The Bosnian Family (BOSFAM) was established in 1994 in the town of Tuzla at the height of the Bosnian War with a mission to help all women refugees in eastern Bosnia, regardless of their ethnicity. The driving force behind BOSFAM, Beba Hadzic, had served as principal of the Srebrenica Primary School until she was forced to flee Srebrenica by Bosnian Serbs during the early stages of the war in 1992.
A year after BOSFAM’s creation, in July 1995, the organization was inundated by requests from desperate women who had been expelled from Srebrenica and lost their menfolk in the notorious massacre. Under Beba’s leadership, BOSFAM was to spend most of the next nineteen years helping survivors to rebury their dead, regain their homes in Srebrenica, and earn an income – all the while providing a safe space at two centers in Tuzla and Srebrenica.
Remembering Alem: Alem Paric was the beloved nephew of BOSFAM founder Beba Hadzic and one of more than 8,372 Muslims murdered at Srebrenica. Alem’s remains were reburied on July 11 2012. BOSFAM weavers have made 15 memorial quilts that carry the names of massacre victims, including Alem. For the quilts and profiles, click here.
BOSFAM has always been closely associated with the massacre, and one of its main goals has always been to make sure that this terrible event is never forgotten. But it has also stayed focused on helping its core members, and they have responded by remaining fiercely loyal to Beba. They are particularly proud of BOSFAM’s multi-ethnic character.
These pages tell the story of BOSFAM’s evolution from a group of friends to international advocate. They also describe the close partnership between BOSFAM and AP. Both partners helped to define the other’s advocacy through these years. Starting in 2000, AP tested out several advocacy with BOSFAM – news bulletins, peace fellowships and advocacy quilting. On a personal level, our staff and volunteers were inspired by these brave but wounded women. AP in turn has provided BOSFAM with an international platform and a dozen compassionate young women (Peace Fellows) to help BOSFAM members through the grim months of July.
BOSFAM is less ambitious today that it once was. Most members have come to terms with their loss. But BOSFAM continues to offer them a place to meet and weave, and AP also does what it can to help by selling greeting cards and carpets. Beba Hadzic remains a role model for our Peace Fellows – and one of AP’s most resilient and inspiring partners.
The Struggle to Remember: Like many refugees, the Srebrenica survivors were expelled with little but the clothes on their back and given no time to collect mementoes of their former life. This photo shows Redžep Bektić and Mevludin Smajić with Beba Hadzic, the founder of BOSFAM while the three were teaching at the Srebrenica primary school. Redzep and Mevludin were among those killed in the massacre. The photo is one of Beba’s most treasured possessions.
BOSFAM’s agenda was changed forever by the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, which was itself the culmination of a long and bloody war. This page describes the build-up to the massacre, and its impact on the people and region.
The federation of Yugoslavia began to disintegrate in 1991, when two of the country’s five republics – Croatia and Slovenia – voted to secede. This placed Bosnia in an impossible position. Those Bosnians who were of Croat and Muslim origin sought to follow Croatia and Slovenia and declare independence. But Bosnia’s Serbs, who comprised a third of the population, wanted the opposite – to unite with Serbs from other Yugoslav republics to form an ethnically pure Greater Serbia. This ethnic tension had already torn Croatia apart in 1991. It posed a greater threat to Bosnia, which was more ethnically integrated.
Captured Muslim men, Srebrenica.
In March 1992, without warning, the Bosnian Serbs moved against Muslims and Croats in the north and east. Hundreds of thousands were cleansed and thousands were detained in camps that became synonymous with torture, rape, and forced labor. In 1993 a desperate UN vowed to protect six “safe areas,” including Srebrenica. But the UN lacked the will or resources to impose the policy and Srebrenica was cut off and besieged by the Serbs for the next two years. By 1995, the town was so crowded with refugees that one journalist described it as a “concentration camp without barbed wire.”
In July, as the town’s defenses were crumbling, about 7,500 Muslims tried to escape Srebrenica through the hills. Many were killed in Serb ambushes and scores committed suicide in desperation. AP’s Peter Lippman described the death march in a vivid report. Several AP Fellows have also retraced the route and described the experience in blogs. Finally, on 11 July 1995, Srebrenica fell to the Serb forces, led by General Ratko Mladic. Serb soldiers separated out women, boys and old men and bussed to the edge of Muslim-controlled territory. The rest were murdered in an orgy of killing. The UN’s Blue Helmets did not intervene. The cemetery at Potocari carries the names of 8,372 Muslim men, youths and a handful of women.
There was so little space during the siege that the dead had to be buried on surrounding hills. The graves have not been disturbed.
The Srebrenica massacre represented one last frenzied attempt by the Bosnian Serbs to “cleanse” eastern Bosnia of Muslims and finally triggered a NATO intervention. Five months later, on November 21, 1995, Serbia’s President Slobodan Milosevic signed the Dayton Agreement on behalf of the Bosnian Serbs, ending the war. The Agreement produced a cease-fire in Bosnia, but at a high cost. Bosnia remained a sovereign nation but was divided into two autonomous entities – the Confederation (for Muslims and Croats) and the Republika Srpska (Serb Republic) for Serbs. Srebrenica lay on the Serb side, and was barred to its former inhabitants. NATO’s Stabilisation Force (SFOR) was reluctant to intervene.
The UN understood the immense damage that had been done to its credibility. In 1999, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan issued a remarkably frank 155-page report on the massacre, which had occurred while he was head of the UN Peacekeeping Department. The report accepted responsibility for the UN’s comprehensive failure and vowed there would be no repeat.
Bosnian women attend the burial of their male relatives.
The Srebrenica massacre created a vast pool of human suffering. Some BOSFAM members lost almost their entire family and remain deeply traumatized to this day. In addition to the psychological damage of losing a close relative, these women also lost their source of income and livelihood. Very few have found work and almost all are haunted by a great sense of guilt at having survived.
They were also wracked by uncertainty, one of the cruelest legacies left by the Srebrenica massacre. While there could be little doubt that their relatives had been horribly killed, the women of BOSFAM could never be sure until they saw a body. This was to be denied them for eight years. Following the massacre, the Serbs realized that satellite photos had located the mass graves. So they dug up the bodies and scattered them across the length and breadth of northeast Bosnia.
The task of finding the graves, exhuming the remains, and finding a match through DNA has fallen to the International Commission of Missing Persons, which runs an on office in Tuzla just behind BOSFAM House. The Commission’s search was long and arduous – and far too slow for BOSFAM’s members. It was not until March 2003 that the ICMP was able to identify 616 bodies and hand them over to relatives for reburial. Scores of graves have been since opened across northeast Bosnia and by July 2013, the ICMP had identified and reburied 6,767 victims. But this still left almost 2,000 to be identified. Hundreds of body bags are stored at the ICMP headquarters, carrying bone fragments which may never be matched with a human being. Still, they cannot be discarded.
The March 31, 2003 Srebrenica Burial Ceremony.
Many AP Fellows have used their blogs to describe the deep anxiety of BOSFAM members, who were torn between needing to know on the one hand and fear of the truth on the other. The burial of a neighbor or a headline could bring painful memories to the surface, and the memories could return at any time. One young BOSFAM member, Magbula Alistahic, was working in BOSFAM House in 2007 when the television began showing footage of her brother’s murder by a Serb death squad known as the Skorpions. Magbula fainted on the spot.
The problem was compounded by the fact that survivors had been forced from their homes on July 11 1995 with little more than the clothes on their backs. In the years that followed the massacre, BOSFAM members made a huge effort to retrieve photos and remember how their friends and relatives had looked in their prime. One of Beba’s most cherished possessions is a photo of Redžep Bektić and Mevludin Smajić who had taught with her at the primary school in Srebrenica (Photo above). Both men were killed in the massacre.
Srebrenica shows that time does not heal the wounds. If anything, the needs of the Srebrenica survivors – for care, counseling, and company – have increased as the years have passed. This was to test BOSFAM to the limit.
The challenge ahead: One of many mosques in Srebrenica that were destroyed during the war.
The combination of war, siege and mass killing brought economic devastation to Srebrenica. Before the war, the municipality’s mines, plants, and engineering companies had employed thousands. The Dayton Agreement insisted that refugees should return to the jobs they had held before the war, but this was simply unrealistic. The jobs were not there. In addition, the Serbs who controlled the municipality between 1996 and 2000 ran the economy into the ground rather than re-admit Muslims. By 2000, unemployment in Srebrenica stood at around 80 percent.
