Thousands of desperate people filled the narrow road of Srebrenica on 11 July 1995, pushing, shoving and being run over as they carried their belongings in suitcases, duffel bags and rucksacks, fleeing the encroaching Serbs who were edging into the enclave. Munira and her husband left their house to join the crowd. As she went to lock her front door, he advised against it because they couldn’t afford to spend money on nails to fix it if someone broke in. Munira hid their leftover food under firewood in the cellar so there would be something to eat when they returned. As Selma Leydesdorff recounts in Surviving the Bosnian Genocide: The Women of Srebrenica Speak, after three years spent under siege, with food convoys being turned away by the Serbs that encircled them, the residents had learnt to subsist on one meal a day. Just enough to keep starvation at bay.
Munira and her husband followed the refugees who were running to the safety of the Dutch UN contingent, who had set up headquarters in an old battery factory in the once thriving industrial town of Potočari, with the bauxite and zinc mines and the factories that built car batteries and brakes. The Dutch were part of the UN mission tasked with protecting the enclave after it was declared a UN Safe Zone two years earlier.
Bosnian soldiers stood on the sides of the streets and urged the fleeing residents to return home, telling them that they would protect them from harm. Their cries went unheeded by the desperate people who thought their only chance of survival was to stay close to the two hundred Dutch soldiers. These refugees had already fled their homes once before between 1992 and 1993, when Serbs attacked the surrounding villages and towns. They were chased into the waiting arms of Srebrenica, transforming a once cosmopolitan town of 9,000 residents into a heaving concentration camp of 60,000 desperates.
In the forest, a column of 15,000 Bosnian men set off from Srebrenica to walk to the free territory of Tuzla in what became a death march. Only one out of three survived, while around 20,000 refugees arrived at Potočari only to endure three nights of terror the Serbs proceeded to beat and torture men, rape young women and indiscriminately murder people. It was the height of summer, and over the next three days the Bosnians had no access to water or food as the smell of death, blood and waste overpowered the senses. A fourteen-year-old girl was taken by the Serbs and returned with blood running down her legs. She found a belt and her body was found in the morning.
When the buses arrived at Potočari, the Bosnians were promised safety in the free territory of Tuzla and approached them eagerly. The men and boys were separated, and only women and children were allowed on. The Dutch commander attempted to ensure that at least one Dutch soldier was on each bus to protect those leaving. Not all of the buses arrived in the free territory.
The men who were caught during the death march and those captured at Potočari were taken to warehouses, schools and football fields, where they were beaten and tortured. Over the next twenty-four hours, they would be executed and buried in mass graves. In the free territory, mothers, wives, sisters, grandmothers, aunts, daughters, waited for their kin to arrive. There were rumours that the men and boys had been taken to Serbia and forced into work camps. Over the next few months, stories trickled through about what had happened to the menfolk as a few survivors escaped.
Today the site of the former UN base in Potočari is the Srebrenica-Potočari Memorial Center & Cemetery. There are 8,372 white headstones dotted around the green roof of the memorial centre to commemorate the genocide of Bosnians in Srebrenica, an event that has the distinction of being the single worst act of genocide committed on European soil since World War II.
Every year on the 11th of July, victims who have been identified are laid to rest at the memorial cemetery. Their caskets are draped in green, while mourning women dressed in white surround it. As of July 2019, there are 6, 610 victims buried in Potočari.
All over the world there are events and actions being held to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide. Senada Bosnić Ekić, an active member of the Bosnian community in Australia, launched ‘8,372 Flowers of Srebrenica – Message of Peace’ two years ago. Gathering in the recreation room of the Australian Bosnian Islamic Centre at the Deer Park mosque, women crochet the ‘Srebrenica flower’, a crocheted white flower. The eleven petals represent the day the atrocity began. The white petals represent innocence, while the green centre represents hope. These colours also symbolise the burial of victims. Together, the women created a display that would have been exhibited at Federation Square in Melbourne this Saturday, had the lockdown not disrupted the plan.
The war that led to the Srebrenica massacre has its roots in the decade that followed the death of Yugoslavian President Tito, in 1980. Nationalist politicians stepped into the power vacuum and stoked up nationalist and divisive politics along ethnic and religious lines, building fear and prejudice that spilled into a war that culminated in genocide.
The genocide in Srebrenica stands as a lesson that to create a safe society we must do our part to prevent discrimination, promotion of hatred, extremism, and exclusion. This is what it means to remember Srebrenica. It is a lesson more relevant than ever as populist movements continue to rise.
Image: The Advocacy Project