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INFO   :::  Projects > Archives > Promoting a Social Climate Propitious to Transitional... > Helsinki Charter No. 151-152 > Text



Ratko Mladic in The Hague


By Irena Antic

Equal in death the same as they had been equal in fear and agony before in the heat of July 1995 in the death-fields spreading from Srebrenica and Bratunac to Konjevic Polje, Nova Kasaba and Zvornik they looked at this world for the last time, citizens of Podrinje, killed in the Srebrenica genocide, more than 600 of them, returned this July 11, after 16 years, to Potocare, to the same spot where they met their death. Together with 4,534 victims already buried in the Memorial Center they stand for another 600 evidence of the crime of genocide and the atrocity in which the army and the police of Republika Srpska and volunteer troops from Serbia, under the command of the recently arrested ICTY indictee, Ratko Mladic, killed some 10,000 Bosniaks on July 11-19, 1995.

Their bodily remnants were found in mass graves on several locations. Many of them have been hidden for years under the Kamenica death valley, some 60 kilometers away from Srebrenica. Ten mass graves were detected in that valley. Those found in these graves had been shot on July 16-17, 1995 at the Branjevo military farm and in the school and cultural center of Polici and Kozluk, where they were initially interred. For this crime ICTY condemned Drazen Erdemovic, who pleaded guilty. Franc Kos and others from the 10th Diversionary Squad of the Republika Srpska Army, infamous formation killing in one day only some 1,500 boys and men in Branjevo and Pilice, are now standing trial before the Court of Bosnia-Herzegovina. In November of the same year, to cover their crime, they excavated their victims and transported them to Kamenica. That's why most corpses from these graves have been destroyed. Not rarely have the bodily remnants of a same person been detected in three, four or more graves. On the 16th anniversary of the genocide victims tracked down in the mass graves in Glogovo and Zeleni Jadar, killed in the Kravice hangar on July 13, were also properly buried. On that July 13 some 1,200 Bosniaks, captured while trying to reach the free territory in Tuzla, were killed in one night only. Some bodily remnants were found in the mass graves of Snagovo and Liplje. Those scattered in five mass graves in Liplje were shot at the Petkovci dam. Waters swallowed many bodies forever.

Along with mothers hugging tombstones as if hugging their sons for the last time, the victims of Srebrenica were once again buried by their sons and daughters, children at the time and now grown-ups raised fatherless, by wives widowed overnight, by brothers and sisters sharing everything with them once, by friends, neighbors, relatives, by known and unknown people for all over the world; by those who had already buried their dearest and know the pain, those going over it again and again; by families still searching for their dearest and by mothers still waiting to bury their sons, still hoping their bones would be found in some newly detected mass grave.

All those mothers, sisters and daughters whose dearest disappeared in the whirl of the Srebrenica hell have had since were sleepless nights and dawns they met in tears, praying and hoping to learn soon about the fate of their dearest. The hope that someone would be alive dwindled as months and days went by. Suffering after suffering was in store for those who survived the golghota of Srebrenica. And all those years new hope was born with every newly discovered mass grave. All their hopes and wishes were then focused on meters-deep holes. Standing over them they could only guess with fear in their hearts about the identities of corpses. Every mother facing these awful scenes could only hope that a wristwatch, a boot, a wallet or a photo beside some scull, hand or leg belonged to her son, that this could be one of hundreds of graves in which his bones have been rotting all those years.They had given birth to healthy and beautiful babies, not to a bone or a trunk. Unfortunately, most of them had to resign themselves to their fate - just some little bones belonging to their children were lying under the tombstones in the Potocari Memorial Center.

In the years after the Srebrenica genocide I've met hundreds of mothers who had lost their sons with the fall of the enclave under UN protection, and heard as many heartbreaking stories. I've noted down many of these stories and had them published. But I could never make myself write the story of Sabaheta Fejzic and her parting with her school-age son, three times snatched from her arms by Serb soldiers in Potocari and finally taken away, or about Kada Hotic's thoughts about how unjust it was to survive her son killed while trying to reach the free territory together with thousands of citizens of Podrinje. I've talked to them many times and we've cried together. Their eyes were clouded by the past and the pain, their faces were wrinkled by the years of searching and hoping. I would always feel guilty of digging into their shattered lives and their hearts wrapped into years-long suffering. I've tried to find an excuse for myself: people have to be told their stories, their stories must not be consigned to oblivion.