The lack of health care made it even worse. In Bosnia, pensions are based on the number of years the employer paid money into the national pension system. Many companies were destroyed, or unable to make these payments during the war. Women were particularly vulnerable. Having lost their husbands they would now take on the task of heading a household in a patriarchal society. For BOSFAM’s weavers, the money generated by sales through BOSFAM became their only source of income.
The world showed little interest in rebuilding Srebrenica until 2000. Even then, international efforts were half-hearted. The UNDP launched a multilateral program of reconstruction but raised less than expected. By 2005 most donors were already disengaging, although some Muslim governments generously funded the rebuilding of mosques.
Radovan Karadzic (above left) and Ratko Mladic (above right) are largely responsible for the Srebrenica massacre.
The survivors of the Srebrenica massacre wanted the killers brought to justice. This was important for their emotional recovery and also for any hopes of reconciliation. It was clear that only prosecutions would remove the miasma of collective guilt that hung over Serbs throughout the country.
The task of administering justice was left to the International Criminal Tribunal, created by a resolution of the UN Security Council in May 1993. But justice moved as slowly as exhumations, and the Tribunal had to rely on local authorities, UN peacekeepers and national governments to arrest or extradite those it indicted. Serbia was particularly important. Ratko Mladić, the commander of the Bosnian Serb troops and the architect of the massacre, was able to remain at large until May 2011 because of the complicity of the Serbian authorities and military.
In the ICTY dock: Radislav Krstic, commander of the Drina Corps.
The tribunal’s location in The Hague, the Netherlands – far from Bosnia – also reduced the value of its proceedings for the survivors of Srebrenica. In addition, the survivors were bothered by the tribunal’s focus on high-profile trials which meant that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of criminals escaped indictment and arrest. While the survivors certainly supported the trials at The Hague, they were discouraged from returning to their homes for a long time by the presence of these “small-time” war criminals.
Still the process ground on relentlessly. By 2004, when AP visited Srebrenica, several ringleaders had been indicted and a few had even been arrested. They included Radislav Krstic, commander of the Drina Corps of the Bosnian Serb Army (photo). AP’s Iain Guest reported on the trial on Vidoje Blagejovic, one of Krstic’s senior aides, from The Hague in 2004. But for many survivors it was too little, too late. And the brutal Ratko Mladic was still at large.
Passing time: A Srebrenica survivor at the Mihatovic center near Tuzla.
The Bosnian war displaced close to 2 million people both internally and externally. Many of the internally displaced (IDPs) lived for years in collective centers and abandoned homes. Zehra Ferhatbegovic, a BOSFAM weaver who lived in an IDP camp in Tuzla, told AP in 2005 that Srebrenica IDPs were pitied from afar but unemployed, scorned by the city dwellers, threatened with eviction, and manipulated by Bosnian politicians: “Every morning when I wake up, I ask myself, ‘What am I doing here?’”
For years after the war, Srebrenica had the lowest rate of refugee returns anywhere in Bosnia, and by 2008 only 3,500 out of the 30,000 Muslims who lived in the municipality of Srebrenica before the war had returned. There were many reasons for this. First there was unemployment. Second, there was the lack of accommodation. Between 1995 and 2001, displaced Serbs lived in the homes vacated by Muslims after the massacre. The Dayton Agreement reaffirmed the principal of pre-war ownership, but it was not acted on until 2002. Finally, there was security: Muslims attempting to return home were likely to be assaulted. It was particularly discouraging for young people. One 2004 AP investigation found that only 20 of the 610 students and only one of the 55 teachers at the High School in Srebrenica were Muslim. Srebrenica was a grim and unfriendly town.
These problems were all interconnected and made worse by a decision of the international community to withhold aid from Srebrenica in an effort to force Serb politicians into permitting Muslim returns. This only perpetuated Srebrenica’s economic distress. Ilijaz Pilav, the president of Drina, a NGO based in Eastern Bosnia, stressed the importance of “sustainable return.” As late as 2006, he said, refugees and displaced from Srebrenica were returning home only to find that life was so difficult that they decided to leave again – this time for good.
For five years, between 1995 and 2000, the women of BOSFAM observed all of this from BOSFAM House in Tuzla. They remembered every last chilling detail, including the faces of Serb neighbors who had participated in the killing. But they had no concept of how to seek “justice,” no information about their lost loved ones, and no work. In time, all of this would come together into a strategy, but right now they were focused on survival. They had nowhere to turn, except to each other.
Weaving therapy: Bosfam House has offered comfort and companionship to Srebrenica survivors.
Before the war in Bosnia broke out in April 1992, Beba Hadzic enjoyed a comfortable life in Srebrenica. A mathematician by training, she had served as principal of the primary school for twelve years. The family owned an apartment in the lower part of town, a country cottage, and a house on the road to the Guber Springs.
It all changed after the Bosnian Serbs launched a surprise attack on Muslims in April 1992. Although the Serbs were repulsed, Beba and her family left for Tuzla were they joined thousands of other Muslim families that had fled the Serb onslaught. Beba began working for the agency Oxfam, which had set up a knitting program for displaced women in three converted schools. “We wanted to do something for the women, who were just sitting around,” she recalls. “When you sit, you can knit.” Oxfam supplied the wool and BOSFAM women knitted sweaters and hats for needy families. Knitting proved therapeutic for newly-arrived refugees.
In 1994, Oxfam left Bosnia because of the difficult war conditions. Beba declined to followed. Instead, she decided to carry on the work that Oxfam had started and launched BOSFAM. Between 1993 and 1995, BOSFAM ran knitting projects in 44 refugee collective centers.
Soon after Beba established BOSFAM, she purchased several large looms with money from the UK. This allowed women to make flat weave carpets, or kilims, in the traditional Bosnian style. By 1995, BOSFAM was already winning orders for its carpets and donors were so impressed that they offered funding for a new BOSFAM center. BOSFAM House quickly became the spiritual home for displaced Bosnian women from the east. Huge, roomy and full of sunlight, it provided a space where the women could weave, knit and just keep each other company. Coffee breaks were all important, but the focus was also on keeping busy. A BOSFAM motto on the wall asked members not to make promises, but to “do something.”
BOSFAM was traumatized but also defined by the Srebrenica massacre, although initially the organization could do little more than offer space and looms to the grieving survivors. A core group would come to BOSFAM House and weave regularly and even obsessively, as if keeping the demons at bay. Nura Suljic, a favorite with AP Fellows, lost four close family members in the massacre. Nura could be found at her loom at all hours (photo).
By the end of 1995, many BOSFAM members were skilled weavers and BOSFAM found a ready market for souvenirs among NATO soldiers. But that market dried up after the closing of the Arizona US army base in Eastern Bosnia. If BOSFAM was to earn serious money from weaving, it would have to open up new markets.
It was at this point that BOSFAM and AP found each other. Iain Guest had visited BOSFAM during the war and purchased some small kilims. The creation of The Advocacy Project provided him with an opportunity to help, and in 1999 AP asked Peter Lippman, a talented writer, to profile the efforts of Muslim refugees to return home. This brought Peter into contact with Beba and with BOSFAM. He began in the town of Kozarac and worked his way eastwards. In 2000 he visited the hills around Srebrenica, where Muslims were waiting in tents in the hope of returning home.
Srebrenica Hero: Zulfo Salijovic led hundreds of Muslims from Srebrenica to safety during the perilous march through the woods in July 1995. After the war, Zulfo was one of the first Muslims to return and formed an inter-ethnic NGO (DRINA) to work for reconciliation.
Peter also accompanied a group of Muslims on a day trip to Srebrenica. By now, he was as well informed as anyone about the massacre, and an important resource for BOSFAM and AP. Meanwhile, Iain also returned to Srebrenica itself in 2000 as an election monitor with the OSCE, and worked out of a polling station next to the scene of the massacre. By 2000, AP was well informed about Srebrenica, and committed to supporting its new partner BOSFAM.
Hundreds of refugees moved into tents in the hills around Srebrenica in 1999, in the hope of returning home. They were led by Zulfo Salijovic, who had led hundreds of Muslims from Srebrenica to safety during the perilous march through the woods in July 1995. After the war, Zulfo formed an NGO, DRINA, to work for reconciliation.
Weavers for Hope: AP’s video contains an interview with Beba Hadzic about BOSFAM’s advocacy.
