'You simply die all over again': the agony of Srebrenica, 25 years on

The women who lost loved ones in the massacre of Bosnian Muslims are still burying bodies – and still seeking justice as the guilty walk free

In 2012, Munira Subašić identified the man who had transported her son to his death; a high-level official in Srebrenica’s police department.

Subašić vividly recalls their previous fateful encounter: it was July 1995, and tens of thousands of Bosnian Muslims fled Srebrenica as it fell to Bosnian Serb forces led by General Ratko Mladić. Subašić, along with dozens of her family members, sought protection at a battery factory in nearby Potočari, where a Dutch battalion of UN peacekeepers was stationed.

The man, who had been Subašić’s neighbour and was then a police officer, separated the men and boys from the women and children. Subašić clutched her 17-year-old son Nermin and begged the man not to take him, but he tore him from her grip. “Mum, don’t worry, everything will be fine,” Nermin told her.

Subašić and the other women didn’t know it at the time, but their sons, brothers, husbands and fathers would be taken away and executed en masse. In a matter of days, Bosnian Serb forces killed more than 8,000 Bosniak – Bosnian Muslim – men and boys. Subašić lost 22 family members and has been crusading for justice ever since.

“You can imagine that feeling when you walk by this person, and you know what he did, and he knows what he did, and he’s proud,” Subašić, the president of the Mothers of Srebrenica, says. “You simply die all over again, all of those feelings from the war come back to you, as you stand next to him in a queue to pay the water bill.”

This month, Subašić and other families commemorate the 25th anniversary of the worst atrocity in Europe since the second world war. While two UN courts found the massacre in Srebrenica constituted genocide, and several high-level perpetrators have been convicted for their involvement in crimes committed in and around Srebrenica, Subašić and other survivors are confronted by an increasingly powerful legion of genocide deniers, not least of which, Subašić says, are “those who killed our children and husbands, [who] are free among us”.

Munira Subašić
Munira Subašić, the president of the Mothers of Srebrenica. Photograph: Samir Yordamovic/Anadolu Agency

For years, Subašić and others have fought to get a law passed in the Bosnian parliament that would criminalise genocide denial, but lawmakers continue to reject proposals. The Serbian government refuses to acknowledge that the carnage in Srebrenica amounts to genocide. Bosnian Serbs continue to laud wartime leaders such as Radovan Karadžić, who the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) convicted of genocide and other war crimes.

“It makes it difficult when you have neighbours and people going through town with posters of Mladić, of his face, that say, ‘thank you for liberating Srebrenica’,” Suhra Sinanović, a member of the Mothers of Srebrenica, says of the chief architect of the genocide, also known as “the Butcher of Srebrenica”. In 2017, the ICTY convicted Mladić for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, and sentenced him to life.

“Groups of women, and girls as young as 12 years old, were routinely and brutally raped,” by Mladić’s forces, the ICTY found. “The crimes committed rank among the most heinous known to humankind,” Alphons Orie, the presiding judge, said at the time.

Mladić and prosecutors appealed the verdict, but hearings have been postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, and survivors fear that the 77-year-old, who is in poor health, will die before justice is served.

As for many families, it took years for Subašić to find her son’s remains, and mass graves are still being identified. A division of the Bosnian Serb army dug up primary graves under cover of darkness, reburying the body parts in other sites.

“The Serbs, using mechanical diggers, tore the bodies apart, and instead of thousands of bodies we were then faced with many more thousands of body parts,” says Robert McNeil, a Scottish forensic technician who worked with a team of experts to identify bodies in mass graves. “They deliberately deposited those torn bodies into secondary graves … in the hope that they would never be able to put them together again,” he says. McNeil’s team unearthed parts of one man’s body from as many as five separate graves.

The image of the first grave McNeil saw, which contained 250 bodies, is “seared into my mind”, he says. “None of us were quite prepared for anything on such a scale.”

