, which his mother kept in the cupboard for emergencies when food was particularly scarce.
After the war, Rased used to want to “drop a ten-ton bomb on Belgrade”; now he has come to realise that only innocent civilians like himself would die and suffer, and that he would have become “one of them”.
During the siege, Sarajevans tried to keep things as normal as possible. There was no official education, but teachers went to different flats or basements where 10 or 15 children would gather for lessons (it was ‘better’ to risk a teacher crossing the streets than 15 children).
They also organised cultural activities – plays, concerts, newspapers – wherever they could, holding a ‘Miss Sarajevo’ beauty contest, the inspiration for U2’s song Miss Sarajevo. In 1997, U2 also began their world tour in Sarajevo, just a year after the cessation of hostilities. These two cultural acknowledgements still mean a lot to local people.
Srebrenica is situated in the east of Bosnia, surrounded on three sides by the Serbian border. The landscape is mountainous and forested. In 1993 the UN declared the Srebrenica region to be a ‘safe enclave’ following the destruction and murder of Bosnian Muslims, their villages and homes.
There was relative peace in the area for 2 years until Spring 1995, although it was still dangerous to travel and many refugees were arriving in Srebrenica. Humanitarian aid was dropped by air frequently but the area was overcrowded and facilities and supplies were scarce.
In the spring of 1995 the Serbian forces began to squeeze the ‘safe enclave’ from all sides, forcing civilians and UN forces to retreat towards Srebrenica. By July, tens of thousands of Bosniaks (Muslim civilians) were trapped under fire and surrounded in Srebrenica.
On 12 July the Serbian General Mladić arrived in Srebrenica telling the media that it was time at last to get “revenge on the Turks” – referring to the treatment of Serbs by the Ottoman empire. He addressed the crowds near the UN base, telling people that everything would be ok, buses were on their way, and that they should ‘keep calm’. Hundreds of buses and trucks came, and the civilians were sorted into two lines: (mainly) male and female.
There are many reports of indiscriminate shootings, rapes and barbarity at this point. Buses with 23000 women and girls were driven up to the refugee camps at Tuzla over the next 2 days. The men and boys were taken to various sites around Srebrenica and systematically tied up, blindfolded, lined up, turned round and executed. Their bodies were then buried in mass graves. Meanwhile the ‘Death March’ group, who were bidding to escape to Tuzla through the mountains, were being chased, surrounded, targeted, rounded up, killed or executed and buried by Serbian forces.
We met many people whose lives have been torn apart by the atrocities. Nedzad Avdić was one of only two survivors of the mass executions. As he recounted his horrifying ordeal, he said “we thought the UN had come to protect us, save us. But later I realised they had come to observe our atrocity.” We also met Hasan Hasanović, a survivor of the ‘Death March’ and curator of a memorial centre in a former battery factory which was used as a UN base. One mother of the victims, who lost her husband, father, 2 sons and a grandson on 11 July 1995 said she is living, “but not alive.” Another woman, who still has not found her brother, expressed her desire to “tear down all the weapons factories in the world.”
In October and November 1995 the Serbian army brought diggers and earth moving machinery to Srebrenica and moved many bodies from the primary mass grave sites to secondary and tertiary sites, attempting to destroy evidence of mass murder. Some victims have been found in several different places. Remains are still being found.
The first mass burial of victims took place at the Srebrenica Memorial Cemetery on 11 July 2002. A burial service for the next group of identified victims is held every year on this date.
Bones have DNA extracted from them in order to match the family’s blood samples. Some families bury the smallest piece of bone if it has been positively identified as a relative; others are waiting for more pieces of evidence and remains. About 6600 people have been buried and there are at least 8372 known victims. However only a brother, sister, mother, or father can officially report a missing person, so if all family members were killed then there is no-one to report them as missing.
There is still an uneasy tension in Bosnia, with division and suspicion from the Serbian population – many still refuse to agree that anything happened at all in Srebrenica, let alone a massacre which has been officially declared a genocide by the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). Bosniaks wait for apart from an admission of guilt and prosecution of the perpetrators, many of whom are still free to live and work in Bosnia.
The survivors and relatives of victims are clearly still haunted by their memories, but spend their lives presenting, talking, campaigning and hosting visitors in order that we all might learn from their experiences and help create a better world for our children. Their message is that we might all be different, but diversity should be celebrated; they want us to spread this and live together in peace.