Seventeen years ago this week, more than eight thousand Bosnian Muslim men and boys were massacred in Srebrenica.
July 1995, Srebrenica, Bosnia: More than 8,000 Bosnian Muslims are massacred, in just days, by Bosnian Serb units under the command of Ratko Mladic.
The most Hellish act of a conflict that saw men and boys ordered to line up along the side of the road and shot in the back; children raped and tortured while their parents looked on, helpless, as neighbour turned on neighbour; emaciated victims herded into concentration camps reminiscent of Aushwitz; cities under fire from snipers, mortars and rockets… scenes not witnessed in Europe for half a century.
This year, the remains of 520 newly identified victims of the massacre were buried. Row upon row upon row of coffins draped in green.
Before breaking down in tears, Rabija Hrustanovic, whose husband and brother were finally laid to rest, said:
“I want to lay down next to them and stay here forever.”
• Evil in the dock: Mladic finally faces justice 3 Jun 2011
• Mladic arrives in Rotterdam to face justice at The Hague 31 May 2011
• Background of his heinousness and reaction from Serbia 27 May 2011
• Mladic to face justice. Finally. At long, long last 27 May 2011
Below is an eyewitness account of the Srebrenica massacre, from a man named only as Suljic, a 54-year-old disabled bricklayer – one of only three men, alongside Mevludin Oric and Smail Hodzic, known to have survived; be warned, it’s chillingly graphic:
As Srebrenica fell after three years of siege, residents had two choices: hope U.N. soldiers could protect them, or try to escape west through Serb-held forests to government territory. Suljic figured the Serbs would have no use for a bricklayer with a bum leg, and joined thousands of others – mostly women and children – seeking refuge at the main U.N. base. But Serbs occupied the base and, while Dutch peacekeepers watched helplessly, separated several hundred men and shut them up in a nearby warehouse. Suljic was among them.
Suljic said some 100 were taken away the first day, supposedly for questioning. While on a visit to the bathroom, he believes he glimpsed one of them being beaten by Serb soldiers with an iron bar and an axe in a room with a blood-covered floor.
The next day Mladic visited the warehouse and told the group they would be exchanged for Serb prisoners of war. But instead of heading to the front line, they were taken to a sweltering sports hall in Krizevci, about 22 miles north of Srebrenica. Through the night, bus after bus arrived. On one was 25-year-old Oric, a soldier captured by Serbs as he fled through the woods. Oric said the Serbs sometimes drove U.N. vehicles, or wore blue U.N. flak jackets confiscated from peacekeepers.
Suljic, using his bricklayer’s skills, estimated the area of the sports hall was roughly 600 square yards. He said he counted four to five men a square yard, for a total of 2,400-3,000. The men rested on each other. Those who couldn’t sit, stood. Mladic appeared again on July 14, three days after the fall of Srebrenica. Suljic recalled that the general, accompanied by aides, greeted the prisoners by saying “hello, neighbors”.
“We started yelling at him, ‘Why are you suffocating us here? Better kill us all,’” Suljic said. Finally the prisoner exchange was said to be ready. Men were given water for the first time since arriving in Krizevci. Then, they were placed in two small trucks, 10-15 men a truck. Suljic, thinking his ordeal was ending, was among the first. Suljic and Oric both noted that as the open-back trucks left, they were followed by a red car. In the passenger seat was a man aiming an automatic rifle at the prisoners.
“We went a bit up the hill, slowly,” Suljic recalled. “The sound of some machines was becoming louder and louder. We were obviously approaching them. The truck turned left and stopped in the grass. We saw a field covered with bodies. They ordered us to come out and line up with our backs to the soldiers, and our faces to the field of bodies.”
There were two firing squads of five soldiers each, armed with automatic rifles. Suljic was in the first row looking at the bodies, with two rows of prisoners between him and Serb guns. “I could hear automatic gunfire. They fell on me, and I fell on my stomach. But I wasn’t hit,” he said.
In intervals between the shooting, a Serb soldier walked among the bodies and finished off those still moving with a pistol shot to the head, Oric and Suljic said. Oric said whenever anyone showed signs of life, he was killed. At one point, he heard an old man plead: “Please don’t do this to us, children. We haven’t done anything to you.” He, too, was killed.
Group by group, trucks brought prisoners, who were gunned down in turn. When it became too dark to see, the soldiers used the headlights of two backhoes, Suljic said. Finally the shooting stopped, and Oric heard a voice saying the dead would not be buried that night. But guards refused to spend the night, and all the Serbs eventually left.
Suljic stood and looked around the quiet countryside under a blanket of stars. Moonlight illuminated “a sea of bodies”. He tried to shout “Is there anybody alive? If there is someone, get up, and let’s go”. It came out as a whisper. But it was loud enough for Oric, lying about 20 yards away. As he stood, Oric said: “The only thing I saw was dead people all over the place, one on top of the other. I got very scared and started crying. I couldn’t stop. This man came to me, it was Hurem, and he asked if I was wounded.”
Stepping over bodies, the two headed into the forest. In the morning, they reached a burned-out village. Stopping to pick apples, they saw a man ahead. It was Hodzic, the third known survivor. Suljic said the three climbed a hill, oriented themselves, and began walking toward government positions. Three days later, they crossed a mine field at the front line and were met by Bosnian soldiers.
The BBC documentary “A Cry from the Grave” follows hour by hour the story of the killings. Through the testimony of survivors and relatives of those who died it explores the pain felt when no one is brought to justice.
It has won numerous prizes, been shown at the UN, and been used during previous war crimes trials at The Hague; if you can spare a couple of hours, we urge you to watch it:
As we said last May following the arrest of Mladic:
That the international community allowed such carnage to take place in our time and on our doorstep is unforgivable.
No more inaction. No more walking by on the other side. The world would no longer sit by passively and watch another Bosnia. Or Rwanda. Intervention to prevent genocide, intervention for greater reasons than narrow self interest; intervention in defence of life, liberty and freedom. A responsibility to protect our fellow man.
As Tony Blair, upon witnessing the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo and intervening to prevent another genocide, said in 1999:
“I believe people accept why we are taking this action, they know the reluctance that is there, they know the seriousness of intent that is there, they know the reasons for it. But it is important always to remind people.
“This is a humanitarian catastrophe that we have to avoid. There are tens of thousands of people that will die, or will be driven from their homes, and this place – Kosovo – is right on the doorstep of Europe, it is right next door to Greece, to Italy, to places people are very, very familiar with in Britain. This is why we have to act, it is not that we enjoy the spectacle of using military force. We don’t, we shrink from it.
“We tried for months to avoid it, but we are doing it because we genuinely believe in the name of humanity and the name of peace in this region. We have no alternative.”
Srebrenica is Britain’s shame, Europe’s shame, NATO’s shame, the UN’s shame – above all else, the shame of those who preach inaction and non-intervention, which was the response, for years, of the UK government of the day, akin, as Professor Bogdanor notes in yesterday’s Guardian, to “the priest who passed by on the other side in the parable of the good Samaritan”.
The West, led by our prime minister and our government, bravely undertook its responsibility to protect in Libya; it’s time to do so once more in Syria. More inaction, non-intervention, dithering and drift, as witnessed in the mid-1990s, will lead to more massacres, more mass graves, more death, death, and death.
As Rabija Hrustanovic’s hearbreaking graveside mourning reminds us, in such places, even the living are dead inside.