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Institute for the Research of Genocide Canada

Revisiting Srebrenica slaughter

Institute for the Research of Genocide Canada
Published: July 11, 2011  

Revisiting Srebrenica slaughter
By Suzana Vukic
July 11, 2021

Bosnians are remembering the 16th anniversary of a genocide that took place in the town of Srebrenica, where over 8,000 Muslim men and boys were murdered by Serb forces. Yet, this year is different from others: It’s the first anniversary in which the mastermind behind the atrocity, Gen. Ratko Mladic, is behind bars awaiting trial at the United Nations war crimes court in The Hague.

For many survivors of Srebrenica, the recent capture and extradition of Gen. Mladic to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) can never wipe away the haunting memories—or deliver meaningful justice for the crimes committed.

“This means nothing to me,” says survivor Senahid Halilovic, referring to Gen. Mladic’s arrest. He does concede, however, that the Bosnian Serb’s trial at The Hague is important in ensuring that what happened in Srebrenica never be repeated again, anywhere.

Mr. Halilovic was joined by thousands of other Srebrenica residents, who fled occupying Bosnian Serb forces. Risking their lives, they undertook a long, dangerous march towards safe territory controlled by Bosnian Muslims (known as Bosniaks).

“This man [Gen. Mladic] will never in his life experience a single humiliation suffered by the people of Srebrenica during that march,” Mr. Halilovic said.

On July 11, 1995, Bosnian Serb troops, led by Gen. Mladic, overran what was supposed to be the U.N. safe haven of Srebrenica. Dutch peacekeepers protecting the town were unable to prevent this from happening. In the days that followed, Serb forces gathered up the Bosniak population, separating the men from the women. Roughly 25,000 women and girls were forcibly transported to Bosniak-held territory (except for those specially selected and kept aside for rape houses). Over 8,000 men and boys were massacred and then dumped into mass graves—the greatest atrocity on European soil since the end of World War II.

The wounds of the Bosnian conflict, however, remain deep. Backed by Serbia, Bosnian Serb paramilitaries embarked upon a campaign of ethnic cleansing. Their goal: to expel or murder non-Serbs. In 2010, Serbia’s parliament officially apologized to the victims of Srebrenica “for not doing enough to prevent the massacre,” but stopped short of calling it genocide. Many victims saw it as a hollow gesture, noting that war criminals continue to roam Serbia freely.

The 1995 Dayton Peace Accords ended the fighting, dividing the country into two entities: The Bosnian Serb Republic and the Muslim-Croat Federation. Bosnian Serb President Milorad Dodik denies that genocide happened in Srebrenica. Mr. Dodik refuses to acknowledge the suffering of non-Serbs during the war—especially Bosniaks, who constituted the bulk of the victims.

On that ominous day 16 years ago, Srebrenica’s townspeople thought they could go to the U.N. base and be protected. But Mr. Halilovic, then 23, was convinced that as a Bosniak male of fighting age, he stood little chance of survival by doing this. That night, he joined a group of roughly 15,000 people (including some elderly, women and children) who escaped Srebrenica on foot, attempting to reach free, Bosniak-held territory.

Mr. Halilovic made it. But his father and three brothers were killed. He lost a total of 70 relatives in the Bosnian war.

Circumstances surrounding this venture were extremely difficult. People were exhausted, hadn’t eaten for days and were prone to panic and fear. Guides and leaders had everyone form a column. They had knowledge of the terrain and determined which routes to take in order to avoid capture and attempt the survival of the greatest number of people. They walked through heavily forested areas, mountains, as well as abandoned Bosniak villages that had been overtaken by Serb forces in 1992. They often came under attack by Serb fighters; gunshots, bombs and grenades frequently came in their direction.

There were many difficult, harrowing instances. Mr. Halilovic describes one of them: “At that moment I became feverish, and I was overcome with a great fear. Up until then I hadn’t really felt any strong fear. But at that point, I thought we were all going to die, that this was predetermined, and that God was against us. And that’s when I began to pray to God and ask that just one single individual be spared and allowed to pass through and tell the world what happened to the people of Srebrenica….”

It was July 15. The group was approaching the first of four armed lines they would have to cross before reaching free territory. Gunshots and grenades were raining down on them. Suddenly, a lightning and hailstorm began that lasted nearly half an hour. Mr. Halilovic recalls seeing pieces of hail the size of an egg. It was impossible to see anything. This brought on that great fear, prompting him to pray. But once the storm was over, guides sent out word that Serb soldiers had retreated into bunkers and shelters. The path was clear for a good portion of the column to forge ahead, momentarily unhindered.

Mr. Halilovic reached Bosniak-held territory on the night of July 16. He estimates that close to 3,000 people trickled through in the days that followed. But many people never made it, having been captured and killed by Bosnian Serb forces. Mr. Halilovic was reunited with his mother in the town of Tuzla. She never stopped crying over her dead husband and sons. Living with the memory of these horrors was painful. Mr. Halilovic was often overcome with guilt at having survived the genocide while family members perished. To escape these thoughts, he enrolled in university and threw himself into his studies, earning a degree in chemical engineering by 2001.

Mr. Halilovic now lives in America. Since settling in New York with his family in 2002, Mr. Halilovic has been back to Srebrenica three times. His father and brothers are all buried at the cemetery and memorial center in Srebrenica-Potocari. But this summer, Mr. Halilovic will participate in the Peace March to Srebrenica for the first time since he made that perilous trek 16 years ago. The march commemorates the very same route that Bosniaks from Srebrenica took in July, 1995, in an attempt to flee death and find freedom.

Mr. Halilovic expects this to be a difficult journey, fraught with emotion. But he’s also grateful for the opportunity to revisit the path he took so many years ago.

“Little by little, this Peace March is becoming a tradition, and every year more and more people will join in,” he said. “But the point of it all is for the world to learn the truth, because the world has yet to grasp the truth of what happened.”

Suzana Vukic is a freelance journalist, who reports extensively on the Balkans and Member of the International Expert Team of the Institute for Research of Genocide of Canada

Institute for the Research of Genocide Canada