By 2000, BOSFAM had all of the familiar hallmarks of a community-based association – a large and loyal group of members, a strong leader, and a very small office. Beba Hadzic ran BOSFAM like her own family, paying for supplies out of her own pocket and advancing money for kilims before she even had a buyer.
By no stretch could BOSFAM be called an advocate, let alone a human rights organization, although it did offer a quietly appealing version of inter-ethnic cooperation. Beba argued that all women who had been affected by the war had much in common. As she put it in an AP video: “All Bosnian women who have survived this war are heroes.” If this thinking produced cooperation between Serb and Muslim women, so much the better, but this was not the intention. It was enough that they drank coffee together. In Srebrenica, BOSFAM’s center was managed by a Bosnian Serb, Milica Janic, who was herself a former refugee. It was another example of BOSFAM’s philosophy, expressed firmly but without stridency.
But events were conspiring to force a human rights strategy on BOSFAM. In 2000, a Muslim was elected Mayor in the Srebrenica municipal elections after a massive number of write-in Muslim votes. NATO troops began patrolling in Srebrenica, and the first multi-ethnic police force appeared on the streets. Much of the town lay in ruins, but the international community reaffirmed the pre-war ownership of homes, expelled Serb families that had squatted in Srebrenica since the massacre, and began to rebuild houses. It was no longer out of the question for BOSFAM’s members to think of returning home. Indeed, Beba’s husband was one of the first Muslims to return to his former job at the municipal building.
AP’s Outreach Coordinator Kelly Klieban (right) organized an exhibition of BOSFAM carpets at the Cambridge Multicultural Arts Center in 2004.
When asked about their goals during this period, the women of BOSFAM would say: “First, make a living; second, rebury relatives; and third, make sure that the world never forgets Srebrenica.” AP helped to turn this into an advocacy agenda. Peter Lippman visited Tuzla and Srebrenica in 2003 to profile BOSFAM for AP’s online newsletter On the Record. AP secured a grant from the Dutch Refugee Foundation to develop a new website for BOSFAM and train Beba in IT. Peter and Beba wrote profiles of individual weavers and produced an online catalog of their carpets. The grant also allowed BOSFAM to open a small center in Srebrenica for returning refugees.
AP’s director Iain Guest also visited Tuzla and Srebrenica in March 2003 to attend the first mass reburial at Potocari, and purchased several BOSFAM carpets. He took these back to the US and exhibited them at events in Baltimore, Boston, and Washington, DC. Even without a BOSFAM weaver present, the carpets made a compelling story. Hundreds of visitors attended the events and ordered carpets, and The Boston Globe and the Baltimore Sun both wrote articles. AP also launched a sponsorship scheme in the US to raise funds for BOSFAM’s core weavers, which raised around $15,000. Finally, in the summer of 2003, AP recruited Marta Schaaf from Columbia to serve as BOSFAM’s first Peace Fellow. Eleven more compassionate young women would follow in her footsteps and serve at BOSFAM over the next ten years.
AP also helped BOSFAM to tell its remarkable story to the world. In 2004, Iain returned to Bosnia and produced a series of online reports. AP’s Aspen Brinton attended the first memorial ceremony at the scene of the massacre on July 11, 2004 and produced footage and photos for a 12-minute film on BOSFAM (Weavers for Hope). The film was edited in the US and remains one of AP’s most widely-watched films.
The following summer, 2005, AP invited Beba Hadzic to the United States for a visit that was as much about advocacy as selling carpets. Beba was accompanied by Magbula Divovic, who had lost most of her family at Srebrenica and had never before travelled outside Bosnia. Together, they addressed a conference at Georgetown University in Washington; met with Shashi Tharoor, the Under Secretary-General of the UN in New York; visited the group Aid to Artisans in Hartford; briefed editorial writers at the Boston Globe; and addressed staff at Physicians for Human Rights in Boston.
BOSFAM also joined AP and two other human rights organizations (Physicians for Human Rights and the Center for Balkan Development) to launch an online petition calling for the arrest of Karadzic and Mladic. This attracted almost 10,000 signatures, and was submitted to the US State Department and NATO. In a letter to the petitioners, the Secretary-General of NATO pledged that there would be no let-up in efforts to arrest the Srebrenica masterminds. He met soon afterwards with with the Yugoslav Foreign Minister Vuk Draskovic, and told him precisely this. But four years were to pass before Mladic was arrested in Serbia.
But selling carpets was also high on Beba’s agenda in the US, and this proved less successful. The BOSFAM delegation sold several kilims to Ambassador Swanee Hunt, the former US ambassador in Austria who identified strongly with the Srebrenica women. But in meetings with craft owners Beba was told that BOSFAM’s kilims were too expensive to compete with kilims from the Middle East. In an effort to find a long-term market, AP arranged for Overstock.com to sell a large consignment of BOSFAM carpets for $30,000. But this was a one-off order. Beba and the weavers could not be persuaded to reduce prices, even though it might have led to increased sales.
Beba returned again in the spring of 2009 to the US, and visited Bosnian diaspora associations in the company of Alison Sluiter from AP. Beba’s two visits to the US, in 2005 and now in 2009, reflected BOSFAM’s evolution from a voluntary association of carpet weavers to an international advocate with an agenda.
Assembling a memorial quilt at BOSFAM House in Tuzla.
In the summer of 2006, at AP’s suggestion, BOSFAM turned to quilting. Eight BOSFAM weavers worked with AP Intern Yvette Barnes and produced a large carpet that carried the names of 20 relatives who had died in the 1995 massacre. AP took the quilt to St Louis where it was displayed at the Bosnian mosque on July 11, 2007, bringing many onlookers to tears. The event was widely covered in the local media.
At this, BOSFAM and AP realized that quilts could serve as a powerful tool for advocacy, and between 2008 and 2010, BOSFAM weavers produced 14 other memorial quilts commemorating massacre victims. The full story of the Srebrenica quilts is told on this page. Between 2009 and 2013 AP kept one of the quilts in the US and used it repeatedly at outreach events. During these years, AP also drew on the BOSFAM model to promote advocacy quilting globally, and by 2013 thirteen partners had produced quilts.
At the same time, AP sought out markets for BOSFAM’s woven products. The Holocaust Museum in Washington has carried some small knitted goods, and Peace Fellow Claire Noone helped to update BOSFAM’s online store in 2012. But BOSFAM’s long-term goal of finding a market in the US has remained elusive.
One of BOSFAM’s most difficult tasks during these years was to cushion members against the uncertainty of not knowing what had happened to their missing relatives. BOSFAM House is next to the office of the International Commission of Missing Persons (ICMP) in Tuzla, and Beba Hadzic constantly urged the Commission to speed up the process of identification. By 2002, the ICMP had opened scores of mass graves and used DNA to identify several hundred massacre victims.
Parallel to this, the relatives urged the international community to allow reburials at the site of the massacre. This would breach the invisible frontier of the Bosnian Serb Republic and open the way to the return of Muslims, and was fiercely resisted by the Serbs. After Muslims put up a small stone plaque in 2002, it was immediately smashed into pieces. Still, the Muslims refused to give up. They lobbied the High Representative in Bosnia, and in 2003 the Serbs finally gave in to the pressure and agreed to contribute to the cost of a small cemetery at Poticari. The cemetery quickly became a shrine, and a magnet for visitors. This was a mixed blessing for BOSFAM members like Magbula Divovic, who was one of the first to return. Magbula’s small cottage was a hundred yards from Potocari, giving her a clear view of the meadow and the cemetery.
In March, the ICMP handed over 616 skeletons to relatives, for reburial. Another reburial took place on July 11. With this, a routine began that was deeply important and profoundly distressing. Every year, as July 11 approached, the same somber ceremony would take place. The ICMP would hand over the bodies which it has identified in the previous twelve months to grief-stricken families. The green coffins would then be taken to the cemetery, laid out in rows, and finally laid to rest. It is a very private moment for the families, even though thousands are present.
BOSFAM members quickly came to dread this anniversary, and few summers passed without a BOSFAM member reburying a relative. In 2011 Beba saw her brother-in-law buried. The following year, she said goodbye to Alem, her nephew, who had been fourteen when he was taken at Potocari. Peace Fellow Claire Noone was at Beba’s side during her ordeal and captured the anguish of that summer in a moving blog.
