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

Comment: Oric Trial Raises Difficult Questions

The people of Srebrenica looked to indicted Muslim fighter to give them hope in the darkest days of the war.
By Emir Suljagic

I met Naser Oric in the summer of 1992. It was very hot and I remember that I saw him surrounded by friends on the town square. He was dressed in an American army uniform with a lightning bolt patch and Delta Force insignia on the shoulder. His hair was cut short and his beard was trimmed and to my eyes, as I walked across that square, he was the embodiment of a hero.


At that time I shared the kind of fascination which almost all of us in Srebrenica felt. I carefully watched every movement of the groups of his soldiers in the town and outside it. I knew that what they did would make the difference between my life and death.


In April 1992, tens of thousands of people flooded into Srebrenica, a town whose pre-war population never exceeded 20,000. Overnight it became so crowded that we could not breathe. With every burned Muslim village, hundreds of people arrived in the town, exhausted and hungry, carrying scraps of food and the remains of their lives wrapped in blankets hanging over their shoulders.


After a month, the food ran out.


When Muslim soldiers left the town to attack another village, crowds of civilians would ask where they were going, and would follow them at a safe distance carrying bags and backpacks.


As the front line drew closer to the town, the differences between soldiers and civilians diminished. With the first bullets fired – I know because I was there – the crowds mixed and barged into villages together.


In that smoke, in the ashes of those houses, we left behind everything we had - our education and our belief that we were better.


Then the winter came. We used to wake up feeling miserable, in cold rooms with plastic sheeting on the windows and wood piled high to protect us from shrapnel. We were waking up starved and covered with lice, without any desire or strength to move, abandoned and humiliated.


My childhood friend was killed by a Serb plane in Bjelovac that winter. They shot him as he was carrying a bag of flour stolen from someone’s house on his back. I don’t know if what he did was a crime but I do know that I mourned him endlessly.


Only one man gave us hope at the time. He did, time and again, what we thought was impossible – defeat the Serb soldiers that were closing in on the town.


The same Serb soldiers who killed my friend while he was waiting in line at one of the town water fountains. And those who fired the shell whose fist-sized shrapnel struck a thick book I was holding at the moment of the blast.


I am not trying to defend anyone, but I am alive today thanks to those who had the courage to aim and fire at that drunken killer before he pulled the trigger again.


And then ruined everything by burning down his house.


Naser Oric is now on trial in The Hague, but whatever the outcome, it raises questions which the survivors of Srebrenica have to answer.


We, who rushed back to our houses in the surrounding villages to steal the remaining food from its hiding places. We, who decided to search other people’s homes when there was no more food in ours.


I could never condemn what is described in the indictment as plunder. But there was no need to burn houses even if we did need the food. And there was no need to ransack already deserted villages, or pull the electricity wires from the bare walls of their houses.


No community should place itself above the law which regulates human relations, no matter the circumstances.


Emir Suljagic is staff writer of Dani magazine in Sarajevo. This comment was first published by Dani.


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