Stair 3 - Srebrenica: When Humanity Fails

"Srebrenica? What do you want there?", Tazik asks me. "There is nothing to see there, except for many graves. And you have many graves here in Sarajevo, too." Of course I know that the upcoming destination is not a city that is known for "having fun", but why not visit a city that plays such a decisive role in Bosnia's most recent history, when it is reachable within three hours? Why should we not try to learn from the excruciating pain that others have felt? 'Pain' is a word that we hear very often, and too often we measure the meaning of 'pain' by our own little problems that must feel like paradise compared to the pain that many others have to endure. To have a better understanding of the word 'pain', it only makes sense to have a closer look at Srebrenica.


So for the first time I reach Republika Srpska, the other entity of Bosnia and Herzegowina. By establishing this entity in 1992, the Serbian authorities aspired to reclaim as many parts of seceded Bosnia as possible, with the intention to one day reintegrate those territories into a 'Greater Serbia'. Today, most people in Republika Srpska are Bosnian-Serbs. During the war, many Bosniaks (not to be confused with Bosnians, who are not restricted to any ethnicity) were driven out of their homes or killed, which is why they no longer constitute the majority in this region. Srebrenica is not an exception. Some Bosniaks eventually returned to Srebrenica, but today most of its inhabitants are Bosnian-Serbs, many of whom themselves came from nearby places, fleeing from bombardments.


Already on the way to Srebrenica, as I look out of the window, I spot the memorial-cemetery complex in the nearby village called Potocari. The bus arrives in Srebrenica on time. As I get off and take a look around, the bus driver notices that I am trying to find some orientation. He starts talking to me, until he realizes that my Bosnian vocabulary is only limited. His colleague, an older woman who can speak English, kindly welcomes me to Srebrenica. Only a few passengers were in the bus, and apparently I am the only non-Bosnian foreigner today. The woman and the bus driver seem all the more happy to receive me, and of course they know why I am here, giving me instructions to reach the place that I am intending to reach. The woman stresses that there is only one bus that will take me to Sarajevo today, so I need to return on time.

There is plenty of time left, so the first thing that I do is walk around in Srebrenica. The low density here of course results from the war, from which many of its inhabitants fled, and often they were killed while trying to flee. Today, Srebrenica's population is only half as big as in 1991, when the war was about to start. After the massacre took place in July 1995, Srebrenica was almost like a ghost town. Today the streets are not too crowded either. A group of older men look at me. Some faces express curiosity and other faces slightly signalize their appreciation to see a visitor. One of those individuals looks like he wants to smile at me, but it seems to cost him quite some effort, and he is just not capable of hiding the sadness and tiredness in his face. 

Srebrenica Genodice Memorial

A cab takes me to Potocari. Once I arrive at the memorial-cemetery complex, I take my time before I enter the memorial room, walking around and taking a look at the wall on which the names of all victims have been listed. In front of the entrance I see three adolescents sitting together. One of them is trying hard not to cry, while both his friends hold his hands and close their eyes. I was expecting that emotions could still run high here, not only because the recent sixeenth anniversary of the genocide, but because after further exhumation, new victims have just recently been identified. The number of identified victims will soon reach 7000. However, in the Srebrenica Genocide Memorial you will not only see many graves, numbers or lists of names. Inside the memorial room many different objects are to be found, such as watches, pieces of clothes, ashtrays, dolls, wristbands and other accesoires that belonged to the victims. Their stories and the meaning of those objects in their lives are being told individually, making the experience of visiting this memorial even more intense.


Just two months before my arrival in Bosnia, General Mladic, the military leader of Republika Srpska was extradited to the Hague. Like Radovan Karadzic, who in his "Directive 7" ordered to "create an unbearable situation of total insecurity with no hope of further survival or life for the inhabitants of Srebrenica", General Mladic would be put under trial, and even years later people would be waiting for the outcome of those trials. Maybe their fate will be similar to the fate of Slobodan Milosevic, the president of Serbia at that time, who was also put under trial for committing various war crimes during the Yugoslav wars, but died from a heart attack in 2006, before any verdict could ever be rendered. 

What happened here in 1995, is a major example of what levels of insanity a war can truly reach. The testimonies of the survivors speak for themselves. Apart from the thousands of people who were systematically killed, many females were raped, often in front of civilians, sometimes in front of their own children, in other cases the children themselves were raped, and sometimes their fathers or mothers were forced to watch them getting raped, while on other occasions children of all ages were killed in front of their parents. Other reports suggest that some victims were buried alive and tortured in many ways, sometimes leading the desparate Bosniaks to commit suicide in order to escape the torture.