When the news came that Mladic's wild hordes had crossed the last line of defense and entered the town of Srebrenica and when exhausted and frightened citizens directed themselves towards the UN base in Potocari, Sabaheta and her son Ryad went too. Outside the main building they said goodbye to Ryad's father, Shaban, who went towards the woods. On that day the Fejzic family hugged each other and cried together for the last time. Sabaheta could not rid herself from the premonition that Serb soldiers would separate her from her son and would not let him go with her to the free territory. They spent two days and two nights in the open, together with others. Her worst fears became true in the morning of July 13. Serb soldiers separated Ryad, about to turn 18 in ten days, together with other men and boys, including 14-year-olds. Several times Sabaheta managed to snatch away her child from this sad column of people. Once again, when struck by terror she realized they would not let Ryad leave with her, she tried to protect herself and her child by running into the masses. When they came close to buses, they went through the same scene. Soldiers were tugging Ryad in one direction, she in another. She cried, she begged them to let him go, she implored them to kill her on the spot but only let him go. Ryad was crying, "Mom, do not let them take me!" But when her agony culminated, when they began hitting her and pushing her aside while she was struggling for her son, he said, "Mom, let me go." They took away Ryad and killed him three days later. They left Sabaheta standing on the hot asphalt, blood pouring from her hands and legs. They allowed her to live but killed everything inside her on that day.

"I haven't, I haven't managed to save my child. They took him away from me. My neighbor Milisav Gavric was watching the scene. He was there. He wouldn't help me to save my child. When they took him away, they threw me on a truck, like a sack," remembers Sabaheta the moment they separated her from her only child who meant the world to her. She fainted and recalls nothing till they reached Kladanja. Ryad was found in the mass grave in Kamenica.

That means that he was alive till July 16, when shot in Branjevo. Drazen Erdemovic testimony about the shooting of captured Bosniaks in Branjevo and his saying that he remembered a boy crying for his mother before the first shots were fired into unfortunate people, makes me believe that the boy must have been Ryad. He was buried in the Potocari Memorial Center in 2009. There is an empty place next to his tombstone. Sabaheta hopes to bury her husband Shaban, whose bodily remnants have not been found yet, next to their son.

"All these years I knew nothing about what happened to my son and my husband were the most difficult years of my life. Imagining who they killed them, what they did to them, how they tortured them and how they breathed their last agonizes me. And they had been hungry, thirsty and hurt.These days, each July, are the hardest, they are days of excruciating memories. These days are July 9 and 10 when we were expecting the worst, July 11 when we were expelled from Srebrenica, July 12 when my son and I spent a night in the open and witnessed atrocities - we watched them butchering people, raping women, taking away men, snatching children from their mothers' arms. But July 13 is the most painful of all, on that day they took away my child, my only one," tells Sabaheta.

Sabaheta often goes to Potocari. There she is not alone, she says. This is where her Ryad had returned to and she will always by with him by his tombstone. Every time she goes to Srebrenica reminds her of the ruins of her past life. This Srebrenica is no longer hers nor does she belong to this town where she was born, happily married and had a child that was a world to her. Some new kids are playing in backyards, not her grandchildren. She often runs into Ryad's schoolmates, they are polite to her but never ask about Ryad. They know he is no longer. But they do not know who took him away and killed him. This is what their fathers know. And all these years they have owed the truth to their sons and Sabaheta but have never collected courage to spill it out.

"Srebrenica is a dead town nowadays. And it was among the most beautiful towns once. Today, everything seems to be permeated with some pain, everything associates some loss. The most beautiful flowers of Srebrenica are gone forever - its youth," says Sabaheta.

On the same day as Ryad, July 11, Kada's son, Samir, a 27-year-old at the time, joined the column of boys and men heading through woods towards the free territory. "Dutch soldiers were directing the column. My son spontaneously separated himself from me and my husband and went towards the woods. At the moment he was some ten meters away from us, I thought to myself that we hadn't even said goodbye. He was a tall youth, inches taller than the others. I called after him. He turned his head, I saw his profile, and that's something I'll never forget. I wished him luck, that's all I said to him. He waved his hand. That was the last time I saw my son. Then I came to Tuzla. I hoped to see him alive one day. I hoped my husband and my brother Ekrem would show up later. But they never showed up," Kada remembers.

Two of Kada's brothers had already been found in mass graves. One has been buried, the other not yet - his family still hopes his skull would be dug out of some mass grave. The manner in which her son was put to death has been haunting Kada all these years. "Had a bullet killed him that would be easier for me, but if they had tortured him, that would be something unbearable to think about. Be it as it may, I must learn the truth. My husband was shot. A bullet went through his pocket watch.The dials stopped at half past four. They stopped at the moment his heart stopped," says Kada.

"Today, I live on the fate of my dearest, my son and my husband, I live on their deaths. I receive some meager social security and family pension. I get my daily bread from the dead. My daughter Leila has three children and I enjoy them very much. But when I look at them I am often grief-stricken. My Samir loved his sister dearly but will never experience the joy of seeing her children. My husband earned to see his daughter only and was crying for her, away from us, throughout the war. He went to his grave never seeing her again. And that hurts, hurts deeply."

