We met Advija very briefly during our last trip. She heard we were looking to interview people from Srebrenica and she wanted to talk.
With her permission, I share her story with you. It is another example of the enduring pain the Balkan war has inflicted on its people. You might struggle to read Advija’s story. If you do, I encourage you to persevere and think of Advija’s courage in speaking out. It isn’t easy to talk about the personal effect of genocide. She had the strength to talk.
One of four children, Advija lived happily in Srebrenica with her mother and father, two older sisters and younger brother until the beginning of the conflict in 1992. Once trouble broke out, her parents decided it would be safer for the family if her mother took the children away from Srebrenica to somewhere more secure. Srebrenica is just a few miles from the Serbian border and tensions between Bosnian Muslims and Serbs living in the municipality escalated very quickly. Her mother fled to Slovenia with Advija and her brother and sisters. They didn’t return to Bosnia until 1996, the year after the Dayton Agreement was signed.
|Courageous Advija photo Kristian Skeie|
Throughout the conflict (1992-1995) Advijas’ father, Vehbija, stayed in Srebrenica. Like many of the thousands of people who remained, he survived the shelling raids on the town from Bosnian Serb-held positions in the surrounding hills. He survived the siege, the food shortages and the “ghetto-like” conditions.
In July 1995 conditions in the municipality degenerated further still. Numbers in the town centre swelled. Ratko Mladic’s forces were sweeping through the Muslim villages as their stranglehold on the municipality tightened. Those able to flee from the rural areas sought the relative safety of the town centre.
With an increasingly confident and belligerent Ratko Mladic taunting and testing UN resolve, the Dutch battalion, mandated to protect the safe haven, struggled to be effective against the escalating intimidation and aggression of the Bosnian Serb army.
Men, women and children trapped in the town became more and more tense. They feared the erosion of security and what it might bring. To those who were caught in this terrible trap, it was obvious that when Srebrenica fell (this was only a question of time), men of fighting age would be rounded up. Everyone feared an order from Mladic to execute rather than detain.
Unwilling to simply meet their fate at the hands of hostile forces, about 10,000 men decided to escape by foot, walking over mine-infested mountainous terrain to the free territory near Tuzla. Advija’s father, Vehbija, and her uncle Bekto joined the column and they begin the journey together. What Advija is able to tell us about her father comes from eyewitness accounts and her uncle Bekto, who survived.
As the brothers walked with other men, the ensemble was spotted by a Bosnian Serb patrol. The soldiers called out to the group to surrender. Vehbija, who was leading, began to walk towards the patrol, discarding his wallet as he progressed. Bekto, so overwhelmed with the shock of being discovered, collapsed unconscious. He awoke sometime later to find himself alone. It took him 19 days to walk to safety, fearing each minute for his own life and despairing of his brother’s fate.
I asked Advija if her father was ever seen again. She thinks that he was. A woman recognized him in a line of men waiting to be executed. She was in a bus with other women and small children being forcibly removed from Potocari. The woman recognized him from the window as they drove past. She told another woman, who told another. Eventually the news reached her mother.
In 1999 Advija and other family members decided to give blood samples to the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP), an organization set up after the Balkan conflict to trace and identify people who went missing during the war. Using a massive database, DNA information, extracted from blood samples collected from family members, is cross-matched against DNA information extracted from exhumed remains. Thousands of bodies have been identified this way.
In October last year, 12 years after the family gave blood and 16 years after the death of Advija’s father, a case-worker from the identification centre rang with news that a DNA match had been found. The skeleton of Advija’s father had been dispersed across a number of secondary grave sites. It had taken a long time to identify him because his skeletal parts were found in so many places, mixed together with the remains of other people murdered at the same time.
Trying to hide the evidence is a defining feature of genocide. A few months after the mass slaughter in Srebrenica, and in response to growing international suspicion, Serb forces tried to cover their tracks by exhuming decomposing corpses from primary mass graves and re-dumping the remains at other locations, known today as secondary sites. Where this happened, other identifying markers such as clothing, ID cards and photographs have been lost, as have smaller bones from hands and feet.
Advija was confronted with this blunt reality. Because her fathers’ body had been moved, only 70% of his remains have been found and there is little hope of recovering the rest.
The family has decided to bury Vehbija’s remains in the annual ceremony on July 11th this year at the Potocari Memorial Centre. This collective burial attracts worldwide media attention, hundreds of dignitaries from countries all over the world and thousands of mourners. This year the remains of 504 bodies will be buried, bringing the total number buried at Potocari to 5,137.
Advija is relieved that at last her fathers’ remains have been found. Before his remains were identified, she and her family had been in a state of limbo, not able to mourn his loss until his fate was established with some certainty. Now he can be buried with dignity and respect and she can visit him in a place that is safe and protected by constant police guard.
This year things are finally different. On July 11th during the memorial service, Vehbija’s remains will return to his family. They will carry his casket through the crowds of mourners to his grave. As a family they will commit his coffin to the ground. In a private moment, when everyone is ready, male members of the group will fill his grave with earth. Everyone will say their goodbyes.