But however much they dread reburials, BOSFAM’s member have also applauded the ICMP’s painstaking work and welcomed the closure that it brings. AP has also followed the ICMP’s work through the years, and several Fellows became close friends of ICMP staff. By July 2013, the ICMP had identified and reburied 6,767 victims. In an interesting postscript, Jose Pablo Baraybar, founder of the Peruvian Forensic Anthropology Team (EPAF), testified in the Hague on July 26, 2013 at the trial of Ratko Mladic. Jose Pablo is a long-standing partner of AP who began his distinguished career in forensics in Bosnia working on the Srebrenica mass graves.
Izet Imamovic, one of the first Muslims to return to Srebrenica, at the Potocari memorial, where the killing began on July 11, 1995.
For years after the massacre, BOSFAM members were deeply ambivalent about returning home. Even after Ibrahim Hadzic, Beba’s husband, returned to his former job at the municipality in 2002, he never stayed more than a few hours at a time: “We would go to Srebrenica, park our car, go into the hotel to meet, and then we leave. We are the government, but it is as if we are in a jail.”
As security improved and international aid began to arrive, BOSFAM began offering services to returning members. Beba would help them to acquire documents, help them find doctors, and register children for school. BOSFAM also began to identify former Serb friends it had known before the war. This was actively discouraged by the Serb authorities for a while, but BOSFAM was able to sweeten the pill by helping displaced Serb women to acquire documents. The UN refugee agency UNHCR also helped by organizing buses that enabled women to make short visits to their former homes.
By spring of 2002, about fifty of BOSFAM’s 300 active members had returned home to Srebrenica. They included BOSFAM weavers Magbula Divovic, Esma Divovic and Kadira Smajic. AP encouraged the process in 2004 by securing funds from the Dutch Refugee Foundation, which allowed BOSFAM to purchase nine new looms in a private house where women could weave and train other weavers. About five women used to come regularly to the center, where they would work with Magbula and two other skilled weavers. Another five worked from home and produced about 30 medium-sized carpets in BOSFAM’s trademark designs. Beba also used the center to prepare newly-arrived refugees for what they would find in Srebrenica. The center stayed open for a year.
By 2009, those members of BOSFAM who wanted to return had lost their inhibitions. The main obstacle was economic, as AP’s Iain Guest found out during a visit to villages around Srebrenica in June 2009. There was no economy outside of the shops and restaurants, and international aid was already pulling out. It was particularly difficult for single women.
As a result, in 2011, BOSFAM and AP returned to the idea of a center in Srebrenica, where women could congregate, work at a loom, and learn about job opportunities. Beba secured a private donation to refurbish her former house and Milica Janic – her Serb friend – again took charge. Several small looms and computers were installed, and the older and more experienced weavers began to train younger returning refugees. The center provided the women of Srebrenica with an important space for over a year and attracted women from both ethnic communities. But with foreign aid declining and the economy of Srebrenica stagnant, it again proved difficult to sell handicrafts and generate an income for BOSFAM.
Act of Courage: the Serbian Women in Black were among the first Serbians to accept responsibility for the Srebrenica massacre. Peace Fellow Donna Harati accompanied a WIB delegation to the memorial service at Potocari in July 2009.
For BOSFAM’s members, these years of adversity and advocacy all come together on the fields at Potocari, where the massacre had taken place. It was here, in 1995, that they had felt terror like no other. But it is here, today, that they find peace and solace while visiting the graves. This broad meadow has defined the trajectory of their long campaign.
The same can be said of AP, which has shared so much with BOSFAM through the years. When Iain and Peter first visited the massacre site at Potocari in 2000, the field was full of menace and patrolled by Serb police and soldiers. By July 11, 2006, it had been turned into a large Center and cemetery. On the other side of the road, the infamous former UN Dutch headquarters and battery factory had become a museum.
Every year, on July 11, thousands come for the reburials and ceremony from all over the world. Who are these visitors? We are family members, friends, journalists, former refugees from the Bosnian diaspora, students, politicians and policy wonks – pilgrims against genocide, one and all. Standing here at Potocari, we can imagine what had happened in 1995.
It has particularly wrenching for our AP Fellows who stood beside BOSFAM women as they buried murdered friends and family members. Three Fellows attended the reburials on July 11, 2009. Later that night, young Serbs from Srebrenica offered their own verdict on the day by roaring up and down on their motorbikes, shouting nationalist slogans and denying that the massacre had even taken place. Magbula Divovic, who had lost most of her family and lived close to the cemetery, remembers waking up terrified. Back in Washington, AP streamed a video of the event on July 11 2009 and exhibited memorial quilts for the Bosnian ambassador.
Never forget: thousands of mourners gather at the site of the massacre every July to rebury and remember.
By 2013, over forty thousand people were attending the July 11 event at Potocari. All of the ringleaders were on trial or in jail and sixteen of the 161 indictments handed down in the Hague concerned the Srebrenica massacre. This was some measure of justice. Almost 7,000 of the 8,372 massacre victims had been reclaimed by their families and reburied. This, too, was progress of a kind. Not only would Srebrenica never be forgotten – it had become a symbol of cruelty and genocide, like Auschwitz in Germany and Tuol Sileng in Cambodia.
BOSFAM can share some of the credit for these outcomes, and this may be the group’s finest achievement. It is some measure of consolation for the women who lost so much, and for the many good people who have stood at their side.
Refugee profiles: Peter Lippman profiles the efforts of Bosnian Muslims to return to their homes and reverse the impact of ethnic cleansing in these early issues of On the Record. To be posted shortly as pdfs in this section of the Archives
Letters and diaries (2002-2003) by Peter Lippman.
Civil Society and the Rebuilding of Srebrenica: Peter Lippman tells the story of the Srebrenica massacre and efforts by civil society to rebuild. Will be posted shortly as pdfs in this section of the Archives.
Srebrenica diary (2004): Read the 2004 blogs of AP Director Iain Guest about his visit to Srebrenica and The Hague Tribunal.
Srebrenica diary (2008): Read the 2008 blogs of AP Director Iain Guest about his return to Srebrenica.
Beba Hadzic, the inspiring founder of BOSFAM
(Profile by Leila Zulkaphil, 2010). Munira “Beba” Hadžić, the founder and director of BOSFAM, led a comfortable life before the war. She was a math teacher and principal of the Srebrenica primary school. She had a beautiful apartment in the center of Srebrenica and a vacation house by the lake, where she and her family spent every summer weekend.
When the war started in 1992, Beba’s life changed forever. One night in May, Beba gathered her family in her apartment and switched off the lights in order not to attract attention. They were sitting in the darkness, when Bosnian Serb soldiers broke into the apartment. The women were put on a bus and sent to the town of Bratunac, while the men were taken away to be killed. Fortunately, Beba’s husband escaped death with the help of a Serb friend who drove him out of Srebrenica. Beba’s sisters were not as lucky. The bodies of their husbands lie in the Srebrenica-Potočari cemetery.
Beba and her husband were reunited in the nearby town of Bratunac and stayed with a friend for about 10 days. They finally managed to arrive in Tuzla after hiding in the back of a truck for 24 hours, without any food or drink. When the truck stopped at checkpoints, Beba could hear Serb soldiers laughing and pounding on the back of the truck.
Beba could not believe that war – something that she only knew from the news – was happening in her own country. For the first time in her life, she felt as though she had no control over her life. Then, a small incident in Tuzla altered her perceptions. She was visiting the Tuzla stadium which was being used as a refugee camp when one of her former students from Srebrenica recognized her and called her “Director!” This meant a lot to Beba. She realized that although she was deprived of her material possessions, she still had her skills and qualifications. She thought she could do something to make things better.
Beba joined the British relief agency Oxfam and started helping out the war-affected civilians. When Oxfam left Bosnia, Beba stayed and established her own NGO named BOSFAM – the Bosnian Family. “Bosfam is an organization for Bosnian women, not just Bosniak women. That is our biggest strength,” says Beba.
Even in the midst of the turmoil, violence, and atrocities in Bosnia, Beba never thought of leaving her country. She was invited to speak at the World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995. An Australian couple who was very moved by Beba’s presentation offered to “adopt” her. They wanted to take her directly to Australia and promised to find a way to bring Beba’s husband and son from Bosnia. Beba politely declined the offer. She tells me: “Bosnia is not the best country in the world, but it is my country. I have the responsibility to stay and work towards the well-being of Bosnia.”
