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The Killing Fields of Srebrenica: Twenty Years After the Bosnian Genocide

Ahead of this year's memorial event, we visited the town where Bosnian Serb forces killed 8,000 Muslim men and boys in 1995.

by Petra Živić and Stefan Veselinović
Jul 10 2015, 6:25pm

The town of Srebrenica

This article originally appeared on VICE Serbia

On July 11, 1995, a few months before the Bosnian war drew to a close, Bosnian Serb military forces, under the leadership of General Ratko Mladic, descended upon Srebrenica—a predominantly Muslim town that the UN designated as a "safe haven"—and proceeded to carry out the slaughter of some 8,000 men and boys. The mass killing has been called the worst atrocity committed on European soil since World War II. The brutal mass execution has been ruled a genocide by the UN's two highest courts, but the term has been hotly disputed by Russia. This Saturday will mark two decades since the atrocity.

Even though we were basically toddlers living on the other side of Serbia when the massacre of Srebrenica happened, our opinions on the matter have still been heavily tainted. Growing up, television and radio has bombarded us with a flood of semi-information and noisy political propaganda about what actually took place on that gruesome day.

Ahead of the 20-year anniversary of the killings, we wanted to travel to Srebrenica and see the city before it was overrun by international press. We wanted to get an impression of everyday life in the town, but we knew it would be hard to remain unbiased and steer conversation clear of politics once we got there—especially given that, on the day we arrived, a former Bosnian military commander was arrested in Switzerland.

Our main aim in heading there was to get a clear answer to one question: Who are the people of Srebrenica?

Srebrenica is a mere 105 miles from the Serbian capital of Belgrade, but for some reason, we couldn't find a single person able to tell us how long it would take to get there; it seemed as if it were some forbidden place that people would prefer to forget about. After talking to a handful of fellow journalists, who'd either visited the town or lived there during the war, it quickly became apparent that none of them had been back since leaving all those years ago.

Our naivety got the best of us when we assumed that Google Maps would stand a chance at navigating Serbia's un-signposted roads—our trip took about two hours longer than it should have. When we finally managed to make it to the Serbian side of the Bosnian border, police ordered us out of our car and told us to show them all of our personal belongings.

"Just a routine check-up," we were told.

The police frisked us from top-to-toe and made us empty our pockets and bags. They counted our cash, checking each note meticulously to see whether or not it was real. Every inch of our car was also given the once over.

Eventually they wished us a safe trip and sent us on our way. We crossed the Drina, the river separating Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia, hoping that the Bosnian border police would be a little more accommodating. But it wasn't to be.

"Our Serbian colleagues told us to check the vehicle," the border guard chuckled. Apparently that was just local humor, because he immediately waved us through. A confusing entrance to the country, to be sure.

The first town we got to was Bratunac—a place populated in the late 1990s by Bosnian Serbs fleeing areas ruled by the government in Sarajevo. Bratunac was made famous by a propaganda video where General Ratko Mladic, the former Bosnian Serb military leader accused of both genocide and crimes against humanity, declared the town a present to the Serbian people.

The streets of Srebrenica

On our way out of the city, we picked up a hitchhiker (we'd heard that hitchhiking was an important means of public transport in the country). Vasilije, who was also heading to Srebrenica, hopped into our car. He seemed vexed when we explained where we were going.

"There's nothing there," he said. "What are you guys actually after in Srebrenica? A bar, or something? There's a few there, but we all go to Bratunac to party." Ten miles down the rickety road, we realized exactly what he meant.

Srebrenica was desolate. The old town was in better shape than pictures we'd seen of it, but it wasn't far from the ruins that it had been. For all intents and purposes, Srebrenica is simply a main street and a bunch of houses scattered throughout its hills. That's it.

Before the war, the town was quite affluent and prospered from tourism—it also had mines, an industrial zone, and a spa that it was famous for. Today, it has three factories, one solitary supermarket, two stalls in what used to be a booming local green market, two corner shops, and three bookies. There's also a single bank where you can exchange your money into the local currency. About a month ago, the last bakery and butcher shop closed down.

"Not sure if you guys have heard, but we have a school here now," our new hitchhiker friend told us. "I have absolutely no idea who studies there, though."

Wherever we went, people stared at us—but not in an intimidating way; it seemed to be more out of genuine curiosity. Our initial impression of Srebrenica was that it reminded us of the part of Eastern Serbia where we'd grown up. It was so similar that, while walking around, we completely forgot that we were treading on soil that had previously been used as killing fields. The bullet holes in the houses were the only reminder of what had happened two decades ago. There's a memorial center named Potočari only a few miles away, but, in Srebrenica itself, there isn't a single monument or sign marking the event—a fact that added this extra air of bleakness to an already empty town.

"I guess we are our own living monument," one resident told us.

Bullet holes in the house walls

We decided that it wouldn't make any sense to get the opinions of the town's leading politicians—we knew that they'd never be able to explain why Srebrenica was still in this state of disrepair. How would they ever be able to explain where all the foreign donation money had gone? Why it wasn't spent filling in the bullet holes in the city's walls. Instead, we decided to go out in search of everyday folks on the street. Which wasn't the easiest task, given the fact that there wasn't really anyone on the streets.

We introduced ourselves to the owner of a coffee shop called Bato who'd moved to Srebrenica after the war. When he found out that we were journalists, his mood took a rapid turn. He went from being quite sedate to almost hysterical. He was pissed, angry, and hurt—he kept saying that Serbs were stupid and had no idea how to organize themselves as a nation.

