SREBRENICA DEATH MARCH 1995
As the UN Safe Zone of Srebrenica as it fell to the advancing Serb forces on July 11, 1995, 15,000 men tried to escape impending genocide. The starved and unarmed men were up against the land mine riddled mountainsides, thick snake infested forests and one of the largest military presences in the world. Of the 15,000 men that set out towards free territory, only 3,500 made it successfully. They either died of starvation or exposure, were killed by landmine explosions, killed in an ambush, or some intrusion of Serbian soldiers in the column, surrendered or were captured and then brutally executed. For those that survived they lived for up to 10 months in the forest before making it to safe territory.
Each year thousands of people (survivors and family of victims), retrace the 100 km (60 mile) march through the rugged Bosnian mountain terrain. I participated in the Mars Mira (Peace March) this year and heard countless stories of perseverance and tragedy. Below is the story of one of the men that survived and now has returned. Below that is a video I made about the march and the legacy of those that did not survive.
When Gjelie was 16 years old, when war consumed his life. He had grown up in a small village in the eastern mountains of Bosnia where his family raised cattle and grew food. As the Serb offensive moved westward, his village became a main defense line. His father became the ‘commander’ of the local militia and held close to his policy of “we will not attack, but we will defend with our lives”. Shell fire ultimately killed Gjelie’s father in his own home. In 1993, Gjelie and his family came to the newly established UN Safe Zone in Srebrenica to gain protection. His family was evacuated for health reasons to Sarajevo, but due to Gjelie’s fighting age, he was not granted passage and remained in Srebrenica until its fall in July 11, 1995.
Jelie was a member of the original “death march” and survived for 2 months in the mountains before making it to free territory.
As it became apparent that Srebrenica would fall to Serb forces, fighting age men knew their gruesome fate if caught. So, at midnight on July 11th 15,000 men set off from Srebrenica towards safe territory 100km away. Walking in a continuous single file line, the last man left some 14 hours after the first. It is estimated that up to a third of the men on the march belonged to units of 28th BH Army divisions. Poorly equipped and exhausted from a 3 year defensive battle, they had no choice but to flee. The Bosnian soldiers had gone ahead and secured a single line through the mine fields.
The column managed to walk for a day without attack. However once the Serb forces realized that many of the men were missing, they deployed heavy artillery, tanks and machinery into the mountains. The Yugoslav Army was the third largest army in the world. As Yugoslavia crumbled its weaponry and equipment was absorbed into the Serb forces. The first of two large ambushes happened as the column made its way through an open field. Surrounded on either side by Serb forces, they opened fire on the column. In just under an hour over 1,000 men lay dead and the column was successfully split into two. The only marchers with arms and navigation were near the front of the column and those near the back had little chance for survival.
Gjelie owes his life today to the fact that he had been sitting down on during the first ambush. He lost the first part of the column and found himself alone for two days. Wandering through the thick forest, he met up with a 13 year old boy and an older man. Together they survived in the woods for 1 month eating snails, grass and bark. They tried to cross into friendly territory several times but each time fell back as the line became reinforced with heavy artillery. To gain perspective they climbed up to the tallest mountain in the region and found 370 men together who had been there for a month. He found there, his grandfather and the father of the 13 year old boy.
Knowing that he needed sustenance and supplies to break through to free territory, Jelie decided to return to Srebrenica and convinced 18 other men to join. During the war the besieged people of Srebrenica had cultivated every inch of land. The men knew they would find ripe food upon their return. Under cover of darkness the men returned to Srebrenica each with an assignment; one to get a chicken, one legumes, one tomatoes, one honey, one flour and so on. They met back up in a camp in the mountains where they had a feast of chicken, beans, tomatoes and bread. After surviving for a month snails and bark the fresh soft bread brought Gjelie to tears.
Gjelie knew that one bedridden man had stayed in the Srebrenica unable to leave. When the Serbs found him, instead of shooting him on the spot they left him to starve, visiting him occasionally to get information. Gjelie found him alive and brought him food one evening. The next morning, the Serbs came to his home and found the crumbs from his food and asked him where he had gotten it. They began little by little to cut off his ear until he broke and told them Gjelie was here. Hearing the screams, Gjelie knew he had to leave. However before they left, he snuck into the home a geography teacher and found a map in his library and a novelty compass on the end of a toy knife. With the map, compass and food he fled into the rugged mountains one final time towards free territory. He posted out on a mountain for a week and observed the patrol patterns of the Serb troops. Finally under the cover of darkness he broke free into safe territory in the early morning hours of September 22, 1995. Shortly thereafter he applied for and received refugee status in Switzerland and moved out of Bosnia.
His heart, however, never left Bosnia. He was able to get the deed to his father’s destroyed home, and began returning in 2004 for a few months a year, rebuilding his home a room at a time. He would build a room and wait to see if it would be destroyed before building another. Today, Gjelie lives in his father’s renovated home with his three young children and his wife. For our entire conversation Gjelie remained composed speaking of landmine explosions, attacks and of hunger ,but when speaking of his life now, tears well in his large brown eyes. He beams with pride as he speaks of being able to see young children grow up in his father’s home. He knows he is one of the lucky ones.
- Marchers rest in front of Gjelie’s home after a long day
MARS MIRA (PEACE MARCH) 2012
Posted By Claire Noone
Posted Jul 19th, 2012