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The scars of genocide in Bosnia: ‘I didn’t know that human hearts and souls could be so evil’

Heba Al-Adawy
Srebrenica 300x225 The scars of genocide in Bosnia: I didn’t know that human hearts and souls could be so evil

Caskets are stocked in an abandoned factory hangar, in preparation for a mass burrial ceremony at the Srebrenica Memorial Cemetary (Getty Images)

Heba Al-Adawy speaks to one of survivors of the Bosnian war about her first-hand experiences of genocide and a new project which is giving a voice to victims.

It was a moment of Kafkaesque absurdity witnessed through the eyes of a seven-year-old. When the Bosnian town of Kozarac fell to the Serb forces in the first months of war, one by one Bosniak families were hurled into the barbed confines of Trnopolje, a concentration camp that would evoke the worst memories of the Holocaust.

Seven-year-old Elmina Kulasic was transferred out of Trnopolje with half her family after a month of horrors, but her father and two elder sisters were missing. On the train to the city of Zagreb, Elmina recalls an uncanny encounter with a Croat. He was the same age as her father, watching quietly as her mother sobbed. “He told us that the Chetniks [Serb nationalists] had probably killed my elder, disabled sister, and raped my other one. He said that it was only a matter of time before my father was dead. I remember the words, but I did not understand them. There was no sympathy.”

In a region once hailed as the jewel of Yugoslavia, the melting pot of Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats and Bosniak Muslims, former neighbours and colleagues turned into enemies. Not a corner was left untouched by the war. On July 11th 1995, Serb atrocities culminated into the worst scene of carnage in Europe since the Second World War. The UN declared ‘safe haven’ turned into a graveyard of bodies as 8,000 Bosniak men were separated from their women and murdered in the pitch black night in the forests.

Today the ghastly scars of the war have been covered with cement and cardboard shutters. But there are still some buildings pockmarked with shell-holes, some cratered streets. In Kozarac, as in other Bosnian towns of Tuzla, Omarska, Mostar, and alas, Srebrenica, there are wounds still open. They are now entrenched as territorial imprints of ethnically cleansed villages, and partition lines dividing the country into Serb and non-Serb entities. Twenty-one years since the war and Bosnia remains just as divided. With genocide denial and nationalist rhetoric of politicians permeating everyday life, ‘closure’ and ‘reconciliation’ have become mere buzz words.

For the many survivors and refugees the war has altered their sense of ‘home.’ In spite of this, they return to their villages — or the site of crime — from time to time to pay respect to their dead, or recover their remains from the mass exhumations that still carry on to this day. Twenty-seven-year-old Elmina Kulasic, whose family was miraculously reunited in Zagreb and finally sought asylum in Chicago, describes her emotions upon return. “My sense of home in Bosnia was destroyed during the war. Since 1992, it has been my dream to return without feeling discriminated or ethnically cleansed. The situation in Bosnia is not welcoming. But I returned home because I want to be able to choose where I can live, and not be dictated by someone else’s choice.”

Now at the Cinema for Peace Foundation (CPF) in Sarajevo, Elmina Kulasic works as the program development coordinator for “The Genocide Film Library.” As the first oral history project of the war, it aims to record 10,000 life stories of the Srebrenica genocide. Since January 2011, it has collected over 1,175 narratives.

“This was the missing element in the overall process of reconciliation and social transition to a democracy,” says Elmina. “To tell the story is to be a witness; a witness that innocent people were killed for no reason other than their different identity. It also takes a lot of courage to tell and takes the war to a personal level. One cannot hear a personal narrative and look away.”

Reclaiming History

Sixty-four-year old Fatima Alijic lived with her husband and three sons in Srebrenica until her hometown fell to the Serb forces in May 1995. As she gives her testimony to the CPF, her face framed by a bronze headscarf is pained and exhausted. “I lost my husband and my children and never saw them again,’” she says. A moment later, she takes a deep breath and continues, “Well, I say I never saw them… But I did see them when I was in the truck… going to Kravica. They were all lined up, like they sometimes show on television, holding their hands behind their necks. I saw my youngest son lying near the ditch as if facing the ditch, but he was headless… I started vomiting… I didn’t know that human hearts and souls could be so evil.”

Fatima Alijic was among the approximately 40,000 Bosniak refugees who arrived at the town of Tuzla after their men were left behind. “One of the Chetniks came to me and started interrogating my surname, over and over again,” recalls the 64-year-old. Perhaps her testimony, by breaking the silence on the genocide, will give her some consolation, but Alijic is certain that her wounds will never heal. “People who still have someone left, maybe they have some comfort to ease the pain. I have no one.”

Another survivor of Srebrenica, 35-year-old Eldiha Selimovic is cautiously hopeful that some semblance of coexistence and normality could return to Bosnia. But much depends on the portrayal of the war’s true narrative, of destruction and human pain, so that it can reach across inter-ethnic divides. “Everyone here writes their own history,” she says, “And by history, I don’t mean this history, but those that go back. Of vengeance against the Turks … or the [Catholic] Austro-Hungarians.”

If there is a retrospective glance on the past in Bosnia today, it is tinctured with myths and politically manipulated narratives of vengeance and victimhood unleashed during the war. The conflict in the former Yugoslavia was as much literary as it was political. Libraries and museums were systematically targeted in an attempt to wipe out the multi-ethnic identity of the region. Serb paramilitaries marching into Muslim villages quoted verses from The Mountain Wreath, an infamous play by Petar Njegos depicting the mythical extermination of the Islamized Serbs for their betrayal and collaboration with the Turks. Labeled as “race traitors,” Bosniaks were caught between the contesting claims of Serb and Croat nationalists. When former colleagues and acquaintances became voluntary perpetrators of atrocities, they hid behind masks, transporting themselves back in time. They were no longer acquaintances, but Serb heroes fighting their traitors in blood and in religion.

But in the midst of skewed narratives, the Genocide Film Library seeks to do justice to history by giving voice to the survivors silenced by politics. Although few survivors testified at The Hague during the trials of war criminals, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, there has been no large-scale reckoning with the truth in Bosnia, as was the case in South Africa. The archived testimonies will now be provided to schools and universities, to researchers and policy makers – an important move in Bosnia’s awfully politicised education sector.

Crucial for Bosnia and the survivors are the lessons learned. “Many survivors who have shared their stories have never spoken before. This is the first time they are recounting their past and are breaking the silence,” says Elmina. “They know what is at stake if they don’t speak up.”

As the sixty-four year old survivor, Fatima Alijic puts it: “Genocides still go on in the world. Srebrenica didn’t teach anyone a lesson.”

For more information about the Genocide Film Library click here

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  • whosaysso

    Some things stay with you always. The 8000 men – and boys – included a boy holding a white rabbit, which he stroked gently, as he tried to be brave, while his mother’s arms stretched towards him as she was pushed back by the Serb ’soldiers’ – and the UN ‘observer’ forces filmed it all on a sunny day.

  • Andrew

    Bosnia could learn from Rwanda where every year they hold a genocide memorial week to discuss and review what happened..


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