All of this happened after these areas were declared "safe areas" by the United Nations Protection Forces (UNPROFOR) and the Dutchbat soldiers who were sent to this region to ensure the safety of the civilians. Of course today many people wonder how such a 'safe area' can ever be considered safe again? Could no decision maker have foreseen the tragedy of Srebrenica? And who was complicit or even in cahoots with those who have committed those war crimes? How could a city be declared a "safe area", when shortly thereafter the largest mass murder in Europe since World War II took place, with all kinds of atrocities that were concentrated in this place? Why was it so hard to guess that the UNPROFOR and the Dutchbat soldiers never had the ability to protect the inhabitants of Srebrenica, considering not only the restrictions that had been imposed on them with respect to military actions, but also their military inferiority against the Serbian soldiers? As the Guardian would report only in 2015, the United States of America and Great Britain knew six weeks before the massacre that Srebrenica would fall, but they decided to let it fall in order to restore peace. The same article also reveals that neither the UN leadership, nor the US, Britain or France had any plans to end the struggle for Srebrenica in favor of the Bosniaks.


At 3 pm I stand in front of the bus station in Srebrenica again. The woman who gave me instructions to get to Potocari must have left, but the bus driver is still there. He approaches me and trys to start a conversation with me. While I try to reply to him in Bosnian, he listens to me patiently. While doing so, he encourages me to take my time to remember some words. His patience and positive reception make it much easier for me to speak his language. The man introduces himself as Nedzad. He speaks slowly to make sure that I can follow him. Nedzad lets me know that there is still time left before we leave. Then he offers me a cigarette. "Are you a muslim?", he asks. Usually I say "not the best example of a Muslim" to stress how I live quite a secular life, but due to the language barrier it seemed easier to simply say "da". Obviously, he is surprised that I have come alone. Nedzad then shows me pictures on his mobile phone of what is most dear to him: His wife and his children. It is not difficult to notice how grateful he is.

Inside the bus Nedzad introduces another person to me who came to visit Srebrenica. His name is Adele, a 23 year old Bosnian who now lives in Sweden. He came to Srebrenica because the remnants of his father were among those that have recently been exhumed and identified. Despite the tragic news, Adele seems to be pretty calm. "It's not like we didn't expect this", he says. As a child he witnessed the horrors of the war, and as Adele tells me, he would have suffered the same fate as the thousands of victims in and around Srebrenica, if it had not been for a Serbian soldier, who gave the order to let him go because of his young age.


During the next break, Nedzad invites me to a coffee. While we are waiting for the order, he asks me about my origins. After I answer his question, Nedzad lets me know that Bosnia has never forgotten how the Islamic Republic of Pakistan helped them during the war. Several other Muslim countries also supported the Bosniaks, irrespective of the differences amongst each other. Shia Iran, for instance, was one of the first countries to support the Sunni Bosniaks. Moreover, three out of four Sunni schools were involved: Malikites, Hanafites (to which the Bosniaks themselves belong) and Hanbalites supported the Bosniaks financially, militarily and with humanitarian aid. Among the Mujahideen there were some fighters who were sent by none other than Osama bin Laden, former American ally and future "face of terror". 

The next day I take a cab to get to Lukavica, the small part of Sarajevo that still belongs to Republika Srpska and where Serbian soldiers have taken control accordingly. The cab driver demands more money than expected, and I let him know that I know how much the taxi ride should cost. After a little debate he asks me if I am a Muslim, and seems to have a guilty conscience after learning more about my belief, offering me an even better price than expected. Once we returned to Sarajevo, Nedzad left me his phone number and told me that I can call him whenever I need help in Bosnia. But my stay in Bosnia is now coming to an end. A song from the movie soundtrack "The Message" is playing through the cab driver's loudspeakers, reminding me that soon I will reach the orient. And soon, the holy month of Ramadan will start. The cab driver asks me if he can drop me off shortly before we reach Lukavica, because he does not want to get into any confrontation with the Serbian soldiers. I agree, and after all the impressions that I have gained in Srebrenica, I come up with some plans for my next destination: Serbia's capital city Belgrade.

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II.   Stairway to Heaven (2011)

III.  Travelution (2012)

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VII. Age of Turbulence (2016)

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XI. ??? (2020)