Dzenan standing in front of a canal in Amsterdam. He has dark short hair and brown eyes, a stubble and is wearing a jeans shirt and a black t-shirt.
Photo: Karim Jobe.

My Father Died in a Genocide. The First Time I Saw Him Was on YouTube

When his family escaped Bosnia exactly 25 years ago, Dženan was too young to have any memories of his dad.
03 August 2020, 1:44pm

This article originally appeared on VICE NL.

Dženan Halilović, 28, was born in a village in the Srebrenica municipality of eastern Bosnia Herzegovina. In 1992, the year he was born, Bosnia declared independence from Yugoslavia, after a decade of ethnic tensions following Tito’s death in 1980. Eventually, civil war broke out and Dženan’s family was forced to leave everything behind, including his father Mirza. “I don’t have any memories of my dad,” Dženan said. “I was still a baby when he died.”

Photos of Sarajevo's Scars

Bosnia has a very diverse population composed of three main ethnic groups – the Croats, who are Catholic, the Bosniak Muslims and the Serbs, who are Christian Orthodox. When the country declared independence, Serbs living in Bosnia took up arms and declared their own state, the Serbian Republic. With the help of Serbian troops, the rebels fought to expel all other ethnic groups from their area. Meanwhile, Bosnian Croats and Croatia tried to take over territory in the south of the country. During the three years of the conflict, Sarajevo, the capital, was held under siege and tens of thousands were internally displaced.

Dženan's family home after the war.

Dženan's family home after the war. Potočari, Srebrenica. Photo courtesy of the interviewee.

In July 1995, 25 years ago, the town of Srebrenica and the municipality surrounding it became the stage of what’s being called Europe’s worst massacre since World War II. The area had been designated as a safe zone by the UN, so local civilians fled there to escape an offensive by the Serbian army. A battalion of Dutch peacekeepers was stationed in Srebrenica, but they were not allowed to use their weapons. Within days, Serbian soldiers took over the town, and asked Bosnian Muslims to give up their weapons in exchange for safety.

Then the soldiers rounded up all men aged 12 to 77. Within five days, more than 8,000 men were killed and 23,000 women and children forcibly deported with widespread reports of torture and rape. Although Serbia rejects the term, the UN has described the events as genocide.

Baby Dženan and his family at a refugee centre in Slovenia

Baby Dženan and his family at a refugee centre in Slovenia. Photo courtesy of the interviewee.

Dženan and his mum in Slovenia.

Dženan and his mum in Slovenia. Photo courtesy of the interviewee.

As the war drew closer, Dženan’s family started hiding in a neighbour’s basement. Three or four weeks later, the fighting reached their village. Dženan’s father was a commander in the military police force in Srebrenica. He got word of the abuses happening in the war and decided to send his wife and newborn son away on a Red Cross bus to Slovenia. He stayed behind to protect the community and because people said Bosnian Muslim men would be executed at Bosnian Serbian checkpoints.

Eventually, Dženan’s family went to the Netherlands to seek asylum. “We weren’t able to bring much with us from Srebrenica,” Dženan said. “So we don’t have many things that belonged to my dad.” The only things they took were Mirza's belt and pocket watch. Dženan now keeps them in his room. He’s always wondered what his dad was like, so when he was a kid, he used to look him up on Google to find pictures or videos of him.

The farmhouse in Brabant, southern Netherlands, where his family was staying

The farmhouse in Brabant, southern Netherlands, where his family was staying. Photo courtesy of the interviewee.

The house adorned with welcome decorations.

The house adorned with welcome decorations. Photo courtesy of the interviewee.

“People who knew my dad always tell me I’m the spitting image of him,” Dženan said. “It makes them emotional.” But looking for information was hard – there were so many conflicting and confusing accounts of what happened. He eventually found survivors who had seen his dad being killed. With the information they gave him, he could tailor his search and finally find his dad in a YouTube video.

“When I watched the video, I saw with my own eyes how much I look like him,” he said. In the video, Mirza is being interviewed by a journalist about what he’s doing. He’s filmed walking together with a few soldiers. Although the clip wasn’t long, it provided Dženan with a lot of comfort. “I took a screenshot and turned it into a painting,” he said. “When I walk into the living room, that portrait is the first thing I see.”

Over the years, Dženan met many people who knew his dad and shared stories about him. “Sometimes, someone adds me on Facebook and asks me if I’m Mirza’s son," Dženan said. Unfortunately, other relatives and friends of his family also passed during the war, including his uncle, his nephew and neighbours. These losses have had a huge impact on his family. “You see people around you being sad from a young age,” he said. “All they talk about is the war." Dženan is very close with his mum and is thankful she brought him to safety. “You can definitely say I’m a mama’s boy,” he said.

Dženan's father's belt.

Dženan's father's belt. Photo courtesy of the interviewee.

Dženan's father's pocket watch.

Dženan's father's pocket watch. Photo courtesy of the interviewee.

Every year, Dženan commemorates the Srebrenica massacre by going to the memorial in The Hague and by doing an 11-kilometer peace march. “When I was ten, I started writing rap lyrics about my childhood,” he said. He’s now recorded singles and EPs under his alias Mastah D, including songs about Srebrenica and his dad.

He often travels to Srebrenica to visit his dad’s grave and the mass graves. Dženan says the painful memories left behind by the war are still very visible in Bosnia today. “You notice subtle provocations,” he said. Maybe someone hangs a Bosnian flag from their window, and someone else puts out a Serbian one. People have massive religious tattoos on their backs and crosses or crescent moon necklaces. He thinks former Yugoslavians who live abroad don’t feel the need to display their identity as much because they’re not confronted with it on a daily basis.

Dženan's father's portrait.

Dženan's father's portrait. Photo courtesy of the interviewee.

Dženan is very fond of his grandmother’s stories about how people lived without caring about religion before the war. He thinks kids should learn about the realities of the conflict, but also that peace and harmony between the communities existed even before that. “The biggest European genocide since the Second World War happened in Srebrenica,” Dženan said. “But young people in the Netherlands have no idea of what Srebrenica is, even though it isn’t that far from us.”