In the Shadow of Genocide
Twenty years after the massacre, Bosnian Muslims are moving back to Srebrenica. But surrounded by people who deny the terrible crimes of the past, they fear for their safety -- and the future of their divided country.
SREBRENICA, Bosnia-Herzegovina — After dusk falls every evening in eastern Bosnia, Fatima Mustafic draws the blinds and locks the doors of the simple house where she lives with her two sons. She has a stocky build from working the land in her backyard during the day; the tomatoes, potatoes, and cucumbers it produces are her only sources of income. But she doesn’t go out after dark in her village because she doesn’t trust the people around her — not even those whose job it is to keep her community safe. “Those people in the police today are the same people who slaughtered and killed my family 20 years ago,” Mustafic says, with a look in her eyes of someone who has been successively let, or beaten, down.
In July 1995, during the Bosnian war, Mustafic’s husband, Ramo, his four brothers, and another 30 relatives were rounded up and killed during an event the world now knows as the worst atrocity on European soil since the Holocaust. In total, more than 8,000 men and boys were killed over several days in and around Srebrenica, a municipality that was one of six so-called United Nations “safe havens” — enclaves where Bosnian Muslims (called Bosniaks) had gathered for protection from the Bosnian Serb army.
When Srebrenica fell to that army in the summer of 1995, Mustafic and her family went to a U.N. base in the village of Potocari, where some 25,000 Bosniaks were trying to take refuge. But despite the presence of a few hundred Dutch peacekeepers, Serb fighters committed atrocities. “There were rapes, beatings, and unspeakable things going on,” Mustafic recalls with a distant look in her eyes. “No one who survived Potocari can be normal.”
Eventually, the peacekeepers surrendered control of the base. Serb fighters soon began separating men from women and children. Mustafic was split from her husband and his family. On the morning of July 12, as what would become a days-long massacre began — group after group of men, some blindfolded, were lined up and shot point-blank — she boarded a bus with her 8- and 10-year-old sons and headed for safer territory, occupied by the Bosnian army.
“A Serb soldier entered the bus and put a gun to my older son’s head, saying he was too old to be on the bus,” she recalls. The bus driver, a Serb who had been Mustafic’s neighbor, convinced the soldier to leave her son alone. Mustafic and her children continued onward, winding up in a series of refugee camps.
She never saw her husband alive again.
Mustafic wasn’t able to move back home until nine years ago; it was too upsetting, and she needed to save funds to rebuild her home, which had been destroyed in the war. “To this day, my 30-year-old son has tremors,” Mustafic says. “He has no job and little hope for the future.” Her village sits in Republika Srpska, a predominantly Serb region that covers almost half of Bosnia’s territory and whose leadership comprises many vocal Serb nationalists.
Ramo Mustafic was eventually found in a mass grave. More than 400 such sites have been connected to Srebrenica; in some cases, Serb fighters tossed bodies in the ground and then dug them back up and scattered the remains elsewhere, hoping to conceal the massacre. Ramo was formally buried, along with 600 others, when a memorial center opened in Potocari in March 2003. Two years prior, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), based in The Hague, had announced in a ruling that what happened in Srebrenica was a genocide. (To date, international and state courts have sentenced 37 people for genocide and other crimes at Srebrenica; the trials of Bosnian Serb leaders Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic are ongoing at the ICTY.)
Every year since the memorial center opened, bodies are buried on July 11. This Saturday, 136 victims identified just in the last year will be laid to rest before a crowd commemorating Srebrenica’s 20th anniversary. In attendance will be former U.S. President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, key decision-makers during the massacre. Recently declassified documents analyzed by the Guardian show that in May 1995, the United States and Britain made a decision to halt airstrikes against Serb forces. According to the Dutch defense minister at the time, Joris Voorhoeve, both countries also had intelligence of a planned Serb offensive, including the potential for mass atrocities, but did not share it with the soldiers tasked with securing the safe zone. Additionally, according to Manfred Eisele, the former head of military planning for U.N. peacekeeping, international powers had not honored the Netherlands’ request for more ground reinforcements several months earlier. Informing decisions, the Guardian reported, was hope that in ceding Srebrenica, international actors would be able to bring the Serbs around to a peace agreement that could end the war.
Some 1,000 victims remain missing from Srebrenica, according to the International Commission on Missing Persons, an organization that collects DNA samples from survivors of the war and matches them to unearthed bodies. Some 7,000 others are missing from elsewhere in Bosnia. And in a country still bitterly divided along ethnic lines, countless more people suffer enduring trauma.
