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
News
The cartoon depicts the UK (far left) walking around a Syrian child refugee
newsIn an exclusive artwork for The Independent, Ali Ferzat attacks Britain's lack of 'humanity'
Life and Style
Man taking selfie in front of car
health
Sport
footballManager attacks Sky Sports pundit Jamie Redknapp after criticism of Diego Costa's apparent stamping
Life and Style
food + drink
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
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: Digital Account Manager - OTE £40,000

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This web-based lead generation ...

Tradewind Recruitment: Intervention Teacher Required To Start ASAP.

£125 - £150 per day + Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: A 'wonderful primary ...

Tradewind Recruitment: Maths Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Our client is an 11-16 mixed commun...

Recruitment Genius: PHP / Drupal / SaaS Developer

£32000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A rapidly developing company in...

Day In a Page

Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness
Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

Homeless Veterans appeal

Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story
Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

Front National family feud?

Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
Pot of gold: tasting the world’s most expensive tea

Pot of gold

Tasting the world’s most expensive tea
10 best wildlife-watching experiences: From hen harriers to porpoises

From hen harriers to porpoises: 10 best wildlife-watching experiences

While many of Britain's birds have flown south for the winter, it's still a great time to get outside for a spot of twitching
Nick Easter: 'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

Nick Easter targeting World Cup place after England recall
DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

The inside track on France's trial of the year

Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
As provocative now as they ever were

Sarah Kane season

Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore