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

A Painful Return

A few thousand have courageously gone back to the Srebrenica area to rebuild their shattered lives.
By Ed Vulliamy

In July 1995, as Serb forces were attacking Srebrenica, Hasib Huseinovic watched what was happening from his home high up in the mountain top hamlet of Suceska, which overlooked the town.

He knew it was only a matter of time before Serb troops would arrive at his doorstep, so he sent his wife, Tima, and his son, Fadil, to the United Nations base at Potocari, hoping they might be evacuated by the Dutch peacekeepers stationed there. He, however, stayed behind, and when the Serb troops arrived, he hid in a cornfield and watched as they razed his village. “I saw them burn the village, enter my house and set it alight,” he said.

Husseinovic took to the hills and spent the next 85 days evading Serb troops, hiding in the forests as he slowly made his way to Bosnian government-held territory. He arrived in Tuzla on his wife’s birthday to find that she had made it out of Srebrenica alive. She had been taken from Potocari by truck along with most of the other women from the village.

But his son was not so lucky. He had joined the column of men who tried to escape from Potocari through the forests, but he was captured and last seen being taken to the Kravica warehouse, where over 1000 men and boys from Srebrenica were executed.

Tima, who had assumed her husband was dead, was overjoyed. But Hasib was crushed by the news that his son had not made it.

In June 2000, against his wife’s wishes, Husseinovic returned to Suceska.

“I wanted to be where my son grew up. I wanted to feel a connection to him. I always have this feeling that one day I might see him coming over the hill, that he went somewhere, and will return,” said Husseinovic.

Although Muslims who had been expelled from Serb-held parts of Bosnia had returned to some areas in what is now known as Republika Srpska, none had yet returned to the area around Srebrenica. Doing so had been deemed unthinkable because of the brutality with which they were driven out, and international donors were reluctant to fund such returns because they weren’t sure they would work. But Husseinovic would not take no for an answer.

“When I first came, I was heartbroken to see it,” he said. “Every house had been destroyed to the foundations. It was all overgrown. … For the first few weeks, we lived in tents, then slowly rebuilt our houses, one by one.”

For a long time, Husseinovic and his wife didn’t know if anyone else from their village would follow suit, or if they would live out the rest of their lives in solitude, surrounded by the people who had brutally banished them just a few years earlier.

But over the next two years, something extraordinary happened. Little by little, Bosniaks who had been expelled from the Drina valley started coming back. The first returns, to the Zvornik area, where met with sniper fire, stones and insults. Nonetheless, they continued. To date, some 4,000 Bosniaks have returned to villages on the outskirts of Srebrenica.

“Bosnian communities decided they would collect their people and go,” said Margriet Prins, who worked for the Return and Reconstruction Task Force in the office of Paddy Ashdown, the international community’s High Representative in Bosnia. .

Suceska, a burned out shell five years ago, is now a peasant hamlet again, of seven men and 30 women. The project has been carefully overseen by Ashdown's man in the area, Charlie Powell.

“They amaze me, these people, with their initiative and determination, coming back somewhere from which they were driven out like that,” said Powell. However, he is quick to point out that the process could reverse if the locals are left to fend for themselves.

Husseinovic shares Powell’s concerns, “ We have all these elderly women here, who have lost their husbands and sons; they need machines to cut their grass; they need tractors, and help with their livestock.”

Muslim return to Srebrenica itself is a lonelier, more dangerous business than to the surrounding, largely mono-ethnic villages.

Sija Mustafic, 72, who lost her husband Mehmed and her son Sead in the massacre, has moved back into town, puts planks up against her door at night and keeps the police station's number beside her telephone.

One of the first women to return, Mustafic has been back three years. Her wedding photo, and one of her dead son, adorn the wall of the home she reclaimed from a Serbian family.

“Srebrenica was all Serbian then,” she said, “and the people living here would not let me come and see my own home. I said to them 'But we were sitting in here drinking coffee together before the war - you know it's mine'. I stayed upstairs for three months, and finally got the court order telling them they had to leave.”

When the Serbs left, Mustafic says they took everything with them, even the telephone lines. She had to sell her necklace to buy household supplies – some dishes and cooking pans – but she says she doesn’t regret it.

“I did it to spite them,” she said. “I won't let them live in my house. My husband and my brother built it; it's mine and I want to die here.”

As she speaks a man walks by the window, checking electricity metres. “He is doing that now,” said Mustafic, “but during the war he was burning houses. I know they killed my husband and my son. I know that my neighbours were involved in this. But you can't say this one burned that house and that one killed that man. They were all involved. I know who was doing the killing.”

Mustafic said officials from the Hague tribunal asked her to come to testify in one of the trials related to Srebrenica, but she feared reprisals from the townspeople so she declined. She says she has little contact with the Serbs who live there now.

“I don't talk to them. … They have their life, I have mine,” she said.

Perhaps most unbelievable is the return of the Risanovic family to the house they watched burn in 1992, in the town of Glogova.

Glogova is home to the mass grave where many of those who were executed in the Kravica warehouse were buried and the Risanovic family home, a modest structure that the family rebuilt, is just 100 metres from the mass grave.

Munira Risanovic believes that the remains of her brother and her husband Hasan, who were killed at Kravica, were buried there.

“We were here,” she explained, “when they were exhuming the graves. Just in the field there. Soldiers came here to secure it. It was very strange and very frightening. I am thinking all the time that my husband and brother might be there, right there.”

Here is a sorrow-stricken household; our conversation is wrapped in long silences. Munira’s one-year-old granddaughter Alma has a terrible eye disease. The extended family lost 35 men in the massacre, and the survivors came back in 2001.

“But only out of necessity,” said Munira. “I wish I had had the money to stay in the Federation, I wish we could have stayed with the rest of our people. But we had nothing. Here they taunt us with insults, but we have two cows at least.”

Munira’s father, Meho, watched the murder of 63 Muslims outside the mosque in Golgova and saw his house burning in 1992, before escaping into the Srebrenica enclave. He too is convinced that his son died at Kravica, and would therefore have been buried in the field adjacent to the house.

“I didn't ask for the war,” said Meho, “it just ruined our lives and left our family a rump. And when you look around you, the Serbs all say they are not guilty for what happened. But if not, then where are all these people now?”

The return to Glogova was among the hardest. Led by a local businessman, Senad Avdic, who recalls the day in 1998 he first came to negotiate with the local Serbs, only for the bus he was traveling in to be shot at. Once people started coming back in numbers, a returnee's car was raked with gunfire. Shortly afterwards, another returnee was killed when his house was booby-trapped.

Avdic is among those who survived the trek out of Srebrenica through the forests, and from the café and mini-market that he operates in Glogova, he can see the “Road of Death”, the term survivors have given to the route they took when fleeing Srebrenica.

“I myself missed being taken to Kravica by five minutes,” said Avdic. “I had just passed through the hamlet of Kamenica when they surrounded it and took everyone. I remember the screaming, the shooting.”

On July 11, for the tenth anniversary of the massacre, Avdic and others plan to commemorate their escape by retracing the Road of Death.

Ed Vulliamy is a correspondent for The Guardian newspaper. Nerma Jelacic is IWPR/BIRN project manager in Bosnia.