Mustafic is among them. She looks down at her plastic sandals. “My life is over,” she says, “but I am still alive.”
Republika Srpska’s leaders and the government of neighboring Serbia — which supported the Bosnian Serb army with personnel, supplies, and logistics — continue to foster a culture of denial about what happened in July 1995. For instance, Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic recently wrote a letter to the British queen asking her to intercede and get her country to drop a U.N. Security Council resolution commemorating Srebrenica. He said that the resolution would “open old wounds” and that its charge of genocide was “untrue and irresponsible.” Serbia also asked Russia to veto the measure. On July 8, Russia did just that.
Serbia acknowledges that a “grave crime” took place in Srebrenica, but refuses to use the word “genocide.” Some awareness-raising activists who have used the term have been repeatedly attacked by nationalists, usually organized through football fan clubs. Serbia’s first arrests for crimes related to Srebrenica were not made until March of this year.
In what critics denounce as a hollow gesture, Serbia’s prime minister, Aleksandar Vucic, announced on July 7 that he would attend the Srebrenica commemoration. On the day before that event, 24 miles away in Bajina Basta, a town just across the Bosnia-Serbia border, a celebration for the “20th anniversary of the liberation of Srebrenica” is planned.
In Republika Srpska, denial is even stronger. Milorad Dodik, the region’s longtime leader, recently called Srebrenica “the greatest deception of the 20th century.” On July 4, at a tribute in Bratunac, not far from Srebrenica, for some 3,500 Serbs killed in the region throughout the war, Dodik addressed the crowd: “We are told, ‘You should not deny.’ How not to deny a lie? You [Bosniaks] are the ones who are not telling the truth.”
This kind of rhetoric has survivors, especially those who have returned to the Srebrenica area, fuming. “My sister had 20 neighbors in her village. Now no one is left,” Mustafic says. “Who is lying? There are no people.”
In Bosnia’s other governing entity, Srebrenica wears a very different mantle. In the Federation, as the region populated mostly by Bosniaks and Catholic Croats is known, Srebrenica has become a byword for the entire war — a symbol of the cruelty of the Serb army and of the ineptitude of the U.N. and other international powers to stop mass atrocities. So potent is this symbol that some activists and observers fear it overshadows other horrors from the conflict. “[Scenes of Srebrenica] have become emblematic of the war, so much so that they overshadow other events and atrocities, becoming abstracted from the war as a whole,” write academics Lara Nettelfield and Sarah Wagner in a new book about the genocide.
Evidence of this fact, some might say, sits in the heart of Sarajevo, Bosnia’s capital. In front of the city’s Austro-Hungarian cathedral stands a sign advertising a permanent photo exhibition about Srebrenica. The only museum about the siege of Sarajevo, in which more than 11,000 people died over 44 months — the longest siege in the history of modern warfare — is tucked on the town’s outskirts, at the end of a tunnel used to smuggle food and other supplies during the war.
Muhamed Durakovic, a Bosniak who fled Potocari before the Serb troops overran it, says people remember Srebrenica not only because of its horrors, but also because it occurred as the war was careening toward its conclusion. (It ended in December 1995.) “What happened in Srebrenica happened in 70 percent of the territory of Bosnia,” Durakovic says. “It was just last. But now it has become a symbol of genocide, the same way that Auschwitz is a symbol of the Holocaust. When you do the numbers for both conflicts, it is true that the majority of the deaths did not occur there, but it is symbolic for so many reasons.”
Today, Durakovic works for the International Commission on Missing Persons. He worries for the future of his hometown, where he still maintains a house, and for Bosnia. “The level of mistrust and hate in this country is higher now than it was in 1995,” Durakovic says.
Bosnia, with a population of under 4 million people, has two entities, three presidents (Bosniak, Serb, and Croat), ethnically divided police forces, and numerous other governance complexities — many of them stipulated by the constitution that emerged from the Dayton Accords, whose signing stopped the war. These circumstances, coupled with high unemployment and other economic woes, do little to promote unity; nor do leaders like Dodik, who frequently threatens Republika Srpska’s secession and recently said that Bosnia, the country, “exists only virtually.”
For Mustafic, unremitting acrimony outside her doors makes her want to keep them closed.
“We survived everything,” she says, “we forgive them [the Serbs] everything, but they just don’t want to live normally.”
Photo Credit: ELVIS BARUKCIC/AFP/Getty Images