Bearing Witness to Genocide: Visiting Srebrenica


Delyth Michael recounts her experience of visiting Srebrenica and the Srebrenica Memorial Center in Bosnia and Herzegovina

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Image by Delyth Michael

By Delyth Michael

CONTENT WARNING: This article mentions genocide, violence, sexual violence and racism.

This summer, I’d persuaded my family to visit Bosnia so that I could take my own photographs of monuments in Mostar and Sarajevo to use in my dissertation. I knew I would also be discussing the genocide in Srebrenica, and I wanted to make the journey to the memorial there to pay my respects. Still, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the trip. I think I expected us to be on a big bus full of people, taking in the beautiful countryside on the way there and bracing ourselves to cry at the memorial, and then have lunch and go home. While I was vague on the details, I was sure it was something I wanted to do. I’m very glad that I did and it’s an experience I will never forget.

For context, the Bosnian War of 1992-1995 began after Bosnia-Herzegovina voted for independence from Yugoslavia. However, there were increasing ethnic tensions as Yugoslavia was breaking up. Many Bosnian Croats wished to join Croatia (which had already declared independence) and Bosnian Serbs wished to stay in Yugoslavia with Serbia and Montenegro. The ensuing war between the different ethnic groups was bitter and violent with many war crimes committed by Bosnian Serbs and to a lesser extent by Bosnian Croats and Bosniak Muslims. The Bosnian Serb army carved through north-eastern Bosnia, leading a campaign of ethnic cleansing that culminated in the Srebrenica genocide in July 1995. Over 8,000 men who had taken refuge in Srebrenica were systematically murdered as women and children were forcibly evicted, facing abuse and rape on their journeys to Bosniak Army territory.

It was just my family and I going on the tour that day. We piled into a mini-van and from the beginning Almir, our tour guide, didn’t stop talking, even when his phone blared warnings about upcoming speed cameras. We hung off his every word as he told us about his time in Sarajevo, the capital city of Bosnia, during the war. Sarajevo withstood a siege by the Bosnian Serb forces for 1425 days – the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare.

One of the first things Almir told us was how strong the camaraderie was between the people of Sarajevo during the siege. He had experienced this personally after his older brother died from being injured by shelling when Almir was only sixteen. He had sat outside of the morgue alone and crying, and was surprised and comforted by how many people came to ask him what had happened and offered him help. Eventually someone came and helped him to get home and tell his mother what had happened and he said that he has never forgotten the kindness of people that day.

It was not long before we entered the City of East Sarajevo and Republika Srpska. After the war, Bosnia-Herzegovina was divided into two autonomous entities: the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, composed mainly of Bosniak Muslims and Bosnian Croats, and Republika Srpska, which is composed mainly of Bosnian Serbs. As we passed the border, the Latin alphabet on road signs gave way to Cyrillic and mosques gave way to Christian Orthodox churches, all framed by the beautiful Bosnian forests and mountains. Yet the ethnic divides entrenched by the war were clear to see thirty years later.

Before the war, things had been different. Bosnia-Herzegovina had been the most ethnically diverse of the Yugoslav republics. As Almir said, Josip Tito, who was President of Yugoslavia from 1953 to 1980, was a dictator, but he had also successfully held different republics and ethnic and religious groups together as one country for decades. 13 percent of all marriages in Bosnia-Herzegovina had been inter-ethnic: in Sarajevo the figure was 34 percent. After Tito’s death in 1980, the federation began to splinter. In 1987, Slobodan Milošević came to power in Serbia. He was a populist who quickly won power in the Serbian autonomous provinces of Vojvodina and Kosovo as well as Montenegro. Almir told us about Milošević’s building propaganda in the runup to the war in which he sought to reignite ethnic tensions. Milošević harkened back to World War II where Croatian fascists, known as the Ustaše, committed war crimes against Serbs, to create tension between ethnic Serbs and ethnic Croats. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, Milošević, aided by Radovan Karadžić, who would become the leader of Republika Srpska, talked about how Bosnian Muslims had originally been Turks. They argued that the Ottoman Empire was going to come back, and Bosnian Muslims would want to have power over them again. As a result of the propaganda, Serbs from the different republics had an idea of joining all together to become a ‘Greater Serbia’. Bosnia, with its population of 44 percent Muslims, 33 percent Serbs and 17 percent Croats, would be ripped apart between 1992 and 1995 in efforts by different sides to partition the country into “ethnically pure” states.