Beba is certainly one of the strongest women I have ever met; she is strong in all possible meanings of the word – emotionally, physically, and intellectually. During the war, she lost everything that she owned. It took her years to rebuild her life. She cannot celebrate national holidays anymore because every holiday is a day when a relative died or a horrendous massacre took place. Yet despite all the pain and hardship she has been through, Beba is quite a cheerful woman. She even tells jokes about the war. I simply cannot help but admire her.
However, Beba is not an exception. She is one of many strong Bosnian women. All the members of BOSFAM have their own incredible stories. These are the stories of women who, despite losing their husbands, sons, fathers, or brothers in the brutal massacre of Srebrenica, brought their young children safely to Tuzla and raised them as well-educated men and women. These are the stories of women who are helping each other to struggle against economic difficulty and immense psychological trauma. It has been a great pleasure for me to be among these amazing women.
Magbula is one of BOSFAM’s core weavers. She suffered a devastating loss during the massacre when her husband and son were both killed. Her husband’s body was found and re-buried at Potocari, but her son is still missing. He was fifteen in 1995. A few months younger and he might have been spared by the Serbs. Magbula returned to Srebrenica after her house was rebuilt, but remains haunted by memories of the massacre. Magbula is devoted to Beba and BOSFAM and when Muslims return to Srebrenica, she is always the first to take them under her wing and teach them to weave. She visited the United States with BOSFAM’s founder, Beba Hadzic, in 2005.
AP has told Magbula’s story through many blogs and profiles. Iain Guest from visited Magbula in July 2008 with Beba Hadzic and Peace Fellow Shweta Dewan and wrote the following blog about the visit:
“We stop off at the home of Magbula Divovic, one of the Bosfam weavers who returned home from Tuzla three years ago. Magbula lives just up the road from the Potocari memorial – the place where she was separated from her husband and youngest son in 1995. She remembers how Mladic, the Serb General, reassured the crowd that the men would be returned.
“Magbula is well known to the Advocacy Project. I have one of her large carpets at home, and she visited the US in July 2005 with Beba on a speaking tour at our invitation. There were some wonderful moments. I remember her face when we drove past an exotic character in Hartford who was roller-skating in the opposite direction, naked from the waist up, carrying a huge boom box and a poster which read “Guns suck!” Magbula’s jaw dropped. She would sit in the back and smile “Ideas! Ideas!” as Beba and I chattered on in the front. It became a standing joke.
“But for much of the time Magbula would sit for long periods with her head in her hands, gazing out of the window. We woke up one morning at our house in Washington to find her frantically sweeping the back yard. “I have to work,” she told us. “It takes my mind off things.” Weaving serves the same purpose. She was one of the Bosfam regulars before she returned, and has two looms in her small house.
“This has not been a good few months for Magbula. She returned to look after her aged parents. Her house was renovated by aid agencies, and she devoted herself to raising a couple of sheep and tending to her garden. But both of her parents died recently, and she had to hand her sheep over to be slaughtered because of an outbreak of brucellosis.
“After Karadzic was arrested last week, carloads of young Serbs raced up and down the road, past where Magbula’s husband lies in the Poticari cemetery, blowing their horns and shouting Karazdic’s name. Magbula was thoroughly unnerved and she vents her anger on us with a minor tirade against the Serbs. Beba has trouble keeping up with the translation.
“Magbula has cooked a massive meal for us of boiled chicken, chicken soup, bread, vegetables, pastries, and coffee. She craves company, and Beba makes a point of visiting whenever she can. But Magbula is deeply lonely, and tears come to her eyes as she describes the nights as a torment. Shweta and Antigona are deeply moved and hug her tightly. The Bosfam widows have this effect on visitors.
“As we leave, promising to return, I ask if Magbula has photos from the past. The answer is no. Like Beba she left without anything, and has been writing to relatives for photos. He has one prized photo of her son and grandson, who are now in Tuzla. We leave her to her flowers and isolation. What Magbula needs most is company, preferably of other women.”
(Profile by Shweta Dewan, 2008). We call her Mala Beba (“Small Beba”) to distinguish her from the founder of BOSFAM who is also called Beba. Small Beba is one of the women who keeps BOSFAM alive and happy. When she laughs, you can be two or three rooms away but still hear her throwing her head back, clapping her hand, and having a good hearty laugh – at least once a day. She has a great sense of humor and thoroughly enjoys pulling my leg. A very patient woman, Beba always takes time to repeat herself, in another language nonetheless, until I understand what she is saying…or else, she smiles, shakes her head and says “nema vezi” (never mind, or its okay).
Beba was born in Srebrenica in 1969 and married when she was 21. Her son Allen was born in 1993 when she was 23. (He was one of the first people I met here who could speak English. We both like ice-cream, which has made his company even more enjoyable.) In July 1995, Beba was forced to leave Srebrenica and she came to Tuzla. This was when she was separated from her husband. His body was identified in 2004 and buried on the July 11th anniversary of the following year.
Now, when Beba finishes her work at BOSFAM, she darkens her eyeliner and goes off to work on one of the short-term jobs she finds, such as cleaning. She returns home 2-3 hours later and does this every day. I ask her how she manages and she says she doesn’t know. She is one of the loveliest people I have met here and my stay in Bosnia would not have been the same without her.
(Profile by Shweta Dewan, 2008). Bahira is originally from Zvornik, a town to the northeast of Tuzla. On 26 May 1992, she was violently expelled from Zvornik among the rest of the town’s Muslim population. She lived in a series of settlements for internally displaced persons in Tuzla throughout the war.
During the war, Bahira was separated from her husband, who spent over 14 months in a concentration camp. He was one of the few survivors of the camp, but died soon after his release as a result of insufficient medical care. Bahira has been able to seek comfort and companionship from the other weavers at BOSFAM. Their war experiences closely resemble her own.
(Profile by Shweta Dewan, 2008). Behija was born in Pljeulju, Montenegro in 1954. She finished elementary school and moved to Sarajevo with her family in 1969. In 1979, she married and moved to Bijeljina, a town in northeastern Bosnia. In 1994, Behija and her family were forced to relocate to Tuzla. After the war, she remained in Tuzla, where she still lives today.
Behija is extremely creative and makes sure her work is done in an impeccable and swift manner. She lives with her daughter and husband in Tuzla. She is also one of the few women I have met who can read coffee grinds to tell your future. At different times, after one of our two daily coffee sessions, one of the women would finish her coffee, flip over her coffee cup and wait for it to dry before asking Behija what their future said. Apparently there was a picture of a dog in my coffee grinds one day, but I couldn’t see it! She’s a lovely person, very kind and was truly a pleasure to be around.
(Profile by Shweta Dewan, 2008). Enisa was born in Bosanski Petrovac (Western Bosnia) in 1954, where she finished school. In 1971 she married and moved to Poljice, in Lukavec municipality, where she still lives with her husband. Enisa has two sons and three grandchildren. One son lives in Austria.
(Profile by Shweta Dewan, 2008). Raiza does not weave carpets. Rather, she performs a variety of tasks at BOSFAM. She knits a great deal, makes the carpets presentable, labels carpets once they are removed from the loom, and sews names onto the Srebrenica Memorial quilts.
Before the war, Raiza worked in Croatia before moving to Tuzla. Today, Raiza is single and lives with her mother. Unfortunately she also suffers from health problems that require expensive medication. She and her mother must live off her mother’s pension and Raiza’s income from BOSFAM. Like Tima, she is an excellent cook.
Raiza is one of the women I spent the most time with during my stay at Bosfam. She made a great effort to communicate with me, through hand signals and sounds that helped a whole lot! Funnily enough, we understood each other very well within a few weeks into my internship, what with her speaking Bosnian (and adding to this with her animated character) and me speaking in English.
Raiza is 42, single, and lives with her mother. Both of them live on her mother’s pension and Raiza’s income from Bosfam. Before the war, she worked in Croatia, and went through a lot of hardship during the war before coming to Tuzla. She also has health problems, medication for which needs to be covered in the combined income of her mother and herself.
(Profile by Alison Morse, 2007, and Shweta Dewan, 2008). Nura was a mother of three and a housewife when war broke out in Bosnia and Herzegovina. She lived with her family in a small village in the Srebrenica municipality. Her husband, Bajro, was employed as a tile layer, but disappeared in 1992. He had been working in Serbia when the war began and Nura has not heard from him since. On July 11, 1995, Nura was separated from her father, brother, father-in-law, and her brother-in-law. Her father’s remains have been identified and buried, but none of the others. “I know nothing of what happened to my relatives, only my father,” she said.
