Sabri Ben-Achour (Bosnia & Herzegovina)

Sabri Ben-Achour (Forum of Srebrenica NGOs, Bosnia): Sabri was born in France to parents from Tunisia and New Zealand. He has lived in Tunisia, grew up in the United States, and holds British citizenship. In 2002, Sabri graduated with distinction from the University of Virginia. He lived in France and Jordan, studying French and Arabic. Sabri has also worked as a political intern with the Human Rights Campaign, the Arab American Institute, and the National Coalition to Protect Political Freedom. At the time of his fellowship, Sabri was pursuing his Master's student at Georgetown University where he was studying foreign policy and international development.

10 years later

12 Jul

Last Friday morning we began a three day long march through the Bosnian countryside and wilderness to commemorate the ten year anniversary of the Srebrenica Massacre, and specifically the flight of thousands of people, mostly men and boys, through the woods and mountains.

Ten years ago, Bosnian Serb militias and the Serbian military conducted a systematic campaign of extermination of Bosnian Muslims in the part of Bosnia populated mainly by Serbs. The worst was in Srebrenica, a Muslim enclave. Despite being a UN protected ‘Safe Zone’, Serb forces ringed the area with mines, entered, and slaughtered 8000 civilians, mostly men and boys (the women having fled earlier on buses). Many thousands fled through the woods. Many of them were hunted down and killed as they fled. Those that survived did so by moving only at night, hiding during the day, eating whatever they found, and by being lucky.

This is the journey we made, in reverse, with several hundred people who had survived the original trek, or the young men – boys at the time – who had lost fathers, brothers, uncles, and grandfathers. Zakir, who teaches accounting through a Drina project, lost 22 members of his family, and came with us on the march. Elvis lost his cousins, another man his father.

We began in a village near Zvornik, near the border between the Bosnian Federation and Republika Serpska (the Bosnian/Croatian part of Bosnia and the Serb area, which retains the name of Republika Serpska from when it tried to separate from Bosnia). Zulfo Salihovic, director of Drina, stayed in the rear of the column because he was one of the last to leave Srebrenica in 1995. It took him forty two days to reach the safety of Bosnian controlled territory. We planned on making the journey in three.

We walked through dirt roads and many small villages on the first day. Bewildered families came out to watch. There were occasionally men, but mostly women and young people. Some older women wept. When we settled in a field for a break, one lone Grandmother busily plied as many people as she could with coffee she had made, as well as water and sandwiches provided by the Red Cross. When Zulfo fled in 1995, he ate snails, mushrooms, and nettles.

Friday afternoon we arrived at the basecamp for that night. The Bosnian Federal army had provided us with sleeping bags, large army tents, water and a hot dinner (which was basically everything that I’d brought in my heavy backpack). Despite this, it hadn’t been too taxing of a journey so far.

That night I met Ahmed Hrustovic, 19, and his cousin Kadrija, 25. Both of them had lost their fathers, uncles, and grandfathers in 1995. Ahmed, only 9 at the time, left early with his mother and sisters. Kadrija had managed to escape on a bus and survived only because his mother broke down in tears and pleaded with a Serb gunman to let her take him with her. Ahmed told me “he is like a brother to me, I am all he has left.”

Saturday we marched much longer than the day before, hiking up and around Mount Udric on narrow footpaths. Some people ran into relatives in the villages before the mountain. Zulfo met the grandfather of Almir, a young man who volunteers at Drina. Almir and his Grandfather had made the journey in 1995 in a relatively swift four days. The Grandfather was too old to make the trip this time, and Almir was stuck in exams.

Periodically we passed small plaques marking the spot where Serb militia men had caught fleeing Muslims and killed them, or shelled groups of them from a distance. Different plaques marked different spots and different numbers; one hundred, one hundred and fifty, two hundred people. A man through a megaphone explained each time what had happened. “Not even the Nazis, when they were here in Bosnia, succeeded in killing so many innocent people”.

Of course, when Almir, Zulfo, and the others made the trip, the only ones on a megaphone were the Serbs who were persuading them to come out from the woods, to trucks that were waiting. “You will be safe!” they promised. In at least one incident the trucks were painted with “U.N.” to give some more credibility. Another time, Zulfo recalled, a Bosnian called out to them to give themselves up. The Serbs had caught him and sliced his face above his eyes, around his nose, and on his tongue to force him to call his hidden compatriots. In some cases people followed the calls. They were never seen again.

One man lost his mind – from biological gases they say – and put a grenade in his mouth, injuring four other people around him.

We, on the other hand, were treated quite well. The climb over the mountain was awful – beautiful, but exhausting – but there were tents and food waiting for us at the second base camp in Konjevic Polje, and there we collapsed en masse. I was able to rest well enough for my blisters to heal over, and the third and longest day began early at 7:30am the next day.

It was wretched. It was the longest section of the march, over mercilessly steep hills and valleys that never seemed to end. We also passed through a very long minefield, parts of which were close enough to the gravel road we were on for that section that the sides of the road were roped off. My bones and muscles wailed with a constant pain that became so intense by the last few hours that I considered asking for the Red Cross to take me the rest of the way by car. Somehow I made it.

Just before arriving at the memorial at Potocari, we passed by a mass grave excavation site. It was horrid. Skulls, torsos, and rib cages with shreds of fabric still hanging from them emerged from the soil in the hillside pit. I wanted to vomit afterwards.

Finally, we arrived at the memorial site. That night, there was a torrential rain and our tents leaked and flooded. Me, Ahmed, Kadrija and some others took our sleeping bags and backpacks to the nearby ruins of an old battery factory where thousands of Muslims had been held before being killed.

The next day, fifty thousand people arrived in Potocari to mark the tenth anniversary of Srebrenica and bury 610 coffins of identified remains. The Bosnian Muslim member of the Bosnia and Hercegovina presidency (a three member rotating presidency) delivered speeches, along with the UK Foreign Minister, the U.S. ‘Ambassador for War Crimes at Large’, a representative of Kofi Annan. The Bosnian president minced no words in stating bluntly and directly that the U.N. forces had utterly failed to protect the victims in 1995. The leader of the Bosnian Islamic Community Mustafa Ceric delivered a moving Sermon in Arabic, Bosnian, and English in which he urged that the truth of what happened be remembered, but that revenge ‘is not the Bosnian way’ and prayed for the strength to forgive.

Last week, 35kg of explosives had been found at the memorial site. There was a heavy police presence. In the Serb town of Kravice, there was a memorial for fallen Serbs – Serb civilians had also been killed in the war though not in the same systematic campaign as had Bosnians. Normally the date of that event is in October, but it was moved to July 12 in protest. Kravice is also the site of mass graves of Bosnians.

The Serb president declined to attend this counter-event, and attended the Srebrenica commemoration along with the Croatian president. Croatia suffered similar massacres in 1991, though on a smaller scale, and there are mass graves in Croatia in Vukovar.

After the speeches, 610 green coffins with the remains of the newly identified victims sailed on a sea of hands as people passed them one after the other to the waiting graves. Some were followed the whole way by loved ones clinging onto the tail end of the coffin, walking them along. Finally, family members lowered them into the ground and covered them with dirt and shovels.

Hung on a hillside fence at the back of the memorial site was a banner, several hundred feet long, with all the victims so far identified listed on it. Ahmed called over to me and said “I want to show you something.” He scanned for the name he was looking for. Hrustanovic, Rifet. “Here,” he pointed. “This is my father.”

Posted By Sabri Ben-Achour (Bosnia & Herzegovina)

Posted Jul 12th, 2005

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