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

REGIONAL REPORT: Srebrenica, Seven Years On

Few Muslims prepared to return to a town synonymous with Serb brutality
By Benjamin Beasley-Murray

NATO helicopters whirred overhead last week, as a convoy of 112 buses headed towards a field in the village of Potocari, eastern Bosnia. Standing beneath a solitary tree, a plain white marble monument explains the reason for their journey. It reads simply, Srebrenica, July 1995.


For the last seven years, Srebrenica has occupied a unique place in the annals of evil. After a three-year siege, seven thousand men and boys were murdered by Bosnian Serb forces, in the largest single civilian massacre since 1945.


They were among 25,000 thousand panic-stricken civilians who converged on the Dutch UN base in Potocari. As "prisoners of war" they were handed to the Bosnian Serb forces, who put them on buses and drove them to an execution site.


Another 15,000 men had earlier decided to try to reach Muslim positions by hiking through the woods. Many were killed by shells, others were shot or had their throats slit after being captured. Among those attending the service were some of those who made it safely through the lines.


The memorial ceremony was simple, conducted in sweltering heat. Women and children exchanged flowers, which were then piled onto the marble monument.


Mustafa Efendi Ceric, head of the Muslim community in Bosnia, led the prayers. In his address, Ceric also remembered the victims of the September 11 terrorist attacks in the US, saying, "We pray for hope to come from sorrow, for justice from revenge and for mothers' tears to ensure that Srebrenica and New York will never be repeated, anywhere."


The fall of the Bosnian enclave "simplified" the task facing international peace brokers, by removing a Muslim island in an ocean of Serb-controlled territory. Today, fewer than 100 of the town's population of 2,000 are Muslim. For now, most former residents confine themselves to an annual visit to remember the dead.


Some are too frightened to return. For others, the memories are too terrible to even contemplate coming back. Many former Muslim homes are now occupied by Serb refugees from the Federation or from the Krajina in Croatia. Despite extensive rebuilding, much of the town's housing remains destroyed.


Those Muslims who have returned report that the atmosphere is not as bad as they expected. "We don't have any problems," said Omar, who runs a café with his wife. Local demographics dictate that the vast majority of his clientele are Serb. "I wanted to come back here because this is my home, it is where I should be," he said. In a highly symbolic mark of progress, the White Mosque, which the Serbs completely destroyed when they seized the town, has now been rebuilt. An inaugural service was held earlier this month.


There are still few jobs and very little money in Srebrenica. Factories which provided jobs before the war have not reopened and the town suffers regular and lengthy cuts in the water supply. In April, the United Nations committed 12.5 million US dollars to improve housing, infrastructure and stimulate the economy. A further 2.5 million was pledged this month by Washington and the Human Rights and Refugees Ministry in Bosnia.


Srebrenica's youth is disillusioned, though. "Just look around you," said Sasha, a 22-year-old Serb who was born and raised in the town. "This town is dead. There's nothing here. The few people who do live here hardly ever go out because they don't have any money." Sasha gets occasional work in Belgrade as a labourer, but there is no job for him in Srebrenica.


Like both Serbs and Muslims, Sasha finds it hard to talk about the events of July 1995. "I wasn't here when the, you know, when the... ( he draws a finger across his throat).. I can't even say the word," he admitted. "It's really fucked up, you know. We are the same, Muslims and Serbs. We're the same people. But we will always hate each other because of what happened. We may even live together again, but we will always hate each other."


"I have no problem with Muslims," said Nino, who was only nine when the massacre happened. "But some of the older people say we must remember what the Muslims did to us. They argue for hours about who started it all, who did what first." He is referring to a number of armed attacks Muslim militias made on surrounding Serb villages while the town was under UN administration and local men were supposed to have been disarmed.


Local Serbs regard Naser Oric, the commander of Srebrenica's defence, as a war criminal who should have been indicted by The Hague alongside General Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic. To date, only one man has been tried for the atrocity of July 1995. Last summer, General Radislav Krstic was convicted of genocide and sentenced to 46 years in prison.


In a warehouse in the nearby Muslim town of Tuzla, around 4,000 corpses lie in racks, still awaiting identification. So far only a few hundred have been named, the others simply have number tags. When DNA analysis has been used to identify as many bodies as possible, they will be laid to rest beside the marble monument in Potocari.


Benjamin Beasley-Murray is a journalist living in Belgrade