People in Sarajevo didn’t believe war was coming, even when the Yugoslav National Army (dominated by Serbs) began to approach the city. A Bosnian Serb childhood friend of Almir’s, came to him and showed him a box containing an AK47 his father had received from the Bosnian Serb forces. Almir’s friend fought with the Bosnian Serb army during the war, and moved to Serbia afterwards. Recently Almir saw that he had died and noticed that in every tribute, despite him having lived in Serbia for decades, they still called him Bosnian – despite fighting for them they still did not see him as Serb. As we got close to Srebrenica, Almir pointed out the first site – an abandoned building where men had been massacred. He told us that tour guides used to point out the bullet holes inside the walls, so local Bosnian Serbs had blocked the windows.

We then visited the Srebrenica Memorial Centre, which was set up so that events leading up to the massacre appeared chronologically as you walked through. The memorial centre is not in Srebrenica itself but in Potočari, a small village nearby where UN troops were stationed after Srebrenica was declared a demilitarised safe zone. Part of the museum is in the former UN compound, where the people of Srebrenica had sought refuge. Graffiti from the time has been preserved or photographed, including one piece from the locals denoting the UN as “United Nothing”. We read in great detail how the Dutch UN forces, as well as other UN personnel in Bosnia, had failed to protect the civilians. We were taken through an agonising timeline where it became clearer that the army of Ratko Mladić, general of the Bosnian Serb army, would reach Srebrenica and take the Bosniak Muslim refugees away. As had happened throughout the war, the men would be killed, and women and children would be taken by bus to Bosniak Muslim areas all in the name of creating ‘Greater Serbia’. There were also heart-wrenching exhibits of personal belongings found in mass graves which were later identified by relatives, alongside audio recordings from relatives talking about what happened to their loved ones.

After visiting the Memorial Centre, Almir took us to the town of Srebrenica. Along the way, he told us about the woman we were going to meet. Begija Smajić is a Bosniak Muslim and a professor of mathematics and physics who returned to Srebrenica after the war and now teaches at a local primary school. Almir said that it was very difficult for the few Bosniaks who had returned to Srebrenica after the war. When Bosnia was partitioned into two entities as part of the peace agreement, Srebrenica was left in the heartland of Republika Srpska. As we drove past the school, he told us that just the week before, there had been an attack on a 10 year old girl wearing a hijab. The police station next door said that their security cameras had “glitched” that day, so there was no evidence of a crime. According to Almir, teenage boys are often attacked by larger groups, with one recently having been told "We didn’t kill enough of you Muslims at Srebrenica. This time, we will kill all of you". Genocide denial is an increasing problem there.

Begija welcomed us into her home and served us a beautiful lunch, even bringing out a vegan plate for me. We happily ate our delicious burek (a traditional Bosnian pie) and when we had finished, we moved to the sofas to eat cake and drink some incredible Bosnian coffee. We discussed Begija’s elementary school, where she has still not been given a permanent position. Every year she must reapply. Despite this, she is voted best teacher every year. The local Orthodox priest does not like this, and tells the Serb children that they must pick a Serb teacher instead. Begija’s family were shocked when she moved back to Srebrenica, saying it was not safe for her. Her sisters, who now live in the US, urged her to come with them. The family had been at Srebrenica at the time of the massacre, when Begija was just 12 years old. Her father left on one of the buses out of the compound with the other men, led away by the Bosnian Serbs. His remains have still not been found.

