On the morning of our first day, in Sarajevo, guide Rešad negotiates a space in the hotel where we won’t be interrupted and leads us into one of those flat lit conference rooms that could be anywhere. He organises coffee and soft drinks and begins to talk us through the siege of Sarajevo, which started when he was a ’19 year old kid in Levi’s and Converse’. A month later, he says, he was ‘still a kid in Levi’s and Converse, with an AK47 – and 3 bullets.’
The siege of Sarajevo lasted from 5th April 1992 to 29th of February 1996. By the end of 1425 days fighting an enemy so close you knew their voices, Rešad says, he had ‘seen everything you can possibly imagine you would see in a war.’ He talks; his coffee cools untouched in front of him.
We visit the old town centre to eat ćevapi and walk ancient streets where the Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque, the (Catholic) Sacred Heart Cathedral and (Orthodox) Cathedral of the Nativity of the Theotokos all stand within a short walk. Restaurants and shops sell ice-cream and post-cards and key-rings made from shell casings. Every few steps, it seems, Rešad is greeted warmly by someone he knows. Sarajevo is a small city.
He leads us up a side street to the War Childhood Museum. Inside, carefully curated relics: shrapnel damaged sections of a municipal climbing frame, a shorn-headed Barbie, a collection of wrappers from the contents of food aid parcels, a home-made breastplate cut from a cardboard box, hand coloured with the fleur-de-lis shield. The breastplate was made by Amel, donated by his brother Djemil. Amel was killed by a sniper.
Museum founder Jasminko Halilovic started the War Childhood project by asking fellow survivors: ‘What was the War Childhood for you?’. His respondents’ recollections first became the book, War Childhood, then grew into the first internationally recognised museum to focus on documenting the war experiences of children, ‘those who played no role in the start of the war, and still suffered multiple consequences’.
On the morning of the second day we’re up early for a two hours’ drive East to the Prodinje Identification Project’s forensic facility at Tuzla. Shelves upon shelves of white plastic bags numbered with black marker pen line a dank room that smells of earth. Brown paper bags overflow the top shelves. Dr Dragana Vučetić tells us the brown paper bags hold clothes and personal effects, the white plastic bags hold ‘skeletonised remains’. At her feet a neatly laid out human skeleton lies on a six foot long metal tray, complete except for a few small bones on the left hand.
‘This one came in just a few days ago. He should be be easy to identify.’ she says, lifting and skim-reading some paperwork that’s been propped against the left femur. So far the PIP has identified some 6500 of approximately 8300 men and boys force-marched to their deaths by the forces of infamous Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladić.
Across the corridor a few fragments of bone lie pathetically in the middle of another long tray. Dr Dragona identifies them as pieces of skull and vertebrae from a burnt out house. Burnt bones are no good for DNA sampling; there aren’t enough fragments to identify by more traditional means. This man’s relatives will never know what happened to him.
Another hour’s drive East to Srebrenica and the former UN base at Potočari, now a museum and part of the Srebrenica Genocide Memorial Complex. Hasan Hasanovic, director of the Memorial museum, introduces himself.
Hasan is a tightly coiled spring of a man, but he speaks calmly and factually of the events of 11th July 1995. Setting off with his father and twin brother in a column of about 10000 men following goat paths over the mountains to Tuzla to escape advancing Serb forces. Ambush, confusion, separation. Arriving in Tuzla alone, waiting for his father and brother, who did not arrive. He told the story first at the trial of men accused of their murder; the murderers were found guilty. It is no consolation. Talking, he shakes his head occasionally, as if after all the re-tellings he still can’t believe what he is saying.
Across the road in the cemetery the year’s newly identified victims are interred each 11th July. 2018’s graves are easy to spot by temporary green markers which interrupt rows of white marble stones. Hasan tells us families who’ve lost more than one man buy enough plots to bury them side by side when they are found and identified. The death dates on the stones are all 1995; the birth dates vary from 1928 to 1981.
Fatilah’s son was born in 1975. Rešad is tender with her, calls her ‘mother’, gently rests his hands on her shoulders as he translates her words. Her husband was among the first buried here in 2003; she buried her son beside him only in 2013. It is good, she says, to have a place to come and be with them, say a prayer. She considers herself fortunate: many of Srebrenica’s mothers had no daughters and lost two, three or four sons. She had, has, a daughter, and now three grandchildren. She does not feel hatred; she still believes most people are good. Her blouse is rose pink; her smile is warm as she thanks us for coming to listen to her.
On the third day we will go to the airport straight after lunch. Rešad asks what we’d like to do with the morning. Someone wants to see ‘Sniper Alley‘ Rešad laughs, ‘We’ve been driving up and down Sniper Alley for the last two days: it’s the main road through the city centre!’ There’s another request for ‘something tourists don’t normally see.’
Rešad directs the coach driver to drive slowly along Meša Selimović Boulevard, pointing out tower blocks from where snipers picked off Sarajevo civilians as they went about the daily business of surviving in a modern city without electricity or running water.
The coach stops on a side street and we trail out onto a square patch of grass about the width of a football pitch. To the right is a derelict, pock-marked building; at the far end on the left are white houses, inhabited and pristine.
‘This was my front line’ says Rešad, pointing at the building on the right. He points towards the white houses, ‘That was their front line.’
‘That’s so close’ someone says. Rešad nods and says ‘I told you, they were so close we knew their voices.’ We stand on the grass for a few more minutes. Then we return to the old city centre, where Rešad insists we have more ćevapi before we head to the airport.
I visited Bosnia as part of a delegation organised by the charity Remembering Srebrenica, which promotes a vision of a society free from hatred by
- Bringing communities together to REMEMBER Srebrenica through organising commemoration events in the UK.
- Taking people on our ‘Lesson from Srebrenica’ education visits programme to LEARN lessons from the survivors of the genocide.
- Creating Community Champions who PLEDGE to stand up to hatred and intolerance in their communities.
For more information, go to Srebrenica.org.uk
Title quotation from Hamlet, Act 5, scene 2: Absent thee from felicity awhile, And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain, To tell my story.