'We must not forget': 25 years after the Srebrenica genocide

'We must not forget': 25 years after the Srebrenica genocide
Twenty-five years on, survivors of the Srebrenica massacre are fighting to ensure that the genocide is not forgotten.
8 min read
10 July, 2020
More than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were killed in Srebrenica. [Getty]

"The most painful moment of my life was the last time I saw my husband," Suhra Sinanovicin tells The New Arab.

"His last words were 'Suhra, take care of our children'. Then he hugged me tightly, and I watched after him as long as I could, before he disappeared into the forest."

Suhra's husband did not return. He was one of thousands murdered at Srebrenica, the last genocide to take place on European soil.

This Saturday marks the 25th anniversary of the massacre. For Suhra, and other survivors still living in Srebrenica, it is a hugely painful, but important moment. 

"Our wounds are still fresh, but our future generations must learn about the Srebrenica genocide," she says. 

As Yugoslavia broke up into a series of ethnic conflicts in the early 1990s, thousands of Bosnian Muslims fled to Srebrenica, which had been designated a UN safe haven. 

After nearly three years of siege and little support from the international community, the UN peacekeepers stood down and Bosnian Serb forces marched into the town on 11 July, 1995. 

Our wounds are still fresh, but our future generations must learn about the Srebrenica genocide
-Suhra Sinanovicin

The violence which followed saw more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys murdered. The wider Bosnian War, fought between 1992-1995, is thought to have claimed as many as 80,000 Bosnian lives. Thousands more women were raped and sexually assaulted.

Smajo Beso with his arm around his brother in a refugee
camp in Croatia. "It was hell on earth. The
Muslims were
put into a ghetto"

Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, the two men most responsible for the Bosnian Serb campaign, have been convicted of genocide and are serving life imprisonment. 

But many survivors are concerned history is being rewritten. 

Streets, buildings and statues honoring Mladic and Karadzic have gone up in Republika Srpska, the Bosnian Serb-majority region recognised as part of a federal Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Srebrenica's current mayor, Mladen Grujicic, has repeatedly denied a genocide took place.

Milorad Dodik, the Serb member of Bosnia-Herzegovina's presidency has described the genocide as a "fabricated myth".

And the problem is international. Peter Handke, whose denial of the genocide of the Bosnian War is well documented, won the Nobel Prize for Literature last year. A statue of Handke is also currently being built in Republika Srpska. 

Faced with growing denial, the European Parliament adopted a resolution on Srebrenica in 2009 calling for member states to commemorate the atrocity each year. 

In Britain, the organisation Remembering Srebrenica UK has organised a number of online events in the UK this week as we near the 25th anniversary of the genocide

The organisation's founder and chairman, Waqir Azmi, told The New Arab: "The UK is the largest commemorator of the Srebrenica genocide in the world, holding 1,000 local memorial activities annually and educating 100,000 young pupils."

More than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were killed by Serb forces in Srebrenica

But according to Azmi, Britain is the only EU country that holds a national commemoration. "The rest of Europe that did little to stop the genocide is now doing little to even follow through on its own commitment to commemorate."

Many of those taking part in the commemorations are Bosnian Muslim refugees who came to the UK during the war. Their stories provide powerful testament for why genocide denial must not be allowed to take hold.  

"We have so many anniversaries because there were so many atrocities," says Safet Vukalic, a Bosnian survivor based in South London.

A little girl and her grieving mother sit close together in a Muslim refugee shelter at Zenica, after receiving news that the girl's father was one of the thousands of Muslims executed by Serbs at Srebrenica. [Getty]

It was on 31 May, 1992, when Safet and other Muslims in the region of Prijedor were made to hang white sheets outside their homes and wear white armbands in public. 

This was only the first echo of the Holocaust. A violent programme of ethnic cleansing soon followed. 

"We couldn't believe our eyes," says Safet. "The Serb army bombarded the towns and then cleared the streets of all the men. I was 16 and stayed in the house when my father and brother were marched away."

Safet's father was taken to the Omarska concentration camp. His brother was taken to another camp in Trnopolje. Hundreds were killed in these camps. Torture and rape were common. "We thought that was it," says Safet. 

It was hell on earth. The Muslims were put into a ghetto that was bombed and shelled daily

Cut off from all contact, Safet experienced a surreal moment when he saw his brother on a TV documentary filmed for ITN. The pictures of emaciated men behind tall wire fences shocked global audiences. Anxiously scanning the footage, Safet spotted his brother's face in a small window.

"You could see the fear in their eyes," he remembers. "I was happy he was alive, but I also thought he was in a concentration camp not far from me, in Europe. How can this happen?"

