6 Jul 2015

Srebrenica massacre: the unfinished business

He had not eaten properly for weeks. But then again nobody in the valley had that summer. By July the heat in the Drina Valley in eastern Bosnia is searing. And by July more than 40,000 Muslims were crowded into the small town of Srebenica, to escape the fighting all around. Normally around a quarter of that number lived there.

Because they were safe weren’t they? Because it was an internationally declared safe haven, wasn’t it? Because UNPROFOR were there – the UN Protection Force – weren’t they?

On and off across that summer 17-year-old Nedzad Avdic (pictured above today) and his mates had played the Dutch UN soldiers at football. Then looked on longingly as the Dutch soldiers went off to eat – Nedzad was always hungry and there was never enough to eat as the Serbs choked off the enclave, preventing food getting in in sufficient quantities.

Then they came, first in tanks, then in trucks then on foot, the Bosnian Serb Army who had starved and pounded the place with artillery for days on end. He remembers how men and boys were separated – even as the UN soldiers looked on – and everyone (except the Serbs) kidded themselves that General Ratko Mladic‘s heavies would simply bus everyone out of town and dump them close to the nearest Muslim areas to the west.

Watch below: Alex Thomson interviewed Ratko Mladic in 1995, shortly after the Srebrenica massacre.

“They took us to a school,” he tells me, “I could hear the gunfire. We all could. But we thought it was just the fighting going on, you know?”

Then the Bosnian Serb militia came. They were ordered onto a flatbed truck. The Serbs had plenty of diesel – the UN gave the death squads 30,000 litres to help the Serbs “evacuate the Muslims”. In fact it went into the tanks of these trucks and the bulldozers creating and filling the mass graves.

So it was easy to transport Nedzad and his friends and relatives to the fields nearby. And then they knew.

“In the truck you could hear the screaming, the shouts and the gunfire. I stayed at the back of the the truck,” he hesitates, his eyes well up twenty years on, “I just wanted a few more seconds to be alive.”

“‘Get out! Out! Now! Go to the right place.’ They shouted. All around it was horrible. People dead or dying, wriggling and twitching, everywhere, all over the field.”

“They shouted to kneel in a row and we did. I felt horrible pain in my stomach and just lay there. Then another row behind me was shot and someone fell on top of me.”

“I wanted to shout out for them to come and kill me. I wanted to die as well.”

But he didn’t and it saved him. The truck left and he noticed another man was also still alive. Together they got up. He remembers trying to untie the man but felt so weak. He had by now been shot in the right arm and left foot as well as his stomach. Somehow they got clear of it all before the next truck came back for more shooting. There followed several days of exhausted trekking barefoot through the woods. Sleeping in graveyards. Drinking from streams.

“I wanted to die it was so painful. I kept saying to him ‘Leave me. I cannot go on.’ But he just shouted ‘You must!’ I wanted to get to safety but I felt my body was just broken.”

Somehow they both got through to a Muslim area. Nedzad remembers collapsing, looking up at people surrounding him, giving him water, before he went to hospital. Right now he should be telling this story in schools in Srebrenica where he still lives. But he can’t.

Srebrenica cannot be told in Srebrenica. Sold out by the UN and others in the international community, the enclave went into Serbia, as part of the peace deal, where denying the massacre is official policy in and out of schools. Which is why today matters for Nedzad. And whilst he can sit in the cloisters of Westminster Abbey and unpack all the pain of it again on camera – he cannot do so at home.

Until he can and his children are taught what happened, Srebrenica is unfinished business.

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