In 2013, Subašić buried the remains of her son that had been located: two bone fragments found in grave sites 25km apart. Knowing she may never find the rest of his body, she laid him to rest in Potočari, which, years earlier, she’d campaigned to have designated as an official memorial site and cemetery. “I wanted to be an example to those who are not burying their sons. Mothers are dying – they will die before they see their children buried,” says Subašić.

Forensic experts uncover remains found in a mass grave
Remains found in 2002 in a mass grave holding up to 100 bodies of Bosnian Muslims killed in the Srebrenica massacre. Photograph: Danilo Krstanovic/Reuters

On Saturday 11 July, survivors and families gathered at the memorial site in Potočari to bury nine recently identified victims. It was the day that marked 25 years since they’d last seen their loved ones. Turnout was lower than expected due to the pandemic. Subašić addressed the crowd, directing her message to genocide deniers and to the perpetrators who walk freely among their victims.

One of those is the man Subašić identified years earlier as responsible for her son’s murder. But when he learned proceedings had been initiated against him, he is said to have fled to Serbia with his family.

Subašić, now in her 70s, stood firmly at the podium. “We will haunt you,” she said, as she looked up, “and never stop.”

Annie Hylton

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
How Britain and the US decided to abandon Srebrenica to its fate
New research reveals that Britain and the US knew six weeks before massacre that enclave would fall – but they decided to sacrifice it in their efforts for peace

Florence Hartmann and Ed Vulliamy

04, Jul, 2015 @8:09 PM

Article image
Why we are excavating the dead of Srebrenica | Kathryne Bomberger
Those who killed in Srebrenica in July 1995 believed they could get away with murder - they were wrong

Kathryne Bomberger, director general of the International Commission on Missing Persons

09, Jul, 2015 @2:47 PM

Article image
Srebrenica 25 years on: how the world lost its appetite to fight war crimes
Ratko Mladić was brought to justice but where’s the desire to investigate mass killings in Syria, Yemen and Myanmar?

Julian Borger world affairs editor

05, Jul, 2020 @7:06 AM

Article image
Papers reveal Anglo-French distrust before Srebrenica massacre
Archives show British PM was warned France may have made secret deal with Bosnian Serbs

Owen Bowcott and Caroline Davies

31, Dec, 2019 @12:01 AM

Article image
Ratko Mladic: career officer infamous for the Srebrenica massacre

Military mastermind of Bosnia's destruction repeatedly claimed he was on a mission of vengeance

Ian Traynor

26, May, 2011 @2:27 PM

Article image
Serb elite face exposure over aid to war crimes suspects Karadzic and Mladic
Prosecutors say collusion included army, police and Orthodox church but resistance likely as many reject guilt over atrocities

Julian Borger in Belgrade

21, Jun, 2012 @3:30 PM

Article image
The War is Dead, Long Live the War: Bosnia – The Reckoning by Ed Vulliamy – review

Ed Vulliamy's intelligent analysis of the Bosnian war does not linger on the horror but tries to explain it, writes John Simpson

John Simpson

21, Apr, 2012 @11:05 PM

Article image
Ratko Mladić must get life sentence, say war crimes prosecutors
Lawyers at The Hague say any lesser punishment for Bosnian Serb military commander would be ‘insult to his victims’

Julian Borger World affairs editor

07, Dec, 2016 @5:59 PM

Article image
Radovan Karadžić sentenced to 40 years for Srebrenica genocide
Wartime leader of Bosnian Serbs found guilty of 10 of 11 charges at international criminal tribunal for the former Yugoslavia

Julian Borger in The Hague and Owen Bowcott

24, Mar, 2016 @3:25 PM

Article image
Truth is justice for Srebrenica | Slavenka Drakulić
Slavenka Drakulić: The convictions of Popovic and Beara matter because they bear symbolic witness to the genocide of Bosnian Muslims

Slavenka Drakulić

10, Jun, 2010 @5:00 PM