After so many years, Kada learned the bitter truth. He Samir had been shot at the Petkovci dam, while his bodily remnants excavated from the mass grave in Liplje. "I've seen that mass grave, that's one of the biggest. I remember all those crushed bones. Many bodies had been thrown in water, that's why their clothes decayed. Thinking of how thirsty, let alone hungry my Samir must have been in the heat of July is most painful of all.Or how many deaths had he witnessed before his turn came. Had they blindfolded him before execution? Was he still alive when they buried him? I went to that dam in Petkovci. I was collecting shells scattered all over. I didn't know then that my Samir had been shot there. I was thinking to myself when seeing each cartridge, 'My God, has anyone been shot with this?' When tracked down, Samir's body was incomplete."

All that was found from Samir were toe bones, two pelvic bones and a part of upper jaw. The mother wanted a proper burial for him, having lost any hope that the rest of his body would ever be found. So, this July 11 Samir was buried in Potocari together with his relatives, friends and neighbors. When he left Srebrenica on July 11, 1995, Samir wore grey pants made of tent fabric with many brown buttons. And he had a soldier belt. Kada often used to tell people that her Samir's pants had been made of such fabric that could not rot that easily. "Long ago, I told the people from the Institute for Missing Persons to let me know immediately should they find such pants. I've made them myself during the war and would always recognize them. Or, I would recognize the buttons, I still remember their shape and pattern," she told me long ago while trying to convince herself and me that had not suffered much before shot and that his clothes would be found in one piece in some mass grave. Unfortunately, no clothes were found beside Samir's body.

When she buried her Samir this July 11 in Potocari her soul found some peace. At least she could look at the tombstone with his name on it. Watching her on that day, crushed by pain but strong nevertheless, a scarf about her head hiding this pain heavy as the earth thrown on the graves, I recalled our earlier visits together to the memorial, our conversations, all those endlessly sad day, and Kada's sparkling eyes filled with tears. Whenever pain left her speechless she began singing softly some sad song as a relief. And she sang beautifully.

"My living is a gross injustice, how possibly could I survive my son. My son had a right to live and I often wonder who have me this right when he is gone.We used to have such a happy life once. That was the time when Srebrenica was an unknown spot for people worldwide. The world didn't know about Kada Hotic's existence and that was fine with me. I was so happy while anonymous. Today, everyone speaks Srebrenica, even of Kada Hotic but I can never again be happy as I was while anonymous... The search for my child ends here. Let his bones rest at peace. Allah knows where his soul is.In the best of all places, I hope. As a mother, I wish the best place in heaven for my child. I believe our dearest would be happy there and this belief makes my life on earth easier to bear," she says.

The Srebrenica tragedy and the bitterness of their present lives forever tied together Sabaheta and Kada. Whenever she has to cope with her memories, Sabaheta, quite and aloof as she is, wants to hide herself from anyone, wants her sorrow to touch no other human being. She hardly talks at such times and should she I think a stone would spill a tear. She just cries silently while looking at Ryad's tombstone and a spot, not far from there, where they had separated them for good.

"After all these years I can still see my son Ryad, as if has stands before me, I see his beautiful smile and his beautiful eyes the color of olive.And then this picture blurs and emerges the one I was looking at on that July 13. I see his tears running town his beautiful, pale cheeks, while they were taking him away from me. And this is the picture I can never forget. I see it when I wake up at night, I see it when traveling or catching sight of some boy of his age. Then I think to myself, 'God Lord, don't let this happen to anyone else ever again, don't let a child snatched away from its mother as my child has been and then killed."

Once again, this year, words were useless in Potocari. Words could not provide a refuge from that accumulated human suffering. A look at that many tearful eyes and silent faces of mothers, sisters and children was heartbreaking. The fact that the most responsible one for their suffering, for their ruined lives, for their broken families and torched homes, Ratko Mladic, was now behind the bars in Scheveningen where he would spend their rest of his life, could not relieve their tragedy. And will not bring them back sunny mornings and happy days. It will not restore anything to them - whatever they had before Mladic's tanks run over Srebrenica and, with silent consent by the international community and under UN flag, plunged Podrinje into eternal grief. All that remained in Potocari after another memorial service was over were silence, fresh graves, flowers left for each victim and prayers for their souls. And the silence of their neighbors, the same people turning their heads away on this July 11, like they did 16 years ago, watching indifferently or staining their hands in the rivers of blood that took away the lives of some 10,000 residents of Podrinje.the silence of those who could have known and told about the locations of mass graves of Bosniaks slaughtered in the Srebrenica genocide. Those Bosniaks were denied the right to live. Now the dead have the right not to remain nameless forever, forsaken in some pits. They have the right to be found and buried with dignity in the Potocari Memorial Center.



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