Cold comfort for a Srebrenica survivor

Peace in Bosnia: Muslim family's horrific flight from fallen enclave shows why Dayton deal's promises can never be fulfilled

EMMA DALY

Tuzla

Besir Johic is one of the very few Bosnian Muslims forced to flee the advancing rebel Serb army who has had the opportunity to re-visit the home to which, in theory, he can return under the Dayton peace deal. It was not a happy experience.

"The whole place had changed so much. I tried to find our two houses, and they just weren't there any more. There were shells and mines instead."

Mr Johic is also one of the newest refugees in Tuzla: he crossed the front line 10 days ago with seven comrades, including his brother Omer, after four months spent in enemy territory following the exodus from the fallen enclave of Srebrenica in July. Yesterday he saw his 13-year-old son, Asmir, for the first time in three years, and his mother for the first time since he fled the Serb assault on Srebrenica.

The Johic family lived in Cerska, a small town in eastern Bosnia that fell to the Serbs in January 1993. As has become the custom among Bosnians fleeing for their lives, the family split up: Mr Johic, his wife, mother and brothers walked south to Srebrenica, Asmir and other relatives slogged through the mountains north to Tuzla.

"The child was almost frozen because it was winter - my sister-in-law had to drag him along," Mr Johic said. The boy, slight and quiet, obviously inherited the genes that enabled his father to survive for 131 days on apples, snails, mushrooms and nettles, hiding by day from the Serb patrols in Cerska, where the eight men found shelter in an abandoned mill, and foraging for food by night.

"I didn't believe I would ever see my son and mother again - it was so painful for me. My mother didn't cry, but I did," Mr Johic said. "But of course I was thrilled, it was super." Beside him sat Mrs Johic, tiny and wrinkled, her head swathed in a scarf.

"I had three sons - one is dead," she said. "I was so happy, I didn't believe I would ever see my sons again. I was holding back my tears. I was strong, but inside I felt my heart would explode. My son Ragib died ..."

The three brothers set off from Srebrenica together, joining a column striking out through mountains and forests for safety in government-held territory. It was shelled by Serb forces and shattered. Ragib was wounded. His brothers listened helplessly as he died at the Serbs' hands.

As Mr Johic recounted the horrifying tale of his long march, Ragib's widow sat at the back of the room, weeping silently over her baby daughter, Belma. A Srebrenica household is always filled with women: so few of their menfolk survived the Serb onslaught in July. Aziza Hasic, a perfect grandmother, with apple cheeks and a jolly smile, has opened her house, in a small village near the front-line town of Gracanica, to the Johic family.

"Of course we are very happy [with the Dayton deal]. We have not left our houses during the war and we want to stay here," she said. "If the Johics can go home, they will. But if they can't, then they can stay here." But it is not so simple.

Old Mrs Johic has lived at a school in the village since her arrival from Srebrenica in July, and she wants a home of her own. It is an impossible request in Tuzla, where of the 700,000 people living in the region, 235,000 are refugees. There is no room.

But how is the family to return to Cerska, which is to stay under Serb control? "Never", said Refija, Mr Johic's wife. "They killed my son; I could never live there," added Mrs Johic. Her son, who screamed in pain as he stripped away the clothes that had rotted on to his skin during the three months he wore them, was more circumspect. "I would return to my house tomorrow -there is a lot of work to be done to repair it," he said. But could he live under Serb rule? I don't know. It would be very difficult, because not only my brother was killed. Many others were, too."

The return of refugees is vital if Bosnia is to survive in a meaningful way. But it is also unimaginable. Buildings can be restored but the Nato troops dispatched to enforce the peace cannot repair lives ripped apart by years of warfare.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Customer Accounts Executive

£14000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity for the ...

Recruitment Genius: Team Administrator / Secretary - South East

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Full time Administrator/Secreta...

Recruitment Genius: Parts Advisor

£16500 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the leading Mercedes-Ben...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer

£27500 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor