I was relatively young when the Bosnian war started, in 1992. When it became clear that something terrible was going to start, we moved to another place to live with my grandparents. Not a single bomb exploded there during the four-year war.
Explosions in the neighbouring city were violent enough to be heard in that place, however. I was also close enough to occasionally hear the frightening sound of hostile tanks’ movement on the nearby hills.
There were regular power outages but also deliberate incidences of turning off the lights so that the hostile forces would not notice us.
Periodically they would transfer us to a safer territory in case of threat of hostile attacks (though we had to be always ready for such an event, sleeping in jeans because in such circumstances you wouldn’t have time to put them on).
I remember at the end of the war, five to ten children and women living in our house as refugees. Having all this in mind, I can say that my war-childhood was quite normal when compared to most of my peers in Bosnia.
The refugees I mentioned were from Eastern Bosnia – the wider region around Srebrenica. They were lucky to escape from the area before the genocide happened. The events in Srebrenica in 1995 included the killing of more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslims committed by units of the Army of the Republika Srpska (VRS), in the area protected by the UN. So far 47 people have been convicted and sentenced to more than seven hundred years in prison, plus four life sentences for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes in Srebrenica.
There are frightening stories of those people who survived that hell. Not many, because few have survived. These kind of stories cannot be paraphrased, you have to hear directly from a person witnessing the horror.
This includes my peer, a then-seven-year old boy Fahrudin who survived the mass execution of civilians from his village, including his father. Fahrudin was wounded in his arm and leg, and was saved by the Red Cross driver who noticed that something was moving in the mass of dead bodies that was waiting to be transported to the mass grave.
The number of these mass graves is unknown. It is considered that corpses were transferred to some 16 mass graves and that some thousands of people will never be found, because of the vows of silence of those who took part in the genocide and ethnic cleansing. They refuse to reveal the locations and most of the known mass graves were discovered accidentally or via satellite scanning from USA. There was a system of primary, secondary and tertiary graves – so it is not uncommon that different parts of the same body were found in totally different locations. Some victims were buried in a memorial centre with only one piece of body found, while others are still hidden somewhere else. Thanks to a modern DNA analysis it is possible to identify them and so far, more than 6,000 victims have been identified.
Twenty-five years after, the extremist ideology that led to genocide and ethnic cleansing is still live and they are regularly marching through Srebrenica and other cities in their “military” suits. In some cases the streets and dormitories are now named after convicted war criminals which are celebrated as heroes by some people in one part of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The driver who saved the young boy was not considered a hero, however. He suffered the consequences because of his “betrayal” during his life, and his funeral later was attended by only the closest relatives.
If we say that it is important to remember the Srebrenica genocide, we talk about something that happened in the past and finished. It is incomparably more tragic to see that the ideology which led to genocide is still live and active.
image credits – Rooful Ali
In 2018 Durham Global Security Institute (DGSI) students, taking either the Masters in Diplomacy, Defence and Development, or the Masters in Conflict Prevention and Peacebuilding, visited Bosnia Herzegovina for a full week. They met non-governmental organisations, international organisations, and citizens in order to get a comprehensive picture of what post-conflict peacebuilding looks like on the ground. We ran a two-part blog written by the students which you can read here – Remembering Srebrenica.