I have been sitting here trying to find the right words to eloquently describe what I have experienced these past few days but everything I write doesn’t seem to be good enough. All that was asked of us from the survivors was to spread the stories of those that survived and to share what happened in Bosnia. Many still don’t acknowledge what happened here, but believe me, it definitely happened. Out of the war, the genocide, the grotesque inhumane treatment of people, and the lack of international support rose the survivors.We travelled to Tuzla and Srebrenica with Hasan Hasanovic. Hasan is many things, but is most known for being a survivor of the Death March. Hasan lost his father and twin brother when they tried to escape the Serb forces by joining the column which came to be known as the Death March. The UN base was full and slowly the Dutch began to abandon the base and those seeking refuge. Hasan, along with an estimated 15,000 other men and a few women began to make their way to Tuzla in July of 1995. The death march was approximately 70 miles and around 3,500 survived. This was due to several attacks on the column by the Serb army. The Serb army forced a father to call his son to surrender, only for them to be later killed. This is a well-known story in Bosnia as it was caught on video by the Serbs. Ramo was forced to call out for his son Nermin to come down and surrender. This is also the last footage Saliha was able to see of her husband and son. It is still unclear how and where they were killed by the Serb forces. Saliha, the wife to Ramo and the mother to Nermin was able to share her story with us when we traveled to meet her in her home outside of Srebrenica. She proudly showed us her garden and offered us food and drinks as she welcomed us to her home. Despite the language barrier, I could feel the outpour of love and kindness as she warmly greeted us all. That evening, after sharing a meal and talking with each other, Hasan translated as she told us of her experience during the war . She lost her family, and it has taken years for her to be able to find the bones of her loved ones.After the war, she returned to her family home and was able to rebuild. Saliha lives alone, but still has rooms dedicated to her children she lost during the war. Listening to Saliha broke my heart, but also made me realize how incredibly strong and inspirational she is. In an area that denies the genocide, she lives her life. After taking her family, her home, and forever altering her life path, Saliha proves to those around her that she will persist. Everyday Saliha looks at the hill that her family escaped to, and everyday Saliha tends to her garden and lives to tell her story.
The next day, Hasan brought us to the memorial in Srebrenica and the museum of genocide in Srebrenica. We were able to listen to Hasan as he told us his story of surviving the war and the death march. Before the war, he lived a happy life. He lived with his family on their farm, and attended school nearby with is twin brother. He described the close relationship he had with his twin, and the everyday experiences he had before the war. He told us about the subtle ways in which he knew something was was about to change. The police accusing them of having weapons, and his neighbors stocking up on weapons. He told us of the struggles his family went through as they ran from their family home to escape the Serbs. He told us that his grandfather hung himself after seeing their home up in flames and being destroyed. He shared the emotions and feelings he had when he marched through the woods and hid from Serbs as he searched for his brother and father.He described the condition of the refugee camps, and the kindness that strangers had shown him. Hasan has since poured his time and energy into connecting with those that have survived, and sharing his experience. He has written a book, and is currently working on another one with Ann. They have connected with survivors and interviewed them the past few years. Due to this relationship with several survivors, we have had the privilege and honor of meeting several amazing people in Bosnia. Hasan has also curated several exhibits in the museum that depict what happened to the Bosniaks during the war. Hasan is truly an amazing and incredible human that has worked so hard to share the stories of the survivors, and to help wherever and whenever he can.
At the memorial, we were able to listen to Nura Mustafic share her story. Nura is one of the few women who joined the men on the death march. Nura, her three sons, and her husband fled to the woods to join the column. She was separated from her husband two sons during the death march. After being captured by Serb forces, she was separated from her other son. Nura’s husband and two sons have been found and buried 8,000 bodies have been found but still approximately 1,000 people are still missing. Nura’s son is one of those still missing. Nura is still searching for her other son. My heart broke with Nura as she told us all she wants is to find at least one bone from her other son and to find out what happened to her family. Nura wished us good health as she wiped away the tears that fell as she spoke. She hopes nothing like this will ever happen again.
After Nura spoke, Nedzad Avdic told us the brutal story of his survival. Nedzad was one of the very few who survived an execution site. He spoke as if it happened yesterday, even though it has taken him 20 years to want to speak about his experience. As he spoke, he made the movements of his hands being tied behind his back as he and others were forced to shout, “This is Serb land, and will forever be Serb land.” He told us how the Serb soldiers would ask the pile of bodies if anyone was still alive. The few that were, often pleaded the officers to kill them. Nedzad said he kept asking, “why am I not dead yet?” He had been shot several times but still managed to remain alive among the dead. After the soldiers left, he realized there was another survivor. He told us that after several hours, they were able to pull themselves out of the mass grave and make their way to the nearby woods. In the morning, he said he was able to see the destruction as he looked down at the hundreds of dead bodies. Nedzad managed to survive and today he has a wife and three daughters. It is unbelievable the amount of strength and resilience he has living in Srebrenica. His daughters are not taught about the war and genocide in school. Local authorities were perpetrators during the war. Yet Nedzad is still speaking about his experience and sharing his story to those who will listen.
From the memorial, we traveled to see Ramiz Nukic. Ramiz walks the hillls near his home everyday in search of bones. He was also a survivor of the death march, and after the war, he decided to search for his missing family. He was able to find the bones of his family, but has since vowed to help others find the bones of their family. Ramiz has helped find over 200 bodies. When he approaches a mine, or a bomb, he swiftly and safely disarms it so he can continue his search. He told us that “nothing will get on his way of finding bones.” Although Ramiz doesn’t have much, he gives to other survivors in his own way. Ramiz has never been compensated for his work, and has aided the ICMP greatly. When we saw him, he had recently found another set of bones and was waiting on the ICMP to come pick them up. Ramiz is one of the many unsung heroes of the war.
These survivors are such incredible humans. Everyone should know their names and stories.