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

Court Hears of Srebrenica Victims' Ongoing Trauma

Over a decade after massacre, survivors are said to be still struggling to come to terms with it.
By Velma Šarić

Two prosecution witnesses in the case against a Bosnian Serb charged with genocide testified at a Bosnian court about how survivors of the Srebrenica massacre are still traumatised and depressed 13 years on.

Teufika Ibrahimefendic, a social worker and psychotherapist from the Tuzla-based non-governmental organisation Viva Zene (Viva Women), this week told the trial of Milorad Trbic that the psychological damage had consumed survivors.

“Whole families, particularly women and children, are deeply traumatised. They suffer from depression and often don’t have enough strength to lead a normal life,” said Ibrahimefendic.

In July 1995, about 8,000 Bosniak men and boys were killed after Srebrenica fell to Bosnian Serb forces. At that time, Trbic was the assistant commander of security in the Zvornik Brigade of the Bosnian Serb Army, VRS. His brigade is alleged to have been directly involved in mass executions of captured Bosniaks after the fall of the enclave.

The indictment states that between August 1 and November 1, 1995, Trbic and other individuals “supervised, facilitated, and oversaw” the reburial of bodies exhumed from primary mass graves in the Zvornik and Bratunac area, as well as their transfer to secondary grave sites.

The accused has also been charged with participating in the forcible transfer of the Bosniak population from the Srebrenica enclave.

Although Trbic was initially indicted for genocide by the Hague tribunal, his case was transferred to the Bosnian state court for trial. The proceedings against him started on November 8, 2007, and are still in the prosecution phase.

Prosecutors are trying to prove that the crimes of which Trbic stands accused have had a lasting impact on those who survived the massacre.

Ibrahimefendic told the court that in July 1995, she was working with 50 families who escaped from the Srebrenica enclave, mostly women and children. She said they had been through “a horrible shock and a state of complete chaos”.

“They felt utterly lost, unable to protect other members of their families. When leaving Srebrenica, some mothers were forced to tell their older children to leave the younger ones behind if they were not able to carry them,” the witness told the judges.

“They heard screams, crying... some of them had no choice but to throw their children onto trucks and buses, while they stayed behind. Others had to listen to their children begging their fathers not to go,” she added, describing what she heard from the survivors.

Ibrahimefendic, who has been with Viva Zene since 1993, said the NGO was focused on giving psychological support to women and other victims from eastern Bosnia still traumatised by the war. She said that among her patients are also children who were very young at the time of the Srebrenica genocide, but who are still traumatised and depressed.

“The reason they still suffer is [due to] their mothers’ continuous sorrow caused by the loss of their husbands,” she said.

“As a result, these children want to leave their families and their country, and start their life anew, somewhere far away from Bosnia.”

Another problem for many Srebrenica survivors is that they never had a chance to say goodbye to their relatives. For many of them, according to the witness, “the most important thing in their life is to find the remains of their loved ones to provide them with a decent funeral”.

Ibrahimefendic quoted one women who said she wished she could find at least one bone of her son’s body so her soul could find peace.

Another witness who testified at Trbic’s trial this week was Saliha Djuderija, a lawyer with the Bosnian ministry for human rights and displaced persons. Djuderija pointed to the unstable political situation in post-war Bosnia as a contributing factor in the suffering of the victims.

“The problems that families of missing persons from Srebrenica are facing are huge, and they are often a consequence of the lack of confidence in the competency of the Bosnian authorities who should be helping them,” she said.

Since missing male relatives were also the families’ breadwinners, “in their absence, these families are very often disoriented, lost and confused”, said the lawyer.

She added that many surviving parents were extremely reluctant to pronounce their children dead, because they feared that if they did so, it might somehow lessen their chances of ever finding their remains.

Djuderija pointed out that the process of finding missing persons is far from being finished, and that some 4,000 people from Srebrenica were still missing.

The trial is due to resume on January 12, after a winter break.

Velma Saric is an IWPR-trained journalist in Sarajevo.