Prior to coming to Tuzla in 1996, Nura moved in and out of collective centers in Dubrave, Sicki, and Simin Han. She began working at BOSFAM in 1995 and weaving has been her only source of income since then. All three of Nura’s children have finished their education and are employed. This is due to her perseverance, and an impressive feat given the current level of unemployment in Bosnia.
Peace Fellow Alison Morse wrote the following profile of Nura in 2007: “A loose-fitting floral shirt and matching skirt hide Nura’s small frame. She sits in a swiveling office chair with one knee pulled to her chin. Her other foot dangles over one of the wheels of the chair. Her hair is covered by a beige floral scarf, tied loosely at her chin. I sit across the table from her, slowly sipping at my morning coffee, thinking that the computer screen behind her is an inappropriate backdrop for her traditional attire.
“Nura’s speech slows and her eyes glaze over. She brings her hands to her forehead and gently places her palms over her eyes. She looks up with tears in her eyes. Yesterday she went to Srebrenica for the first time in nearly a year.
“July is a difficult month for the women of BOSFAM. Although it is a time to reconnect with family members who are visiting from abroad, many of these reunions are not happy ones. Many of the women take the month of July to visit family and friends, primarily to pay their respects for loved ones buried at Potocari. These are not typical family vacations – days at the local pool are interspersed with days of mourning.
“ ‘I hate it there. It is no longer home,’ ” she says. Srebrenica is an abandoned town: there are few residents and fewer jobs. Nura grew up in a small town just outside Srebrenica. Her husband left before the war to work in Serbia and never returned. She fled with her children during the war, moving regularly between refugee centers. Her brother is missing along with her brother-in-law and a cousin. Her father and father-in-law are buried in Potocari. All were victims of the massacre.
“ ‘How does one go to the bakery and not think that the person selling bread did not kill my father?’ she asks. In a small community where everyone knew their neighbors prior to the war, it is of little comfort to know that these strangers now occupy their homes and streets. There is little trust and therefore little incentive to return.
“Neighbors changed during the war. Those that once shared garden vegetables later set fire to apartments after stealing everything inside. How does one forgive their neighbor after witnessing such acts of violence? How does one walk the street knowing that those out watering their gardens were not in fact the same people who committed some of the most ruthless, gruesome acts against humanity in recent history?
” ‘Those who are lucky got out.’ Nura bows her head and continues to cry. She gestures with her hands and her voice gains strength. She repeats the same story – this time with more anger than sadness. She is trapped here. Her relatives who visited from the U.S. do not have to live with the daily struggle of putting food on the table or finding work. They do not have to walk by bombed out buildings and watch images of mass graves on the news.
“This is BOSFAM. It has been a quiet month of work with many of the women gone, but this one exchange over coffee is what is at the heart of this organization. Listening to this story is a small gesture, but to Nura it is a safe place to express her anger and her loss. Her family members have returned to the U.S. and she now must rely on her family at BOSFAM to support her.”
The following year, Shweta Dewan, the 2008 Peace Fellow, also blogged about Nura:
“Nura is such a great character! I have learned quite a bit about her – she does not like George Bush, she makes everyone laugh with her witty comments, she is a very direct person who won’t hesitate to tell you what she thinks, she hates the dentist, she can weave like a machine (!) and she loves to sleep. She has three children, all of whom she made sure finished their education, and they all have jobs right now. This is extremely commendable in a time of chaos and lack of money. She has worked at Bosfam since 1995 and this has been her only source of income since then.”
(Profile by Shweta Dewan, 2008). Before the war, Hajrija was a housewife in Srebrenica. Her family was quite well-off and had two homes: one in Srebrenica and another in Bratunac. Then, Serbian forces attacked Srebrenica and her life changed forever. “I lost around 50 relatives, including one brother, all of my closest family, all of my cousins,” Hajrija says.
Hajrija was forced to flee Srebrenica with her daughter when the safe area fell. She has moved repeatedly since arriving in Tuzla, and states that she and her daughter are “barely living.”
Hajrija’s home in Srebrenica was destroyed, and all of Hajrija’s belongings, including 11 carpets, or cilims, were stolen from both houses. The current atmosphere in and around Srebrenica makes the idea of return to the home in Bratunac particularly difficult.
(Profile by Shweta Dewan, 2008). Zifa was born in 1952. She has fond memories of her childhood in Bosnia, when she lived next to a beautiful lake. She married her husband in 1971 and they lived in Pec. They had two children – a girl and a boy. After Srebrenica fell in July 1995, Zifa fled with her daughter and grandchild to Tuzla. Zifa’s son attempted to escape through the woods to Tuzla but was killed by Bosnian Serbs. His remains were identified and he was buried in Potocari in 2007.
Zifa and her husband were reunited in Tuzla. He had worked in Serbia in the late 80s but went immediately to Tuzla when the war began. Both Zifa and her husband waited for years for their son to arrive in Tuzla, but he never did.
Zifa spends as much spare time as possible weaving at BOSFAM. She says that it helps her cope. BOSFAM is lucky to have Zifa, as she is one of the most talented weavers in the organization.
Zifa, a truly talented woman, is one of the very best weavers at BOSFAM. She was away for a large portion of the time I was there but definitely made an impression. Her son was buried in Potocari last year and she was one of the only women who was curious to know what I felt when I had gone to see a mass grave. I found it difficult to speak with her in Bosnian. Although Tima’s daughter was there to translate, it was difficult for me to explain that once you go to a mass grave with people whose goal is exhumation it is difficult to think how all this happened. It was even more difficult to explain to her as she started to cry.
(Profile by Shweta Dewan, 2008). Tima is by far the best baker I have come across in Bosnia! She makes delicious apple and custard/biscuit cakes, that are heavenly. She lives with her daughter in a home she was given by the municipality. Her younger daughter is on scholarship and studying in Sarajevo, and her oldest child, a boy, is working in Srebrenica. His story is fascinating. He was shot twice, and was wounded on his foot but he still managed to stay alive. He was then brought to Tuzla by the only other person who survived the shooting.
When I visited Sima’s home, her older daughter showed me a huge picture in a frame. It was Tima’s son standing beside Bill Clinton. Because of his experience and first-hand information, her son was a crucial witness at the criminal tribunal in The Hague.
Tima’s husband, Alija, was killed while trying to escape through the woods from Srebrenica. He was identified and buried in Potocari in 2004. Tima is such a loving person and absolutely adores children.
(Profile by Shweta Dewan, 2008). Everyone has a phrase they say over and over again. For Sajma (pronounced Sa-i-ma) it’s “chuk-a chuk-a…” which basically means hold on or just a minute. She’s got one of the kindest people here at BOSFAM and her personality fits the mold. We just visited her house yesterday – she lives with her two children, her mother and a few relatives in her brother-in-laws home that is currently being constructed. Her garden was the size of a tennis court – and filled with strawberries, maize, paprika (peppers) and potatoes.
I was reminded of Zambia when I saw Sajma’s strawberry patch, since we used to visit my friend’s house every day after kindergarten and pick strawberries while we waited for our parents to come get us. Beba translated the story to Sajma and she made sure I ate and took as many strawberries as I could. She also filled a bag with paprika and told Beba and I to take it home. This wasn’t the end of the hospitality – we were fed plenty in the 20 minutes we stayed at her house before returning to Tuzla (she commutes an hour everyday to Tuzla from Srebrenik on a bus that leaves at 6.30am).
Sajma was born in 1962 in Pobuđe, in Northeastern Bosnia. She got married very young, at the age of 18 and had a son and a daughter soon after. Unfortunately, her husband died in a work accident in 1990. When the war started, Sajma left Bosnia and took refuge in Slovenia with her two children. In 1996, Sajma returned to Srebrenik with her children. Her daughter is currently in university, studying Pharmacy, and her son just got a job in Srebrenik.
(Profile by Shweta Dewan, 2008). Sadeta was born in 1956 in Luka, a town in the Srebrenica municipality. She later moved to Stedra, married, and had three children. Until the outbreak of war, she was a dedicated housewife and mother of two daughters and one son.
Sadeta’s husband was killed in 1993. Fortunately, she and her children managed to take his body out of the besieged area and give him a respectable burial. Sadeta and her daughters fled to Tuzla. Her son attempted to find safety through the forest, and is still missing.
In 1995, Sadeta began working at BOSFAM. Following the war, both of her daughters left Bosnia. One lives in Germany and the other lives in the Netherlands. They are both married and have families, but it is difficult for Sadeta to be so far away from them. Despite having to face life in postwar-Bosnia alone, Sadeta is a comic. She is always cracking jokes and has a very authoritative air about her, which makes her all the more respected. But going home to an empty house is definitely a trying experience. She was one of the first ladies I saw crying right before July 11. This really hit me as Sadeta is a person who tries to show that she is happy all the time.
(Profile by Shweta Dewan, 2008). Although I didn’t spend too much time with Hanija, the few times I met her, she was very patient with me. We communicated through signs. Hanija used to live in Srebrenica and remained in the town throughout the war, until she was expelled with other women and children during the 1995 massacre. Today, she lives outside Tuzla with her husband. Many of Hanija’s male relatives were killed during the Srebrenica massacre. She also lost a home which she has been unable to return to. Hanija’s work at BOSFAM is very important to her family. Her income constitutes a large portion of the family’s total earnings.
Rasema is from Bratunac, a small town in eastern Bosnia. She got married shortly before the war and moved to live in a nearby town called Milići. When her town was ethnically cleansed in 1993, she fled to the UN-protected “safe area” in Srebrenica with her husband and two-year-old son. After seeking refuge in Srebrenica for 11 days, Rasema arrived in Tuzla with her son on a humanitarian aid truck. It was the first vehicle to transport refugees from Srebrenica to Tuzla. Since men were not allowed to get on the aid truck, Rasema’s husband remained in Srebrenica. She did not see Mustafa until after six months.
Upon arriving in Tuzla, Rasema stayed in a school building in a nearby village called Banovići. Her father-in-law, who was living and working in Germany at the time, came to Bosnia to take Rasema and her son to Germany. Rasema was stopped in Kladanj on her way to Germany and was not allowed to travel further as she did not possess the necessary paperwork; she had not been able to take all the documents with her when she was expelled from her home. Therefore, she returned to Tuzla, obtained the necessary documents, and made another attempt to leave the country. Once again, the attempt was unsuccessful because all the roads had been blocked by Serb forces.
Meanwhile, Rasema’s husband, Mustafa was trying to escape from Srebrenica. He stayed in Srebrenica for about three months following Rasema’s departure and was able to exchange letters with her through the Red Cross relief workers. Then he fled Srebrenica with a group of approximately 90 men. They traveled at least 110 kilometers (68 miles) between Srebrenica and Tuzla on foot. This extremely dangerous journey took three months, and only 30 out of the 90 men managed to survive. While some men died from hunger, sickness, and exhaustion, most were killed by attacking Serb troops. Mustafa says that a common trap used by Serb troops was to cover themselves up and dress like Muslim women and when the refugee men approached for help, the troops immediately shot them.
Finally, Rasema and Mustafa were reunited in Tuzla. They have been living there ever since. Mustafa got a job at the police station and Rasema has been working at Bosfam. They now have two children – a 19-year-old boy and a 16-year-old girl. The loss of many relatives, friends, and neighbors in the Srebrenica genocide of July 1995 exacerbated Rasema and Mustafa’s pain and suffering. Nevertheless, they are working hard to rebuild their lives and are trying to stay optimistic.
(Profile by Julia Dowling, 2011). Milica Janjić has worked twice for Bosfam, as a center administrator, in 2004 and 2011. She was born in Granica, a town in central Bosnia, but moved to Srebrenica when she married her husband, who was from Srebrenica. After living in Srebrenica for six years, Milica had to leave the town in 1992 because of the war. During the conflict she lived with her parents in Milići. Milica’s brother was killed during the war. Milica and her husband returned to Srebrenica in 1998 to find their house completely destroyed by the war.
They received no assistance, financial or otherwise, from the local government or international community. Though Milica has successfully rebuilt her house, they still struggle to meet the family’s needs. Her son sleeps on a couch in their house because they cannot afford to buy a new bed, and sending him to college is a difficult and large financial burden on the family.
Beba Hadzic sees Milica as a person of rare courage who is more than willing to overcome ethnic stereotypes. When the first Muslims began to trickle back into Srebrenica, Milic helped Beba organize a large knitting project, financed by the Canadians, that brought Serb and Muslim women together to make 500 sweaters for children in the primary school. It was the first attempt at ethnic reconciliation in the town, and was not popular with many of the town’s hard-line Serb nationalist leaders. But Milica is proud of the project. Each of the women received 10 marks ($4).
Her job at BOSFAM gave Milica some financial stability. She also values the social outlet the Center provides not only the weavers but herself as well. Without her job at BOSFAM, Milica would have nothing – no credit or savings, no extra money to help support her family. “A lot of things are hard about life here, in Srebrenica,” she says. But the biggest challenge is unemployment. The town has no jobs, and this reality causes financial and psychological stress. Milica tells me that this is “the real truth about Srebrenica.”
BOSFAM’s main value lies in providing its members with work. “If I don’t have any money in the morning to buy bread, I can’t eat.” Milica also recognizes the positive affect the Center has had on women’s mental health. She admits that her work at BOSFAM can be psychologically difficult at times, but her presence in the center has become a healing force that many older women have benefitted from. One older weaver said that Milica’s presence at the Center has helped the space to become a safe and stable environment that makes life easier and happier in post-war Srebrenica.
Most writers have all but ignored the plight of Srebrenica’s Serbs. The honorable exception is our former AP colleague Peter Lippman, who has written much of AP’s material about Srebrenica. Peter always insisted that Srebrenica’s displaced Serbs should also be viewed as victims. Milica is more like a survivor.
(Profile by Julia Dowling, 2011). Rukia Munirić is fifty-seven years old and lives in a village called Sučeska just outside of Srebrenica. She was born in Potočari, another of Srebrenica’s villages, but was forced to leave in 1995 when she was bussed out of town and sent to the Muslim-controlled territory in Tuzla. Her husband was killed. In 2003, Rukia returned to Srebrenica and started a new phase of her life living in Potočari. When asked why, she responds “I choose to live here… this is my city, my place.”
Rukia’s strength, like the other women returnees to Srebrenica, is inspiring. Yet, she still faces many challenges. She has heart and breathing problems, and struggles with her nerves. Even though she receives medical and other financial support because she lost her husband, she tells us that the medicine for nerves and depression does not help. Rukia finds that joining others at BOSFAM helps her the most. She weaves beautiful carpets that help keep her busy and also provide a valuable source of income. More important even than the economic support is the emotional support she finds at the Srebrenica BOSFAM Center. “I feel the best here… the company, weaving, everything. The director understands the women, and [we] work together to solve problems.” As long as BOSFAM Srebrenica keeps its doors open, Rukia will come to weave and have coffee, and join other women who understand.
(Profile by Julia Dowling, 2011). Šura and Munevera are a mother and daughter who returned to live in Srebrenica after living in Tuzla because of Srebrenica’s fall. The two women, who have family living in Sarajevo, Tuzla, and the United States, volunteered to return because it was their home. Šura, who is seventy-six, has a tough time walking through town both physically and mentally. After losing brothers and nephews in the genocide, the town causes her painful flashbacks of life during and before the war.
Šura must rely on her daughter Munevera, forty-three, to be the breadwinner for the family. They also receive remittances from their family abroad, but continue to live in a modest two room house with a small garden. Munevera continues to look for a job in a town where unemployment stands (officially) at 23%.She says that she thought returning to their home would be different. She is disappointed that Srebrenica has so few jobs and very little to do.
Although money is scarce, the Đođićs open up their home to friends, families, and visitors. From their own garden, Munevera made me beautiful peppers, huge ripe tomatoes, and baked us homemade bread. Both of these women have worked with BOSFAM and are thankful for its presence in the town. Šura knit products for the Tuzla center when they lived there, and Munevera makes intricate and colorful crochet-style sweaters and scarves. Without BOSFAM, they would be relying solely on government pensions and family remittances.
Munevera also took BOSFAM Srebrenica’s first computer class, offered this Spring when the center opened. The class, which is free for female students, teaches the basics of Microsoft Office, the internet, and skype. Munevera, who had never used a computer before, says that she learned ‘amazing things’ in the class. She now comes to the center to use Facebook and skype to keep in touch with her family and friends in other centers and living abroad.
