Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Bosnia: Forgotten Srebrenica Survivors

Recent opening of memorial to those who died in one of Europe's worst massacres has not eased the pain of those left behind.
By Nerma Jelacic

The survivors of Srebrenica fear that the international community and some Bosnian politicians are trying to wash their hands of them.


A visit by former United States president Bill Clinton to open a memorial centre - which cost 6 million US dollars to build - put the media spotlight back on the eastern Bosnian town.


But press coverage of the September 20 inauguration at Potocari, on the outskirts of Srebrenica, angered many local political representatives, who believe that not enough is being done by the West and the Sarajevo government to help survivors.


Hakija Meholjic, a board member of the local Socialist Democratic Party, argued that the attention came at the expense of the grief-stricken mourners saying their last goodbyes to sons, fathers and brothers.


"I was in Potocari on Saturday and I was very disappointed to see the discrepancy in the treatment of Clinton and of those who came to bury their dead. His visit was given more attention than the event itself," said Meholjic.


The first United Nations safe haven to be established in the Bosnian conflict, Srebrenica became the site of the worst genocide since the Second World War when Serb forces overran it on July 11, 1995, executing thousands of Muslim men and boys.


Many here believe the UN should have done more to protect the enclave and prevent the subsequent massacres.


The bodies of victims were thrown into mass graves, which are still being exhumed. Only around 1,000 of the 6,500 so far uncovered have been identified.


Upon the request of the survivors, most of these remains have been buried at the Potocari centre with 107 newly-identified bodies interned on September 20.


While the memorial will bring some comfort to those who lost their menfolk, it will do little to address the problems facing survivors, many of whom are living in appalling conditions, and are too scared to go home.


Women whose menfolk were killed are not deemed a high priority for social benefits as most of them are alone, and family units take precedence when it comes to government aid.


Sabra Mujic - who lost her husband and two sons in the massacres - lives a hand-to-mouth existence in a Sarajevo suburb.


"I live alone, in a basement of an abandoned house which has no lavatory, in shameful conditions," she told IWPR on the eve of the memorial service.


Her speech is often interrupted by gasps, as if she is crying, but no tears flow. "I am all cried out," said Sabra, who's still searching for the remains of her loved ones.


Sabra suffers from a number of serious health problems, and can barely afford to buy the numerous medications she needs out of the tiny state handout she receives.


As is the case with other survivors, her house and land back home remain listed in her name, but she's fearful of returning and her property is often vandalised. "Even if I went to the police, nothing would get done, as they still employ people who were in the army that killed so many in 1995," she said.


Many Srebrenica survivors, like tens of thousands of other people across Bosnia who were forced out of their homes, are not prepared to risk going back to villages and towns run by the very people who expelled them in the first place.


Munira Subasic who lost 22 members of her family in the massacres, and also lives in a Sarajevo suburb, says she would return when there's sufficient protection and adequate services.


"I do want to go back to Srebrenica, but only when all the conditions for safe return, such as setting up of multiethnic police force in the town, reform of health and education, are met," she said.


In the case of Srebrenica, a significant number of those brave enough to return have faced hostility from their Serb neighbours, according to non-governmental organisations, NGOs, working in the area.


The Mothers of Srebrenica and Zepa, which has been helping returnees, has also been threatened. "I received a letter stating that 'they' were waiting for more of 'us' to come back - and that those of us who lived through 1995 would then be killed," its vice-president Kada Hotic told IWPR.


In April, the women of Srebrenica appealed to the UN for compensation for the suffering they have endured.


"Those that killed and looted seem to have got away with it," said Sabra. "They have their homes, their freedom and are still controlling areas in which they were active during the war. It is time that somebody helped people like me rebuild what is left of our lives."


Senad Slatina, a Sarajevo-based political analyst, says that more needs to be done to help displaced people.


"The return of refugees in Bosnia-Hercegovina is a key issue which will decide if reintegration in this country is sustainable or not. Srebrenica is a prime example here and more should be done to help those people in their post-war survival," he said.


Meholjic believes the West and some Bosnian politicians just want the Srebrenica issue to disappear, " The international community and the politicians here would be the happiest if there was no more Srebrenica. They would all like their mistakes to be forgotten."


Nerma Jelacic is IWPR project manager in Bosnia-Hercegovina.


More IWPR's Global Voices