Ten years on, survivors of Srebrenica march again on road to the killing fields
Saturday 09 July 2005
Many of them are survivors of the massacre. More than 7,000 from Srebrenica died at the hands of Bosnian Serb soldiers under the command of Ratko Mladic, still at large and wanted for war crimes.
They include six brothers who fled along the same path they are walking today but in the opposite direction, from Srebrenica to the Bosniac-held city of Tuzla, braving Serb attempts to hunt them down and exterminate them. Many hundreds died along the route.
Also walking is a member of the battalion of Dutch UN peacekeepers whose task was to keep Srebrenica safe for its civilian inhabitants, holed up in the town for three years under siege from the Bosnian Serb army - but who ended up meekly handing their charges over to the Serb soldiers to be executed.
"The point of it is for the survivors to refresh their memories," Mr Abdurahman Malkic, the Bosniac mayor of Srebrenica who flagged the march off at 7 am yesterday, told The Independent, "and to tell others who have never been here before what exactly happened."
There will be lectures along the way, describing events at Srebrenica and afterwards. Doctors who treated survivors will talk of their experiences, some of the survivors will relate how they stayed alive.
They will trudge into Srebrenica itself tomorrow afternoon - a few hours ahead of the 50,000 expected to flock to this town on Monday for a solemn ceremony commemorating the atrocities of 10 years ago.
Srebrenica's population before the war was 70 per cent Muslim. After the Bosnian Serb troops overran much of Bosnia, the town became one of the UN's so-called safe areas, garrisoned by peacekeepers as its population, swelled by refugees from villages and towns that had already been defeated, suffered more than three years of siege.
Finally in July 1995 the Serb troops arrived, menacing the UN-manned observation posts in the hills to the south of the town with their artillery. The peacekeepers surrendered the posts without firing a bullet. It was a foretaste of the craven behaviour to come. Srebrenica occupies a long narrow valley, wooded hills rising steeply on both sides. Once the Serb artillery had swarmed along the ridges of the hills, they had the town at their mercy, and began pummelling the houses with tanks and mortars. Today the town is still littered with shattered houses; new or rebuilt ones, many of them only half completed and unoccupied, are dotted among the ruins.
In panic, the population of 30,000 streamed north to the village of Potocari a few kilometres to the north, to the peacekeepers' base in a huge old battery factory. But the Dutch admitted only 5,000. The remaining 25,000 terrified civilians were forced to camp outside - where, over the succeeding days, the Bosnian Serb troops began implementing their miniature Final Solution.
Women and small children were put in buses and sent away to safety; men, including the aged, infirm, deranged and boys as young as 12, were taken away and shot.
Today life has returned to Srebrenica, but the town's scars are not just the visible ones of ruined houses and the signs crudely painted on the houses indicating "shelter". To push their policy of ethnic cleansing, the Republica Srpska - the Bosnian Serb entity within which the town falls - has filled many of the empty houses with Serb families.
Only a handful of Muslim families have returned. The Muslim mayor is officially a resident, but he actually lives with his family in the Bosniac-run city of Tuzla, two hours' away.
One who has returned is Abdulah Purkovic, 58, who has opened a small restaurant in the town where he used to own three. "The people who brokered Bosnia's peace in the Dayton peace accords made a monster state that is divided 1,000 different ways," he said. "They recognised and rewarded the fascist state of Republica Srpska and now nothing works properly: police, social security, education, nothing.
"For example, if Bosniac children want to move back here, they have to take 15 different exams before the school will accept them because the systems are different. If I want to go to hospital in Sarajevo, I have to pay because it's in a different canton. Srpska was built out of our blood - they expelled us from our houses and land - and now they call everything 'Serb' this and 'Serb' that."
Nevertheless, the bitterness is slowly receding. "Relationships with the Serbs are better than before. When I first came, nobody wanted to work for me. People I knew well just looked into space when I passed them in the street. But now some people behave normally, not tough like they used to before. They explain that many of them were pushed into the war, pushed into the front line. They tell me they had no choice in the matter. And I believe them."
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