Srebrenica: Remembering without hate

Almasa Salihovic was just eight years old when her brother, Abdulah, was murdered. He had sought shelter in a UN compound near the eastern Bosnian town of Srebrenica as thousands of his neighbors fled the advancing Bosnian Serb army (VRS) through the surrounding woods and hills.

After two days, on July 13, 1995, Abdulah and 6,000 others were made to leave the relative safety of the compound. Before leaving, the 18-year-old put his name on a list compiled by Dutch peacekeepers, hoping it would somehow save his life. It didn’t. Led away by VRS soldiers, he was never seen again.

Since then, Abdulah’s sister Almasa has lived with the burden of his senseless death. Now aged 35, she is public relations officer at the Srebrenica Memorial Center on the site of the former UN compound, where we met during my recent visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina. The testimony I heard shook me to my core.

Almasa’s memories of the genocide are as graphic as they are devastating. In vivid detail she described how after sleeping rough alongside 20,000 others outside the UN base, she was deported from Srebrenica with her mother and two siblings on a bus for women and children. The VRS filtered out men and boys for execution.

Children threw rocks at Almasa’s bus as it passed through Bosnian Serb-held territory. An armed soldier boarded to demand valuables and hurl violent threats at the passengers. Almasa, petrified, offered him her only possession, a ragged doll. The soldier backed down only after the bus driver intervened.

Mercifully too young to understand the full horror of what was happening, Almasa remembers the bus then passing a meadow full of kneeling men, their hands tied behind their heads. Women on board screamed as they recognized their captured loved ones and understood they would be killed.

“I felt fear throughout my body, almost like an out-of-body experience,” Almasa told me. “You can’t forget those images. They are there when you close your eyes, as if it were yesterday. They bring up so many questions. The biggest one is: Why?”

Almasa and her surviving family made it to safety, together with more than 25,000 deported women and children. Her brother Abdulah was among more than 8,000 Bosniak men and boys systematically slaughtered by the VRS, then buried and reburied in mass graves in a bid to conceal the crimes.

The grim confirmation of Abdulah’s death came in 2008. The family’s DNA matched with remains found in a mass grave. Only 30% of his body was recovered. Reluctant to wait longer, Almasa helped bury her brother at the Memorial Center cemetery during the annual commemoration that July.

Twenty-seven years after the Srebrenica genocide, survivors are still searching for answers. Remains belonging to 6,900 people have been identified, but the graves are almost all incomplete. Every July, more funerals are held, and more bones are added. Around 1,700 people are missing without trace.

The excruciating search is made only more painful by those denying the genocide, says Munira Subasic, president of the Mothers of Srebrenica survivors advocacy group. Having personally lost more than 20 family members, she is fighting hard to keep their memories alive.

“Many years have passed,” Munira told me when we met during my visit. “And some people have started believing that [the genocide] didn’t happen and are trying to convince others that it didn’t happen. We see sympathies towards the perpetrators. The world has learned nothing here.”

Yet testimonies such as Almasa’s and Munira’s act as a bulwark against those who seek to deny the truth. That’s why Emir Suljagic, director of the Srebrenica Memorial Center, is overseeing projects both to monitor genocide denial and collect oral histories for storage in digital and physical archives.

Among the videos is testimony from Almasa’s elder sister, the last to see Abdulah alive. As Almasa lead me through exhibits in the rusting UN compound, its walls still bearing Dutch graffiti, it was the story of her brother’s last hours that brought the tragedy home. It will stay with me for years to come.

The UN has acknowledged it failed to protect the people of Srebrenica. We have an enduring responsibility to help the world understand what happened here and to prevent that truth being distorted or denied. That’s why the Memorial Center in preserving survivors’ testimonies in their own words, however painful they are to hear.

Walking through the exhibits, listening to Almasa, Munira, and other survivors, I was filled with shame, sorrow, and regret at that historic failure by the UN. I apologised to the victims I met, echoing apologies from every Secretary General since 1995. We are working to do more.

My team and I at the UN Department of Global Communications are stepping up our efforts to fight war crimes and genocide denial, the glorification of war criminals and hate speech. Teaming up with Alice Wairimu Nderitu, the United Nations Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, we are helping coordinate an international No to Hate campaign.

That also means amplifying voices of those seeking justice. The United Nations ICTY verdicts conclusively found that war crimes and the Srebrenica genocide occurred during the 1992–1995 war. These legal facts were substantiated by hundreds of thousands of pages of painstaking forensic evidence and testimonies.

The message of these verdicts, and of the United Nations International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals, is loud and clear. Genocide and other atrocity crimes will be punished. War criminals will be brought to justice. The world must not tolerate impunity nor glorification nor revisionist histories.

All this underscores why it is so important to stand by the Memorial Center this July 11 as it marks the 27th anniversary of the genocide. I was honored to join the ‘Mother’s Scarf’ initiative, an installation of scarves donated by survivors and volunteers. I donated a treasured scarf of mine; one I’ve owned since 1991.

These powerful symbolic acts, these heart-wrenching stories, are the key to keeping this vital memory alive. Walking among the cemetery’s white graves, each dedicated to one of the thousands of victims, I felt heavy with our solemn duty to remember, to reconcile, to face our responsibilities.

I’m grateful to the Memorial Center, to Almasa, Munira, and the Mothers of Srebrenica, for helping us to not only understand, but feel, the true human tragedy of Srebrenica. To remember without hate, seek reconciliation without whitewashing the past, and to face the weight of our own history.

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Melissa Fleming

Melissa Fleming

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Chief Communicator #UnitedNations promoting a peaceful, sustainable, just & humane world. Author: A Hope More Powerful than the Sea. Podcast: Awake at Night.