“Maybe for you Srebrenica is history, but for us it is life.”
As many as 8,372 people died in the Srebrenica genocide of July 1995. Nedzad Avdic did not. At the age of 17, he had tried to flee the Bosnian town by heading to the mountains with his father. Two long days and nights later, he was forced to surrender and bundled on to one of the Serbian Army’s many trucks. These trucks would stop at schools and government buildings all over the countryside: apparent places of safety, yet they were anything but. He sat with his family in a school classroom ringing with the sounds of gunfire from a few doors down. He thought his fate was sealed.
Yet his class was shipped out once more and marched in groups of five, almost naked with their arms bound behind them, to what became immediately apparent as a place of mass execution. Row after row of dead bodies lay before him as he stood with his back to the Serbian soldiers. He thinks he fainted just at the point the first shot was fired and woke only to feel a searing pain in his left side. Numb. He’d been shot three times. He lay there silently begging God to let him die.
The next row of Muslim men with their hands bound arrived behind him and were duly shot collapsing on to him. The Serbian general ordered his men to check everyone was dead. Nedzad felt a gun to the back of his head before it was discharged on the man lying next to him who had the temerity to groan in the final moments of death.
The trucks left and together with the help of a man who had also miraculously survived, Nedzad slowly but surely dragged himself to the hillside for cover. Here the pair hid until they felt safe enough and well enough to forge their next steps.
It was on that hillside that they watched the heavy machinery arrive to move the bodies into mass graves. Graves that the American forces would later identify from satellite images of large plains of disturbed earth. When the Serbs were challenged with these images, the bodies were dug up and dispersed again.
That jigsaw of horror is unpicked in the chilling Potocari Identification Centre. Visiting the centre 22 years on, a forensic pathologist pieces together these lost lives from the exhumations. On the table before our delegation of Scottish civic leaders are some of the remains of a man exhumed in 2005. His bones have been matched from four different secondary graves and confirmed with a DNA sample from his surviving relatives. There is enough now for a burial. The family will collect him on Friday and finally seek some peace – after more than two decades of hell.
It is now 25 years since the start of the war in Bosnia. A war conducted on European soil, during my lifetime. I remember the pictures of Milosevic on the evening news bulletins aged 11, understanding he was a bad man with no concept of the horrors he had sanctioned. Seeking to ethnically cleanse Bosnia of Muslims in search of a Greater Serbia.
To this day, the survivors of this brutal atrocity still have to assert that this genocide occurred. The Serbian Government and indeed many Serbs still living in Bosnia deny that it happened, despite watching their neighbours and once dear friends shipped off in trucks to the camps never to return.
Sarajevo is simply stunning, as beautiful a European capital as can be found. From the fort at the top of the town it’s clear how easily it came under siege, built around a river in the Valley surrounded by Serbian forces. For 47 months the shells rained down on Sarajevo and the scars are still there on every building that predates the war. A beautiful country with bad politicians is how it is described. A statement as true today as it was in 1992.
Despite the relative peace, with three presidents rotating every eight months between the Serb, Croats and Muslim leaders, the situation is as flammable as lint. A fragile economy, 43 per cent unemployment if you exclude the grey economy, and a brain drain to Germany and Croatia.
One of the survivors is asked whether he is hopeful for his daughter’s future. After a long pause he says yes, but only because what else is there to live for? He will hope, but he will also fight.
He will fight for the truth because without that there can be no trust. Without trust there can be no reconciliation.
The next critical step is for the world to recognise the genocide here and force the Serbian Government to do likewise. But the attention of the global community is elsewhere: Iraq; Libya; Syria.
The world moves on, but will it ever learn?