Begija said that at first, she had hated Serbs for what happened. But when she came back to Srebrenica and began teaching, she realised that she could never hate all Serbs and especially not the children she taught. In 2018, Begija was also the first woman in a hijab to be elected as a delegate to the National Assembly of Republika Srpska. Unfortunately, she was not re-elected in 2022 but she will try again.

Worryingly, this appears to be worsening nationally. In the early 2000s, when Paddy Ashdown was High Representative of Bosnia-Herzegovina and the eyes of the international community were watching, Republika Srpska officially acknowledged the genocide. Almir and Begija say that now the international community has stopped watching, once again the government of Republika Srpska denies the genocide happened. In 2021, the president of Republika Srpska asserted on Bosnian Serb TV that coffins in the memorial cemetery were empty.

We also discussed the desire for revenge from Bosniak Muslims. Almir talked with great sadness about assisting police in arresting people who he had fought alongside during the Siege of Sarajevo. His former comrades were killing Bosnian Serb civilians for revenge years after the war. “People call them fools,” he said, “but they weren’t. Fools don’t know what they’re doing. They knew. I know they knew, because they didn’t knock on my door.” He understood their anger, but condemned them for what they did, and believed that it was his moral duty to bring them to justice. We wondered what it would take for Bosnia to heal from the scars of the war. Almir said that he thought what we were doing was the answer – he wants Bosnians to travel. Travel is incredibly important for learning about other people and different perspectives.

After we thanked Begija for her hospitality and left her home, we returned to Potočari to see the cemetery. White headstones stretched far in every direction. On 11 July, there is a memorial day every year there. New bodies that are found during the year are buried on this day. New graves are marked with green plastic that will eventually be replaced with headstones. Approximately 1000 people are still missing, according to an article posted by the ICMP in July 2022.

Each headstone had the name, date of birth and the death date of the deceased, as well as a Muslim prayer. While driving to Srebrenica, we had discussed religion. Religion is one of the key differences between the ethnic groups in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Predominantly, Serbs are Orthodox Christians, Croats are Catholics, and the Muslim population are known as Bosniaks. Before the war, Sarajevo and the wider country and region had always been praised as a place where people of different religions could live side by side. However, during the war, places of worship were often destroyed. Almir said that for him, his religion is between himself and God, not other people. During the war, religious Muslim fighters (known as Mujahideen) came from abroad to assist Bosniak Muslims in what they saw as a religious fight. Almir said that there was sometimes tension between these groups and the Bosniaks, over things such as drinking alcohol which the Mujahideen saw as religiously forbidden (haram). For Almir, one of the most important things for rebuilding a peaceful Bosnia is understanding other religions and cultures, so that everyone can live harmoniously.

Almir mentioned that when he first started working for the tour company, he shadowed other tour guides. He was surprised that they spent the car ride in silence, only starting to talk about the context of Srebrenica when they arrived at the museum. Almir wasn’t like that. He could talk for hours and never bore you. Getting to hear his experience and perspective on the war as someone who had been irreparably affected by it, was a human touch that I don’t think I ever would have got from all my reading on Srebrenica for my dissertation. I was impressed afterwards at how even though we were discussing such awful things, it never felt overwhelmingly depressing thanks to Almir.

As we watched the sun set on our way back into Sarajevo, Almir asked us to tell other people about Srebrenica and what happened there. For people like Begija, who are courageously living in a place where they have been told they are not welcome, being able to share their stories and keep alive the memory of those who died in the massacre is incredibly important. As more and more people in Bosnia want to hide or deny the genocide, it is powerful for people to go and visit and learn about these awful truths. Many people in the UK today don’t know about the genocide, less than fifty years after we said “Never Again”.

Everywhere we went in Bosnia, people were very thankful for us visiting and their genuine eagerness to share their culture was touching. The hospitality of Bosnians is unparalleled compared to anywhere else I have been. If you ever get the opportunity to visit this scarred but beautiful country, you will not regret taking it.