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15 years after the Srebrenica massacre, a survivor buries his family By Hasan Nuhanovic – The Washington Post

Institute for the Research of Genocide Canada
Published: July 11, 2010  

Sunday, July 11, 2021

Fifteen years ago, during the Bosnian war, Hasan Nuhanovic was a translator for Dutch peacekeepers in the Bosnian city of Srebrenica, a U.N.-protected “safe area.” As Serb forces led by Gen. Ratko Mladic overran the city, some 30,000 Muslim residents, including Nuhanovic’s family, sought refuge at the nearby U.N. base in Potocari. On July 13, 1995, after the peacekeepers negotiated with Mladic (with Nuhanovic translating), the Dutch commander ordered the refugees to leave. Despite Nuhanovic’s pleas, his parents and brother were forced off the base. They would be massacred, along with thousands of others.

Last month I identified my brother by his tennis shoes.

In the fall they got in touch with me about my mother. They had found her, or what was left of her, in a creek in the village of Jarovlje, about a mile from Vlasenica, my home town. The Serbs who live there threw garbage on her for 14 years. She wasn’t alone. They killed another six in the same place. Burned them. I hope they were burned only after they died.

They identified my father four years ago, 11 years after his execution. They found a little more than half his bones. His skull was smashed from behind. The doctor couldn’t tell me whether that had happened after he died. They discovered him in a secondary mass grave, Cancari, at Kamenica. There are 13 mass grave sites there. A little before the Dayton accords, Serb soldiers had dug the bodies up with bulldozers from the primary grave at the Branjevo farm, near Pilica, piled them on trucks and taken them to Cancari, almost 25 miles away, to dump them and bury them again.

There were around 1,500 killed at Pilica. That’s what they say at the Hague tribunal. I read the statement of one of the murderers who said: “I couldn’t shoot anymore, my index finger was starting to get numb from so much killing. I was killing them for hours.” Someone, he says, had promised them five marks for each Muslim they killed that day. And he says that they made the drivers of the buses that brought the Muslims there kill at least a few so that they wouldn’t talk about it to anyone.

Oh yes, poor drivers. And poor Drazen Erdemovic, a Serb soldier who says he had to kill or he would have been killed. They all had to do it, you see, and only Mladic is guilty because, they say, he ordered it all. And when they catch Mladic, someday, he’ll say, like a real Serb hero: “I am taking the responsibility for all Serbs and for the whole Serb nation. Only I am guilty; judge me and let everyone else go.” And then all of us, we and the Serbs and the rest of them, we’ll be satisfied and happy. We’ll rip off our clothes and jump into bed together. We won’t need the foreigners for anything anymore.

Last year they put up headstones for everyone, nice ones, white, all the same, lined up in rows. Two empty spaces by my father. He’s been waiting three years for my mother and his son Muhamed to be laid next to him.

Then they told me about my mother. I was preparing to bury her next to my father this Sunday.

And then the other day they called me — they said they had a DNA identification for my brother, but they weren’t 100 percent sure. They said to come to Tuzla, and I went on June 18.
In the spring of ’95, I bought my brother new tennis shoes, Adidas, from some foreigner. My brother hadn’t worn them more than a month or two. And I bought him Levi’s 501s; he was wearing those. I know exactly what T-shirt he was wearing.

In Tuzla the doctor showed me a photograph of the clothes. He said, “There isn’t much, very little, but there are some tennis shoes.” When he put the picture on the table in front of me, I looked at the sneakers, my brother’s Adidas, as if he had just taken them off. They weren’t even untied.

The doctor brought in a bag and shook out everything that they found on his remains into a box. And after waiting 15 years, I took my brother’s sneakers in my hands. And besides those a belt, with a big metal buckle, and what was left of his Levi’s. And his socks, both of them.

I held the remains of my brother’s jeans. Metal buttons. Part of the inside of the pockets. Everything that was made of cotton had fallen apart. Only the synthetic material was left.

There was another tag, just a little dirty, that survived among the fragments of cloth.

It said “Made in Portugal.”

All day I saw that “Made in Portugal” before my eyes. And for my whole life, I think, I will see that. I’m going to hate everything that was “Made in Portugal,” just like I hated the Heineken beer that the Dutch U.N. soldiers were guzzling in Potocari, on the base, less than an hour after they drove all the Muslims off — right into the Serbs’ hands. Or maybe I will love everything that has “Made in Portugal” on it, everything that will remind me, for the rest of my life, of my murdered brother.

For 15 years I, like all the rest, prayed to God that when we finally discovered what happened, it would be that they didn’t suffer long, that they didn’t die in torment.

They have been dead for 15 years. In that same year, other children were born. And now those children are 15 years old. July 11 will be someone’s 15th birthday.

Reporters ask me all the time — and again the other day — “What is your message for future generations?” I tell them about how after the Dayton peace accords I drove through eastern Bosnia, looking for the traces of the disappeared, the murdered. I knew that near Konjevic Polje, Nova Kasaba, Glogova, on any of the routes toward Srebrenica, there are mass graves, that the meadows are full of them. And when I drove that way, when everything was blooming, when it was all green, I didn’t see that beauty. I only saw the mass graves that those meadows hid.

I drove by the places where Serbs live; I looked at them through the window and thought: Which of them is a murderer?

It was like that for years. And then, one day, by the road on a meadow where I had heard that a mass grave was concealed, a little girl was playing. She was 5 or 6. Just like my daughter. I knew the nearby homes were Serb houses.

The little girl ran across the meadow. And everything mixed together in me — sorrow and pain and hate.

And then I thought, “That poor little girl, what is she guilty of? She doesn’t even know what lies under that field, under the flowers.” I’m sorry for that girl who looked just like my daughter. They could be playing together on that meadow.

And I wish that that little girl and my daughter will never experience what we lived through. Never. They deserve a nicer future. That’s what I say to those journalists. The last ones were from Belgrade.

And so, the doctor has confirmed — the mortal remains of my brother will be prepared for the funeral on Sunday, July 11. It is as if my brother managed to check in at the last minute.

And so my father, murdered in Pilica and exhumed in Kamenica, my brother, murdered in Pilica and exhumed in Kamenica, and my mother, murdered in Vlasenica and exhumed from under the garbage at the creek at Jarovlje, will finally rest beside each other in Potocari.

Hasan Nuhanovic is the author of “Under the U.N. Flag: The International Community and the Srebrenica Genocide.” A longer version of this essay appeared originally in the Bosnian weekly Dani on June 18 and was translated into English by writer Peter Lippman.

Institute for the Research of Genocide Canada