Sabit Jakupovic after first arriving in the UK. "Every single
moment you were waiting to get killed"

In response to the reports, some prisoners were freed, including Safet's father and brother. Safet's father was sent to England in December 1992. He was joined by his family the following year. 

"We couldn't talk for hours. It was too painful," says Safet. 

Watching the war get worse was incredibly difficult. Safet vividly remembers his feeling of powerlessness. "We organised a picket outside Downing Street. We collected thousands of signatures, but they did nothing.  

"I still cannot understand how Srebrenica was allowed to happen," he says. 

Smajo Beso saw the war through a child's eyes. He was six years old when Serbian soldiers came to his town of Stolac. "I remember that was the first time I was allowed to ride my brother's bicycle," he says. "Everyone had gathered in front of our house. They were discussing something serious, but I wasn't sure what. To distract me, I was allowed on the bike." 

That joy was short lived. Soon Serbian soldiers, many of whom were former neighbours, took over surrounding towns and villages – the same towns, Smajo's grandfather helped defend during the Second World War.

In the first nine months of conflict, Smajo's family escaped capture 14 times, but in July 1993, Smajo's father and uncle were rounded up along with other Muslim men and taken to Dretelj camp by Bosnian Croat forces. 

When Smajo visited the camp last year he found no commemoration at all. "It's now leased out to Chinese construction workers," says Smajo. "To see the denial and revisionism was absolutely horrendous."

His uncle was beaten, burnt with candles and had hot needles pressed under his fingernails. He was also made to act like a dog. But Smajo, clearly moved, tells me he was never taught to hate by his uncle.

The final stage of genocide is denial. That is the reason I am speaking out
-Sabit Jakupovic

Smajo's father lost 27kg while incarcerated. His condition was serious enough for the Red Cross to have him removed to a hospital and then sent to England. 

Meanwhile, Smajo was ethnically cleansed to the city of Mostar with his mother and siblings. "It was hell on earth. The Muslims were put into a ghetto that was bombed and shelled daily. More than 2,000 were killed, including my aunt," Smajo recalls. 

"We made bread from chicken feed. I still can't eat bread today," he says. They were so desperate that they tried eating a powdery chemical meant for chicks. It made their skin peel off in ribbons. 

Eventually, the Red Cross made contact and helped Smajo and his family settle in the North East of England. Today he teaches architecture at the University of Newcastle but remains committed to raising awareness of the atrocities committed during the war. 

Bosnian Muslim refugees from Srebrenica arrive in Tuzla, 1995. [Getty]

"Europe, not just Serbia, has failed to come to terms with what happened. Their inaction made them complicit," he says. "Until Europe makes more of an effort to remember, acknowledge and learn from what happened in Bosnia, nothing can change."

Sabit Jakupovic spent 72 days in Omarska camp. He estimates he was given less than 60 meals in that entire time. 

"I was 25 years old, 6ft1 and I weighed only 45kg when the Red Cross discovered me," he says.  

Every night Sabit and the other detainees would wait in fear for the Serb soldiers to come at night. "In some cases they arrived straight from the frontline where they claimed they'd lost friends and took it out on us. Others had personal vendettas," he says. 

Until Europe makes more of an effort to remember, acknowledge and learn from what happened in Bosnia, nothing can change

Sabit says detainees were beaten and tortured every night and day. Many were killed. Worst of all, the perpetrators were old neighbours, colleagues or school friends. 

"It's impossible to explain how badly the Serbs turned," says Sabit. "One guard was my classmate. One night he took my childhood friend for interrogation. He never came back. The next evening the same guard took me outside. He gave me a cigarette, spoke with me about his wife, then let me return."

"Every single moment you were waiting to get killed," he says. 

Safet Vukalic teaching children about the war. "I still cannot
understand how Srebrenica was allowed to happen"

After being transferred to another camp, the Red Cross secured Sabit's release and helped him travel to England in 1992.

Sabit spent two weeks in hospital, but admits it took far longer to recover mentally. After 10 years in the UK, he studied for a degree in history and education studies. Today he works for Hertford County Council. 

No such recovery has taken place in Prijedor. 

"The genocide worked," says Sabit. "The Muslim population was nearly half the population, now we are barely in double digits. The war crimes paid off. It feels extremely unjust." 

For Sabit, the genocide was not only successful, it is ongoing.

"The final stage of genocide is denial," he says. "That is the reason I am speaking out. I am the living proof of the carefully planned atrocities, of the camps, of ethnic cleansing, which culminated in the genocide at Srebrenica. We must make sure it is not forgotten."

Jan-Peter Westad is a freelance journalist and researcher based in London

Follow him on Twitter: @JanPeterWestad