At another bar, we met a man called Marcus. Originally from Holland, he told us that he owned one of the town's factories. Employing 40 people, he had both Serbs and Bosnians on the payroll. He insisted on treating us to some coffee and ice-cream. About a year ago, Marcus blew some life into Srebrenica by opening a pellet factory. As he regaled us with stories of how his Serbian wife had convinced him to move to the city, some of his employees came and joined us. It seemed as if everyone in Srebrenica was aware that we were journalists and wanted to know what we were up to. Everyone wanted to know what we thought of the place.

"It's as if the town has just been abandoned," we told them.

The owner of the coffeeshop, Bato

It's usually right about there that the conversations in Srebrenica turn to war.

"If all the foreign donations had actually ended up in Srebrenica instead of the politicians' pockets, this town would be very different," Dragan, one of the factory's managers, told us. "I'm only here so I can work, feed my children, and save up enough money so they can afford to go to college. As soon as I'm done, I'm selling my house and leaving."

Working in Srebrenica, the differences between Serbs and Bosnians tend to fade away pretty quickly. It goes back to the way it was before the war, according to the workers. "There's not much to do here. We both have the same problems—no jobs, no money. We all work together when we can. There's no room for being a dick head," said Dragan.

Employees at lunch in the factory

Dragan also explained how he left university in Belgrade so he could travel to Sarajevo and join the Bosnian Serb army. "I was seduced by all those epic Serbian poems, you know? They were all about bravery and fighting for what is yours. It all sounded so beautiful," he admitted.

These days, he works with the very people he was probably aiming his guns at.

As the darkness of night crept in, we decided to take a walk downtown. The place looked the same: completely empty.

The next day we ventured toward the memorial in Potočari. There was no curator at the graveyards's entrance so we just walked in. We were immediately met by a seemingly endless sea of white tombstones. Walking around, one feels the urge to say something, but the eerie silence doesn't allow it. Reading name after name on those tombstones was harrowing—it brought everything we'd been told about on television to life.

Aside from us and a few cleaners, there was only one old lady at the memorial. We had a short chat with her, and she explained to us that her son and five of her cousins had gravestones there. When we explained to her that we'd come to the town to write a story about what happened, she seemed touched.

The memorial in Potočari

"Thank you so much for coming. It makes me so happy," she said softly. Listening to her story, it was hard not to feel completely helpless. Miserable, we crossed the road and headed to a special memorial room that had been built in a disused battery factory. At the entrance, there was a guestbook full of signatures and short messages. The book appeared to be completely devoid of any Serbian names. We took a pen and wrote: "Let's not let this happen again."

There was no curator here, either. We took a short walk around and had a look at the photos. All two dozen of them had really powerful words, like "aggression" and "genocide," written in the descriptions hanging beneath.

As we were leaving, we took another look at the guestbook. For some reason, somebody had scribbled: "An eye for an eye" right below our message. We were confused. This person was expressing genuine hatred in a place that should serve as a stark reminder of the ills that hate can accomplish.

Visiting Srebrenica as a journalist is quite strange. You quickly get the impression that you're irritating every single person you talk to. There's this strange guilt, because you're fully aware that you are unintentionally poking at wounds that haven't even healed yet. But after a while, you begin to realize that these locals are used to it—especially in the run-up to the commemoration.

The only place in town where you got the feeling that something was happening was Misirlije—the bed and breakfast we stayed in. We sat down for a chat with its owner, Avdo, who'd lived in Srebrenica his whole life.

Hostel owner Avdo

"Believe it or not, we lead normal lives here. We're ordinary people. I'm on good terms with my neighbor. But at the same time, nothing is normal here. Eastern Bosnia is in deep misery. It's really sad. I blame it on the destructive politics of both the Republic of Srpska and the Muslim-Croat Federation," he told us.

"I'm Bosniak, and I live in the Republic of Srpska. I don't feel particularly safe here. A guy got arrested in Banja Luka because he walked through the city center holding the Bosnia and Herzegovina flag. How should I feel about the fact that, after those shootings at that police station in Zvornik, cops started stopping cars and searching Bosniaks?"

His fear of authority figures dates all the way back to "that" July in 1995. Avdo was only ten years old at the time. His father used to be a well-respected culinary instructor in the area and a member of Doctors Without Borders. He was part of the team that negotiated with General Ratko Mladic.

Avdo showed us a video of his dad on YouTube. It had been recorded inside the UN base on the 11th of July, 1995. Having been threatened and pressured, his father was recorded saying that the Bosniaks were grateful that Mladic and his army "saved" them from Muslim terrorists. Aldo smiled at us while we sat watching the video.

"After they finished recording the video, they told him: 'Listen, teacher, you were a good professor, but this could be your last class.'"

The Serbs of Srebrenica have a different view on the whole matter: the genocide label is a bit much for them. That said, nobody seems to deny the fact that men were separated from the women and children and then systematically killed. What they argue is the numbers. "Bosniaks bring bodies from the rest of Bosnia, pretending that those people were killed here. They think we are a genocidal nation," Dragan had told us at the factory earlier.

Nobody around here denies that Srebrenica was a crime, but the Serb community seems bitter about the fact that every year the world's eyes are pointed toward Potočare and Srebrenica but not Bratunac—where they mark the anniversary of the killing of Serb civilians in 1992. The general consensus of Serbs seems to be that Bosniaks are overprotected and have more rights than them. Even the mayor of Srebrenica is a Bosniak. That said, it seems as if most Bosniaks in Srebrenica don't exactly like the fact they live in the area.

Having spent time in the town, it's hard to imagine a solution to the underlying feelings of hate and resentment—it seems as if there may not be one for a long time. The war and its wounds are still apparent in Srebrenica. It could easily be because when people here talk about their town, they discuss politics. July 11, 1995, and everything that happened after it, has left a deep impression here, and the small part of the town that's still alive may very well one day end up being destroyed by politics.