(Profile by Julia Dowling, 2011). Mikica Nikolić, 31, is a regular visitor to Bosfam’s center. She was born in Ljubovija, Serbia, but lived in Srebrenica before the war. She returned to Srebrenica after the war and currently works at the Srebrenica Youth Center. When we spoke with Mikica, she talked about the importance of jobs, legal rights, and activism in town. The youth have nothing to do and no one to become in the town’s current economic and political climate. ‘Everyone wants the town to be better… Yet, almost 100% of the young people want to leave because they don’t have a job, they don’t have any possibilities.
The Youth Center (which is not run by Bosfam) sponsors concerts, seasonal festivals, and movie screenings. But Mikica believes that people must have regular things to do, work to take pride in – she emphasized how BOSFAM can play a critical role in providing young women with projects that teach them skills, give them access to legal aid, and generate income while producing beautiful pieces of handicraft.
(Profile by Julia Dowling, 2011). Sanela Ustić is a thirty-two year old returnee to Srebrenica. Originally born in Tuzla, Sanela grew up in Srebrenica but was forced to relocate to Tuzla during the war. In 2000, Sanela and her brother became the first children raised in Srebrenica to return. Her mother was the first woman to return. After five years in Tuzla as an internally displaced person, Sanela and her family could not afford the increase in rent.
Sanela and her husband have two children, and share the role of breadwinner depending on who holds a job. Currently, Sanela is working part time for the Srebrenica court, but in the spring of 2011 she also served as BOSFAM’s computer literacy teacher for the free pilot course offered to Srebrenica’s women. In the past, Sanela translated for international organizations working in Srebrenica, but she is now looking for a steadier income to supplement her part time work at the court.
Serving as BOSFAM’s English-Bosnian translator when needed, Sanela is well acquainted with the organization and the ways it enriches women’s lives. She told us that the most important element of BOSFAM is that it focuses on engaging with and healing the individual because ‘human beings need other human beings.’ Sanela is trained in narrative therapy and is extremely sensitive to the emotional and psychological needs of others, and particularly the women living in town. To Sanela, the BOSFAM Center in Srebrenica is a safe space for women to process their traumas but also support one another in facing everyday challenges:
“If you have troubles in life, you have me coming – I am coming to you – and I am speaking with you about things, and I am getting better. It’s good to share… it’s like therapy. You have coffee, you are discussing and chatting… and using that network of women. How can we solve her problem, my problem, how? Let’s find a solution. Let’s everybody help each other.
As she searches for a job, Sanela explains how BOSFAM can help. As a network of women, collectively solving problems and providing sources of income, skill building, and comfort, BOSFAM is uniquely positioned to help women in their search for jobs. Sanela believes the organization could connect women with other women’s organizations and provide news and information on job opportunities. In this way, women would continue to support each other and BOSFAM would build on the network of constituents it has in Srebrenica and Tuzla.
Although she left jobs and even some savings in Tuzla, Sanela and her family are still happy they returned to Srebrenica. She recognizes the career and financial difficulties they face, but she is proud that her children are being raised in the town in which she also grew up.
(Profile by Julia Dowling, 2011). Vezirka Beganović left Srebrenica, the town where she was born and raised, in 1992 during the war. From 1992 to 2002, she lived as an internally displaced person in Tuzla in an apartment paid for by government stipends and other assistance. This assistance covered the rent but not much else, and Vezirka had no work in Tuzla. In 2002 Caritas, an international NGO, helped rebuild Vezirka’s house in Srebrenica, which had been destroyed during the war. That year, she returned to Srebrenica from a decade living in Tuzla.
Currently, Vezirka works for BOSFAM Srebrenica in the boutique selling products made by weavers living in town. She admits that the opportunity to work at BOSFAM each day is the best thing about her life in Srebrenica. The money she earns allows her to be financially independent and support herself and her son. Without the work provided by BOSFAM she would be unable to pay her bills and feed her family, and she recognizes that many women living in Srebrenica live in that difficult position.
At BOSFAM, Vezirka spends time with a group of strong women. Walking to BOSFAM, having coffee and talking, going to BOSFAM-sponsored events in Tuzla – all of this helps women with their emotional and psychological challenges. Despite the hardships she and other Srebrenica residents face, Vezirka is happy she returned: ‘Srebrenica has everything… my birthplace, where my parents lived, where I finished school, where I had my first love.’
Marta Scaaf (left) from Columbia University was the first Fellow deployed to BOSFAM in 2003.
AP began sending Peace Fellows to BOSFAM in 2003. In the years that followed, Fellows played a key role in strengthening BOSFAM. They arranged shows of BOSFAM’s advocacy quilts, managed the BOSFAM website, and offered friendship and affection around July 11.
The first Peace Fellow, Marta Schaaf (Columbia University) broke the ice in 2003 and perfectly captured the tranquil mood at BOSFAM House in her blogs. Marta was followed in 2004 by Pia Schneider, a Swiss national, who was at the Georgetown School of Business. Pia helped Beba Hadzic, the head of BOSFAM, to develop a business plan and the two became fast friends. They went on holiday together. Beba attended Pia’s wedding.
Bottom left: Shweta Dewan, a Zambian national, was studying at Columbia University when she interned at BOSFAM in 2008.
|2012: Claire Noone
2011: Quinn Van Valer-Campbell
2011: Julia Dowling
2010: Laila Zulkaphil
2009: Kelsey Bristow
2009: Alison Sluiter
2008: Shweta Dewan
2007: Alison Morse
2006: Kristi Severance
2006: Yvette Barnes
2005: Chiara Zerunian
2005: MacKenzie Frady Arbogust
2004: Pia Schneider
2003: Marta Schaaf
Julia Dowling (right) with a BOSFAM member at the Srebrenica center in 2011.
Yvette Barnes, from the Georgetown Business School, worked with the BOSFAM weavers to produce the first Srebrenica Memorial Quilt in 2006, thereby helping to launch advocacy quilting. Alison Morse, from Tufts, followed in 2007. Shweta Dewan , a Zambian national at Columbia University produced the definitive profiles of theweavers, which AP still uses, and produced her own small carpet at the loom.
2009 was particularly memorable. Four Peace Fellows worked in Serbia, Bosnia and Kosovo that summer, and three of them attended the reburials at Potocai on July 11. Donna Harati, from Georgetown, was one of them, even though she was volunteering at Women in Black in Belgrade, an AP partner at the time. Women in Black showed a lot of courage in visiting Srebrenica. The delegation was savagely criticized before they left Serbia, and they met with curious stares from Muslims when they arrived at Potocari. Still, they were determined that Serbs should take responsibility for the crime.
2011 Peace Fellow Quinn Van-Haler Campbell took part in a Tuzla protest, in solidarity with BOSFAM.
Alison Sluiter who volunteered at BOSFAM that summer was one of the best-prepared of all Fellows, having worked at AP for a year and accompanied Beba Hadzic during Beba’s 2009 tour of diaspora communities in the US. Alison was joined in Bosnia by Kelsey Bristow, also from Georgetown University. Alison remained in Bosnia after her fellowship, helping Beba and working for a fellowship program in Sarajevo where she met her future husband.
Laila Zulphakil (2010), a Mongolian national who was studying at Georgetown, helped BOSFAM write proposals and update the website. She also helped to organize the display of all 15 quilts at Potocari on July 11. Julia Dowling and Quinn Van Valer-Campbell (2011) worked at BOSFAM’s Srebrenica Center and organized a major exhibition of the memorial quilts in Tuzla. Julia stayed on in Bosnia after her fellowship and produced several profiles from Srebrenica, as well as an assessment of the need for the center.
2012 Peace Fellow Claire Noone, shown here in front of a Srebrenica Memorial quilt, sold BOSFAM’s woven products in the U.S.
Claire Noone (2012) helped Beba through the traumatic reburial of Beba’s nephew on July 11, revived BOSFAM’s online catalog and took several woven products back to the US. Claire’s dream is to set up a market and outlet for BOSFAM.
All of these women had a ringside view of a compelling drama – the attempt by Bosnians to rebuild their country in the face of hostility and cruelty. They also played a part, by helping the BOSFAM weavers to survive the terrible month of July. Their own feelings are captured, often memorably, in their blogs, which provide a unique record of this 10- year campaign. Of course, the survivors of Srebrenica will never completely recover. But AP’s Bosnian Fellows showed that friendship and compassion can go a very long way. This is as good a testament to our fellowship program as any.
Read about the Srebrenica Memorial Quilts by clicking on the image below